To bring Speed’s mysterious and compelling work to a wider audience, this beautifully illustrated volume presents one hundred color plates of her oil paintings, constructions and works on paper.
Julie Speed's meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail bring to mind the work of painters from the fifteenth and sixteenth century Renaissance. Unlike those artists, however, Speed is inspired by an almost limitless number of easily available sources and is unencumbered by the sexual and societal restrictions of past centuries, which gives her the freedom to paint what she wants and the way she wants. This places her body of work squarely in the present. Utilizing her keen sense of the absurd, Speed ponders the big questions—the role of religion, isolation and longing, sexuality, sin and guilt—with a sly, sometimes black, sense of humor and a steadfast refusal to offer the viewer any tidy resolutions. It is the emphatically open-ended and omnivorous nature of her work, combining anxiety, erotica, and violence with the subversive power of beauty, that puts Speed in the vanguard of a return to figurative painting in contemporary art.
To bring Speed's mysterious and compelling work to a wider audience, this beautifully illustrated volume presents one hundred color plates of her oil paintings, constructions and works on paper. Accompanying the plates are essays by art historians Elizabeth Ferrer and Edmund Pillsbury that discuss Speed's relationship to generations of figurative painters, from the artists of the Renaissance to the present, as well as her affinities with and differences from the surrealists, dadaists, and other historical movements. Rounding out the volume are fascinating excerpts from the "Books of Conversation," a series of public journals initiated by the Austin Museum of Art in connection with a touring survey of Speed's work, in which museum-goers wrote down their ideas, opinions, and questions for the artist, to which she provided written answers.
2005 Western Books Exhibition
Rounce & Coffin Club
AAUP Book, Jacket and Journal Show
- Speed Time (Elizabeth Ferrer)
- Julie Speed: The Art of Metaphor (Edmund P. Pillsbury)
- Questions and Answers
In 1999 and 2000 the exhibition Queen of My Room: A Survey of Work by Julie Speed, 1989-1999, organized by the Austin Museum of Art and curated by Elizabeth Ferrer, toured four Texas cities: Austin, Dallas, Galveston, and Corpus Christi. Because Speed is uncomfortable speaking in public, instead of the customary "artist's talk" she offered to answer museum visitors' questions in writing. The museums each set up a desk stocked with writing materials in the galleries and invited questions and comments from the public. The public, as it turned out, had a great deal to say, and the project immediately ballooned into a much larger one than anyone had expected. From the four Books of Conversation, Dr. Pillsbury selected just a few of the questions collected and asked Speed to edit and update her responses. In addition, he selected several partial questions and answers from a conversation Speed had with William Petroni in 2000.
What was the first painting you remember?
There were two images from Michelangelo's Last Judgment that especially singed my six-year-old brain. One is of a condemned sinner, newly arrived in Hell and just beginning to comprehend where he is and where he will be spending a hopeless eternity. He clutches his left hand over his left eye in denial while his right eye remains frozen open in horror. The other is of Charon, the pop-eyed demon ferryman who is whacking a cowering herd of the damned with the oar of his boat. When the neighborhood kids came over to play, I used to take out the book with these pictures in it and drag it outside where I would open it up to that page (page 229) whereupon we would all scream, slam the book shut, and run away only to creep back and do it again. It was a big thrill, and it helped that all the neighborhood kids were Catholic (my family is undecided) so they could fill me in on any gory details that Michelangelo might have left out.
From that same book, The World's Great Religions (Simon and Schuster, 1957) there are a couple of other indelible images that I still carry around. The most fun for me was the brightly colored fold-out page illustrating various Hindu gods, goddesses, and demons. I used to sit with that page open for hours copying and tracing and studying the details. My favorite was Kali, wearing a necklace of little heads and waving her many arms (one of which was holding a severed head) as she sat on an unnamed moon-goddess's belly sticking out her tongue.
The image that really truly frightened me (as opposed to fun-scary) was a small sixteenth-century etching of people being burned at the stake. I couldn't take my eyes off it. At the time my father worked for the Alcoa Corporation. Once in a while he would come home from work with a grave face and I would hear him and my mother speak in hushed tones about someone being "fired." For quite a while I lived with the awful fear that my father too would be "fired." I thought that meant the people from his job would burn him at the stake.
What are your influences and why?
The "Why?" of what influences me, I don't know. I wander through a museum or a book and particular pictures just jump in my brain and stay there for life, like Giovanni Bellini's Doge of Venice or Botticelli's Portrait of a Young Man. I can't imagine never coming back to those two.
Other artists whose work that I look at again and again are Cranach, Mantegna, van der Weyden, and Bacon. Francis Bacon is a particular favorite and has been since high school. With Goya, it's the "Caprichos" and the "Disasters of War" that really hit me. I aspire to the sheer excellence of the painting of Degas, Whistler, and Vermeer. I empathize with Joseph Cornell and am a big fan of Kasimir Malevich, Bill Traylor, René Magritte, Juan Gris, Van Gogh, and Lucien Freud. I've stolen a lot from Australian Aboriginal paintings and early Russian and Byzantine icons. I collect old fairy tale books and count them as strong early influences along with the graphic works of Max Klinger, Edward Gorey, and Maurice Sendak (his Grimm's Fairy Tales and Higglety Pigglety Pop in particular). I love Persian and Indian miniatures and collect them when I can afford to. Balthus is a huge influence for me and I think that those people who have labeled him a pervert ought to sit down and have a long talk with themselves. I'm crazy about Balthus because I can look at his work again and again and keep getting more out of it each time. I think the definition of great art is that it has no expiration date.
Do you ever look at works by Hieronymous Bosch to inspire your paintings? It seems like some of your imagery and use of color refers to his work.
I went through an extended Bosch worship phase when I was a kid so I am sure his work has soaked into me thoroughly, along with Bruegel the Elder, of course.
I was wondering how you come up with ideas for your paintings.
There is an experience that I have on certain occasions when I am able to access a "place" which all my life I've referred to as "behind the veil." On some days there is a little hole or "rip" in the "veil" and pictures, words, and ideas from "behind" are able to float through to my side where I can grab them and try to hold on to them. That is the place where I come up with the ideas for my paintings. Usually it happens when I'm in the bathtub or long-distance driving, but on really good days the pictures just keep coming one after another no matter what I'm doing. Then they don't come again for a while, but I keep them stored up on bits and pieces of paper to last out the dry spell. One time, years ago, the rip disappeared for several months, long enough that I had given up on it and thought it was gone forever. When it returned I knew instantly that it was back at least a day before any pictures actually came out of it. There is a surprising physicality to the rip itself and its presence or absence is something I can look around for and find or not find inside myself, just as though it were a real thing—like you would look around a room to try and find the cat. I can encourage it to stay or drive it away by how I conduct my life, but in the end, also like a cat, I really have no control over it at all. My sense of that "place" where I get my ideas is that it is outside of and separate from my personality or intellect.
Do you think that an artist's life defines his/her art?
Some artists make art that is about themselves. Obviously, for those artists, their lives do define their art. But current thinking seems to be that, in all cases, you can figure out the "meaning of art" by figuring out the artist. I think that's way too easy. I actually started reading (and ended up throwing in the trash) a biography of Picasso where the author stated with authority that Picasso's genius was born when his parents praised his toilet-training output. I am not making that up. In our society we are so taken with the idea of "self-expression" that we tend to confuse it with art.
I am not even sure if understanding the art (much less the artist) is necessary in order to experience the ineffable sensation that comes when you look at a truly great work of art. For example, if I stare at Piero della Francesca's Senigallia Madonna I get weak in the knees and am overwhelmed with the sense that there is an order to the universe that just moments ago was beyond my perception. If I stare at Kasimir Malevich's The Black Square I get weak in the knees in exactly the same way. Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Marie-Therese Walter . . . same experience. It doesn't matter whether I believe in the virgin birth or not. I don't even have to be Christian to have the experience. It doesn't matter whether I agree with Malevich's theories on suprematism or even know what they are. I have heard that Picasso was disagreeable to every woman he ever slept with and had a very messy private life. Who cares? The important thing is the transcendent universal experience brought about by the work of art itself.
What is your relationship to surrealism? Do you admire the surrealist painters?
Pararealism might be a better description than surrealism for my oil paintings, "para" meaning "alongside" rather than the "over," "beyond," or "above" that "sur" implies. The situations depicted are usually somewhat unlikely but not necessarily impossible.
The mixed media, gouache, collage, and construction pieces are another matter. I can jump the fence to complete impossibility because it's an entirely different process in my mind. I suppose you can call the mixed-media pieces surrealist, but I'm not sure I'd like it much because the surrealists proper pretty much irritate me with their silly manifestos and proclamations and the whole boy's club thing. Of course there's always the possibility that they meant the manifestos to be silly and it was only those who wrote about them later that didn't get the joke. I don't know.
The artist associated with the surrealists whose work I feel closest to is Joseph Cornell. I don't know if he considered himself a surrealist or not, but I think his work is different from the others in that most of the card-carrying surrealists made it a point to juxtapose disparate elements. The notes from their work would seem to provide the "clang!" of objects colliding. On the other hand, Cornell chose objects that he saw as fitting together even if the way they fit was mysterious, and the notes they sound are the "thunk" of objects connecting. I think my work sounds more like "thunk" than "clang!"
Do you consider yourself a realist?
Only in that I am obsessed with detail. Ever since childhood I've enjoyed spending hours at a time down on my belly in the weeds or woods looking at lichen on rocks, scales on fish, snake spit on weeds, bug wings, and whatever else I can find. In the house I focus on quilt tops, typeface, and the steam and drip patterns on the tile in the bath. There is nothing I enjoy more than spending an hour in the garden with a magnifying loupe spying on spiders and snails. Painting very small things is a way for me to learn them. Horses, dogs, humans, etc., are so familiar to my touch that when I need to, I can feel their shapes behind my eyes in a way that makes them available for painting. The shapes can go from behind my eyes right to my brush without ever having to pass through my brain. Because a wasp or a grasshopper is too small for me to learn with my fingers, the best way to learn its shape is not with the tips of my fingers but with my brush on canvas. If there are locusts in a painting, it's likely that the year it was painted was a good year for locusts. The biblical implications are just gravy.
What are your views on media? And is oil a contemporary medium?
I don't see contemporary or not contemporary as a factor in choosing a medium. Whatever feels right to my senses is what I like to use, which is why most contemporary hands-off art techniques don't flip my switch. I love the smell of oil paints. I like the feel of scratching metal, banging nails, and brushing paint. I enjoy cutting, pasting, digging in the dirt, chopping up vegetables, painting, and carrying around rocks all in the same way—for the physical pleasure.
What mediums, paints, brushes, and supports do you use? How long does a painting take? Do you draw a painting before it goes to canvas?
To support the oils I use archival artboard laminated with matte gel medium, sanded and cradled 1/4-inch standard hardboard (not tempered or marine which might have oils or resins that could bleed through eventually), or stretched fine-weave portrait linen painted with gesso and sanded and repainted and sanded several more times until smooth. I just recently tried manufactured cradled clayboard, and like that surface also.
I start with a rough sketch on scrap paper—mostly just to decide what shape to make the board. After preparing the board or canvas I usually spend a couple of days doing a detailed underdrawing. When the pencil or charcoal drawing is right, then I start painting with thin layers of umber or gray and white acrylic, slowly building values and volumes until I've gotten the shapes rounded out and placed where I want them. When I'm pretty happy with that, then I start layering in oil color, sanding with extremely fine sandpaper between layers. Of course I am making little changes the whole way through. I use Liquin for a medium and plain turpentine to thin the oils. The little details, like hairs, lace, or letters go on last with tiny 6 x 0 and 10 x 0 liner brushes over the many layers of background color. A 10 x 0 spotter or round brush won't be as delicate. The not-so-detailed work I do mostly with soft synthetic #4 and #6 flats. I buy the really cheap ones and change them often.
A painting generally takes a month or two from start to finish, usually working a ten-hour day.
Where do you find the materials for the collages and constructions? Is working on them the same as working on the oil paintings?
I think of the collages and constructions as a game, and the game starts with the hunt. I search for paper in flea markets, yard sales, and antique stores. I'm looking for damaged eighteenth- and nineteenth-century printed matter with its high rag content, raised ink, and mottled character. It feels good to the touch and can stand a lot of abuse. Sometimes I'll buy paper just for the mold, which I stabilize with acrylic matte gel. Cutting and pasting and painting over and under with gouache or acrylic is just plain fun, and I do it usually in the spring or summer when I want a change of position mentally and physically from the oils. I push my easel into a corner, close up all the oil paints, and temporarily enlarge the horizontal workspace by nailing sheets of plywood onto the studio table. There is a huge old rodeo trunk that is stuffed full of paper that I've collected over the years; I open it up, and because I have the memory of a duck it's always like Christmas for me. I spread paper everywhere to look at and try to memorize. Then I start cutting things out and sorting the pieces into boxes and piles by categories: lizards, birds, text, body parts, etc. It's like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and I'm not allowed to use a computer or copier to change the elements. If I can't find what I need in my piles of paper, then I have to use paint to add or subtract. To make the transition from engraving to paint, I use a very fine brush with sepia or an umber/black mix. Another rule is that I'm not allowed to pull apart books that are in good condition, so children, fire, and flood are my friends.
Working on the mixed-media constructions and boxes is pretty much the same kind of game, only in three dimensions. I find the parts at the same flea markets and antique stores where I search for paper. To add to that, friends often bring me odd things back from trips, and I also occasionally buy parts new from plumbing supply houses and hardware stores. Once in a while I like to use stone, and I very much enjoy the feel and sound of working with the chisels and hammer. We are lucky here in Austin because clear white limestone is everywhere.
How do the etchings come about? Do you consider yourself a printmaker?
No, it's always a collaboration. Flatbed Press in Austin usually makes the plates and Fran Christina, my husband, pulls the prints. I start the process by drawing with a fine ink pen on vellum. When that's done, or at least to the first stage, we take it to Flatbed, where they transfer the drawing or drawings to a copper plate or plates using a quite complicated process involving direct gravure or photogravure, which I don't understand. Once they produce a plate, we proof it and then go through a couple more stages, back and forth, adding more lines into a hard ground and then putting the plate back into the acid, or using an acid "spitbite" to add shading, or basically using whatever technique they suggest to get the effect I'm looking for. When we have a keeper the plates come home, where Fran pulls the rest of the edition one by one on his etching press in the studio adjacent to mine. He then cleans up the prints and brings them to me to touch up or color where needed, and then we spread them all out and edit them into a finished edition. (This is an organized version of the facts, which are usually a little messier.)
Have any works of poetry or fiction influenced you as an artist?
Not specifically, but reading is almost as important to me as painting. Some of my all-time favorite books are The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies, and My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. Two of my favorite poets are Kathleen Pierce and Li Young Lee. I also read a lot of murder mysteries, courtroom dramas, and other "trash" books, which I thoroughly enjoy. My idea of the perfect vacation is a porch, a rocking chair, and a stack of books.
Did you write the poems on The Chalkboard? If so, did you write them for the specific purpose of putting them in the painting?
Sometimes the words pop into my head right along with the painting, as in the Queen of My Room poem and picture. Most words arrive with no picture, so I write them down on scraps of paper as they come, throw them into a drawer, and then copy the bits I like into paintings later. That's how the words on the chalkboard got there. Poems come mostly in batches, like the pictures in my head but usually less accessible. That probably explains why they're not as good.
Is photography important to you?
Yes. There are quite a few photographers pursuing the same sort of skewed realism that interests me. Some of my closest friends are photographers, and I collect as often as I can afford to or when I can talk someone into making a trade. Diane Arbus is my all-time favorite, but unfortunately I never knew her and now she's dead. Among my other favorites are Keith Carter, Bill Wittliff, Flor Garduño, Kate Breakey, Mary Ellen Mark, Mariana Yampolsky, James Evans, Graciela Iturbide, and Robert Parke Harrison.
Are any of your influences women artists?
Unfortunately women artists (except Mary Cassatt, who painted way too many babies for my taste) were totally absent from art history books and museums when I was growing up. Consequently, the female artist who most influenced me was someone I knew rather than anyone from a book or museum. Her name was Jean Jones Jackson; her sister, Ann Jones Fuller, owned the gallery where I worked every summer from the age of thirteen until I was about twenty. Jean Jackson showed her completely oddball and beautiful paintings and drawings at the famous Betty Parsons Gallery in New York. Everyone seems to have forgotten her now, but I have a few ink-and-watercolor drawings and one small oil painting that still stun me.
Does art run in your family?
My mother always pieced quilts, knit sweaters, hooked rugs, and sewed. When I was going through an intense caveman stage, she sewed leopard-skin terry-cloth caveman outfits for my little brother and me. Then she gave us some raw steaks and let us loose up on the hill behind our house where we were allowed to build a fire, cook the meat, and eat it with our hands dripping in front of the fire. I was about six and my brother was about three. She also taught me to sew, and I was allowed to make my own clothes.
Trips to the fabric store were way more fun than trips to the department store. When she retired at age sixty-three she took up ceramics and is now a really excellent ceramic artist.
My father is an engineer/inventor/scientist type of guy. He would teach us how to cook in ways that were sneakily designed to impart basic chemistry. On Saturday mornings, starting when I was about five, he would conduct science classes at the attic blackboard where he diagrammed and tried to explain stuff like atomic structure and molecules. In his spare time he always fixed old clocks and built model ships with every tiny detail fashioned by hand. Now that he's retired, he builds the amazing ships full time and has also taken up marine oil painting, at which he is becoming quite skilled. They have built a studio onto their house, which they share.
Where did you learn to paint?
I had a really great art teacher, Narcisso Maisterra, for two years in one of the high schools I went to, but we didn't get to paint too much in oils because there wasn't enough time. However, he encouraged me and introduced me to the work of Goya and Francis Bacon. His own beautifully macabre work was also a great inspiration. Unfortunately, I lost touch with him when he went back to Spain. After high school I went to Rhode Island School of Design briefly, but they didn't teach classical oil painting there at the time so I dropped out. I should have found someone to teach me because it would have been easier and less painful than trying to teach myself.
What is your favorite museum? Why?
There's something about The Menil Collection in Houston that I'm crazy about. I think they have collected with a lot of sensitivity and humor. The building itself feels good to me. I'd like to sleep in it. There's also a little museum in Florence that I don't even know the name of where they keep one of John the Baptist's fingers in a crystal and gold reliquary. That reliquary room has perfect proportions and I'd like to find it again and measure it so I could build it someday. Also that finger really impressed me, and is probably one of the sources for the severed finger in The Internuncio. All of my other favorite museums are pretty much the obvious ones, starting with the Uffizi as number one favorite.
Do you like the way you paint hands? Why are hands so prominent in your pictures?
Hands have been incredibly difficult for me to learn to paint because I have never just simply hired a model. I like being alone while I work, so I spend a lot of wasted time contorting myself in front of a mirror and driving myself crazy. Lately things are easier because I've gotten a digital camera, so I can pose myself, or anyone else who will let me, the way I want them and then run to the computer and print myself a nice quiet model.
I guess hands are prominent because they're of course expressive, but also usefully counter-directive. Think of Leonardo's Annunciation. The Angel has landed, lily in hand; Mary knows what is going to happen but she plays it cool. Her face is blank enough for poker, but the war between her doubt and longing is revealed perfectly through her hands. Hands are useful in the same way that I sometimes use the third eye—an indicator of ambiguity. Of course I never think of all this stuff while I'm painting. I'm just putting two and two together here at the kitchen table while I'm writing.
As a painter, what do you think your limitations are?
I need a lot more practice at seeing objects in planes instead of lines and keeping objects focused in my head for longer periods of time. I don't know enough about the properties of colors yet. My draftsmanship is not as easily fluid as I would like it to become. I have not even attempted transparent objects and I fall short in my treatment of light, though I'm getting better. The transition between light and dark is still a little hard for me, and also I definitely need to remember to stop using my teeth as a spare brush holder.
What are you saying about humans in relation to animals? Is it a diabolical relationship? Are humans likened to animals in their savagery?
I think humans are simply another species of animal, and that the distinctions we try to make between them and ourselves are just insecure attempts on our part to locate ourselves more centrally in the big picture, in spite of the fact that we have no idea what the big picture is yet.
What in Playing for the Monkey is the symbolism of the bandaged hand? (Bitten by the monkey?) Is the monkey us, the viewer?
The meaning that you gather from Playing for the Monkey now, as a finished painting, is just as true or untrue as anything I might say. I could say that the monkey bit the woman—but that wouldn't make it so. I could say the monkey symbolizes the viewer (as you suggested). I could say the monkey symbolizes Elvis. I can say anything I want but that doesn't mean anyone should listen to me. The painting is finished and it's not my monkey anymore.
What religion were you raised upon?
I wasn't raised that I had to choose a particular religion—one over another. I was allowed to study them all. I have been fascinated with religion ever since I was a little kid. I love the costumes, the colors, the convoluted theories, and the pageantry. I love the language and the symbolism. Religion has been very good for art. It's too bad that some people use it as an excuse to tell other people what to think and to suspend their own thinking. That doesn't make religion bad. One person might use a shovel to dig in the garden to plant roses. Another person might use the same shovel to beat his neighbor senseless. It's not the tool. It's the use of the tool.
Are you using the fish as a metaphor for Christ?
The Sacrifice probably does convey a somewhat ham-fisted surface point about what organized religion has done to gut and abuse the original teachings of Christ. However, it didn't start out that way. It was a picture of a man cleaning a fish and the obvious only seemed obvious later. The same with Le Pêcheur which, to me, was a picture of a man in red carrying a big fish. It wasn't until I was finished with it and went to name it that I discovered that "le pêcheur" can mean simply "the fisherman," or, with the other accent, it becomes "le pécheur" or "the sinner." How could I resist?
Fish carry a lot of symbolic baggage in the world. Long before I was aware of the Christian use of the fish as a logo, I knew the fish from old fairy tales and legend books that my grandmother and great aunt gave me. My great-aunt translated fairy tales from other languages and I was her lucky test-child, who got to sit by the fire and listen. There were lots of different variations, but the gist was always this: the foolish, egotistical, or greedy human catches a magic fish, who, in return for its freedom, promises to grant three wishes. In almost all of the stories, the human somehow abuses or squanders the gift of the fish and winds up far worse off than when he started. Because the fish and its captor/executioner are not confined as characters to just one culture, then the question of how you see any of the fish paintings would probably depend on which legends are foremost in your mind's eye.
Of course it's also just a fish and that alone makes it fair game. Fish have fins, tails, gills, scales, and funny eyes. They come in every possible size and shape as well as an infinite variety of color schemes. You could paint only fish with no ulterior motive for the rest of your life and never be bored.
In The Holy See, why doesn't the man have an arm? Or is that not his hand?
The man doesn't have an arm because the painting looked better to me as a whole when the arm was removed. The thought "Or is that not his hand?" as you so aptly put it, was an accidental (or "collateral" as they say in the military) result of a pure design decision. It struck me as funny in ways that I wasn't thinking about when I eliminated it. Think of Monty Python's "Every Sperm Is Sacred" song or the biblical "Let not thy left hand know . . . ," etc.
Later, I couldn't resist adding into the lace "Ego te Absolvo" or "Your sins are forgiven." According to archaic Church doctrine, this Latin absolution could only be granted by a priest. No talking directly to God. If you wanted to avoid eternal damnation you had to go through the clergy—for a small "handout," of course.
You rarely paint nudes. Why?
Nudes are tricky because, if you don't watch out, the flesh can easily take over and become the one and only subject—obliterating all other thought. Just like in real life. If flesh is the subject (I'm crazy about Lucien Freud), then it's a wonderful subject and one I'm just starting to learn.
Is there some significance to the color blue in your paintings?
I don't think of colors as signifying anything, but I do get crushes on them. I have been serially infatuated with Prussian blue, cerulean blue, ultramarine blue, and cobalt blue. For a while it was raw sienna, and then raw umber. I think I even wrote a poem to raw umber once, and spent months squinting my eyes at every shadow in a "find the umber" obsession. I found it everywhere. I have had a longtime lust for cadmium red deep. It actually gives me a bit of an erotic charge to load up a brush with cadmium red and smooth it onto the canvas. Cadmium yellow is also a seductive color and is on my "to do" list. It's a hard color to use well in big swathes, and one of my future projects is to figure out how. I also love the way oil paints smell. Strangely, so does Vito, my parrot, who will occasionally take it into his head to start ripping up brushes and tearing open tubes of paint. He knows quite well that this is bad behavior, so he scolds himself while he's doing it, muttering, "No, Vito, no! Bad bird!" with the evidence right there on his beak. I have to hold him on his back and wipe it out of his mouth with a rag. The first time he did it (at least twenty years ago) I was worried crazy, because I had read that cadmium is a deadly poison, but as far as I can tell, it's never even caused him an upset stomach.
Tell me about your relationship with fire.
I could tell several "my personal relationship with fire" stories (I did start a forest fire once—not on purpose) but I don't think it would explain anything at all. Fire is one of the four traditional elements. It can cook your food, light your way, warm your toes, and burn down your house. I also doubt if I'm the only person in the Western world who wakes up now and then sweating about that burning-in-hell-for-all-eternity-while-demons-poke-at-you-with-pointy-sticks thing. Fire is too universal to make the particular relevant.
On the other hand, if there was a story, would it necessarily cause the painting? Perhaps it's vice versa. When I was working on Tea, I spent an afternoon painting the woman with her hair in flames who is framed in one of the background windows. I finished her, and then washed my brushes and went to a fancy dinner party. During the meal I accidentally leaned too close to a candle, and my hair (which is very long) went up in a flash of large flames and hellacious-smelling smoke, ruining dinner for everyone.
Of course the real answer is that sometimes you just look at your painting and realize that hey, maybe some fire ought to go over there.
You speak about your love of and preference for big open spaces. However, in many of your pictures, your characters are shown in small spaces, narrow rooms, or from a narrow focus. Tell me about proximity.
I have never thought of the interior spaces of the paintings as being particularly claustrophobic. To me, there's comfort in the idea of a monastic cell/prison where your only obligation is to the inside of your head. Maybe that's also the reason for my attraction to wide-open spaces—there's no one else there.
But if I wanted to figure out all the psychological stuff, I'd get a shrink. The process is simple. I start with a picture in my head. It's not the kind of picture that a person thinks up, but the kind that just appears. From then on every decision is based on what looks right. Everything goes where it looks like it ought to go—not where I think it ought to go. Quite often there are happy confluences, where what looks right is also right in other ways, but you can only back the horse into that stall. You can't lead him in headfirst.
While I'm working I try to concentrate on the technical problems—to be just eyes and hands, not theories and opinions. The paintings come out better that way. I don't know why this is, but there is a shelf's worth of failures in my closet to prove it.
The "extra eye" or misaligned eyes in many of the paintings are very effective (and disturbing). Can you say more about them?
People often think and feel several things at one time. Even when I'm totally focused on my work, I can feel the shadows of other thoughts skittering around the edges of my concentration—or perhaps I might be having a serious discussion with someone about a book that we've both read, but another part of my mind is busy imagining him naked or worrying about nuclear waste buildup. The extra eye lets me show several expressions on one face at the same time. That's one reason.
Another reason for the extra eye is that occasionally I like to force my brain into questioning itself. There's a dislocated headachey feeling that this produces. Your brain is trying to square what your eyes are seeing (a human with three eyes) with its (your brain's) assumption that humans have two eyes. My cockamamie theory is that periodically forcing your brain to question its most dyed-in-the-wool assumptions (even in this small way) is a useful exercise. It's our ingrained assumptions—the ones so old and so deep that we don't even know they are there—that are the worst enemies of logic and insight.
There seems to be little joy in your paintings. Is this intentional as a theme throughout your work?
I am dumbfounded that anyone would see my paintings as joyless. I enjoy painting each tiny hair on someone's head and every blade of grass in a field. I think that painting details does for me what meditation does for other people. I love drawing and cutting and pasting and watching to see the way things fall into place when everything is right. I laugh out loud all the time at the fortunate accidents and jokes that sneak up on me when I'm not expecting it. If I'm not able to paint for more than a week or two I get cranky and start getting nightmares, but luckily I'm now able to paint almost all my waking hours so I'm one of the happiest people I know.
I teach high school art. What would you advise my artists who want to make their art their career?
Make sure you like being alone a lot and don't mind being poor.