After watching the months of August and September melt away into shorter days, autumn colors, and impending winter weather it does not take much to know it is time to hit the road. Another Portland night, summers usual pleasant humid stickiness has turned to a crisp fall coolness. Still not completely secure in what items to pack and what to leave, I throw my hands up in frustration, not wanting to begin yet also wanting to set sail. Inevitably, I force myself out the door making some calls over the weekend to schedule appointments for the coming Monday September 17th; one in Salem and a couple in Eugene.
Well, being the laggard that I can be, come Monday, I’m still debating what items to leave in and what to leave out until I just bite the bullet and cram in what fits. In my anxious state, caught up in my thoughts and potential adventures that lay ahead, I start out in the wrong direction wasting at least a half hour road time. By the time I make it to the first location, paths have already been crossed and the meeting has to be postponed until the return trip. It’s straight on to Eugene to sit down with painter John Holdway.
“Mainly I do painting, in oils, but sometimes acrylics. Maybe lean a little into sculpture, especially when I’m working on some paintings in still life because I might build my own props. Sometimes I do think of my paintings more like sculpture, objects. I also do printmaking, block print, monotype.”
MOT ~ What do you think it is that draws you toward painting?
JH ~ It’s hard to say, I’ve been painting for a long time, it becomes somewhat habitual. It’s a little weird that way, so I find it hard to think about it, why do I do it. Why can’t I stop doing it might be a better question.
There are a lot of practical things that are nice about painting. If you have paintings, you can hang them on your own wall. In college I did some steel sculpture, but there are problems with that. You need lots of tools, a big pile of junk in your yard, a yard, if you don’t, well… and now I do have a yard, but I’m married and have a wife. She’d probably be pretty unhappy with that.
So I would like to do some steel sculpture again. I like doing all kinds of stuff. With painting, you don’t use your muscles as much. If you spend time building your own canvases or something that might be the extent of it. I like to be a little tired after, more active instead of just all in your head. It’d be nice to have a little of that. I remember that about steel sculpture that there’s a physical-ness not necessarily there in the same way when painting. It entails forging, hammering, cutting, using all kinds of different tools. With painting you have your brushes and your knives. It might be that [brushes] are so natural to me know that I don’t even think of them as tools.
MOT ~ So where did you grow up?
JH ~ I grew up in Maryland outside of DC, College Park, pretty close to the University of Maryland.
MOT ~ Do other members of your family also do creative types of activities?
JH ~ Yea, well my dad’s always been an artist on the side, a print-maker, doing etchings and those kinds of things. He often drew and has done some illustrations, presented some gallery stuff. His main job was mechanical engineering, never fully giving that up to try and be an artist. My grandmother was also very artistic too.
MOT ~ Do you think they, or your over all community may have helped foster some of your creative energies?
JH ~ Definitely, I think a lot comes from my father. He is the kind of person who would have ever kind of tool, think of ideas and try to build it himself. Also, he would take me to art galleries and museums growing up. Living near DC we’d go to the National Gallery and those museums.
MOT ~ What brought you over to the west coast from DC?
JH ~ My wife and I just decided to move out here. No good reason really, we just wanted to live out here. We first moved to Eugene, lived here for a few years, then moved to Portland for a few and back to Eugene. So about 10 years altogether.
MOT ~ What do you think, this west coast community compared to the east?
JH ~ Well, I like it a lot better. I mean I don’t know about the art community part, but I just like the attitude and it feels more natural to me. Maybe I’m more of a relaxed person. There’s so many people and so much traffic, it’s just hectic (referring to the East Coast). I like the outdoors. As far as art goes, there’s not as much as an art happening as say a Paris or New York. That’s the only bad part.
MOT ~ Have you considered if the relaxed laid back atmosphere affects your paintings in any way, your subject matter or anything?
JH ~ It impacts it just because I can feel more relaxed so I have less angst of feelings to want to get out of the city. That was a lot of the feelings I had then. I don’t know how it affects my studio life because I don’t think of myself as a regional type of artist. I just live here and paint here. Just over all life style type thing, I’m happier.
MOT ~ How much time do you think you put in at the studio working on your paintings?
JH ~ Probably about every day, I also teach some art classes, among other things. I work every day, I don’t know how many hours it is, but probably a lot.
MOT ~ Any mentors?
JH ~ I’ve heard about people having mentors, but I never had a mentor. I’ve had teachers that I liked, but I don’t think I’ve connected with anybody like that. It seems like a nice thing to have…
MOT ~ What would you say are your main sources of inspiration, for ideas, to get in and work every day.
JH ~ I don’t even know about inspiration any more. It’s almost like I just have the desire to continue to work on painting. Some times I have visions of ideas of something completely different that I’d like to try, but I don’t know if they come from anywhere. It’s hard for me to think about inspiration, I’m just always trying to do new stuff, and if I’m not making something I start to feel depressed. I feel like I have to always be working. If something’s not going well, if I’m not coming up with the ideas that I like, then I’m just struggling. It may be the opposite of inspiration. What I would think of as inspiration would be something easy. This is hard!
MOT ~ Do you find that a certain part of the day, or through dreams these ideas might arise more often then other times? The things you’d like to try, the new experiments. . .?
JH ~ I constantly have ideas. I write them down generally in sketchbooks. For twenty years I’ve kept sketchbooks, some of my ideas are crap and I don’t want to do much with them. Some are similar to others, I’m always looking for new ideas for some reason, but as far as where they come from. . . I have had some dreams, or seen things I thought would be better if I did it, inspired by that kind of thing. My ideas tend to come from everywhere. What matters is beginning to work on it, the ideas are good and I like to have them if I can, but if it doesn’t work I just continue to plow through. So I make what I can and try to let it be made.
MOT ~ Do you have any particular influences in painting, work habits, or styles you may emulate?
JH ~ I am interested in lots of artists, and looked at different artists work, sure. I’ve done pseudo apprenticeships to artists where I find ones I like and try to emulate their work. I would call that ‘apprenticing myself to a completely new idea’ and just try to work in that style. If I felt stagnated in my own work, I might choose something and work that way.
One idea was the still life when I was starting to work that way. My idea was to sort of imagine myself going back to the first day of painting class and tune into the energy of “how can I kick ass in this class.” How would I do in a painting one class. In that class, a lot of time you paint still life. I’ve explored a lot of still life that I’ve liked, for example Morandi who has a lot of meditative quality to his work that I like, but at the same time I’m more interested in something with more realism then his abstraction. And play back and forth with these methods.
Paul Klee has been interesting to me. I’ve looked at his work for years, . . . there are so many artists that I’m interested in, but I haven’t necessarily tried to work them all or anything, but I’m interested in the ideas. When I get a hold of it, it starts to change anyway.
Being in your workspace ready to start working, you don’t necessarily come up with anything. And I don’t always have the expectations to make something good, but if you’re always working, even if you’re making crap, you work through that. It turns out probably like most peoples jobs is that they have a hard time stopping thinking about work. I have a hard time not painting, even in my head, not thinking about painting.
So even if I work in a drastically different way, I start to see similar patterns in the way I organize space and the geometry of the composition. The different elements of how a picture is put together,
A lot of people have said that realist paintings are more abstract than abstract because you approach them by dissecting what you see. Putting together a paint by numbers thing, or breaking it up into shapes, and thinking about it in an abstract way, adding the right color to the right spot becomes an abstract approach to the application; all this to make a painting that doesn’t look abstract but representational. And so in my work I can see a common thread that others may not. It’s just the decisions I make, regardless of the style.
MOT ~ Do you tend to consciously consider an audience or various audiences while developing your work?
JH ~ It’s hard not to. The paintings never work if I think about an audience, so I have to try not to over think it. I just try to remember to like it myself. What I do think about is how it’s going to look with all of the different pieces together in a show. That’s another element I consider, besides being an individual piece, I want them to come together as an impressive whole for a show. Eventually they’ll be separated, but I do think a lot about how they’ll work together. I think it’s helpful to put a group of work together because each piece can inform you; what’s working and not.
MOT ~ What elements do you consider to decide how pieces fit together into a cohesive whole?
JH ~ It’s just a basic theme. Some things look like they go together and some don’t. I don’t think I can show some abstract paintings with realistic ones. I’ve been trying to think how I could do that and keep them cohesive.
MOT ~ Half and half lined up to juxtapose, maybe.
JH ~ Yea, . . . yea because these have a lot of geometry to them
These have all these blocks in them, kind of abstract symbolic looking (he says while pointing at these cool portraits of wood blocks). I might be able to. Similar types of frames are a way to bring them together as well.
MOT ~ Have you set specific creative goals for yourself, be them from now into the future, or any time in the past?
JH ~ Career wise, I have definitely had to work really hard to find galleries, and galleries to have shows. That’s been a kind of goal, to make it into some commercial galleries. I’m still working on that to have a more steady income. They expect a certain quality level, no shoddy workmanship. One gallery even wanted me to have the wires on the back for hanging done a certain way because they wanted it taped so when they’re hanging it up they don’t get their fingers poked.
MOT ~ Do ever feel drained and think “why am I doing this?” And if so, how do you recharge?
JH ~ You know you have ups and downs, emotional doubts and all that. Especially when you are doing something creative. This can effect how you work, and you can always have times when you feel like what’s the point, maybe I should just get a job and forget this crap. There’s plenty of that. I think just keeping in good spirits, like what any one would do to keep involved in their work. And try to fight depression, get exercise, get sleep, just do normal things that doctors would probably tell you. I ride my bike here sometimes, and used to go to the gym more, but that’s been replaced more with bike riding. I think what’s more useful then anything is just the physical exercise. And like I said, if you just develop a routine and have that set schedule when you’re going to work, and not beat yourself up too much.
It’s nice to have someone to talk to. I’ve been married for 12 years, and luckily can talk to my wife. She vents to me about her job and I vent to her when I’m feeling frustrated about my work. Sometimes, she can tell if I’m getting down and draw it out of me, and even if I feel like it doesn’t make a lot of sense she’ll understand it. It’s good to have someone you can talk to like that.
MOT ~ Are there any books or particular sources that you refer to regularly, or for any specific purpose? Or any tools you keep on hand and focus on.
JH ~ (With a chuckle and drawing it out a bit) I have tons of books. I like to read.
I have a book by Birge Harrison, I’m not really into his work but it’s interesting to hear his writers voice about being a painter. He’s kind of inspiring just to read. He wrote one book called “Landscape Painting.” Another is a book called “Art and Fear” written by a couple art professors, they write about why people have a hard time working and their hang-ups. Recently I’m reading a book about sketchbooks. I’ve been using sketchbooks for a long time, but sometimes I use them more as a place to play and less a place to work out all my problems. I am trying to get back into the fun part and just drawing.Damian Gregory wrote the book “Creative License” and it talks about illustrated journals. He has a blog to you may find interesting. I think it’s a neat, fun, and interesting book because it has lots of images and makes you think twice about making a cool journal. At the same time I try not to put too much emphasis on it because I can end up spending too time. I tend to end up with lots of sketchbooks that are only halfway done.
MOT ~ What do you think about art education and spending time earning a degree?
JH ~ Spending time studying art is definitely part of doing it. It’s difficult to learn everything you want to. I think about it a lot, all the painting classes I took.
On the one hand you get to develop a critical way of thinking about your work going through all these critiques, and I want to a modern not a classical kind of art school. It was definitely more critique driven and less technical information. It can build an objective eye, and put you in the shoes of the galleries and their attendees. In some ways a gallery may be less critical, a lot of times when you’re in art school, and they are talking about your work, in actuality they are really talking about themselves. Like most of the time when you talk to people they talk about themselves in one way or another. You might not always get honest feed back as it could just be something they’re thinking about. But it’s good to hear. Sometimes they’ll point out flaws that you might not see. Like errors in your drawing, proportions, or it may just not come off like you thought. There are rules in making images that until you get to where they are more instinctual, you run the risk of missing the different qualities that make it art.
MOT ~ Can you break down your general process from head to sketchbook to color selection, canvas size, then painting.
JH ~ I can tell you how I do a representational painting, which is pretty straightforward. After I make the surface, either board or canvas, I start on the tones. I look the on it to have a neutral tone, a little value in the range so I can go lighter or darker. When you are doing a realistic painting, white is the lightest it can be, and of course black is the darkest. With light and reality, a white paint isn’t the lightest thing you can see, it’s more a light, an actual reflection of light. Then I’ll draw the whole thing, lined in charcoal, basic shadow mapping. To hold that steady I put down a layer of clear coat so it doesn’t smear while painting. Then I generalize all the colors and do a wash in and paint the whole thing, so it’s essentially done, but really messy. I will then go back and repaint the whole thing adding variations, build up some textures. If I’m doing a realistic painting I’ll build up the white spot to be thicker, I might add a few tiny details, which can have the effect of making it appear that there are a lot of details. And then, it’s done after a coat of some kind of finish like wax or varnish after it has dried for a while. Sometimes paints have different absorbencies, so in one area it can look really wet even though it’s dry. A layer of wax serves to balance that. I work really hard to have an even look while painting, but it also serves to have a little protection.
MOT ~ How do you know when something is complete?
JH ~ I try to pay attention, I do all kinds of tricks with myself to look at it fresh all the time. Either put it away, or maybe have two or three things working so I can always have fresh eyes and that’s how I can tell. If I do over work it, I always destroy it. And then there’s always the last resort of sanding it down and starting over. There’s no fear really, if I do screw up I can always rub it out and do it again, and that’s just part of it.
With each interview, I keep noticing similarities that set these folks apart. Eugene seems to be a very soft spoken kind of place. Laid back and slightly isolated with Portland the closest city. This is the kind of environment that can really make or break you as there might be less competition, there’s also smaller group of a people to support your work in the local vicinity.
Thanks John for sharing! Keep plugging away, and I’ll look forward to seeing some new work when I get back! Stop by and check out more of his work and up coming shows @ ~