Chris Ashley, an artist and blogger from Oakland, CA, participates in the Artists Interview Artists Project. Below Chris responds to another artist's five questions (Eileen Wold from Washington, D.C.). In order to participate, Chris had to provide me with five questions for some other artist to answer. The assigning of questions to artists is completely random. If you're an artist and interested in participating, let me know.
1. What did your parents think about you becoming an artist. What do/did they do for a living? Has this affected the path your art has taken?
I think at times, up until my earliest college years, my parents' felt pride that I was a creative person; my mom used to often tell the story of how as soon as I was able to as a toddler I carried pencil and paper everywhere. I drew at home, at school, in church. But looking back I can see that they expected me to outgrow this focus and desire and to eventually lead an ordinary, non-intellectual life. They were puzzled by how I chose to spend my time, were mystified at some of the kinds of art I tried and admired, and were concerned, even appalled, by some of the directions I took, none of which, to be clear, were at all really radical or risky or rebellious in any life style terms.
My parents were married in the mid-fifties. I was born in an era when a family could afford for the mother to stay home with the children and be called a "homemaker." My mother came from a large family whose aspirations, to my mind, seemed limited to having a family and being a good Christian. My father was the plant carpenter at a huge factory. He came from a family of public school educators; both of his parents and three siblings were teachers. Instead of going that route he dropped out of college in his sophomore year, got a job in a factory, married young and started a family. I think he wanted to do things on his own terms, and I also think that he resented how that decision put certain options beyond his reach. I believe I share some of his character. So, my immediate family was blue collar and striving towards lower middle class, and I was extremely aware from adolescence of class and of aspects of a blue collar outlook that do and don't run in me.
The family member who has had the greatest impact on me was my grandmother, my father's mother. She was widowed quite young with four children, taught second grade for over thirty years, and was the strong center of our family. She lived nearby, was loving and generous, and deeply understood child development. She provided many opportunities for my brothers and I, and recognized my interest in art early on, taking me to museums, buying me my first set of oils at age 11, keeping and framing my drawings. She thought Norman Rockwell was a great artist, and didn't understand what I would later do, but I always felt her moral and spiritual strength, honesty, and extreme kindness, and that has always been something that I've carried, even into my art.
I eventually taught elementary school, just like members of my father's family, and I've always felt that some part of that was because of the model my grandmother provided for me. Teaching nine to twelve year olds taught me a great deal about learning and cognition, process and routines, observation and assessment, and community and relating. I'm still finding ways to use this in my life and in my art. For example, my weblog is a direct extension of the uses of portfolios for reflection and evaluation that I used in education.
2. In your opinion, what is the most troubling thing about "the business of art?"
There are several art worlds and various levels of business in the art world. There are many different paths to take, and with these options there are inevitably also many inequities to encounter, just like any other area in life. Ultimately business is of course about profit, and profit doesn't always follow what's best or fair; profit follows what is popular. The art world is highly unregulated, which makes for a way of working that is very fluid and difficult to pin down, but I'm not sure that it is a kind of business world where much regulation is even possible.
I could complain about how the art world, like much of the world, is obsessed with youth and this year's fashion, about art that I think is uninteresting and unworthy of critical comment, let alone buyers, and about how large segments of the contemporary art world seem to be increasingly veering into entertainment and illustration, but if that's what is profitable that's where the business side of art will go, at least for now. One can choose whether or not to participate at all, and there are always ways that artists can exercise different kinds of control over their place in one or several of the various art worlds; it's time-consuming work, but it's possible. Someone told me that an art career takes patience, and even though I am often impatient I think it's good advice to think of the long term.
3. Name a few contemporary artists that you are following the work of and tell us how or if it relates back to your own work.
This should be an easy and direct question to answer, but I actually find it a little difficult. I know what you mean by contemporary, but I prefer to think of what is interesting or useful to me, which may not match typical notions of "contemporary." I look back and forth a lot at painters from past to present, and the more I look the more I see that painters from different eras and locations have much in common.
I have spent the past couple of years looking at and thinking about 17th century Chinese painter Shitao, and I've had some revelations this year about Thomas Gainsborough. All of this relates to my own work in terms of intent and purpose, a time in history, conventions and invention, feel for material and scale, what paint does, and how to make images.
Since Clyfford Still was alive at the time I first recognized my identity as an artist (he died in 1980) I can consider him a very senior contemporary, especially in relation to artists much younger than me. I began looking at Still around 1976 when I first saw his work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which owns nearly thirty of his paintings and which always has some on view. He is a difficult, not terribly likable, and uneven artist who seems, at a superficial glance, to have simply made variations of the same painting over and over beginning in the early 1940's. But his work has been in front of my eyes and in the back of my mind for thirty years, and in the past couple of years I've wrestled quite a bit with trying to experience his work and to describe that experience and what it means. I haven't completely pinned down what his paintings are about and how they work, and I expect to keep working at that.
Belgian artist Raoul de Keyser (born 1930) is someone whose work one doesn't often get to see in the US, especially on the West Coast, but I have been fortuntate to see some of his work and I've also read a great deal about him. His work interests me because he doesn't seem wedded to a particular style other than making what one would call "abstract" images while still referencing real things. His subject matter has personal origins without being hermetic or self-centered, he works in series or small bodies of work, and he has a sense of scale about his overall project: he doesn't make large paintings for the just sake of making large paintings, and there is a kind of self knowledge, modesty, and openness in his work. Much of what I wrote here could apply to another painter I follow, Thomas Nozkowski. Three other people I'll name whose work shares some of these qualities and who I will always go see are Mary Heilmann, Pat Steir, and Louise Fishman, all painters.
More locally, my friend George Lawson is someone whose work I follow closely. We look at and talk about art in general, and the work of each of us. That dialogue is extremely valuable. In the past year the interviews I've done with a number of artists have been published online, and that conversation, and looking closely at the artists work, and the new relationships established with some of these artist has been very important to me.
4. Does "creating" in your studio space energize you or wipe you out? What is it that does energize you or wipe you out in life?
Well, "creating" involves both. I mean, working in the studio, when it's going well, creates energy, but there is always some point of exhaustion or ending, whether at the end of a day or at the end of a particular body of work. On a day to day basis, if the session is short it can be energizing but also frustrating because of the time limitation. If time allows for a long session it can be energizing but eventually physically drain me; my head can be buzzing but I'm exhausted- that's a kind of euphoria. If things aren't going well then it's just frustrating and draining, and I have to work through that. Sometimes that might only last for a few minutes, and other times it can last for weeks.
What energizes me sounds like a personal ad: laughing, playing the guitar, walking, reading, writing, and of course making and looking at art. What wipes me out in life isn't unique to me: working full time.
5. What is the best thing about your life outside of your artwork?
I love my wife, I have a good job, we have a house in a good neighborhood, I'm healthy, and no great tragedies have come my way.
6. Has your artwork ever affected the life of someone else in a profound way? Explain.
Profound? I have no idea. My tendency is to say that I would be surprised to know that my art had a profound effect on someone, but that sounds lacking in ambition, which is something I don't lack. I have done things that people have liked, that perhaps have stretched expectations some. I know that a few people close to me have been surprised and pleased by things I've made. I do sometimes have an audience in my head when making or writing something, but I think as a starting place I'm more interested in having a profound effect on myself first. A big part of making art is connected to the quality and satisfaction of my own inner life, the questions I ask and the way I'd like to see things. I will say that I am honestly profoundly affected on a daily basis by the art I see by artists of all ages and eras, and what I read and think about this art, even work I don't particularly like, so perhaps it isn't ridiculous for me to think that I may be able to do the same for someone else. This is a good question, and having to answer it I think I've learned something about myself. Thanks for the opportunity to talk out loud about myself.
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