Can you tell us about where you grew up and your childhood?
It’s a small town call King’s Mountain in North Carolina, maybe fifteen or twenty thousand, a suburb of Charlotte. My mom is an artist and musician and weaver. She goes back and forth between traditional Native American basket weaving and she also explores more avant-garde types of things. My dad is a veterinarian. He started his practice around the time that I was born in King’s Mountain. He went to UGA (University of Georgia). So we had a lot of animals over the years. Whether we took in feral dogs or cats or ducks, even chicks. We always had animals around. He instilled a respect for animals an the fact that we weren’t rulers of animals. That’s one of my earliest memories. I learned frugality from my parents. We never bought holiday cards. I remember hand-making cards and Christmas gifts. They weren’t a part of this throw-a-way culture. I have tubes of paint from twenty years ago I still pull out every now and then. Luckily it’s oil paint that doesn’t dry out (laughs). I try to be as least wasteful as I can in this day and age.
When did you start painting?
One of my earliest memories is from pre-school. I remember finger-painting. The sheen of the paper and having paint all over my hands.
Is it true that you set up an art booth when you were 10?
Yes. A neighbor across the street purchased a couple of drawing from me. And I’m doing the same thing now. Full circle.
Why are you drawn to the medium of oil for your work?
Oil is my main love; it’s in my heart. It’s got a richness. It’s a classic medium. There’s a je ne sais quoi to it. I’ve been working with it since I was 17 or 18. I’ve moved to water miscible oils because of environmental concerns. You can use water to mix them instead of turpentine.
The artist has to be active to get their wares to the marketplace. What does that entail?
All artists are sailing in the same ship. It’s tough. There are have-tos. I think most artists and writers and musicians that are self-made seek out opportunities. You have to, especially now, because there are way more artists than galleries. I am seeking representation. Not that galleries are the only way to go. Social media has changed that. I’m not represented by a gallery. You have to be diligent. You have to hustle. It’s all up to me. I’ve up everyday with my wife at 6 a.m. You’re blogging, uploading to your website, doing social media. You have to be relentless without being annoying. And that is one of the hardest things. Pricing is a whole other thing, a freaking mess. It’s probably 50/50, painting and doing office stuff. You have to work smarter, not harder — the mantra of creative entrepreneurs. I just went full-time last year and have worked myself to death. I was not working smarter and I learned a lot. This year’s a little different. I’m not trying to be as prolific. Last year I did 120 original paintings. This year I’m focusing more on the work itself and not trying to just crank things out. But you do have to be prolific if you want to pay the bills. It’s a strange balancing act. The “starving artist” phrase is horrible. I’m sick of that fucking term. Everybody struggles, whether you’re a plumber or whatever, you’re struggling. It ebbs and it flows. If you’re self-employed you have your highs and your lows. It all comes from my main guy, Van Gogh. I remember going to the Mint Museum in Charlotte on a class trip in middle school and seeing his work. He was an early influence. His work has never left me. It’s not true that he didn’t sell work, he just only sold a handful of work in his lifetime. Maybe four or five paintings and a few drawings. He tried really hard. It’s really weird since his brother was an art dealer. There’s a cool play called Vincent and Theo. It’s sad and fascinating. He starved and went insane. The public wasn’t ready for his work. What’s the problem with beautiful sunflowers? Can you imagine that? He was devastated. I think a lot of those myths come from him, from his life. He wasn’t famous until he was dead. I’ve heard that so many times at shows, “I know you’re a starving artist.” Like they’re doing me a favor when they buy a print or something. Again, it’s a weird balancing act. I don’t want to sound like a prima donna, but I want them to enjoy the work. I’m not a beggar. Do they want to enjoy the work or not? That’s happened a few times. It’s a back-handed compliment.
Tell us about your time at the North Carolina School of the Arts?
I was introduced to Abstract Expressionism there by Clyde Fowler, who recently passed away. He was phenomenal. He didn’t show you how to paint. He introduced you to the nuances of things, from throwing marbles in the air and drawing what you hear, all sorts of unusual ways to open up. He introduced us into Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Robert Motherwell. He introduced us to the Black Mountain scene. The work is non-representational. Every mark is deliberate, seemingly fast. There’s no form or representation. The nuance is in the line-making. It’s more about an internal expression and emotion.
Your book carvings are curiosities.
I made the book carvings when I was at the San Francisco Art Institute in the 90s. Conceptual art, “New media art,” was going around. Maybe it was left over and had a resurgence from the 70s. It was hard not to be influenced by that stuff. I remember someone cutting out random squares in drywall, then the next week they would patch it over. It was very heady. You could say bullshit at some point, I’d be okay with that. I’m not saying it’s not art. It was a little too heady for me. But fascinating. It had a kind of influence on me. I was into meditative practice and I found a cache of old books that were discarded from Goodwill or wherever. And I really don’t know how it came into my mind, but I just started drawing on the page and started repeating the shape, whether it was a square or a circle, something simple and started digging through the pages until I got to the very bottom. It kind of had this feel of people keeping their stash in carved-out books (laughs). When you happen upon something like that then it kinda goes into a: is this the formula? or how much further can I explore this type of thing? And so I started to save the shavings; started saving the pencils; started saving the cut-outs. The reaction was really good. It was fine as an aesthetic piece but I didn’t want to explore it any further. I revisit it every now and then as a meditative practice.
When did the motifs you are known for — geometric shapes — emerge?
After I graduated the San Francisco Art Institute I moved back to King’s Mountain. I didn’t want to go on for an MA and teach. I fell into graphic design, out of fear, or necessity, but in the evenings I started painting again. I became really obsessed with the triangle, the trinity of the shape and really started honing in on it, and moved into a pyramid shape. I started having these floating pyramids which started taking on this surreal effect. They were still abstract; kind of abstract surrealism. They weren’t quite surrealist and they weren’t wholeheartedly abstract.
How did that work lead you to your current work?
Now it’s more of a representation of the dawn of man. It conjures notions of the pyramids and the mysterious technology it took to build them. Technology is still going on. Is it good or bad? How does that fit in with the natural world? It’s a basic representation of technology in general. And then that kind of expanded into squares and cylinders, basic geometric shapes. Shipping containers, cans of soup — not Any Warhol cans of soup, although there is a little bit of that repetition in representations of factories — machines that crank things out, robots, and how that plays a part in where we’re headed, environmentally.
What are some of the concepts and ideas that inform your work?
It’s really a direct connection to my dad. I grew up with a house full of animals and respect for animals. It was an implied thing which I’m truly grateful for. And then as I got older I started researching more on my own. I tried to read up as much as I can about the domesticated realm, asking dad questions. The more I researched the more I discovered that wolves and Cannis familaris (dogs) are subspecies of Canis lupus (wolves). Physically the size is different, but their basic core and instinct is still there in the domesticated dog. Research is constantly finding these crazy new things that were unknown in the past. Wolves were thought of as lesser beings. That humans have the dominion over them because God gave them to us. I don’t believe that at all. I believe that we’re all here as a unity. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. And that research expanded into how far humans have progressed, technologically, trying to progress in a positive way with positive actions. There’s some great technology out there but everything has a push and pull, with advantages and disadvantages. How can we get to the point where we’re not hurting so many things on the earth?
What’s ahead for you this year?
It will involve animals. Don’t tell anybody (laughs). I have a lot of ideas that I’ll transfer from my sketchbook. I’ve actually planned out my year. I have an Excel spreadsheet for ideas to help me not be all over the place. It helps keep my shit together. Athens is a supportative community. There’s a healthy competition here. I mean truly healthy. It helps us as artists push ourselves further. I believe the quality of work in the community is getting better. It’s fucking awesome that you as an artist can pretty much hit up any place and get your shit out there. People are really receptive to that. It’s a fantastic thing. I had an ongoing residency, if you will, with Speakeasy, for two years, until they closed down. It was like a gallery. I sold work through them. You’ve got Flicker, The World Famous, and many others. It’s not hard to get your work in front of people in Athens. Maybe it’s for free decoration (laughs). I think people are coming from Atlanta to our cool, eclectic town and realizing that’s there’s good work here.
Can you talk about working in a series and especially, Until the Engine.
These days I do start off knowing it’s going to be a series. I’ve been working this way for the past year or so. It helps me to focus and explore more, peel away layers and go deeper to accomplish what I want to do with the work. Whereas in the past I’d just do two or three and abandon them and move on to something slightly different. It’s partly an ADD thing. I want to have a body of work that’s consistent. Until the Engine is a new series which involves a basic rectangular shape that’s gold leaf, gilded, which is an old technique. They usually did it with egg tempera, for iconography of the saints, Byzantine, very liturgical. So there’s this idea that the shape in my art work — a monolith, emanating this red glow — is the holy grail. The horse is jumping over “technology,” the “seeming” answer to all of the world’s problems. Whether it’s good or bad, in my mind it’s kind of a tricky thing. The horse is kind of an afterthought. It’s one of the animals that got us to where we are today. Do we go back to riding horses, which have gotten us around for eons, or do we continue driving our cars without having to hurt the horse, ride bicycles, or just go back to walking on our two feet? Technology is such a prominent necessity, you could argue, in a way, with the horse. That’s how you got around. But there’s an internal feeling, the beast of burden type thing. Do we need to grind grits with a mule strapped to a pole going around in circles all day long? It’s kind of crappy. But if you want those fresh organic true grits rather than from a factory, where do you draw that line? It’s a dichotomy. My work is a kind of representation of my own internal struggles of living in the modern world and trying to do right by this awesome earth. I’m still trying to figure it out (laughs). There’s a land bridge somewhere, maybe Iceland, where they built an overpass to allow wildlife to safely cross to the other forest or land mass. Obviously there were stragglers, but they would eventually learn that it was a safe route. That’s where technology can really help us.
What are your thoughts on the Bulldog Inn Art Show in 2015?
It was my first real experience working with installation art. I discovered it on Facebook and signed up. Again, technology, cool (laughs). I’d been doing a lot of stuff with wolves. I’m fascinated by their displacement and their reintroduction and their near-extinction. There’s like this weird thing with wolves, at least in American culture. We nearly eradicated them. But then we realized they’re an important apex predator and this that and the other in the 1920s or 30s, maybe. There have been laws passed all around, according to states. Oh, you can’t kill them. Oh, numbers are up, you gotta kill em. And you have livestock being killed. We pushed them all the way up into Canada, then reintroduced them in the 1990s. Last year was a big year for states passing no-kill-kill laws just randomly, like a barrage. Come on over and kill something. Kind of like the bear thing in Florida last October. I find it quite disgusting, honestly. I’ve never encountered a wolf. I don’t own a farm. But the sanctioned hunts are a very, very bad thing. Extremely bad. You’re handed out permits to actively go shoot wolves. It’s one thing if you’re a farmer with a family you want to protect, your commodity, livestock, which is a whole other issue. So I came up with this idea for Wolf City. It was kind of a sarcastic response to this, Hey, let’s kill these wolves. No, let’s bring them back down to this area. We don’t want them in our backyard, but we don’t want to kill all of them. But they can’t come live with us. Can we just let em be?
[arrival of AU guest interviewers]
Piglet here. I noticed you mentioned throw-a-way culture. Speaking as a pig, oftentimes people will give us things to eat that they would otherwise throw away. Can you expand on that idea? And where do I get more garbage?
(laughs) That’s a good point. There’s a thing going on now with chickens and chicken feed, vegetarian-fed, and this, that and the other, so it’s safe to eat. It’s the same as slop for you. It’s factory run-off, filler, nothing. But therein lies the dichotomy. Do we use this run-off from the grain and wheat industry to give to cows and pigs and chickens or do we just throw it away? This is the struggle. At least for me. Struggle sounds terrible. It’s a paradox. I don’t have an answer. I don’t know if I answered your question, piglet. I have an issue with this machinist, factory culture. It’s this well-oiled machine. But then these animals get mixed up. If you eat meat you should at least go out and kill one time so you can see what it’s like to go through that process, because it’s so far removed from our experience. My dad remembers wringing chicken necks with his grandpa. Good lord, you boiled the chicken, and that’s the most disgusting smell ever. Just getting the feathers off, cleaning a deer, whatever. I’m not advocating everyone do that. Where do you draw the line? The wood I try to use for my art is efficacy-certified wood from the Forest Stewardship Council, an organization that promotes sustainability. It’s hard to be 100 percent vegan. Even when you’re spraying organic pesticide or just repellant you’re adjusting the ecology. I’m just trying to be aware of everything without going insane (laughs).
Wolf here. I couldn’t help but notice that you pay a lot of homages to my species and we thank you for that, but I also notice that there’s a large, dripping bloody head of one of my brothers sitting nearby. It looks like my uncle.
(laughs). It’s not your uncle. It’s not a real wolf. It’s an image of a wolf. My interest in wolves started from my being a dog lover because of my dad. I became interested in where they came from and what led to their domestication. They found remains in Russia a couple of years ago. I think at the time it was thought that the wolf was domesticated around 10,000 years ago. Then they found the remains of this ancient wolf near a hunter which was carbon-dated to 20,000 years ago. What was behind the domestication? Did they domesticate us? Did we domesticate them? Did they start coming into camps and villages on their own for scraps and that kind of thing? Or did hunters go out and capture them to help with tracking and hunting? I think it’s a little bit of both. And then we totally bastardized it in the 19th and 20th century, breeding pugs and American bulldogs which have to be artificially inseminated and the pups have to be birthed via C-section. It’s gone from this seemingly respectful survival into this horrible, breeding factory.
Wolf again. How many species have these horrible genetic mutations that people have made? In my wanderings I’ve run across a weird dog, a Peekapoo, half Pekinese, half Poodle, and he seems happy.
The domesticated dog basically has the psychology of a wolf pup. We’ve stymied it to the point where it essentially will never get, psychologically, to an adult wolf, if that makes any sense. That was around 10,000 years ago. A chicken is a jungle fowl we’ve bred to not fly. Horses, of course. I believe the cow has been modified. I don’t know about the goat. There are so many animal companions in shelters that need our care. You don’t have to buy one from a breeder. Luckily I grew up in a household sympathetic to all this.
Cow here. I get a lot of crap for taking up grazing land, which is not my fault. That being said, I’m ready to graze anywhere. What’s the closest thing to a win with humans and us?
Eat less meat. Have less humans. I’m not advocating violence by any means (laughing), but we’ve got to get it under control somehow.