"At some level all art is public. I want an audience to see and interact with what I do": An Interview With Tom Stanley
Tom Stanley is currently in residence at the McColl Center for Art & Innovation in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I am also an artist-in-residence this fall. Stanley’s work effortlessly combines the languages of drawing and painting while alluding to architecture, memory, and history, among other things. He recently took time out from a busy studio and exhibition schedule to answer a few questions. Here’s our conversation:
Liz Miller: Your work has a very strong architectural sensibility, seemingly referencing aspects of familiar built environments/structures as well as imagined landscapes or fictitious worlds. Bold colors and confident lines are juxtaposed with areas of monochromatic, painterly sgraffito, where the structure of the work seems to erode into something more atmospheric or ambiguous. How did you become interested in the technique of sgraffito? How do you see sgraffito functioning formally and conceptually in your work?
Tom Stanley: Even with the more structured elements in my work, I think of my process as drawing with paint. Sgraffito is another way of drawing that I use because it is more immediate than the measured drawing in my work. Since the paint is wet as I scratch lines and images, I must scratch or draw quickly and intuitively. Making marks that cannot be erased, that have to be completed without significant deliberation is somehow liberating. It might be truthful. The sgraffito and the quickly painted, layered and manipulated backgrounds are in juxtaposition to the more measured built elements in the work. I suspect I am trying to achieve a balance and for sure a contrast. There are two sides to the way I think when I use my hands.
There are other overriding concerns that inform the architectural approach and imagery in my work. I grew up in Concord, North Carolina, which might have been considered a mill town at that time. There I was raised in a two-story house on Brumley Street, a boarding house that my mother ran. When I was younger, I worked at the machine shop along with my father and my brothers. I took mechanical and architectural drafting in high school, thinking those studies would prepare me for a future as an engineer or an architect, someone who made things conceptually on paper. All those early experiences and environments had a lasting impact on my work as an artist.
Liz Miller: You have spent a great deal of time studying, curating, and championing the work of self-taught artists, as well as curating other exhibitions. How have your curatorial endeavors influenced your own art-making?
Tom Stanley: Yes, there was a time when I spent significant time visiting and interviewing self-taught or Outsider artists. Unfortunately, all the artists I worked with over the years have passed on. However, I learned as much, if not more from their approaches to making as I did from their finished art. Making with tools and skills learned young and out of necessity seemed to be one thing that many self-taught artists had in common. For myself, deciding to work with what I had learned over the years has had a major impact on how I work now.
Liz Miller: In addition to making paintings and drawings, you have completed numerous large-scale public works and site-specific installations, including a prominent project at the Tom Hunter light rail station in Charlotte, and a recent installation at Chapel House Museum Abel Salazar, University of Porto, Portugal. How do you see these projects in relation to the other parts of your practice? Have new things happened in your studio as a result?
Tom Stanley: I began my public art experience collaboratively with colleague and artist Shaun Cassidy. The experience of working collaboratively, compromising and growing ideas with another artist or project team has been a gift I never anticipated as an artist. Even when I am working alone, I like the interaction of visitors to the studio. Their questions and comments often stimulate my next move with the paint. Additionally, there are more givens when working in a public art world that often times must function and meet codes. Using those givens as a positive rather than a negative has taught me a lot about my studio practice as I attempt to set up a system of givens in drawing and painting on canvas. This approach allows me more flexibility with what I control.
My goal in public art is to produce a memorable experience. That too has carried over to my painting. At some level all art is public. I want an audience to see and interact with what I do. Because of my opportunities to collaborative with Mr. Cassidy as well as public art stakeholders, I have developed an attitude that sees even my studio practice with paint and canvas as open to the public if they are interested.
Liz Miller: You seem to work in series, something that feels familiar to me, as I also prefer to create my works on paper in series as opposed to concentrating on individual works. I love the cross pollination between works, and also use it as a way to diffuse my energy and concentration across a larger number of surfaces. Why do you create work in series?
Tom Stanley: That sounds very familiar. The works in process become less precious when I am working on six to ten at the same time. They almost become one work. I am less inhibited as I do not focus on any one canvas. I am just working. Going from one to the next and then all over again, one to the next. I love to work. I find a certain joy in this process. Working in a series reinforces the notion that I am actually thinking and working with my hands because there is a certain production involved. I am not making a work of art, I am just making. The results are much more satisfying.
Liz Miller: What are you working on now, and where can we see your work in the future?
Tom Stanley: For a number of years my work has relied on imagery including boats, ships, houses, towers, or other man-made structures and objects. They often are represented in silhouette and flat, 2-dimensional shapes. These images are typically measured, drawn, and constructed images that I want to look precise I realized recently that I was only looking at this imagery from the outside. I suspect we can say I was just painting facades. Currently I am attempting to look inside for imagery and structure. This is a welcome challenge.
I have two shows upcoming. The first opens November 15 and continues through December 31, 2018 at Hampton III Gallery in Taylors, , S.C. The exhibition is titled Structures and will look at work from the past two years that has included representations of houses, buildings and other architectural-like facades.
The other show titled en route to here opens December 7. 2018 and continues through February 22, 2019 at Hodges Taylor in Charlotte. This exhibition includes works from 1995 to the present and explores a variety of approaches to how I draw with paint.
Liz Miller: When you aren’t making art, where can we find you?
Tom Stanley: When not making art, I would like to be found in a swimming pool, but right now while at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation I will settle for walking in uptown Charlotte. I am especially fond of traveling and attending cultural events with my friend and wife Kathe.
Tom Stanley is a visual artist who grew up in North Carolina and has lived in Rock Hill, South Carolina for the past 28 years. In his formative career after earning a BA in Art, he worked in New Jersey and New York in what might be called the wall accessory industry. After earning an MA in Applied Art History and an MFA in Painting from the University of South Carolina in 1980, he served on the faculties of Arkansas College (now Lyon College) in Batesville, Arkansas and Barry University in Miami, Florida. In 1985 he returned to North Carolina to direct the Waterworks Visual Arts Center in Salisbury. He became the first director of Rock Hill's Winthrop University Galleries in 1990. From 2007 to 2017 he served as chair of Winthrop’s Department of Fine Arts.
He has abiding curatorial interest in the work of self-taught artists. Exhibitions including Worth Keeping: Found Artists of the Carolinas (1980), New South Old South Somewhere In Between for Winthrop (1995) and the Levine Museum of the New South (2003), and Still Work Keeping for the South Carolina State Museum (2007) featured many of the self-taught artists Stanley had worked with over the years. Currently he is researching and cataloging the work of self-taught South Carolina artist Gene Merritt (1936-2015) who exhibited at the Collection de l’Art Brut in 1998 and has received international attention for his methodical yet intuitive drawing.
Stanley’s own creative work has been exhibited at Hampton III Gallery, Greenville; Hodges Taylor Consultancy, Charlotte; The George Gallery, Charleston; if ART, Columbia; Fine Arts Center, Greenville; Artspace, Raleigh; 701 Center for Contemporary Art, Columbia; Charlotte’s Gallery at Carillon; and SECCA, Winston-Salem. His 2004 Floating series was exhibited at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. He has exhibited at gallery twenty-four, Berlin; La Galerie du Marché, Lausanne; Musée de la Halle Saint Pierre, Paris; and the University of Porto’s Casa-Museu Abel Salazar, Portugal. The 2017 exhibition Tom Stanley: Scratching the Surface at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art during Spoleto in Charleston, S.C., provided an overview of work from 2004 to the present.
Since 2007 he has had the opportunity to work on public art projects including the design elements for the CATS light rail Tom Hunter Station in Charlotte. He is a recipient of Winthrop Universities Medal of Honor in the Arts, and South Carolina’s Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award. This past spring 2018, he completed a six-week residency as visiting artist at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, and worked with Casa-Museu Abel Salazar, University of Porto in Portugal, on an installation for their chapel, Layers: On-Site Installation. He is currently in an 8-month residency at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation where he is also serving as a visiting curator.
Charlotte Observer article about residency at McColl Center for Art + Innovation, click here
Gibbes Museum of Art Visiting Artist series video, click here: video