Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions
by Stephanie Cassidy | November 5, 2019
At what age did you decide to become an artist?
This isn’t meant to be funny, but the decision came at age 9, 14, and 21. Because I was in and out of art throughout my youth and flipped on it a dozen times.
Artists seemed too quaint for me; I associated them with grannies, smocks, and berets. And like a lot of young guys I was committed to being cooler than all that, so I dragged my feet. For the sake of simplicity, I now say 18 and am done with it.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I should give a little background first.
My teens were spent dabbling in art and banging on an old Fender Telecaster guitar. Senior year of high school I mostly partied with friends, barely opening a book or attending class. I honestly don’t know how I graduated, let alone got into college.
Freshman year of college I rebelled against my father, a devoted painter, and told my folks that I wanted to straighten up and go to law school. They were devastated by this news, showing you how unusual my upbringing was.
But they must have thought that I had something, artistically, otherwise, they wouldn’t have been so disappointed. And I liked pre-law classes, but just wasn’t all that hungry for a law career. I’m sure my folks sensed that as well.
That was a moment of rare wisdom for a not-so-wise kid—the realization that if you don’t love your work, someone who loves theirs will outperform you every time. “Competition drives so much of human endeavor,” I wrote forty years later. “Without it, we’d all be living in mud huts and pumping water out of the ground.”
And so came the decision to devote my life to painting.
I loved it enough to endure the marathon hours, financial struggles, and uncertainties that can plague an artist all the way into adulthood. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have lasted a year.
In the late 1980s I settled, somewhat illegally, into a 300-square-foot commercial-only space in Long Island City, Queens, New York. This was before the area was gentrified.
In winter the building was heated only during the day, in summer it was oppressively hot. I jogged at night through empty streets where prostitutes chased me. I once caught a local thief stealing the wheels off my car, and when cops arrived, he helped me put them back on. We even had a conversation.
I slept on a mattress on the studio floor, just a few feet from my easel. The space had high ceilings and big windows facing north—I was in heaven.
Short story long…
My parents worried sick over my safety, my health, and my future, but they were relieved and delighted that I took this path.
My mother passed a year ago, and my father’s health is failing. I’m forever grateful to them both for giving the kind of push that few parents would ever give.
Who are your favorite artists?
The big three for me are William Nicholson, Vilhelm Hammershøi, and Giorgio Morandi.
Other names that come up are Antonio López and Andrew Wyeth, but I’m seldom the one to bring them up. Similarities to the last two are more superficial than internal. And I rarely look at art nowadays.
That’s because, and I know this is controversial, I feel that looking too much art, even great art, creates a kind of ceiling that’s hard to rise above. “I can never be as good as so-and-so”, is an attitude that can really dog an artist.
I’m not saying we can all become masters by ignoring the masters. But obsessing over them, the way I did when starting out, actually slowed my progress.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Helen Frankenthaler. I’m one of those oddball realists who loves great abstraction.
Art book you cannot live without?
I don’t have much of an art library and can get along fine without art books. I can’t go a day without the Internet and wish the opposite were true.
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Such a great question. It’s the same quality I admire most in people: authenticity.
OK, so what does authenticity look like in a work of art? It doesn’t look like anything, but it feels to me like the artist embraced their subject with their entire being.
Too many artists, and way too many people, are bent on impressing more than connecting with others. Impressing is walling yourself off, connecting is letting your guard down, which takes more confidence and guts than the self-effacing get credit for.
I’m especially bored with intellectual showmanship; it’s one reason I love artists like Morandi. Nothing flashy or didactic going on there, just pure, honest, heartfelt painting.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
No, not anymore. I used to, but it’s been ages.
What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
My most memorable museum experience was Musée National Picasso, Paris. I was there decades ago, but the memory is vivid. Such a warm, playful, joyful kind of place. Different from the staid museum installations we’re all used to.
What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
“Best” complicates things a bit, so here are a few:
I was blown away by the turnout for the Frida Kahlo show in Philadelphia, 2008. I’d never seen a more packed house or felt more energy in one room.
Velázquez in New York, 1989, was life-changing. Also a full house, but unlike the Kahlo show, there wasn’t a sound to be heard in the presence of those masterpieces.
Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art was unforgettable. I strolled through it, virtually alone, on a freezing cold New Year’s Eve when most of New York was out drinking or staying warm at home.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
A writer, for sure. Which isn’t a fair answer because I already blog about twenty hours a week. If I didn’t teach or paint, I’d write sixty hours a week.
Writing doesn’t feel like work at all, and when I’m immersed in it, the hours just fly. I often write on a laptop in my parked car while the street cleaners do their thing, with no feelings of impatience or distraction.
What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
How to break into the art world and build a career. I got some coaching on that a few years out of school, and it was priceless.
What’s your go-to NY museum?
That would be the MoMA. I live just a few blocks away, so it’s fun to just pop in for a few minutes
What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Velázquez’ Juan De Pareja. Hardly an original choice, as it’s such a beloved piece among painters. So elegant, so effortless in the execution. Pure magic.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Movies, crime thrillers mostly, and dabbling in graphic design, which was my first “real” job.
Do you listen to music in your studio?
Sometimes, but I prefer the sound of people talking. YouTube video lectures are wonderful for that. They take the loneliness out of the studio and give just the right amount of distraction, keeping me from obsessing or getting too intense.
What is the last gallery you visited?
I honestly don’t remember.
Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
Excluding the contemporaries—so many great living talents that only artists know of—I’ve never understood why Bastian-Lepage isn’t a household name.
It’s true he died young, and that could be part of it. But he produced more work than Vermeer, and, in my not-so-humble opinion, was equally talented (I’m going to regret saying that, but it’s just an opinion, so don’t everyone pounce). The surfaces of Lepage’s canvases are lush, textured, and understated all at once.
What art materials can you not live without?
The painting knife is an absolute must. I have this maddening habit of misplacing it, and then panic if I have to search for it for too long.
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
My work life is divided into thirds: twenty hours painting, twenty hours teaching, twenty hours writing–nights & weekends. I try to paint every day, but will double-up if I skip a day.
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
I once spent a year and a half renovating my house.
The only brush I picked up during that time was for house painting. I spent more time in the Home Depot than the people who worked there, and looked so comfortable in the aisles that customers began asking me where stuff was. I was very happy to help them.
Friends warned me that home ownership was a lot of work, but I never dreamed it would be a daily marathon. Still, it was an enjoyable phase.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
The best remedy is to just start working. Inspiration kicks in later.
What are the questions that drive your work?
I don’t paint from the intellect, so questions aren’t a driving force.
Typically, something in my environment grabs my attention. Not once, but again and again, for weeks, until it actually becomes a nuisance. Eventually, I’ll give in and paint the thing just to get it off my mind.
What is the most important quality in an artist?
Humility. The ego can really sabotage an artist. The more identified you are with your art the more reluctant you’ll be to take chances or risk looking bad. Caution is the death of all creativity.
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I’ve never given a demo, and never will. I’m too conscious of the audience and feel pressured to perform or entertain.
All observation, which is the basis of the work, then comes to a halt, and I end up with something dreadful. This hasn’t hurt my teaching much, but I usually have some explaining to do when asked to give a demonstration.
That said, I envy painters who give great demos. It looks like such fun, and folks really do love watching them.
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
In 2001, a group of young painters, sculptors, and I were over the moon when 450 people attended the opening of our New York show.
In 2017, thanks to a slew of social media shares, one of my blog posts went viral and reached 23,000 readers in a week.
Many readers stayed on the site and clicked onto the art. The notifications from my mobile device sounded, non-stop, like one continuous drone. I should have turned it off but didn’t. It was just too exciting. Those numbers are nothing compared to the traffic that big-name artists are getting.
You can argue that a website isn’t an exhibition and that digital images aren’t paintings, and you’d be right. Still, the potential for twenty-first-century artists to touch so many people, so fast, and from so many parts of the world, is miraculous.
Christopher Gallego teaches “Observational Drawing, Painting, and Composition” at the Art Students League of New York.