Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions
by Stephanie Cassidy | August 25, 2020
I was five years old when I decided to be an artist. I also wanted to be a musician and a dinosaur.
My parents were very supportive when I was a kid. Even though we were a poor Bronx family, culture was free or nearly free in New York City in the 1950s and 60s. They brought me to the Met and the Frick on a regular basis and kept me supplied with paint. By the time of junior high and high school, their attitude had changed. They suggested that I train for something practical or have a backup profession. So I told them that I wanted to be a musician.
Wow! I have so many favorite artists ranging from those having painted the walls of the caves at Alta Mira and Lascaux, the walls of temples in ancient Egypt to the Old Masters, the Barbizons, late nineteenth-century Scandinavians, Ashcans, Futurists, German Expressionists, Pop artists, and so on. My absolute favorites: Leonardo for painting images that are beyond this world, Rembrandt whose people have living emotional mobility in his etchings and paintings, Peter Paul Rubens for his oil sketches, Jean-François Millet for painting the life he knew at dusk, Thomas Dewing for his intimate and atmospheric figure paintings, John Sloan and Toulouse-Lautrec for depicting life around them in a manner beyond simply chronicling, Bonnard for his color, Vuillard for his patterns, Otto Dix for his reactions against war (he was a WWI veteran) and the expressive portrayal of his era, Roberto Matta for paintings that live and breathe, George Herriman for his imagination, Raphael Soyer for his love of humanity, Martin Lewis for his luminous drypoints, Edwin Dickinson for his personal compositions, George Tooker for his amazing egg temperas that take our thoughts well beyond what has been painted, and Franz Schubert, Franz Kafka, and Tom Waits for the imagery they conjure. (Note: Edwin Dickinson and George Tooker were both teaching at the League at the same time! Unfortunately, I was still in high school up the river.)
My answer to that would be changing daily, but if I had to travel light, I would bring 1000 Years of Drawing by Anthony Bertram along with Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
I kept a sketchbook for many years, drawing people and places that might someday be the inspiration for an etching or a painting. In recent years I keep some paper in my back pocket where I make simple sketches or write ideas as they come to me.
I’ve always loved the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I grew up there, studied the collections and traveling shows there, and protested there, nearly being arrested. It feels like home.
There are quite a few. They include the George Tooker retrospective at the Whitney; the Anders Zorn exhibition at the National Academy of Design; Otto Dix etchings at the New York Public Library (42nd Street); Nordic painters of the 1880s at the National Gallery in Stockholm; the Henry Koerner retrospective at ACA Galleries, New York; the Jean-François Millet room at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire at the New-York Historical Society, among others.
For me not to be an artist, I would have to become totally blind! (I already have one eye gone.) But if that happened, I would be a musician. I’ve always had a foot in that area. (Well, maybe a bunch of toes.) I wrote songs and played guitar and harmonica in my early years, performing in coffee houses and at anti-war demonstrations. I dropped that to study and create art full-time. Flash forward twenty years, my wife, artist Karen Whitman (a great singer), and I started performing and recording as a duo. It’s been over twenty-five years now with two CDs behind us and another on the way. This is only about 20 percent of our total non-artmaking time. Either way, it keeps us out of trouble because if we didn’t do that, we would probably be more like Bonnie and Clyde.
In art school we learned to hone our artistic skills, but we never learned how to survive as artists in the real world. That was a long time ago, and these days there is more of that in the art schools and especially online. In my own printmaking class every year, beginning in late February, I give a ten-week lecture series on techniques and issues important to artist printmakers, much of it about the world outside of the League’s walls. The world is changing so fast that it is difficult to say what to do, but I speak very much on what not to do and the ways artists can protect themselves. This is largely based on mistakes that I and my fellow artists have made. There are many sharks and scammers out there preying on artists.
These days, when I go to the Met, it’s usually to view a specific work. However, I never leave without visiting The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak by Albert Bierstadt, painted in 1863. Its large scale of approximately 6 by 10 feet is fitting for such a monumental scene, allowing me to become part of its environment. The depth, luminosity, color, and air within the painting have held me captivated, never tiring after many decades of visits.
Well, due to the fact that I couldn’t become a dinosaur, I did the next best thing and maintained an interest in paleontology. I would dig for fossils wherever I traveled. I would identify them and enjoy looking at them. Many times, I made sketch trips to the American Museum of Natural History. Some of that imagery has been incorporated into my prints and paintings. From an aesthetic point of view, I see fossils as natural sculptures. I guess this is no longer a secret, huh?
Yes, all the time. I listen to folk, rock, klezmer, Balkan, blues, jazz, bluegrass, big band, and classical, depending on my mood and what I’m working on.
What is the last gallery you visited?
The ASL gallery on March 11, the last day of operations before the shutdown. Before that. I visited the ACA Gallery exhibition Trackwork: 100 Years of New York City’s Subway, which included many ASL instructors including me. I have spent so much of my life visiting museums and galleries that I made a conscious decision some years back to limit my visits. It was my way of keeping my head clear so that I may make my own work. I also stopped looking at art magazines, reviews, etc. for the same reason. As it is, I get very much nourishment from my students. Then I go into isolation in my studio.
Philip Evergood, 1901–1973. He was an interesting artist who made energetic prints and paintings. I’ve collected some of his etchings and have a number of books about him. Bard College had a wonderful exhibition and symposium about Evergood in 1986. At the panel discussion there, it was determined that the art establishment had difficulty classifying his work and that it was easier to ignore him. Either way, I highly recommend taking a good look at his paintings and prints as they transition between two major periods.
For etching: Charbonnel inks, Charbonnel hard ball ground, and Hahnemühle paper. For painting: flake white oil paint, stand oil, and lead-primed linen canvas.
I wish I could answer, “Yes!” but much time is spent on peripheral endeavors such as preparing completed work for exhibition—matting, glass, framing, packing, meetings, statements, filling out forms, writing articles, and answering questionnaires like this.
I sit in front of the TV and watch reruns of The Twilight Zone. Then I force myself back into the studio.
While I am a figurative artist, or work under the classification of realism, I never create a work for the sake of realism. There must be something more. While a good abstract painting is an event on the canvas, I strive in my figurative work to do the same. Lately I’m working from a model, but the environments are usually invented or distorted from reality and do not exist in real life, though the concept exists in the real world. My goal is to have more meaning in the work than that which meets the eye. My next question is: When will it be done? I have more planned works than I can possibly execute.
Same as above: passion, expressed with individuality and imagination.
Satisfaction with my most recent work.
I enjoy the fact that it’s a two-way street, where it is easy to share what you do and to see what others are doing. An artist can have a dialogue with another artist on the other side of the globe. This could not have happened back in the pre-internet days because they never would have known of each other’s existence. Websites, articles, videos, and common interests can be shared. Social media is also a great way for artists to share their latest work or promote an exhibition. Many artists have not been able to find gallery representation or representation that they are happy with. Social media is the answer for those independent artists. It’s a way to create online exhibitions that attract potential collectors in their direction.