First, tell me a bit about yourself! Where are you from, and where are you based now?
I grew up in a small town outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, called Newtown. Since leaving, I’ve bounced a lot around big east coast cities including New York, Philly, and Boston, before finally settling in Washington D.C. a few years ago.
What sparked your interest in making art?
I got started making drawings and paintings as a young kid. My mother is an artist and arts educator, and I would make things in her studio as a young boy while she worked on her paintings, drawings and prints. I had my own little desk set up in there which was great. She would give me sheets of paper and guide me in terms of materials and processes. As I grew up, drawing became a form of play for me, one in which I could sit in a room alone and draw the things I most loved, and then act out what they did on paper. I would spend hours like this. In addition, my father is a biologist, filmmaker, and musician. His curiosity, his truly infinite desire to investigate deeper- to tirelessly search for truth- continues to spark my interest in making art.
What has your arts education been like so far, whether formally or informally?
I got my first inspiration and experiences from my parents as well as family friends. When I was young, my parents belonged to a Quaker meeting in Newtown, and through the meeting we became close friends with creative luminaries, including the photographer Emmet Gowin and his wife Edith, the artist Charles Wells, and many others. These folks all had kids and we would play and do stuff together when our parents regularly hung out. Seeing the studios of working artists and understanding how they made things showed me first-hand that being an artist was a possibility. After years of making somewhat “outsider” art, I eventually went to art school in Boston at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (now Tufts University), where I greatly expanded my awareness of process, techniques and art history. It was there that I narrowed my focus on painting and found great fellowship with my peers and teachers. In retrospect, Art school was massively important for me, but also perhaps the biggest obstacle to overcome as it marked the beginning of the hardest part of being artist (how to survive in life, how to break free of art history).
You describe your latest series of works, entitled “Tangled Bank” as influenced by Charles Darwin’s concept of the same name, introduced in On the Origin of Species in which he writes, “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth…” Can you elaborate on this, or tell me a bit more about your practice?
My hypothesis is that there are many fundamental truths that Darwin hit upon which have applications in art. When he talks about a tangled bank he imagines a physical place where we see life in all its glory and mystery, full of divergent forms interacting with each other. He notes that all of them were produced by laws acting around us. The plants, the birds, the worms, the insects, all got there due to growth, reproduction, adaptation, inheritance etc. over long periods of time. Painting seems to me to be part of this system.
What is fascinating is that each work I make has its own seminal characteristics and was realized based on some sort of evolution. I paint every day and each work inherits something of the one that came before it, or responds to what came before and goes someplace new. There is a discernible tree of life, a genetic thread, whether it be a certain set of marks, a subject, compositional arrangement, or maybe a palette of colors or set of materials, a type of perspective, etc. Sometimes it is not evident what the thread is until you hang them all together. Sometimes it is a conscious effort to embed something used in a prior work and take it further or to a different conclusion. I realize this is a dense proposition but that’s what art is great at exploring.
What is your process like? Do you plan your pieces ahead of time, or do any specific research?
It depends. Sometimes I will do a lot of thinking, sketching, researching and reading before I embark on a new one. Sometimes I’ll start an idea and leave it to be completed later. Other times I will just start and try to fill in gaps or explore open roads I didn’t take in a prior work. When the process works, it is always a strange balance between opposing forces. Planning, but not over-planning, not too tight, but not too loose, etc. The stuff I am happiest with usually comes about when I improvise on top of a structure that allows for free form exploration. In general, I try to create ideal conditions for myself (on many fronts at the same time) that allow for something unexpected and exciting to occur.
What is your studio space or workspace like? Do you have any routines or rituals there that help you do your best work?
I have a great studio in my house. There are three good walls, wood floors, big windows, good light. I have a couple of desks on wheels, cardboard taped to the floor (I work on the floor often) and a cozy chair and daybed to sit and think. My main ritual is to constantly interact with what’s inside the studio. To move art on the wall around, to keep it in motion and alive so to speak. I try to cycle in new materials so it always feels as fresh as possible. This helps me maintain momentum which is the cornerstone of my process.
What is the best advice you’ve received so far? Any you’re glad that you decided to ignore?
Wow. There is so much advice that I have received, it is hard to pick just one thing. What has resonated with me recently came from the art critic Jerry Saltz’s review of the Picabia show at MOMA. He talked about Picabia’s “wild weirdness,” how he took every medium and material seriously, and produced a body of work with astonishing variety. He followed every lead he had, from graphic design to impressionism, to realism, text based works, abstraction, Dada, you name it. I am tired of seeing art that looks like it is always basically the same thing (stuck?) and Jerry was right on the money that the Picabia show is a call to action for artists to broaden their horizons.
In terms of lousy advice that I chose to ignore? I had a teacher who once told me I wasn’t good at paintings where there were lots of little things happening all over. That made me forever realize that I should never listen to anyone who says “you’re not good at X”. People project or lash out when they criticize sometimes, and it’s important to learn which feedback to let in and which to reject.
Do you have a go-to when you find yourself at a creative standstill?
I try to head off that standstill before it gets a chance to settle. You have to give it a foothold for it to take charge of you. However, I should point out that creative block is not the same as going through a period of time (however long that is) where you are being a sponge, and absorbing inputs which will come out in your work. So there is a mental aspect to it, a matter of perspective on how you see yourself during a period of not outputting anything. Maintaining momentum and a good balanced cycle of input and output seem to be the best medicine.
What do you consider to be the most challenging thing about pursuing art, creatively or professionally?
Well, the most challenging thing about being an artist is that you need shelter, to feed yourself and your family, a place to make art, materials, and a sense of well-being, most importantly. Making art contributes to your well-being (and to the well-being of others), but it’s not so easy for art to be your sole occupation. You need to find and maintain work that feeds your ability to make art and that is where the toughest challenge comes in. I also work at home as a UX designer and have built up the ability to quickly switch back and forth between thinking about design and art, which took years of practice to achieve a decent balance.
What is the most exciting part, or what compels you do what you do?
Julie Mehretu talks about painting as a process of mining for an experience. That it is something akin to bringing an image into crisp sharpness. What can be more thrilling than that? The process we go through to get to that clarity – of synthesizing an image from our minds into reality – is just miraculous. It’s what keeps me coming back, what keeps me going after making a lousy – or a good piece.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you’re currently working on?
I’m in a two-person show in May at Artspace 1241 in Philadelphia with the excellent painter Tim McFarlane. Our work has many common threads so it will be great to see everything hang together!
Anything else you would like to add?
Just my sincerest appreciation for your interest in my work and for the fantastic job with Young Space!
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