Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions
by Stephanie Cassidy | January 22, 2020
At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. Doodles on notebook paper, sculpted kneaded eraser figures, and chalkboard murals. Life drawing was in my blood. As for when I was actually brave enough to consider myself an “artist”… probably around thirty.
How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
My father nearly had an aneurysm. His assumption that his eldest scion might follow him into neurology was shattered… inconceivable. This is not to say that he didn’t encourage continued education, just not of that sort. My mother was always a comforting counterpoint in this arena, and her support has never waned. Still, my father’s voice was the loudest and he held the purse-strings at that time, so our embattled détente was graphic design.
Who are your favorite artists?
I find that while a few stay constant, my growth as an artist allows me to cycle through new favorites as I discover them. Sometimes an artist I held only a passing fancy for becomes a favorite as I suddenly realize my kinship to their work, while others fall to the wayside as I outgrow them. I find myself deeply compelled by the works of Rembrandt, Anders Zorn, Ivan Kramskoi, Franz von Stuck, Gustav Klimt, Nicola Hicks, Michelangelo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Gustave Doré, Lucian Freud, Paul Cadmus, Käthe Kollwitz, Andrew Wyeth, Moebius, and many more. I think that any artist with a rich tapestry of work that portrays the human condition, its temporal frailty and pathos, can speak to me and command my admiration.
Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
I’m enthralled by the sculptures of Nicola Hicks and their powerful presence despite their initial appearance of frailty. Many of her life-sized pieces are wrought from simple straw and plaster, some are then cast in bronze while retaining every coarse detail from it’s muddy and precarious hay construction. She wrests remarkable empathy from her anthropomorphic figures despite their crude construction and obscure demeanor.
Art book you cannot live without?
I found great inspiration in Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit as a struggling young artist. I’ve owned no less than four copies of the Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist by Stephen Rodgers Peck over the years, most of them given away to students and friends who asked me for drawing reference books. My current copy is so battered it can hardly be referred to as a book anymore from its many years of service as a dining plate and palette rest while I am working.
What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Humility and the passionate pursuit of understanding, be it in their personal work or perception of the world around him. Even the crudest execution of technique can be elevated through a genuine sense of observation and sensitivity to the subject matter. It is the drive to explore and push ourselves that makes us better artists, and a humble assessment of our abilities allows us to pursue that drive to improve without the hindrance of insecurity and ego.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
I used to keep incredibly dense sketchbooks filled with not only drawings and studies, but also inspiring ephemera I would affix between the pages to savor later on. I would prime the pages with medium so that I could paint in both acrylics and oil within, and more than once actually cut and pasted in pieces of rendered canvas from an aborted painting if there were parts of it I was still fond of. Of course, looking back on such notebooks can be more of an exercise in excavation than edification these days, but those were some of my most prolific times after my graduate years. Now, I rarely do sketchbook work, relying on odd individual pages for sketches and studies for paintings. I have opted to fill numerous newsprint and multimedia pads for my life drawing instead of trying to labor within the meagerly sized pages most “convenient to carry” sketchbooks allow. I also discovered that working feverishly in a notebook tended to keep me from actually working outside it confidently. I found myself with a few fairly overflowing books packed with lavish sketches and artwork that I could never reliably show or sell, and no real volume of work outside it. I decided that in order to have more readily show-worthy content for my art, I needed to concentrate less slavishly on filling my sketchbooks and set to painting and drawing works at a more impressive scale and degree of finish.
What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
My knee-jerk reaction is to say The Metropolitan Museum of Art here in the city. Although I’ve made it a point to recently seek out more historically celebrated institutions (The Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, The Uffizi, The Prado), nothing beats the incredible depth and breadth of the Met’s collection. That museum has held me rapt in its majesty since my parents dragged me through it as a boy. I remember being completely overwhelmed at the scale of the place, and the visual overload left a huge impression on me like the afterimage on the back of your eyelids when you close your eyes after staring up at the sun.
What’s your go-to NY museum?
Again, the Met. There is still no better value in the way of variety and presentation in the city. There are fancier venues, to be sure (Neue Galerie, The Frick Collection, etc), but the Metropolitan museum literally has something for everyone. However, a close second is The Met Cloisters uptown for a quiet, more meditative place of art worship of an admittedly modest, more specific scope.
What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
I warmly recall a Paul Cadmus retrospective show at Midtown Payson Gallery in 1992, my second year in the MFA graduate Illustration program at the School of Visual Arts. It was a broad exhibit of his life’s works including several banned and controversial paintings, one of which hadn’t been seen in fifty-eight years (The Fleet’s In). The artist was actually present for the show, looking dapper at eighty-seven in his white suit. His rarely exhibited painting series, The Seven Deadly Sins, was on display, and I was mesmerized by their masterful potency. I was rendering my own version of the sins for my thesis project and seeing his renditions of the classic tropes was invaluable. But what I remember most about the show, and perhaps why it stands out as memorable in my mind, was the few minutes Mr. Cadmus spoke to me as I stood before his work. He shared with me some playful insights into some of the more subtle aspects of the images, and noticing that I was carrying a sketchbook in hand, requested to see some of my scribbled pages. Terrified, but secretly thrilled, I showed him some studies I’d painted into the book of my vision of the Seven Sins. He looked over them thoughtfully and chose “Envy” as his favorite. “A soft touch, this one,” he said of it smiling wryly as if laughing internally at its comparison to his lurid depiction on the wall behind us. An affirming moment regardless of its implications for a young artist new to the city and the art world at large.
If you were not an artist, what would you be?
A difficult question, for although I’ve walked in the shoes of several different careers, I’ve always known that I should be an artist. Perhaps a writer or art historian as that was my initial direction in my undergraduate years, and it at least allowed me to stay close to my most beloved subject. I worked many years as a calligrapher, designing and executing finely-tuned lettering upon gold plated nameplates for valuable framed paintings for Eli Wilner, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s, but it was grueling work and I think I’d be blind by now if I’d continued down that road.
What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
Well, for one thing, you don’t need art school to be a great artist in the first place. I have no idea what my work would look like if I’d only just buckled down and been more productive in those “learning years” of my undergraduate degree. There is simply no better teacher than personal experience. This is not to say that there was no value in the many hours I spent in a darkened classroom watching art history slides from Gardner’s Art Throughout the Ages. Those days helped to lay the initial foundations upon which I would build my own burgeoning aesthetic. But I can’t help but harken back to the careers of many of those artists I so admire, visual creators with no formal education save that of their own experiences and the close tutelage of their chosen masters. The apprenticeship model fostered many a great artist, and those very principals have found new expression here at The Art Students League. Another possible response is in regards to a less classic Euro-centric art history education. I’ve had to glean what I can from my own research when it comes to other rich artistic cultures throughout the centuries as very little was explored in my academic days. A bit more classical figure drawing emphasis would have been nice as well.
What work of art have you looked at most and why?
While there are many great works of art that have captivated me throughout the years, I’d have to say that the one piece that has occupied my attention (time-wise) more than any other would be Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer in the Met. I remember clearly the first time I laid eyes on it as a young man visiting the city. I’d only seen it poorly reproduced in the pages of my art history textbooks before then. I was completely taken aback by the richness of color and the looseness of the paint application. I’d always marveled at the metallic luminosity of the golden chain that hung diagonally across the main figure’s chest and how clear the clasps and brocades were in the small reproductions. Imagine my utter surprise standing before this painting, realizing that all those minute details had been manufactured by my own brain as it absorbed the perfectly placed impasto strokes that upon closer inspection were almost an abstraction of form! Each heavy brush stroke laid down in such a pattern as to imply the metallic chain without literally describing it. I was so used to seeing the pristine portraits of that period, the polished erasure of brushstroke that most painters of the time employed… I had no idea how gesturally rendered this magnificent painting was. This realization, coupled with the restrained but deeply contemplative portrait of the great scholar and the remarkable clarity of texture between disparate objects in the visual narrative, kept me rapt in attention for hours at a time. The flesh, so warm as it passed from light into shadow, the billowing, diaphanous quality of the silken sleeves, the resplendent gold chain contrasting with the cold marble of the bust, all executed with an effortless painterly style I never thought possible in a piece from that era. To this day, I often refer to the treatment of the chain in my classes and the painting itself is a talking point in many discussions about execution and expectation in regards to art.
What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
Well, I’ll have to devise another one once you out my current secret, won’t I? I will admit to being a voracious cinephile. I hold the great European film classics close to my heart with my right hand while the left greedily clutches Japanese Kaiju Eiga behind my back. My taste runs the gamut as far as variety goes; from the quintessential silent films of yesteryear to some of the great modern blockbusters. I can find a favorite in almost any given genre. Movies provide a necessary and enjoyable sense of inspiration for my visual and storytelling vernacular.
Do you listen to music in your studio?
Not as often as I used to. Back when I had my first real apartment of my own, I used to regularly blast my grad school mixtapes while painting deep into the evening hours. Nowadays, with the advent of a more mature conscience and tolerance of amplitude, I usually elect to either go with a classical piece or a favorite movie soundtrack that fades into the background, or I just hum to myself lyrically butchered versions of songs I’ve heard on the radio that I don’t know the words to. Keeps me from talking to myself anyway…
What is the last gallery you visited?
The Morgan Library and Museum, for the John Singer Sargent charcoal portrait show; an extraordinary exhibit of the man’s remarkable draughtsmanship and ability to capture the spirit of his model. Best known for his masterfully painted portraits, Sargent (1856–1925) largely ceased painting in 1907, and turned instead to charcoal renderings to satisfy his many commissions. I was particularly struck by how some of the portraits displayed a great disparity in finish… passages within the sitter’s features showing magnificent delicacy, while other sections felt almost perfunctory, as if Sargent only chose to polish certain aspects of the portrait that interested him.
Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
There are many actually. I mentioned Nicola Hicks in a prior response. Her magnificent allegorical sculptures are only matched by her sensitive and expressive ink drawings of animal forms. The marvelously expressive portraits and majestic tableaus of Ivan Kramskoi leave me thunderstruck ever time I look to them for inspiration. Tremendous rendering technique alongside his genuine appreciation for the humanity of his subjects make for an incredibly compelling visual experience. I’m also quite partial to the work of instructor Jerry Weiss here at the League. His ability to retain the beautiful interplay of loose, impasto brushstroke against solid, academic draughtsmanship is nothing less than remarkable.
What art materials can you not live without?
Paper and conté crayons. The bare essentials of everything that I do starts with drawing, and the relative ratio of solid mark-making to softness of blending the chalk offers me is sublime. Beyond those basic supplies, a nice well-worn kneaded eraser for clean-up and erasure accents… and for sculpting little critters during breaks from a particularly frustrating drawing session.
Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
I try to paint or draw whenever I’m not engaged in teaching, the daily doldrums of domestic life, or the frequent bouts of imposter syndrome that cripple my productivity. Even if I’m not engaged in a specific project, I try to at least doodle a bit every day to keep the creative muscles somewhat supple. I find that as I age, my work tends to move forward in fits and starts instead of an even pace. I am trying to improve my daily discipline and at least manage a focused sketch every day, if even for only an hour.
What is the longest time you went without creating art?
I once went without drawing or painting for almost a year at one point in my life. I was terribly depressed and awash with self-doubt and disappointment. I poured myself into my day-to-day commercial work and drowned my creative spirit with job overcommitment. It was miserable at first, but tragically (like all intolerable things) it became easier to bear through repetition. Eventually though, through those many months of disillusionment, I discovered that the strongest justification for a life spent doing what you love is the experience of spending your days otherwise. I’ve never looked back since.
What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
There are many ways to kick-start a stalled creative engine: seeing the feverish inspiration of my students, watching a masterfully executed film or play, or even a spontaneous walk late in the evening, the sleeping city laying out its nocturnal charm for your private sojourn. I’ve found that waiting for inspiration to strike is like waiting to be “discovered,” the only way it usually happens is when you force the issue.
What are the questions that drive your work?
Does it speak of the human condition to the viewer or is it too privately esoteric? Is the work too concerned with narrative that it sacrifices its heart for clarity? Does its execution seem more concerned with proficiency than verisimilitude?
What is the most important quality in an artist?
A willingness to learn and grow. An artist who reaches a prodigious level of skill and then comfortably continues to produce work of that kind without continuing to push himself outside his comfort zone has reached the end of his creative development. When we stop growing artistically, we begin our slow descent into degeneration. Either keep pushing that stone uphill… or just let it roll back and crush you underneath.
What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I’m more concerned with actual current achievement than with what possibly lies ahead for me. I’d love to speed up my painting technique in order to have a solo show, but I am afraid that trying to change my process will sacrifice what it is that makes the imagery special in the first place. I suppose the best answer would be that I look forward to reading about myself someday in another artist’s “Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?” answer for this self-same questionnaire!
What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
I suppose the best thing that the advent of social media has contributed to the art world at large is accessibility. Even the most obscure of creators can now find an audience, regardless of how niche their work’s appeal. Social media platforms can allow for unprecedented exposure for an artist and encourage discourse between individuals that might otherwise have been impossible because of distance or access. This tool for the cross-pollination of styles, ideas, and approaches is a great boon for those desiring artistic connection while also providing a window into the creative trends that are evolving across the globe.
Greg Follender teaches “Fundamentals of Figure Drawing” at the Art Students League of New York.