3 September 2010

Interview with Gail Vollrath

by Joe Wappel, Professor of Literature, University of Maryland

JW:      You were the first woman to graduate from a technical school where you trained as a technical illustrator in the early seventies. How does that kind of intensive program in drawing affect your art today?    Or does it?

GV:      That particular program and experience affected me in many ways.  I wanted to go to art school but my parents were concerned about my future livelihood. I decided to do what I thought was the next best thing and trained to become a mechanical draftsperson.   All of my classmates were male and it was really tough.  One of my instructors came up to me in class one day and said, “Roselli (my name then), you know the only reason you are here is to find a husband.”  None of my classmates would talk to me after that.  At that time it was the beginning of the women’s movement and although I never really became involved in the politics, I was privy to a particular base sexism in a very direct way.

As far as a drawing intensive, the program was math, mechanical drawing and notions of mass and affect.  We drew four hours a day and had one hour of math each day.  I failed miserably at the math portion, but when it came to three-dimensional drawing, I kicked butt.  Later, I was hired by Oster Corporation to draw exploded views of appliances and accompanying electrical schematics at a time when drawing of that type was done with Rapidograph pens and various templates.

It wasn’t until 1991 that I enrolled in an undergraduate fine art program.  My post-secondary education finished in 2000 with an MFA from UNC Greensboro.  After that I came to DC.

JW:      Who are some of your major influences and in what way did they influence you?

GV:      I look at everything, but I probably linger a bit longer at work that is abstract, minimal, conceptual, or combinations of all or other things.   I hate name dropping but I’ll use very recognizable names for this interview - Truitt, Kiefer, the contemporary Brits, South African artists Dumas and Kentridge, there are so many, and all for different reasons.   I’ve always looked at photographers work, at times even more than painters.  I think that I am still trying to understand photography and how to look at it when my natural inclination is to expand everything I see.  Even in my work I use photos, but they aren’t left alone.  I’ve got to do something to them.

Looking at work that is complex, as well as work that is direct and cuts straight to the point, is equally important to me.  I like to see a brain and process, how an artist thinks through what they put down on the surface, life, politics, anything.  Even something that can first appear to be totally non objective can be packed. Drawing skills are something that I like to see too.  I’m traditional in that I believe drawing is a must prerequisite. 

Working as an artist today, it is exciting for me to see what is happening out there and I think it an obligation to know what is going on.  The things that I tend to bring into the studio are tangible, stuff that I have come across randomly.  Objects I find laying on the sidewalk, a conversation, article in the news, a snapshot on my cell phone are typical of what I collect.  I don’t know if or when any of these things enter my process and that is fine.

JW:      In your “Fire Hydrant” sequence, you are clearly narrating. I notice narration in {other paintings too, I think},. Do you like telling stories in your paintings?   

GV:      To me any work of art tells some kind of story in spite of itself.  Direct narration is not something I feel the need to strive for at any time or at all really.  The hydrants were a fun departure for me.  As I mention in my statement about them, they are based on my experience with internet dating and are my way of observing a cultural phenomena.  One that I have found myself involved in.  I don’t need a particular subject to create something.  Narration is just one way of working.

JW:      Do the stories emerge out of the colors and lines or do you plan the narrative?

That is a good question.  The hydrants are more a representation of my impression of the person, than an infliction of perception.  They are more about me and how I see them, than commentary on who they are as they or other people see them.  Looking back on those, it is interesting to realize how much I censored myself.  Not that the images are always “nice”, but they can be a bit vaguer than my impression at the time I worked on them.

JW:      In the 2010 Untitled paintings (grid), (wire), (light cage), (gate), and “Screw,” you do something that I think is characteristic of a lot of your painting---pardon me, if I don’t have the proper academic terms for this. You have what appears to me wallpaper like background with some “color” experimentation. And then you appear to impose a “thin line” on top of it. It strikes me as an after-thought. In the examples I gave, the lines are representational. Can you give me any sense of how you are thinking about that purely in terms of the visual aspects---color, line etc.?

GV:      I think that I like to build a history on the surface before I start to go in any direction.  That is why it may look like I am mushing about before any specific line or area is added. At that point I think it is more about process and development, intuition plays a big part.    It may be a surprise to most that it takes so long for me to complete a work like the ones you mention.  When someone asks me what I feel when I walk into the studio, I usually say ‘terror”.  It may be the struggle between not knowing the outcome and a need to know that it will be ok.

JW:      In “Echo,” “Tart,”  “Synop,” you do it much more subtly, I think. “Echo,” my favorite, contains the “powder blue” thin lines on the left half of the painting. In “Tart,” the black line descends from upper left down through the center of the canvas’ and in “Synop” there are the circular forms in the center of the painting. Yet they do not strike me as representational in any way. Can you say something about what you were thinking about when composing these paintings?

GV:      In Echo I noticed that bone imagery was appearing. Human bones were something I did early on and in a much more representational way.  Pelvis, skulls and spines appear in a lot of my older work. I don’t know exactly what will appear, but I do notice that there is recurring imagery at times.  Line is very important to me.   I use drawing mediums along with paint in almost every piece.  I consider my work more drawing than painting.  Others may disagree.

JW:      Does it bother you when people see your work differently than you do?

GV:      Not in the least.  It almost feeds the ego.  There is intent in my work, and one of my intentions is to keep it open.  One liners, although I appreciate them, are not usually as interesting to me as a mathematicians problem.  Yikes, that sounded pretentious, but you get my drift.

JW:      In “Convert” the lines seem thicker and more organic---perhaps color-contrast based?

GV:      There is a natural contrast there and contrast is something that I sometimes have to remind myself to be aware of in certain pieces.  I’m fine with a 2 D image, flat is ok.  In many of the works for “Relative” I am doing something very deliberate.  I’ve gone back to drawing on Polaroid’s, something that I haven’t done in 10 years.  The 600 film went out of production in 2008 so I bought old – new film on Ebay and combined with some older photos I found that hadn’t been drawn on, produced about 85 drawings for this show. They will be hung in installation alongside canvas and panel works directly incorporating images from those drawings.  Also in the show will be a few paintings with clear representational imagery, which also departs from my work previously. 

JW:      Lots of oil, tar, china marker in the 2010 set. Are these your favorite media these days?

GV:      Oil, tar and china marker seem to be what I have been using the last few years.  I’ve been using tar, first in sculpture and then in painting for about 15 years.  I think it started out as a very flexible, sensuous, fascinating material for me and has almost become a metaphor for me as a person.  The smell reminds me of growing up in a town that was once small and has become a bit of a suburb of a major city. Asphalt everywhere. I love the unpredictability of the material. I never totally know how it will react with oil paint – you become a scientist as you try to figure out what will work and what will not.  The color is one of my palette favorites – it is authentic. It is a complex material.   China marker has many of the same qualities.  It mixes with mediums very well and I get to use a drawing tool.

The only thing that is new to me for “Relative” is working on panel.  Since my work is a lot of drawing and sometimes I can be very hard on the surfaces, I thought it would make sense for me to try something more substantial than stretched canvas.  Not sure how I feel about working on panel yet.

JW:      What is the DC arts community like?  How about its audience?

GV:      DC has a very rich and diverse art community.  I’ve been here for 9 years and it has been interesting to see the changes.  Some galleries have gone out, some have come in, and some have changed neighborhoods.  It was good to work as a gallery director for part of that time because I was able to connect with galleries, artists, and collectors in a different way.  I prefer my day job to be working for art and artists.  The past couple of years I have been working a 40 hour a week job in a non-art organization and my art production has really suffered. 

The DC audience changes too.  I’m not sure how well we are growing our collectors and educating the public about art, although the DC Arts and Humanities Commission and the many other arts advocacy organizations are doing more than before.  I think difficulties connecting with the general public are universal.  You have to connect the dots for people so they can come to realize how integral art is to humanity.

JW:      So what’s next?

GV:      Always keep on working.   Something that every artist is fully aware of is the constant activity of presenting yourself and your work. 

With this exhibition I am announcing that I will be doing commission work for the first time.  It has been something that I have always refused to even think about because I didn’t want it to interfere with my studio practice, but I think it would help me expand in many ways.   I’d also like to do a residency or two and even though I advise other artists on grants, I have never applied for one for my own projects. 

JW:     What are the advantages and disadvantages of commission work?

GV:      Well the advantages of course are added income and exposure.  I suppose it is the same for writers who use their skills to do freelance gigs writing about things they normally wouldn’t write about.  The disadvantage would probably be keeping the client happy without losing your mind!