Ann Arbor, Michigan
.LS: When did you first begin to think of yourself as an artist?
GW: When I was a kid I guess. I had an art studio in my bedroom. I was always arranging things. Design was just in me. But I never knew an artist when I was growing up. I grew up in a really small town in New Jersey, and it just never occurred to me that people could make their livings as artists. We barely had an art program in my school. I went to college and became a landscape architect—it was the closest thing to art I could find. After I graduated, I was working for a private office in Ann Arbor, and they sent me to Minneapolis to attend an urban design conference, and when I was there I took a look at the Walker Art Center. I went to see the building, the siting of the building, and poked my head in. What was showing was an exhibition of the last works of Mark Rothko. I went into the gallery, and I was surrounded by these paintings, and I had a strong, emotional reaction-my heart was beating so fast and my eyes filled with tears. I was in the gallery by myself. I was really surprised by my reaction because I wasn’t a person who went to galleries or museums then. This was the first time that abstract art had affected me in such a profoundly emotional way. In retrospect, I realized that my own work, the design work I was doing in an office, couldn’t compare with what art had to offer, and I decided to get a studio. My life changed within that year.
I came back to Ann Arbor, and I rented a tiny, tiny studio space above the Ann Arbor Art Center. This was the 80s. At the time there were several studios up there—they called it the loft. I think there were eight of us at one time- all women. They were all making their living with art somehow. And that to me was an eye-opening experience, because here were these people who were dedicated to making art, and they were making their living that way. They became mentors to me in a certain sense. So I spent weekends and evenings there. That little studio made me take myself seriously as an artist. Fortunately for me, I made things, and they sold. I kept at it and by 1986 I was making my living solely on my art and haven’t stopped.
It’s interesting that it was abstract rather than representational art that first moved you so profoundly.
I wonder if it has something to do with the concept of synesthesia. I’ll look at a color and I’ll taste it- as if colors have flavors. And numbers have colors. There are all kinds of things that cross over in my head. I’ve only recently realized that I do that—I guess I assumed everybody did- that it was a normal thing. I think for me abstract art, especially color and form, have something to do with that, because when I look at an abstract painting I can taste it or I can hear it. Edges of color, one edge of color against another, that connection, that line that they make, is heartbreaking to me sometimes. Or it’s joyful. It has an emotion—there’s a word that I can put to it that has an emotional meaning. Rothko has always been like that to me. The edges of where a red fades off to a black—it can make me cry.
You obviously strive to achieve the same effect with your own work. How do you know when you’re there? Or do you?
There’s something that happens in the studio when you’re making the work, and it just rings true to you inside. And if it’s ringing true for me, I’m assured that there are going to be other people for whom it will ring true as well. It’s just something human or authentic when it comes through, but I have to be true to myself when I’m making it. I have to know this is right, that I’m not intellectualizing it, I’m not analyzing it, I’m not trying to force anything. It’s like tennis—you can’t muscle the ball because when you do you ruin the flow.
What do you mean by “true”?
I heard Annie Lamott talk once about writing a novel. She had been writing these successful books for years, and she was sort of angry with herself, because she thought she was using hooks and things she knew that would work, things that would people would respond to. She said, “I came to the moment when I knew I had to write the great novel I thought was in me, and I knew I had to kill off my little darlings.” Sometimes when I’m making a piece, if I’m being lazy, and I just want to get it done, make something to sell, I know the little hooks that will sell. It behooves me, as I’m trying to make work that I’m digging deeper for, to know what those little darlings are. And I have to either reject them or employ them for something other than their likeability. It’s being really conscious and editing all the time when I’m making the work, and at the same time working in a natural way. It’s a very special state of mind to be in, to do this—like being conscious but not being overly conscious. I’ve always equated it to having this pool that’s just under my consciousness, that I can just dive into, and it’s this warm, easy place that the work comes out of, and as soon as I become overly aware of it, it goes away.
Does this mean you now shun the commercial side of what you do?
This great thing has happened. I’m saying this now because it’s been successful—the great thing that’s happened is I’m aware of the faith I have in myself to do the work that’s good and true, and I can count on it. I just know that if I’m truthful with the work, other people will see it the same way. I’m not looking for mass adoration—I would hate that, actually, if people wanted to make pillowcases out of my images. There are just enough people out there who get what I do, and love it enough, that I can keep doing it. Somehow, I’m connecting with enough people that I can keep doing this work, and that’s all that I want.
When and why did you start doing encaustic work?
I’ve played around with it in a nonserious way since the early 90s. Nobody I knew [then] was doing it—it has become more popular lately. The first time I saw Jasper Johns’s work, the beauty, the sensuality of the surface is what got me. I always had that in the back of my mind, and the first opportunity I had to use it in my own work, I started to do it. After my first trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, in the mid-90s, I noticed a lot of contemporary artists down there were using it, and I really liked what they were doing with it. The abstract work that you see now I started in earnest only in the last four or five years.
It’s a venerable medium.
Encaustic goes back a couple of thousand years. Many surviving paintings are Egyptian and they were paintings on linen, on wood, on mummy cases. Greeks actually invented it, but then the Egyptians ran with it.
And these ancient works speak to you?
I think to a certain extent they inspire me. I’m very old-school with the way I paint and the way I do things, and I love the tradition of some of the materials I use. I grind my pigments. I love buying pigments from as close to the source as I can. I buy a lot of my dry pigments from a place in Florence, Italy. The pigments are all from that ground, that earth. I like knowing I’m part of a line of people that have used them and made art with them for centuries.
There’s something almost graffiti-like about many of your encaustics.
A lot of the encaustics that I’m doing now are inspired by walls. Simply walls. But more than just the physical nature of a wall—because encaustic can really look like a wall—I love the idea of walls, especially in old cultures, in third-world countries, as being places where people communicate, and have for centuries, and the idea of this wall that has all this information on it, and gets replastered and has all this stuff on it. Just think what’s under those layers of paint, what have people said, what have people expressed. That’s kind of what I’m doing when I’m making these. Last time I was in Rome I took tons of photographs of walls, close-ups of walls. I would stand there and just wonder what’s under all of that. What’s under that piece of poster-I think of that great stuff that they found in the Athenian Agora. It goes back thousands of years.
There’s a word for it—palimpsest.
Palimpsest is the name of the show at River. Because that’s what these pieces are. These pieces are palimpsests.
Why do you suppose that idea intrigues you?
I don’t know why—I really, really don’t. Something about secrets and hidden things. When I went back to graduate school, the thing I chose was archeology. One of the best things I got from classical archaeology is that something we know today could very well be undone by something that they find out tomorrow. All these theories can all be undone with a single find. I think I like that continual mystery and possibility and being at the right place at the right time.
Is that what you hope happens in some way with your work?
I want people to look at my works and maybe create their own story for them. What does that thing mean? I bet it’s this. Or create a story around their own backgrounds, their own lives and experiences. I always want my work to be personal for the people who have them. It’s not mine anymore. I really want people to attach themselves to these pieces in some way or another. I’ve had people tell me that certain pieces that they’ve had over the years, that they can look at over and over and get something new. For me that’s successful, that’s what I love.
Describe a typical day in your studio.
I start with my journal, and I just write down words. I generally come up with ideas from words. I’ll just list words and titles of pieces, before I’ve visualized them. So the pieces generally come from a word, a single word or a couple of words. Geoff just came up with one for me, lacuna. The titles are always small. I will do a few sketches, but generally not too many. It’s mostly verbal.
What makes a word inspiring?
For word or phrase to grab me, I think it has to have dimension to it. It’s got to have something I can dig into and find. A great word is a word like quench, that can mean a lot of things, and the slightest drawing can make you evoke it in your head. Words and colors go together for me, which is handy. People would ask me, “Why do you put so many numbers in your pieces?” And I used to say, well, my dad was an accountant, but after I realized I had this thing, this synesthesia or whatever, numbers and colors just go together. It just makes sense to me in my weirdly wired brain. Yeah, well, it’s red, so of course you have to have a number four there.
What happens after this verbal stage?
Then I”ll go into the workshop downstairs, and I’ll start building the supports for the pieces. That’s sort of an exercise for me in holding back. I have to go through this stage in order to get to the fun part, and it makes me wait, and it makes me anxious. I need to sort of organize my brain, and make the supports, and make myself wait until all that’s done. I take birch plywood, I get it cut at Fingerle Lumber, and I build bracing on the back, and it’s a lot of very physical work, and it’s exhausting. But I’m figuring out sizes and shapes, and it’s sort of easy, but it’s all sort of this working process. It’s a way for me to feel in control, get ready and make myself anxious. Then when the day comes, I can come upstairs and start laying out the basic color and patterns that are going to be on the pieces. I generally do that by gluing colored sheets onto the boards, which provides me with a palette that I’ll paint on top of. And then I just start layering on the wax. Frequently pieces start out as one thing and end up as something else.
Give an example.
There’s a piece over here, Rome 2, I wanted to do almost a memorial to Aldo Moro, the ex-Italian prime minister. He was kidnapped and murdered in ’78, and I graduated from college that year, and I was obsessed with that story. There was this one picture of him that haunted me forever. So I laid the piece out and I started it, and you’ll see it, and you’ll have no idea that’s what it’s about. Pictures of him are under it, and I just started layering, and it moved onto another piece. The basic idea is of him, but it looks like something else. Those are the most successful pieces to me, and it’s because of what happens in the work, just letting yourself go, and being free.
For a long time, you were better known for your assemblages than for your paintings. Where does that earlier work fit into what you’re doing now?
It’s really the roots of this, and I’m still doing it (assemblage). A funny thing happened—a lot of people started making that sort of work, and it soured me for a while, because I didn’t want to be one of a million people making those pieces. It kind of made me sick. I needed to get away from it for a little bit. And now I’m back doing pieces again, fewer of them, certainly, but the assemblages that I do make now I really feel good about. I feel like that was my original medium, that’s mine. I feel a certain ownership of it, and I’ll never not do those, I’m sure. Even some of my encaustics are incorporating objects, but in a limited way. It’s just in me to make those kinds of pieces.
There’s something marvelous, whimsical even, about the way you incorporate old things into your pieces.
Retrieving objects, altering their original purpose, reclaiming them. There’s also humor in taking an object that’s really just a piece of crap and making an altar to it. It’s almost Dada.
You come by this work honestly, inasmuch as you grew up with builders.
My grandfather was a carpenter—he built the house I grew up in. I have memories of lying in bed and staring at the ceiling and looking at the molding that he made by hand. This is such a strong memory. I remember looking up and seeing the little chisel marks. He had died by then, and I would feel his presence by seeing his hand in the marks in the molding. That’s important to me as an artist. The work that I love, and the work that I make—I want my hands all over that stuff. I want you to feel that there was someone there, there was a human who made that. I think people need that more than ever these days.
Because of our disconnect with handmade objects. When I first started doing shows in the early 80s, handmade objects were everywhere. Ceramic artists made dinnerware for instance. These days they can’t, because who wants to pay that much for something that looks almost as good from Pottery Barn or Ikea, and I’m just as guilty. But I think the more that we get away from things that are handmade, letters that are handwritten—and I’m not a sentimentalist about that, I love my computer, I love e-mail—but I think there’s a void that has to be filled, and I think art can fill it for people, as poetry can, as books can. I think it’s just a human necessity, as much as we think it isn’t. I know a lot of people have to have it. I’ve talked to these people, I’ve sold to these people.
Who are your influences?
Cy Twombly, like, big time. My work looks nothing like his work, but there is something about—he’s just so brave. I love how brave he is. He just scrawls on those canvases and puts them out there, and you can’t deny how powerful they are. But my main guy is Antoni Tàpies. My true love. I’ve been obsessed with his work from the minute I saw it. The reason his work is so big for me is for me is it’s the perfect combination of painting and the use of objects. A lot of his work is so political and so ballsy, it’s just undeniably powerful and strong and no-holds-barred kind of work. And what he can do with just a line of red against a dark ground—nobody comes close. Franz Kline is another one I always loved. I love that whole period. Abstract Expressionism is my favorite period in art, barring none. Something about what it took for those guys to make that work. They really turned their back on what was going on, and it wasn’t about making money at all, because they weren’t. And they had that scene. I always wished I could be part of a scene like that. That true something about the soul of these people coming out from their hands through paint onto canvas. It just seems like there were no gates, everything flowed. Lately I’m looking at Caio Fonseca and Sean Scully.
Does it ever grieve you to part with a piece you’ve made?
Not really. Sometimes I have wished that I had been able to live with one or two a little longer. My works live in some great places They’re all over the world. One of my galleries shipped some to Dubai. I had such a weird feeling about that, it’s like wow how did this happen? The thing that constantly gets me is that I can come into the studio, and there’s this piece of wood and these paints, and I make something that didn’t exist before, and then someone lives with it. That’s just wild to me. That’s just amazing. Isn’t that cool?
Leslie Stainton is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is an editor for the University of Michigan and the author of Lorca: A Dream of Life (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, NY).