interview with exhibiting artist tony speirs
by grace levine
So here we go.
I realize recently that although I see you and Lisa fairly often, I do not know much about you. I mean, in the sense, we always talk, but I don’t know where your roots are, or your process. So I’m happy to learn a bit more and pass it on.
So, who are you? (kidding, but not kidding.) Perhaps give me some background
Ok… so, I’m from Washington state, and have strong roots in both small town life (and mythology) and nature, remembering a childhood of fishing, and studying and collecting small animals (snakes mostly) and insects and especially butterflies. I have always been a bit of a day-dreamer…especially in deep nature, and even, as a teenager when i moved with my family to the suburban East Bay Area (Pleasanton, where I first met Lisa…another story), I would still often after school find myself in the fields beyond our housing tract exploring bugs and making up stories (in pictures) of and from that nature.
Can you tell me a moment or time where you realized painting and drawing was something you had to do
Art and drawing…I don’t really think I was naturally “gifted” or anything like that…I just did it a bit more than most and was never discouraged from it, so kept at it and slowly got good at it. Then, because I wasn’t a gifted athlete, and I couldn’t play an instrument, I figured I might be able to impress girls with my drawing (and I did, on a few occasions..smiley face).
I also lucked out and had great early teachers, and also, as i said…not only no discouragement (from parents), but active encouragement.
Were you trained professionally?
After High School and the suspended animation that for me was Junior College, I finally went to art school (the Academy of Art College in S.F.) but I wasn’t a great student, and after 2 and a half years flailing about, I finally dropped out and got a job at a large art supply store in Berkeley (I had since moved to Oakland). This, in some real ways, was really where I started to take myself seriously as an artist. And in 1986 (hey, no offense, but I’m pretty sure you weren’t even born then! Yikes…) I rented a real warehouse studio with a friend, and began to see what making art for myself, and not some school assignment, meant. I even remember this one night, working late and not really wanting to go back home to my shared house (my studio was zoned as purely a work-space, and non live-in --though in a year or so I would move in to my studio full-time, which was interesting. No kitchen (I had a hot plate) and no bathroom or shower (there was a shared bathroom down the stairs, where i would strip and wash myself from the sink. Hey, I was young…)…where was i?—Oh, this one night…working late, and there was a couch in the studio, and i decided to finally spend the night there, but it was pretty cold in the winter and i didn’t have any blankets or warmth (no heat either), so i had this roll of canvas laying around and I wrapped myself in a bunch of it—burrito style, and i really didn’t get much sleep that night, but I remember vividly thinking…”well, i’m a real artist now!” Around that time I started dating my pieces with not only the year, but MY year. I was 28 then.
Through our conversations, I’ve gathered our practices as artists are very different. I work quickly and almost impatiently, but it appears you have a great deal of thought and intent with your work, is this accurate? & do you keep a sketchbook? if so, how or why is this important
So…my current methods. They vary…sometimes…not often enough!—I DO sometimes work quickly, but yeah, mostly i get a ‘lil idea and start some sketches (so yes, I keep several sketch books…most are of the “workbook” variety, meaning the sketches are really in service for an eventual painting, but I’m always trying to also keep a sketchbook where I just “let ‘er rip”…meaning, I try to stretch my imagination, and not necessarily think about an end product) so yes…start some sketches, develop them further, then maybe several months to sometimes several years later, they reach fruition and become paintings. Lately though it does seem like I’ve got a fairly routine way of constructing a painting. After the initial idea, and at least a rudimentary sketch, I decide it’s ideal dimensions and build the painting panel. (I have preferred painting on wood panel for 15 years or so now…i like that i can scrape the paint and not have to be gentle with the surface). I use quarter inch birch plywood, supported in back by one-by-two framing, either pine or poplar usually. After priming the panel, I try my best to guess the broad, general background shapes and colors, and this is often a very fun time in the painting, as i try to just “work” the broad color…scraping it back, adding related colors and scraping that, adding some visual texture to these colors and shapes, dirtying it up maybe, to give it that “lived in” look. When that gets to a point I like, I usually place tracing paper over the entire panel, and go about blowing up and transferring my original sketch. If the sketch is pretty tight, this is a fairly easy job. Usually though, the sketch is just a “feel” of the piece, and small and really loose, so when I start enlarging it, this is where i make corrections and often changes. If through this process I’ve made a barely legible mess of my tracing paper over-lay, I’ll put another piece of tracing paper over this and re-trace the drawing elements, simplifying the line work. When this is done and I have a nice, clean line drawing of my design, I use graphite transfer paper and transfer the drawing to the panel. Then I usually outline my drawing in paint, and start figuring out my colors (often thru trial and error!). Then it’s just a matter of building everything up, going from loose to tighter, until I’m happy (or happy enough!).
where do you collect your content from? what is important to you & what would you like people / the community to know about your work
Okay, concerning imagery/inspiration: the story of my more “pop” paintings (consisting of some or mostly appropriated imagery, usually of a retro vein), here’s the story—
I was painting and drawing pictures almost entirely out of my head…a sort of folk art illustration, and I wanted to shake things up a bit. Also wanted to really begin to learn how acrylic paints work, and was simultaneously looking to expand my palette, so I looked to old fruit crate art. I had always loved the colors, and they were usually rooted in a very bucolic setting, so i did some fairly straight copies, which pleased me, so gradually I began to change things up a bit, so instead of a banner floating in the sky that said maybe “Eat Sunkist Oranges”, I would write something sort of cryptic, like “Please Sing That Song Again”. And then, again, gradually, I started collecting other pop-culture imagery that shared the color palette of the fruit crate labels, at first thru books (Chinese Firecracker art, Indian matchbook covers, old propaganda posters, children’s book covers from the 40s and 50s, circus posters, comics and cartoons, etc.) and now more than likely thru the internet. Lisa uses Pinterest, and I’m starting to as well now.
What really originally drew me to retro-pop imagery was it’s just so fun, and it really attracts me, and my exploration of this occurred at about the same time we were going to war with Iraq, and I was consciously looking for a way to address the war but in a satirical, half-cryptic way, with humor in other words, as well as that attractive palette, and the retro-pop approach worked well for me.
After the disastrous Bush years, I decided I just wanted to have a bit of fun, so other, more purely playful ideas (with Robots! Super-heros!, cartoonish animals!) started making appearances in the work, though even here I sometimes use this imagery to slightly mask more serious concerns and ideas.
At present, seems like my major themes are relationships; man to fellow man, mankind and nature and the natural world, ideas of mystery, faith, love, mortality. You know…human stuff!
When I’m at my best, I want to be someone who lives and explores life, and it’s many possible meanings, thru my art. Like, that’s my “job”…that’s why I’m here…to look around, make observations, “feel” things deeply, and then see if I can channel those thoughts and emotions (!) into beautiful, playful, and hopefully intriguing pictures.
I feel as though you are an established working artist around here. I mean this in the way that many many people in the community know of your or your work. I think this is great and often challenging to achieve. what are your thoughts on this? was this organic or how does your work reach a wide audience?
Regarding being known in my community…yeah, that’s always been pretty important to me. At first it was sort-of part of a lame attempt at world domination…y’know, like, I’ll conquer my ‘lil town first, then the big city, then the world! And there’s still a bit of that dream…to be bigger, to aim higher, but I also really like the idea of making my art accessible to my community, like showing in cool cafe’s, or restaurants, or making really affordable poster prints…like not always treating art, my art, as a rarified thing (even though I sometimes make art that is now getting up there in price and size, and therefor i know that will make it less physically accessible to many…but that’s why there’s prints and posters!). I also, especially as I start the slow slide into old(er) age, like to say thru my art, that I am here, this is where I sought out to live, and i want to be identified by this place (West Sonoma county, and Graton/Sebastopol in particular), it informs me and my art, and I’m really happy to be here, and I’m happy to be surrounded by all the other artists i admire here, and I want to work hard to be among these great women and men, and students too!, and this is why I usually put a “G” in my paintings, after my signature, G for Graton! (I also love to make art on the go, like when I travel…and occasionally instead of or in addition to the G, there’ll be another city/state/country added).
Recently you decided to be a full time painter, was this a difficult decision, was there fear involved? I have this quiet voice that often tells me the role of full-time working artist is unachievable, although I know it is possible. do you have any thoughts to pass on to artists trying to achieve this?
On being a full-time artist. well, even when I’ve had “day-jobs” (most of my life!), I’ve considered myself, more or less, a full-time artist. Even if that didn’t actually add up to 35-40 hours of painting or drawing in the studio, it’s like really the only thing that I’m occasionally really decent at (believe me, I’ve tried lots of other gigs: from teaching, to retail, to craft manufacturing, picture framer (most recently), as well as stints as work in an issuance company, silk screener for a t-shirt and trophy company, art gallery assistant (hard work!), to even being a deckhand on a commercial salmon and crab boat in the summers in Oregon), but to be fair…I always knew that I I wanted to make making art my primary (if not sole) means of a living. But hey, I’m also lucky as all get-out that I have a partner who has a more steady gig (teacher at SRJC) so when things are lean, it still all works out.
And man, if there were kids involved, I think everything would obviously be different, and who knows? -Things (art-wise) are good now and getting better, but maybe I decide I need to alter my work and maybe that doesn’t meet with the same (modest) success that the current work does, and there’ll be another part-time gig in my future. We’ll see. So sure, fear is involved, but fear is real and just always there, and overcoming fear is just a constant. I try to look at fear as this resistance, this thing to push against, and that by doing that, hopefully, you get stronger, more, I don’t know, “brave” I guess. Like pushing against a heavy weight makes your muscles stronger, and if you stop, completely, those muscles will shrink and get soft (I’m finding this out all the time!)
So I never seem to get to “fearless”, but when I actively know it’s a real thing and I just need to, as I say, push against it, I usually never get to full-on “fearful either. Plus, “hey, mortgage is due next week!” is always a great motivator!
How does narrative impact your work, and perhaps where does “it” stem from?
Yeah, not exactly sure…I’ve just always liked “picture” books, with paintings that tell stories. Even my parents art books, and small collection of art prints..it was always the Chagall prints over the Picasso prints for me, because i could see the story more (to be fair, the Picasso prints were cubistic. I would later love the earlier blue and rose period stuff!). Then I discovered their older children’s books, from their childhood, and I totally fell in love with N.C. Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish…so different from the more minimal kids’ books from my actual 1960s era childhood. From there to comic books (in my teenage years I actually thought maybe I’d become a comic book artist) and fantasy art (ah yes…the late teenage years!) and then confusion, as by the time I went to art school, it seemed like you were either a “fine” artist, or in the illustration dept. (like me) or a graphic artist (this was before digital of course). Now at the time (and still, to some extent ) fine art and the other so-called “lower” art forms (illustration, graphics, comics, tattoos, etc) were discouraged from mixing, but that is changing and when I discovered artists like the Clayton Brothers, and Mark Ryden, which was around the time I was changing over to acrylics and doing my fruit-crate label riffs, a pretty big light went on in my head.
One more note on narrative art, and it relates to music and emotion. The music that I always loved best, was music that conveyed emotion coupled with the perfect lyrics that backed that emotion up. (So you might think I’d love country music, but that’s the one music genre that is hardest for me to love!) Anyway, that’s what i often strive for with a piece…how to tell the “story” of an emotion.
tell me about this show, Unreliable Narrator. what influenced you and how did you land on the pieces you will be exhibiting?
Like a lot of my work, the initial inspiration for this show began with Music. As I said, always a constant source of inspiration. So I knew at the outset that I wanted to try again to craft works that related clearly to one another…like a good musical album of songs (as opposed to how I’ve been making pictures lately, which is a bit more scattered—a few pieces in one direction, something else entirely, a collaborative set here and there…to keep up the music/album analogy, it’s felt like recently I’ve just tried for a few “singles” and then a bunch of unrelated other stuff)…so this show started when i bought a new cd I liked (Grimes' “Art Angels”…I think I mentioned this once) and I thought “this album has a nice flow, I could use this!" So before I even really got a bead on what the songs were about, I just let the music (and it’s emotions!) wash over me, and really quickly sketched out some thumbnails that had the “feel” of the song. And definitely some of the narrative imagery too, though only loosely, and then from these barely legible mini-sketches (which all were originally titled with the corresponding song title from the Grimes album) I tried to coax out a fuller narrative picture. This is what I worked on in Todos Santos, Mexico, when Lisa and I were there early this January.
By the time some of these early ideas became full, easy to read drawings, often the original “spark” that was inspired by an actual song and song title gave way to something else entirely, and new titles (and phrases, as i’m still fond of writing out and incorporating, often in a floating banner, the actual title of the piece ON the piece) appeared, so at this point…hmmm, let me think…jeeze, only one of the dozen (I hope!) new pieces still has anything really to do with it’s original idea/title (it’s called “California”, and maybe because of my not letting go, it’s been vexing me the most!). Maybe three others are still at least related to their initial inspirational “spark”. (Actually the drawing you had for the $200 show was the first piece to come out of this process, based on the Grimes song “Maim Vs Kill”…which may one day also become a painting!)
Now, the other deal here is while in Mexico, working up thumbnail ideas to actual drawings, the experience of the place, Mexico and Todos Santos, also crept in to play a part in my inspiration, and then even further, David Bowie’s death occurred while we were there, and while I still haven’t really made a proper “tribute” painting to a real musical and artistic hero of mine, two of his song titles became the titles of two paintings (“A New Career In A New Town”, and fittingly, “All Saints”, which I wrote out in Spanish, because…”Todos Santos”!)
(As a further note to this…unfortunately this all makes for a better story than actuality, as I realized that the panels I built to paint my Mexico drawings turned out to be too small in scale for the way i wanted to paint them (with the exception of the afore mentioned “California”), so I either dramatically changed the original idea to fit the panel, or in a few cases found some older barely begun older paintings that I thought could fit in with the rest of what I had started. So hopefully during the summer, and concurrently with totally unrelated works—several commissions, and a collaboration piece, etc—I can continue to develop some of the better ideas that I still have left over from the Mexico drawings).
P.S. a few pics to illustrate how an idea starts, and where it ends up. (Sneak peek!)
The sketch was made while Lisa and I were out at a little cafe’ for dinner in Todos Santos, Mexico. I was working on another sketch/drawing idea, and this band that we liked and kept seeing in town came in for dinner, and the lead singer’s girlfriend was sitting across from me, and i started sketching her. Also, earlier that day, around sunset, Lisa and I were walking next to these hanging flowers, and a large hummingbird-sphinx moth started sipping nectar from the flowers, so i added several of these moths here and was thinking of maybe making a painting from it called “The Secret History of Mexico” (still like that title!). Anyway…I wasn’t really up for doing a more realistic portrait for this right now, so it became this painting,“The Mystery of Desire”, that is still not quite finished, but you get the idea. More later!