One of the real joys of the ArtisTTable for us is that in the short period of time that we have been doing it we have already met some truly wonderful people and artists. Joe Esposito is one of them. The moment we became aware of Joe and his work, we set out to find out more about this self-taught artist. We were thrilled when he agreed to do this interview.
It is hard to believe that we are nearly all the way through February 2013. We are looking forward with hope to this new year that is well underway. Joe's work is infused with so much of what we all could use a little more of these days. Especially as we are slogging through the deep dark days of another northern hemisphere mid-winter.
You have always been an artist. When did you start to draw and what was your subject matter then?
I believe that talent is something that we are born with. It takes an enormous amount of work to develop talent but it cannot be developed if it isn’t there to begin with. There is a common thread that runs through the nature of most people who have the ability to create. Books are full of theories about creative natures. I try to stay away from thinking about it too much. I relate to what other artists have gone through in a general way. It helped me make sense out of many things in my life. When I was a little kid, I did many things to entertain and express myself. I was fascinated with the old TV shows like Zorro, Davy Crockett, Robin Hood, Ivanhoe and all the Westerns. I had costumes for these characters and I wore them while the shows were playing on TV. If I didn’t
have a costume, I would put things together and make them. Whatever Zorro did on TV, I acted out in my parents’ living room. Every day I created worlds of my own and I would get lost for hours in a special dream like state of mind. This world became a reality for me. I actually felt like a wild pirate on an adventure out in mighty ocean. I imagined racing in chariots, living in castles, and fighting in historic battles. My life seemed dull compared to these things so at an early age I pretended to be somebody else living in another place and time. I wanted to be some kind of hero out there saving the world. Another thing that I loved was toy soldiers. They were like small sculptures that came to life when I played with them. I would set up dioramas with toys and do drawings of the different figures. I did rough drawings of Pirates, Romans, Cowboys, Indians and all kinds of amazing characters. My mind began to take me to amazing places and stepping into this imaginary world was not difficult for me to do. Every day new things were added to this world that I was creating for myself. I began to take books and draw over top of the images because I wanted to know what it felt like to be able to make a drawing that actually looked like something. Then I started to copy characters from comic books. The drawings that I did weren’t anything special but I had to do them. I was blown away when I came close to reproducing an image. Drawing started to become a part of my life. I didn’t know what I was doing and there wasn’t anyone around that I could turn to for help. I took art books out of the library and drew everything. I didn’t know anything about art at the time so I started with well-known artists. I copied drawings done by the old masters. The first artists that I tried to copy were Michaelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. I couldn’t do anything right because I started way over my head. My solution to this was to take tracing paper and trace the images. This helped me get a feel for the way they worked. I didn’t know it at the time but I was training my hand to reproduce their lines and shapes. It helped a lot. In time, I learned how to see what was actually there and it made a big difference in my drawings. It took a lot of work to learn how to draw. When I got down the road a piece I found out that art is much deeper than reproducing images. Illustrators do that and they do it well. My art is not about representing things as they are. An obsession and inner compulsion exists in me. I let it take over my life a long time ago. Good art speaks truth and I am trying to create good art. Getting in touch with and living my truth through my art opened the door to my destiny. A voice within me kept telling me that I was an artist but I was consumed with doubt. This is something that I’ve struggled with throughout my entire life. It kicked me around a lot but I never allowed it to stop me.
By expressing myself with paint, I connect with universal truths. Through art, I discovered another world. The world that existed within me began to develop and grow. I began to live my life through the eyes of this vision that came from deep within. It is a mystical, magical world where almost anything is possible. I hope that my work touches something in the souls of the people who connect with it. True art is noble and powerful. If it is pure, I believe that it can heal our hearts, our minds and our souls. I cannot change the world with my art but I might be able to lift a heavy heart with it. Something much greater than me is behind my art. I do not believe that I am a great talent. I am humbled by all of this. I didn’t choose to become an artist. It feels like art chose me. Art became very personal and I dedicated my life to it. I had to do it. If I didn’t or if I gave up on it, I would feel horrible and empty. It would eventually break the man in me because my purpose in life would be gone. I believe that the state of mind I was in while I was playing with toy soldiers is the same state of mind that I go into when I am lost in my studio making paintings.
Your work is very bright and celebrates the moments that people can share good times. Talk a little bit about where this comes from.
The bright uplifting nature of my work is deceiving. It doesn’t mean that I always feel the intense joy that is celebrated in my art. I am not always full of the hope and light that I express in my work. I struggle with myself like everyone else. Every day I work hard to feel good about my life and about the world I live in. We are living through brutal times; darkness and tragedy are everywhere. No one escapes the pain and suffering that comes with living in the real world. I try to create art that shines a ray of light into the darkness. Real art expresses a higher truth. I have my own vision of the way things should be.
There is an abundance of hope underneath everything and I need to express it through my work. I want my art to inspire and heal. An intense passion is driving me to bring this hope into the hearts of the viewers. In a small way I can do this with paint. I believe that if my art is capable of making this a brighter world I will be justifying my existence and fulfilling my purpose. I hope that somehow the light that I put into the world will one day shine back on my own soul. This has something to do with my own redemption. Art has become my salvation. The talent that I have been blessed with has given me an incredible life. I am grateful to the grand master for giving me this gift and I hope that when all is said and done I can look back and see that I gave something in return for all that I was given. The true art exists beneath the surface of my paintings. The images are there to bring my truth into the world. I believe the nature of art is spiritual. What I do comes from a higher place in the universe. Artists somehow tap into this mysterious world and the art comes through us. It becomes personal and unique because our spirits move it through our hearts, our souls, and our minds. My inner kingdom is where this art becomes my own. It’s where it transforms and becomes a part of me. Then I bring it into the world with paint. If I were a musician, I’d be doing it with an instrument. We are all pulling from the same source. Art is so much more than using paint to represent reality. Painting is not something that I do to depict nature.
Painting is a spiritual need. My desire comes from an inner necessity. If what I believe is the truth, people are looking into my soul while they are viewing my art. When my art touches someone on a meaningful level I feel a true sense of gratitude and I am encouraged to continue to do what I am doing.
Your current work can be divided into two bodies of work if I can say that. There are the more stylized paintings that are typically more expansive views, and the other body might be considered more painterly and they seem to deal with more intimate situations. Can you talk about the differences in these two approaches?
Before I talk about my own styles and techniques, I want to say that I spent years learning the basics. I studied and learned how to create academic work. I did not pursue this to a high level. I needed to learn the basics so that I could understand what it takes to reproduce nature. Learning compositional elements: mass, space, line and the relationships between these elements needed to become a part of my nature. These things need to be right no matter what kind of art an artist is creating. I learned how to work with the tools used to create a work of art. I was told that before I could find my own voice I had to build a solid foundation to stand on. I believe there is no way around this. Some people refer to it as paying your dues. I put my time in and after many years I found my own way. It is a lifetime process and I still have a long way to go.
My work does go from one extreme to the other. This happens because I am always coming from raw, subjective emotions. I did a lot of work that expressed these intense feelings that I have experienced in life. I was driven into this type of painting out of need. The subject matter at the time was important because it helped me to express what I was feeling. Working in a rough, emotional style was a way of purging myself. I learned how to do this through the German Expressionist. I was obsessed with their heightened intensity. They had more influence over me than any other art movement. When I found their work, art began to make a sense and it helped validate what I wanted to do. I worked that way for a long time. Life altering events changed the way I felt about my art. There was a profound change in my thinking. I no longer wanted to create art that expressed these dark emotions through rough subject matter. I did enough of it and I no longer needed to express pain through my art. Something in me needed to move on. I turned to the work done by the Fauves. Matisse, Kees van Dongen, Georges Braque, Maurice de Vlaminck, Gabriele Münter and Albert Marquet were the ones that I admired the most. I also studied the work done by Stuart Davis, Fernand Léger, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Milton Avery and many others. The flat planes and the contours in my work are indicative of all of these artists. They taught me about filling space with solid, flat areas of color. They were expressive but their work did not have the urgency and intensity that I felt from the Germans. Their palettes taught me the potency of pure color. This is when I began to use intense, bright, rich colors. I continued to use the black line but my work began to lighten up. None of this was planned. It was a process. I always try to follow the voice that speaks from within. It is a feeling or an instinct that tells me what to do. I trust it.
Everything reveals itself as long as I continue to work. My new work was hopeful. It was more about where I wanted to be and it allowed me to get away from where I had been. I became obsessed with this new approach and in time I began to experience some of what I was putting into my art. Everything became more intense and it lit a fire in me for a long time. I was maturing as an artist and growing as a man. I had found my own way. All the work that I had done had given me my own voice and I developed a style that belonged to me. I took form everybody, mixed it all up and came out with something authentic. I knew that my name belonged on my paintings. My work continued to develop in many ways. Working between these two extremes is something that I still do.
I was looking at my work one night and I began to focus on the different images. I realized they would stand on their own so I began to cut them out of wood, dense fiberboard, thick plastic and metal. This added another dimension to everything. I cut the figures out and painted them. I felt like the images were walking out of my paintings. It felt like they were being set free. At first, I made these cut out sculptures and hung them on the wall. The next step was to make them free standing. I added a base and painted the figures on both sides. Then I cut images out and attached them to the panels. Some of the paintings are five layers deep. When I did this it took my art to another level. The mounted images cast a shadow onto the painting, which showed that it had real depth. At some point I want to create these pieces life size. They will be more like installations. I would like people to walk into my work. I want people to experience and become a part of the art. I want to construct the distorted buildings that are in my paintings. They will be large so people can walk into them. Inside they will be full of cut out figures, tables, chairs and all the things that I would paint if I were doing a painting the interior of a building. Everything will be created, put together and painted with the same energy that goes into all of my work. My art is still developing and new things are always happening. I don’t search for ideas or new ways to go with my art. As I said, growth comes through working. My art has a life of its own. My art will continue to unfold and I will instinctively know which roads to walk down as long as I continue to paint.
Let's talk about process for a minute. What is the process all about for you?
For me the process is an amazing thing to experience. It cannot be forced. Many ideas are rolling around inside of me. I have stacks of drawings, boxes of reference material and countless photos to pull from. I am not interested in copying anything exactly. The only time I did that was when I was learning how to paint. That’s not what my work is about and it has nothing to do with what I need to express. It is not why I make art. At the same time I do not create images from my imagination. I always use some form of reference to get a composition started.
Once I start to work, the images begin develop on their own. I distort images to show an inner, emotional reality. I begin to lay out my paintings in an intense, rough way. I usually lay out several pieces at the same time. I work with an ebony pencil and I work on surfaces that are very solid and hard. I paint on masonite, wood panels, heavy gauge paper, matt board and on occasion I tack canvas to a hard surface. Panels are placed upright and against the wall. Every new painting is another great adventure. I approach all of my work with a sense of humility because I am connected with something much greater than me and without that connection I would be lost. When I begin to work on a painting, my first concern is the composition. I arrange and combine shapes into a relationship with one another. Compositions need to be interesting, dynamic and well balanced. There is an unevenness throughout my paintings. Symmetry is avoided unless I need to use it for a specific reason.
A high degree of simplification is what I aim for in all of my work. Details are avoided and left out on purpose. In a lot of my work, the images are excuses to express a mood through shapes, colors and brushwork.
When the basic composition is laid out with a pencil I begin to work on the lines with black paint. The majority of my work is done in oil but I use acrylic for the initial black line. I work at a rapid, almost reckless pace. This helps me to avoid unnecessary details. Working fast brings a great deal of energy and movement into the art. I don’t want to labor over things because it sucks the life out of my work. The image changes quite a bit during this stage. After the black line is laid out I go into the painting with gesso. I usually go back and forth with the black paint and white gesso until I feel like I have a strong, well-balanced composition. When things start to feel right I begin to work with color.
Usually by this point, something within me has taken over. I do not work with local color. I use arbitrary, unrealistic colors. They are bold, bright and intense. There are many variations of gray in my work. I always make grays by mixing complementary colors. This brings a sense of harmony into my paintings. Grays are powerful. They enhance all the pure hues and they help to ground everything. I lay a few colors in and then I begin to see different colors and color variations. It is important to understand color theory but something much deeper has to take over in order to bring what is deep inside to life. I intuitively feel the next color. I believe this must be similar to what a musician who is improvising experiences. One note leads to the next and for me one line, one shape and one color leads to the next.
Things begin to develop on their own and I feel like I am being guided by someone or something that knows more than I do. I have learned to let things unfold on their own once my instincts take over. At the same time, I cannot lose touch with certain basics. Balance, movement or rhythm, strength and contrast of colors and things of that nature are what hold a painting together so they have to be right. I always step back to make sure that I am where I need to be. The overall design and the big picture are the things that I pay attention to. Throughout the entire process I am altering shapes and changing things in order to keep a sense of balance and harmony. I believe that no matter how well a painting is executed it will eventually fall apart if it is out of balance. Nothing can be right if balance is lost. The same thing is true about life. I usually know when a painting is finished. I do not waste time overworking things. It is more important to move on to something else. Over the years I have grown to love the process. A few words sum it up for me. The process is mysterious and magical. I am suspended in time while I’m working. My entire body feels like it is reacting to things on its own. There is no doubt that I am being guided by two things; inner passion and a force that comes from a mysterious world that my spirit connects with. There are only a few things that I’ve experienced in my life that compare to it.
Black outlines are a constant in your current way of working. What are your reasons for using them? Do you start with them as a structure?
The use of a solid black line came from my love for the work by the German Expressionists; especially their wood cuts. Jawlensky, August Macke and Gabriele Münter, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Kirchner, Max Pechstein and everyone in the group gave me direction. They were not dealing with reality. They were purging subjective emotions. Their inner world was brought to life in their work. I related to this work and they authenticated the work that I was doing. I started using the black line because of what I saw it do for them. Marsden Hartley did outstanding work.
I learned about bold images from him. Georges Rouault was my biggest influence in my use of a solid black line. He used a thick outline around his images; it brings a feeling of strength into his work. I copied his paintings because I wanted to understand exactly what he was doing. Early on I tried different things with the black line and eventually I found my own way of working with it. The first paintings that I did using the line were very rough and emotional. The line was present but I wasn’t using it as a contour around all of the shapes. When I first began using a solid black line to define an image I was working in black and white. I used thick printing ink and a chopstick.
It took some time to learn how to manipulate the stick in order to do what I wanted to do with it. I would use the tip with the stick slightly tilted to get a finer line and I would lay it down some to thicken the width of the line. I introduced solid color into this technique and that led to a series of silkscreen prints. I printed the open space with colors and then printed the black line over everything. It was a natural step to use the line in my paintings. That is how it all began. I had no idea that the line would become so important to my work. The line does have a lot to do with structure. It makes me feel like I am constructing something on the panels or canvas. I went through a period when the line became very strong in the work I was doing. I needed my paintings to feel solid. I looked at the shapes as if they were building blocks that locked together in order to create something that felt sturdy and unshakeable. What I was doing with my life required a lot of strength and order. The way I was living began to surface in my work. I didn’t know it at the time. I can look back and see these things but I usually don’t have that kind of insight while I am in the middle of something. I explained how the black line first became a part of my work and I gave an example of how I used it to express something that was going on at a specific time in my life. As you said there are many uses for the line in my work. If you look at my paintings you will see that some of them have black mixed into the color. When I do this I use oil instead of acrylic for the black line because I need the paint to remain wet throughout the process. I catch the edge of the line with the color as I am applying it. This drags some of the black into the color and it adds a muted effect.
Doing this brings deeper emotions and a sense of drama into the art. I work at a rapid pace to keep the work raw, intense and emotional. Working like this has everything to do with my state of mind. I am not reverting to intensely, emotional, painful work but I am toning things down some. I’m dealing with moods and emotions but I continue to lean toward a sense of hope at the same time. Sometimes I choose subject matter that will help express what is going on but I can put these emotions into anything that I paint. I’d like to talk about something completely different. I do work without using the black line. The work is laid out in the same way by putting together a composition with basic shapes and forms. Without the black line the paintings do not feel as strong or heavy. There is a radical difference between the work with the line and the work without the line. The art is not as bold and it comes at the viewer in an easier, softer way. The harmony comes from the composition and placement of colors. A painting done with the same palette without the black line will project a completely different feeling then it would if it had the line. The colors are connected and if they are right this work can be very harmonious. I don’t consciously decide to leave out the line. Some work is just meant to be created that way.
I like to work with pastels. I use chalk pastels and I wash over the image with paint thinner. The black line is used to lay out the image. Then I begin to work color into the painting. At a certain point I take a brush and work paint thinner over the pastel in certain areas. I work fast but cautiously because it can destroy everything. I go back in with more pastel but the amount of times that I can use the thinner is limited. The surface can only handle becoming wet and worked over a few times. It’s easy to destroy these pieces. I love the feel of chalk pastels but I do not get excited when I work with them in a traditional way. Using the paint thinner made it much more of a challenge for me. I love the way the art looks when things go right. It gives pastel work a unique feel and working this way brings a sense of mystery into the paintings.
Certain things remain constant throughout most of my work. Of course the use of a black contour line is present in a lot of my work. Working fast has always been part of my nature. I cannot labor over a drawing or painting. I want to get it out, express what I need to and move on. It is important for me to work with a sense of abandon. Balance and composition have to be right. If something is out of balance, I consider it a total failure. I never think in terms of masterpieces. I’ve never painted one and I don’t believe that I ever will. If I place too much importance on a painting it works against me. I tend to tighten up and it shows in the work. If I find myself thinking too much about what I am doing I stop and either walk away or I work on something else. That’s one of the reasons why I always work on a number of paintings at the same time.
What drives you to go to the studio each day to paint?
Many things bring me into the studio. Working helps make me feel worthwhile and complete. It keeps me going. Artists must make art. They cannot survive or live a full life without it. That doesn’t mean that it is always easy to bring myself to the studio. I have been doing this for a long time and things have changed many times over the years. I’ve gone through periods when it was impossible to stay out of the studio and there are times when it takes everything in me to pick up a brush. It’s not that I run out of ideas, it’s that I just don’t have what it takes to work. I have tried to walk away from it many times. I don’t pay too much attention to these feelings and moods anymore because I have never been able to abandon my art. We can’t walk away from who we are deep inside. Maybe some people can but I can’t do it. My drive is powerful and it always wins. Where would I go if I didn’t go into my studio? What would I do with my life? Art is the thing that helps me make sense out of life. An inner need drives me into the studio and it drives me to create. I don’t mean to be so heavy about my art but I can’t describe it any other way. Making art is what I need to do in this world. Even though I struggle all the time, it is still incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. My studio is my world. It is my sanctuary. It is a safe and sacred place.
I need to feel like I am contributing something meaningful to the world. I also want to live an interesting life. Creating art helps me to achieve that. Self-respect is something that is earned through what we do and through the way we live our lives. When I am doing what I need to do I feel a true sense of self-respect and self-worth. A long time ago I made a commitment to take my art as far as possible in my lifetime. I am still doing all that I can to honor my commitment. I believe in what I am doing in spite of all my doubts and struggles. I could give you many reasons that would explain what drives me into the studio but the main thing is my need to create art.
Describe your workspace. What is your set up? What is your studio all about?
My studios have always taken on a life of their own. A studio is a private, personal kingdom. I feel like I am walking into a sideshow at a carnival when I walk into my studio. So many things are going on and that’s the way I need it be. A studio needs to feel alive. My studios have always been full of things that inspire me. The things that I surround myself with influence me in a big way. I’ve been asked if I get distracted by the overload of collectables, oddities, shapes and colors that are all around me. I don’t. It all works for me. It gives me energy and makes me feel good. My workspace is always cluttered.
I work on many paintings at the same time so there are works in progress all over the place. I mount boards along the walls and I set panels up wherever I can find open space. I have several easels that I use. Things do get out of control because I bring too much into my studio. Occasionally it becomes difficult to move around but I am willing to pay the price. While I am painting, I am usually standing because I need to move around a lot. I use panes of glass, old plates and larger container lids as palettes to mix my paint. I do this so that I can easily move from one painting to another. I work with many colors and I am always mixing variations of colors so I keep boxes full of things that I can use as palettes. The quality of the paint and brushes is very important to me. Using the right brush makes all the difference. Some brushes are worthless and they cause many problems. Painting can be difficult so I use tools that I can count on. Good quality paint is worth its weight in gold when it comes to mixing, tinting and toning. Paint with inferior pigments or paint with less pigment loses their impact when they are mixed so I try to stay away from that stuff. I read that the difference between the right color and the almost right color is the difference between a bolt of lightning and a light bulb. That statement is extreme but it’s the truth. I also like to use quality paint because I want my work to be around for a long time. The last thing I want to happen is for my work to fall apart before I do. Another thing that you will find in my studio is music. The environment that I work in has to feel right. It helps me do what I am there to do. I have a few friends who are musicians. Every so often, they hang out and play in my studio. This is a great thing because it brings energy and life into my world. The things that happen in my studio seem to leave their mark and a certain kind of energy remains in the air for a long time. Of course, if I need to I can create anywhere but there is nothing like working in a studio that feeds me. My studio and my art have equal importance. Studios are an extension of the artist. I look at my studio as a work of art in itself. My studio is where everything comes to life and it needs to be respected and taken care of or it will stop giving me what I need to create art.
It is obvious from the titles of your work that you get around. How important is it for you to see new places that are outside of your day-to-day reality?
I wandered around for many different reasons. I had a need to see things first hand. I wanted to walk down old streets, see amazing architecture, experience different cultures, stand in front of certain paintings, meet new people and countless other things. Years ago, I traveled because I was looking for something.
I never found it. It all started when I was seventeen years old. I left home and hitchhiked across the country. I stayed on the road for a long time. Back then, I was driven by all the things that drive most young people. I needed to get away. I was running from something and I was running toward something at the same time. I learned a lot while I was traveling. We live in an amazing world and my eyes were wide open. While I was on the road, I drew a lot. It began back while I was hitchhiking. Back then being able to draw was a way of getting attention and we all seek that when we are young. I didn’t know that art would become a way of life for me at the time. As I got older, my reasons for making art and traveling changed. Traveling gave me a lot of reference to work from.
I am sure that all of my experiences influenced my work but I cannot be specific about what traveling actually did for me. I was driven to create and I would’ve made art even if I never went anywhere. All of our experiences influence us. They can change us dramatically. Where we have been, who we have been involved with on all levels, controllable and uncontrollable situations, fate along with our own natures and many other things make us who we are. All of these things have something to do with the art that I create. Subject matter does have meaning and I prefer to paint things that interest me but the bottom line is that what I am painting isn’t as important as the emotion that goes into the work. Once the art is complete, my job is done. I do not become overly attached to my work. A few pieces are meaningful to me for personal reasons. I will never part with them but most of my work is not missed once it leaves the studio. The important thing becomes what it makes the viewer feel and that it contributes something meaningful to the world. My hope is that the spectator is touched by the moods and feelings in the paintings. My needs are satisfied during the process. I give everything I have to my work and when I see that my art has a purpose in this world I feel good about the life that I chose to live.
What places that you have been have influenced your work more than others?
I was blown away when I spent time in Germany. I saw a lot of work done by the German Expressionist. Seeing so much of their work first hand meant a great deal to me. Other than that, it is hard to say which places influenced more than others. I am moved by so many things and the world is full of treasures. The art, architecture, colors and the attitudes of the people in certain places can be very inspiring. Many things throughout Europe inspired me. I felt many things while I walked through these magnificent old towns and cities. It had a lot to do with my love for history. Mexico influenced me a lot. The southwestern part of the United States also moves something in me. At the same time the shape of a crack in the sidewalk can do as much for me as spending time in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I lived on the rim of the canyon for over a year. I had a small studio and I did a lot of work there. The interesting thing about it is that I didn’t do much work that had anything to do with the canyon. I was more interested in the buildings, the people, the interior of the structures and common objects.
Working from nature doesn’t inspire me at all. I lived on a farm for over fifteen years and I didn’t do one piece of art that had anything to do with the farm. What I need to express has very little to do with depicting nature. I have done many landscapes but I did them because I was able to break up the shapes and create interesting compositions. Subject matter is an excuse to put emotions into a painting. I realized these things along the way. I found out what works and what doesn’t work for me. Certain shapes move me more than others. I lean toward images and shapes that spark something inside of me. There are places in the world that are more interesting than others. Some parts of the world give off an energy that lights a fire in me. They are so alive and there is great energy in the air. I like to think of these places as cities of gold. I cannot pick one over another. The other thing is my own frame of mind. I’ve said this before if I am locked into myself the most influential and inspiring places on earth cannot touch me. If I am on solid ground, everything touches me.
In the article the New York Optimist, you talk about an inner kingdom that you draw on for inspiration. What can you say about this place? What is this kingdom all about?
The inner kingdom that I talk about is a state of mind. When I go there, it transforms my everyday reality. It adds another dimension to the world that I live in. This is connected to all the incredible things that inspired me when I was very young. I told you about the way I lived in this unbelievable world and spoke about the magic that it brought into my life as a child. When I say that this world is still alive in me I am talking about my ability to pull from it for inspiration. When I work, I feel the same way that I felt when I was creating these wild imaginary worlds with my toys. I become Zorro again in my mind and all the stuff that gets in the way of creating loses its power over me. I hope I am explaining this in a way that makes sense. Nothing that I say happens all the time. It would be great if it did but it doesn’t work that way for me. It helps to keep things around me that inspire and help me forget about reality. I don’t have much control over how all this works. The most important thing that I can do is to continue to work because working keeps my desire alive. Every painting that I do usually brings out many new paintings. The more I create, the more there is to create. It has always worked that way. Working is the key to everything. The only way my art will dry up is if I stop painting because my art feeds itself. I will never run out of ideas as long as I continue to do what needs to be done. My art will continue to evolve if I keep feeding it with new work. All of my work is connected to this inner kingdom. I’ve heard artists say that they go into another zone while they are working. I believe that zone for me is the world that exists on the inside. I am free from everything including myself while I am lost in this childlike state of mind. Picasso said it takes five years to learn how to paint like an adult and then it takes the rest of your life to learn how to paint like a child again.
If this world didn’t remain alive in me I would never be able to do what I can do with some paint and a brush. I believe this with all my heart and I am grateful that nothing was able to shut down or kill this magical part of me. I have a vision about my art. Every piece of art that I have done is connected to all the work that I’ve created. In reality, each painting is a finished work in itself but in my mind, I see it as a shape that fits into one big painting. The big painting is my life’s work. I would love to see everything that I’ve ever created pieced together to make one large work of art. They all came from the same place and I see them locked together like a giant puzzle. All of my art is a statement that expresses something in me. When I make new art I believe that I am adding more pieces to the puzzle of my life. With paint, I am creating my own world. When I am gone, my art is what I will leave behind. I have no way of knowing if it will mean anything to anyone. I can only hope that what I am doing is good enough to stand the test of time. If it does then it will mean that I did something worthwhile with my life.
You also talk about this ability children have access that kingdom, and as you say, "…as we grow up, reality slams shut the gates to this sacred place." What is it about reality, society or our educational system that makes this happen?
Many things cause this to happen. One of the first things we hear is that we have to grow up and get a job. That is wrong. The system isn’t set up to bring out what is in someone’s soul. They should teach children at a young age to look for their natural talent. Children should be taught how to develop talent so they can contribute something meaningful to the world, feel fulfilled and earn a living at the same time. Instead of teaching us to chase our dreams and follow our hearts, we are taught to chase money. We live in this reality. It’s how the system works and without warning we become part of the wheel and begin to spin around with everyone else. How can that inner world continue to have meaning and feed us when we are taught to focus on so many other things simply to survive? How many people are doing what they really want to do with their lives? I’m talking about knowing who we are and living our dreams with passion. Joseph Campbell said follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls. He believed that the worst thing we can do is walk away from our dreams for money. These things are not taught in school.
I was fortunate. I knew what I needed to do with my life but I still had to overcome things that affected me while I was young. I struggled for years with believing that making art was a valid thing to do with my life. I was capable but it took a long time to believe that my art had value and meaning. My doubts were brutal. I had an interesting thing happen while I was traveling in Europe. I shared a compartment on a train with a well-known heart surgeon. We traveled together from Vienna to Venice. He saved many lives and made many advances in his field. As we were talking, I told him that he had done something meaningful with his life and that he had contributed a lot to the world. I said that making art isn’t as important as what he was doing. He said that I was wrong and he reminded me about how moved he was by my work. He said what you are able to do is important. I disagreed with him but he kept coming back at me. When he first saw my art, he lit up like a child and something came to life in him. In spite of his admiration for my work, I continued to argue my point. I said that I cannot save a life with paint! Then he said you know how much I love your art. Your work brings something I need into my life. I said but the bottom line is that my art will not save your life. He said no your art will not save my life but your art inspires me to save lives. This was many years ago and I never forgot his message. He was telling me that true art is needed in this world. Art inspires and it moves those who are open to it. He understood the power, purpose and meaning of art more than I did at the time. Art does have a higher purpose.
An artist has to have serious talent, be driven by a great an inner need and a higher calling to be willing to do whatever needs to be done to keep their inner world alive. For a long time I didn’t know what fed my art. I was grateful that I could make art and I didn’t think much about where it was coming from. I thought it was better to let it remain a mystery. I didn’t know how connected it was to the childlike world that still existed in me until I had children of my own. My son and daughter made me realize that this inner kingdom had never died. This world in me had been driving me all along but I wasn’t aware of it. My inner kingdom was blown wide open when I began to experience it again with my children. When this happened, it had a dramatic effect on how I felt while I was painting. It brought back a sense of innocence. Every so often, we become aware of something and it brings an enormous amount of new life into our world. That’s what happened to me. This inner kingdom isn’t the only place that my art comes from. I believe that artists are intuitively interconnected with some type of greater or possibly even spiritual force that holds a wellspring of art. Somehow, artists are able to tap into this force and bring what is there to life through their art. While I am working, something happens to me. I believe all of these things come together while I am painting. Many artists experience the same kind of thing in one way or another. There are scholars who can explain this much better than I can. Things can happen today that impact me in one way or another. As long as we are alive, we have to deal with life. The worst thing I can do is to stay away from my art for long periods while I am dealing with adversity. Actually it is not good to stay away for any reason. Making art is like everything else in life. Commitment and hard work keeps what we are doing alive. John Coltrane practiced and played all the time. He said that if he was away from his horn for a while it felt cold and heavy when he picked it up. He felt disconnected from it. I feel that way when I stay away from my work. When I get back to it, I don’t know what to do. It is a strange feeling. It is awkward at first but once I begin to work things fall into place. Trying to explain how I feel and how I work is harder than actually doing it. I am thankful that you asked these questions because they made me think hard about many things that I haven’t thought about for a long time.
You have mentioned music and some of your images are jazz themes. How important is music and what role does it play in your work as a whole?
Where would we be without music? I can’t imagine living without it. It definitely influences my art. I listen to music while I am working. There are times when I need to play it loud. I want to feel the beat of the drum and the bass deep inside. It helps me feel things on another level. Music takes me into another realm and it motivates me. I get lost in the music while I am painting. There have been times when I’ve felt like I was making music while I am working on a painting. It’s as if I am performing and my brushes and paints are my instrument. It gets that intense for me. Music affects the way I am working. It brings energy and life out of me. The type of music I listen to affects the way I feel and think. I listen to music that will enhance the emotions and mood that I am in. I also listen to certain music if I need to get away from feeling certain things. If I need to work fast in order to put a lot of energy into a painting I listen to something that will do that for me. Certain rhythms and beats affect my whole body. They make it move automatically and it affects my paintings especially when I am working on large pieces. Music can change my mood in a heartbeat. Working on a sorrowful piece needs music that will bring these emotions to the surface. There are times when I have trouble working without it. I have used musicians and instruments as subject matter in many paintings. This is an example of me actually painting things that I love. In these paintings, the subject matter is very important. Its purpose is more than an excuse to express deep emotions. I need all the help I can get to do what I need to do with my art. Music is like everything else that feeds my art. I love it and I need it.
I did paintings of jazz musicians because I love jazz. I love their ability to improvise. Miles, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Mingus, Kenny Durham, Elvin Jones and all the Jazz giants have done so much for me. I love all different kinds of music. Dylan, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, The Doors and all the musicians from that period are a part of my world because I grew up listening them. I have endless lists of musicians that have brought so much inspiration into my life. One of the most exciting and inspiring things that I’ve experienced is going to live shows. Wow… Seeing some musicians perform takes me into another world. It touches me and it profoundly influences my art. I leave some shows and go directly to my studio. What they give me brings out my need to make art. All of the art forms are tied together beneath the surface. Live music takes me to a place that makes me forget everything that is going on in my life. While I am experiencing it I sometimes feel totally free. I could talk about music forever but it would all lead back to the same thing. I love it and I need it. Music is a big part of my life and it has done incredible things for my art.
Being self-taught, how much have you looked to other artists as something to emulate or strive for?
Being self-taught was the only road for me. I didn’t have anything against formal training. There are brilliant teachers out there. I just don’t function well in a classroom. A great need to create was always alive in me. I told you all about how I started making art at a young age. I talked about many of the artists and movements that inspired me. I didn’t say anything about the artist that changed my life forever. His name was David Frame. He believed in my art long before I did. He believed in me with all of his heart and his belief gave me what I needed to begin to believe in myself. David gave me a special gift. He was the spark that lit a fire in my heart. It helped me grow into the artist I am today. David was a genius and he took me under his wing. A new world opened up for me and the way I looked at everything radically changed. Gifts like that are rare. I would say to David, what is art all about and why am I obsessed with it? He would always give me the same answer. You are an artist and artists are here to make art. He told me to stop questioning it, stop doubting my ability and put that energy into your work. I am still trying to follow his advice. David and I became brothers. We shared everything with one another. We spent countless hours over the years in the studio together and we remained best friends for thirty-five years. David moved on into the great unknown in 2008.
I am eternally grateful that David and I met at one of life’s many crossroads so many years ago. Destiny brought us together. His undying dedication and belief in my art gave me more than I could ever express in words. I miss him every day and I treasure all that we shared together in this world. I still feel his spirit roaming around my studio and I hope that I have been able to pass on some of what he freely gave to me. David told me that when he was struggling as a street artist in New Orleans an artist came along and gave him what he needed at the time. He said to keep art alive you have to keep working and pass what you have on to someone who needs it.
Who have been your biggest influences artistically?
I have been influenced by countless artists throughout my entire life. Many artists and art movements have profoundly inspired me. I could never talk about all the artists who inspired me. It would take forever. The work done by the German Expressionists captured my heart and penetrated to the core of my soul. I learned how to express myself through their work. I am indebted to all of them. Georges Rouault had a profound influence on me. The use of the black line came from Rouault and the Expressionist. The Fauves taught me so much about being free with color. I have studied art from early pre-historic cave paintings, rock paintings and petroglyphs to contemporary art. It all has something to offer. I took from everyone. Picasso was a master at that. I try to remain open because I never know what or who will inspire me next. I looked for artists that were doing meaningful work. I was drawn to art that expressed the depth of a person and art that brought something to life in me. I am deeply moved by art that is primitive and childlike. Dubuffet is a great example of someone who was able to do this. Picasso and Dubuffet taught me the importance of art made by children. I was influenced by the group of painters belonging to the Ashcan School. They portrayed scenes of daily life. I do this in my own way so their influence isn’t recognizable but it is there underneath a lot of my work. Abstract Expressionists broke new ground. They were willing to jump into the unknown. They were spontaneous, intense and emotionally driven. They abandoned subject matter and painted from the core of their innermost selves. Abstract Expressionists engaged in the act of pure painting. They dealt with the subconscious, symbolism, pure energy and total freedom from tradition.
At the same time their work had strong, solid foundations. They understood the basics. If they didn’t their art would not hold up. I learned to work with more freedom and abandon from what I saw the Abstract Expressionists do. I took everything that I could from wherever I could get it and I applied it to my art. I could name so many movements that influenced me in one way or another. Hundreds of artists contributed to what I am doing. If nothing else, their dedication to their art and their sacrifice inspired me. Thousands of artists came before me and they left so much behind. We have a wealth of art and the wisdom of world at our disposal. I cannot get enough of it. The entire history of art helped me develop and grow as an artist.
How does life outside of your studio affect your work?
Everything depends on where I am at with myself. My attitude affects everything. When I am on solid ground, it is easier to deal with everything in life. When I’m out of it I struggle with everything. When I have inner peace life doesn’t have the power to affect me or my work. I’m able to remain focused and get lost in my own world. In order to create I have to be alone a lot. Self-imposed isolation has become a way of life for me. It’s not a problem for me unless I am at war with myself. There are times when I am able to come to terms with myself through my work and then there are times when what I’m going through shuts me down. All of this is very personal. I feel things on a deep level. I am very sensitive and extremely emotional. That’s why I can put some paint on a surface and people respond to it. I work hard to be rational and realistic about what is happening in my life. This is a challenge for me because my emotional world is powerful.
Balancing things is one of the greatest things that I get out of creating art. I love working on balance more than anything in my paintings. When a piece is balanced it gives me a great feeling. I feel good about the work and I feel more secure about my life. I strive to let go of everything, good and bad. If I connect with a higher force and if I can get lost in my inner kingdom, the brightness and the darkness in life cannot touch me. The only way to make this happen is to pick up a brush and begin to paint. I cannot afford to let anything stop me from doing my art so I try to do everything that I can that will give me the freedom to work.
If you need to, how do you filter out the noise and even darkness of the world outside of your studio when you go to create a new piece?
There are circumstances that are beyond my control. There are things that need to be dealt with and they take precedence over my art. I try my best to accept this because it cannot be avoided. Avoiding or running from reality makes matters worse. The noise and darkness of the world that doesn’t directly involve or affect me filters itself out. The real problem for me is filtering out the noise and darkness in my own head. That is the real issue and it is the ultimate battle. I believe it’s the only one worth being fought. I have spent the better part of my life working at coming to terms with who I am. We are all born with our own natures.
We have strengths and weaknesses. What I am doing with my life is more important to me than how I feel. I’m not saying that feeling good isn’t important. It is very important but I can’t wait until I feel right to do what I need to do in life. If I did that, nothing would get done. I taught myself to do the right thing in spite of my emotions. There are times when I cannot do it but I continue to push on. I need to make art. It always comes back to that destiny thing. I have to do it when I am on top of the world and I have to do it when I am living in the darkness. It’s not a choice.
You are a prolific painter; you obviously spend a good amount of time in the studio. We all need some time out of our studios; no matter how much we would like to think that all we want to do is be in our studios. What do you do when you are not painting?
Thank you for saying that I am a prolific painter. I appreciate it and I hope you are right. I don’t see my art through objective eyes. It’s always been a struggle for me. I’ve dealt with doubts throughout my entire life. Art is a very subjective thing. Artists have to believe in themselves and their belief has to be unshakeable. It takes a strong commitment to continue when a dark shadow casts itself over everything that I am doing. My solution to this has always been to continue to work no matter how I feel. What do I do when I am not painting? I spent years feeling guilty if I wasn’t working in the studio. I needed to be in my studio all the time. Over time, I overcame this feeling of guilt and I learned how to get some balance into my life. There are so many things that I love to do. I am a collector. I spend a great deal of my time getting lost in everything that I have around me. I am always looking around for interesting stuff that inspires me. I am fascinated with so many things from days gone by. I am passionate about music. I spend a lot of time listening to it. I am interested in the lives of musicians so I can get lost reading all about them. Music affects the way I feel in a profound way. There’s nothing like going to live performances. Some musicians are born to be on the stage. Some of the most awesome experiences of my life have been at live shows.
That’s where things happen that make me experience life on a higher level. They seem to wake up everything in me and they usually make me want to get into the studio. I love history. I’m fascinated by everything that brought us from Prehistoric times to where we are today. Traveling is important to me. The world is full of amazing people, places and things so I try to take in as much as I can. The things I do for relaxation aren’t much different than most people. There are people in this world who mean a lot to me. It is so important to spend time with them. Being with the people I love is fulfilling and it grounds me. I hang with friends, walk with my dog, read, watch movies and I try to do things that will get me away from the stuff that dogs me around in life. One of the greatest things in life is gut laughter. It changes everything. Life is so intense and to be able to laugh lightens everything up. It is important to back away from my work. After being away from it I usually end up seeing things that I can’t see when I’m in the middle of everything. Getting away clears my head and gives me perspective. I can physically get away from my art but in my head I rarely get away from it. No matter what I am doing my art is usually on my mind. There are many interesting things everywhere and I can find art in almost everything. Inspiration comes at me when I least expect it. These things just happen. I am not looking for them and I am not trying to make them happen. It has always been this way. I wish that I could just go sit on beach somewhere and forget everything but that is not in my nature. Maybe one day I will be able to truly relax and let the world flow by like a great river. That would be an amazing accomplishment and I am sure it will help me live a longer, well-rounded life.