A while ago I got a gig modeling in a tiny Portland studio. We listened to distant thumps from the yoga studio on the other side of the building until the experimental trumpet troupe on the floor above started practicing. I remember gazing at stacks of canvases and stretcher bars, salvaged wood panels and shelves of paints and being propelled into an overwhelming sense of contentment. I'd finally achieved the artist's model cliche, without the emotional abuse.
The studio belonged to Timothy Powers Wilson, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate living in Portland, enjoying some well-deserved artistic success. Wilson teaches at local artspaces and schools, maintaining an active studio practice that frequently takes him to New York and beyond. I managed to pin him down for an interview, and we began with his artistic background.
TW My dad is a woodworker and my mom’s a piano teacher; from a really early age I was learning music, and that made me really aware of my hands and different tactilities. I would go to [my dad’s] woodshed a lot when I was really young and watch him work. We lived on a rural farm in Maine - outhouse, chicken coop, stone wall fence. The aesthetic of growing up, I got a reverence for this derelict, rural, strength in things. Very Andrew Wyeth-y I guess.
I wasn’t going to pursue visual art, but I got accepted to RISD and decided to go there. I get very compelled and obsessed about what i’m doing, and realized I couldn’t continue to do music while I was doing the visual arts. I couldn’t focus on both as much as I wanted to. I negated the musical aspect and really plunged into visual arts.
I went to school for illustration, learned a lot of technical skills. I was going to pursue concept design [but] my senior year I had a total breakdown of what I wanted to do and backed out from all that. I would get so caught up in these little tiny moments in paintings, thinking about myself and the act of painting and the experience rather than what the product would be and how to dictate what was on the page to make it easiest for the viewer. There was no poeticism in [that] work. I moved to New York briefly and it was too overwhelming to think what to do while affording a lifestyle. I moved back to Maine; I could afford to live here and I made a lot of work I wasn’t happy about but at a least I was able to make [it].
I was trying to work from my head and I couldn’t afford models or anything. I didn’t want to use photography and I was trying to make these paintings based off experiences that never actually had. So I randomly went out, brought a little makeshift easel and started painting [outside]. It totally transformed what i was doing. I realized I needed to start having more experiences and documenting that to bring back to the studio to vocalize and develop. I think people saw that I was enjoying my experience and since then it’s been really amazing just to continue to make work [and] afford that lifestyle as an artist. That’s what I’ve been doing; expanding on my experiences and bringing them into larger paintings in the studio.
NB Do you have an MFA?
NB Would you?
TW Honestly, every winter I debate. I’ve applied to some programs and I’ve gotten in, but it was really just because the MFA would afford me two years of working time. Higher education you put yourself in a community that you wouldn’t otherwise have, certainly it’s great inspiration. I am fortunate enough [to] have things perhaps some artists don’t. I have a solo show this summer, galleries that are interested, an outlet and a studio space. If I was going to do grad school I would have to pause that.
It’s different things for different folks; I know RISD isn’t for everyone. It’s a great school but it could kill you. It’s like a bootcamp, it created a need for me to feel like I’m constantly doing something and being productive and efficient. That’s not the artistic pace for some people. Some need to relax and let things slowly happen, maybe they require grad school to get a body of work done. Right now I don’t quite need that but I think it’s certainly a great, valid thing.
NB You use what you do in the field as something to work from in the studio, correct?
TW Yeah, they’re just preliminary studies. It’s kind of cheesy but there’s this graphic novel called the Watchmen and the whole slogan is “who watches the watchmen?” The plain air painting [is] not just landscapes but it’s also figures and sketching people while I’m at coffee shops. It made me so aware of everything. Who paints the painters? The painter himself has to.
We need to engage in an experience, in an environment but still be withdrawn enough to be aware of how we’re experiencing it and what’s going on, while still having an emotional interaction but also documenting it. It’s made me so fully aware of everything that I’m doing because it’s all about the painting now.
NB Since you’ve become a full-time artist.
TW It’s an monastic thing - I’ve dedicated myself to this art form and everything that I do revolves around painting because I want it to. I’m very obsessed with it.
NB What do you think about the longevity of that?
TW It does take a toll; whether it’s a financial longevity or a mental longevity. Financially I’m excited about things happening, but right now I’m pretty exhausted mentally. I’m so lucky that my work is all sold, but then galleries approach me and want a solo show in a month and a half. It’s frustrating because I know I can do a certain kind of work and I don’t want to be a machine. I want to be happy about everything that I do. Already with each success from a show it requires even more dedication because I want to push myself further and there’s more publicity.
It’s a lifestyle I wouldn’t wish upon people who don’t want it. I don’t have relationships and that’s just what it’s had to be because I revolve around doing residencies, I never know when the light’s going to be right that I want to go outside and paint. I just need to be able to do these things. It’s exciting but excruciating at the same time.
NB You work a lot in between realism and abstraction. I don’t know if this is just the company that I keep, but I find this almost vitriolic relationship between the two fields.
TW What I realized, and why I’m frustrated by the lack of time to pursue these paintings, is I don’t like a lot of abstract art.There are people that use that term to skirt their way around. They’re not making abstract art, they’re just making marks. Maybe what they’re making is interesting if they have interesting colors and shapes but it’s not abstraction. You need to have something to abstract.
Even in landscapes if I stubble things out and rework things, I like slowly making that abstraction occur and still showing the essence of this thing I’m experiencing. It’s based off a tangible object, experience or emotion that’s grown out of looking. For some reason painting is just so poignant, even with the figure I find it difficult. I can do gestural sketches in charcoal but for some reason paint pigment there needs to be more. I can’t do evocative figures in strange poses that are too indicative of things, it just seems too forced. I’ve realized that for me it’s more exciting just to deconstruct the figure in paint, and layer. The deconstruction of this beautiful thing into abstraction is what I’m interested in. I’m rendering and then unrendering.
NB Pollock wasn’t working from an object but, in theory, he’s working from his own, inner…
TW …he was about the experience of paint, the expressive motion of the artist making the work and being documented by seeing that movement. He was abstracting his literal energy. I’m more about that documentation because I feel like everything I do is already going to have my emotional empathy. Because painting is a communicative thing, it’s helpful to have an experience that others might be able to themselves have. People can cognify what something might be and be a bit more interested in furthering that discussion, whereas if you’re doing a Jackson Pollock thing…his painting is really selfish, it’s just all about him doing it. I prefer to be able to relate something to the viewer, not in terms of sales or anything but because I want people to have this experience. That’s my way of interacting.
NB What are your ideas on collaboration between artists?
TW My favorite kind of collaboration is collaboration in the way that individual works coexist, less working on the same thing. I’m always excited for it but I want to do my thing and it’s frustrating to loosen the reins. I curated this show last year in New York and it was great to have works of people I really admire who are just doing their thing, and hang them next to my own.
NB Hinging back to longevity; do you see this being something that you work with for a long period of time, or do you see yourself moving into other projects
TW In terms of an artistic lifestyle, I can’t see myself doing anything other than visual [art].
NB You don’t think about going back to music?
TW I do still play music. What I do is I play guitar [in a] random tuning, not even a tuning i’ll just make the strings anything. I’ll sit down and I’ll play something and make a song or a melody and the next time i pick up the guitar I’ll just do another random thing. I won’t worry about the stress of being able to perfect that song.
Painting is actually very difficult for me; I find drawing so much easier and music has been so much easier and instantly gratifying. I’m kind of obsessed with conquering the beast. It gives me something; I can constantly be learning about everything with painting.
In terms of longevity I really just want to push it as far as I can and I am ready to dedicate and sacrifice whatever I can to make it work. All the things that I’ve done like, when I’ve had to randomly crash at my studio, I just do it because I know it’s what I have to do in order to make the paintings. There’s never any glimmer of doubt or anything.
Wilson has a solo show at Sloane Merrill Gallery in Boston, opening on Friday (February 19).
I've seen a lot of art in person and a lot of photos of art on the internet. They're not the same.