A conversation with Howie Lee Weiss
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
A conversation with Howie Lee Weiss
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: In the “Style, Process, Perfection” part of your website, you describe beginning a charcoal drawing: "My fingertips coat the paper gray first, and then I draw loosely and freely, searching out my characters. Once found, decisive black lines are added as accurately as possible so that there is no mistaking what kind of image was intended.” Few contemporary artists work exclusively with charcoal. Besides its workability, why do you gravitate to it? Do the traces of previous attempts help you find your subject? Or are you always starting over with a blank slate after erasing?
Howie Lee Weiss: The image grows and develops. I may like a tiny bit and build around that, or I may continue to wipe away the sketch marks until the images that are necessary gradually appear. It's really a battle, a searching. I always enter the drawing thinking I can find it quickly, but usually, it takes a while to simmer and find itself. Once, I had a drawing on the wall for two years trying every possible configuration of images until I was happy with it. I wouldn't say it's “starting over with a blank slate,” because every touch, even if wiped out, is still part of the process. In my earlier works I would let all the struggle and erasing show––I liked seeing all the lines and attempts––I used to start on pure white paper and then the process was more revealed. Some of Matisse's drawings exhibit this: one can see the first attempts before the correct line was chosen, his trial and errors en route to the finished work.
HLW: In time, I started to like to cover my tracks, though you can still see some of the process. Also, I started liking the slightly gray surface more than the pure white, though if you look at the works in person, I always leave a strip of pure white (the original untouched paper on top and on the bottom where I sign my name).
Vine charcoal is softer than blacker, denser compressed charcoal. So yes, I do like that it is moveable and easy to erase. It has a nice warm feel. In person one can see the strokes. Sometimes in digital images the work looks colder, more machined, but in person they are clearly handmade, and one feels the gritty, worked quality. Though I may use it, I don’t think of myself as a "charcoal artist." I’m a painter using this medium.
EJ: In the same section, you mention: "The larger drawings are open-ended narratives speaking about humankind, while the smaller works focus on pure states of form.” The Origin series stands out as thick with struggle and storytelling. Is this recent work? What inspired the dramatic piece Beast?
HLW: On the website the Origin category are the early works...
HLW: ...They are filled with everything youthful: angst, struggle, confusion. As time passed, I abandoned their complexity and focused on refining smaller aspects, since they weren’t uplifting enough. The recent piece, Quest, deals with narrative in a more organized, controlled, and positive manner.
EJ: Your website states that the process becomes “most exciting” when "malleable" drawing gives way to "precise" drawing, and that it's "an exciting balancing act of control until perfection is achieved.” Is it possible that your work could have more than one perfect outcome?
HLW: The works probably could stop anywhere along the way: there's an audience for the loose sketchy phase of the work, the gestural expressive stage. Some people even like the first few marks I place on a page. So, the technical answer is yes. But would I be happy leaving them in that state is the real question, since I prefer to push them to a certain type of finish, a type of perfection, and exactness. Perfection is a variable term. What one person thinks is perfection, another person considers imperfect. It’s important to state that my works are handmade and heartfelt and seeing them in person one feels their human presence. A computer could fabricate a crisper, cleaner, perfect image, but I am interested in keeping the hand present.
EJ: Your drawings reference pattern, ornament, and design in a lovely, idiosyncratic way. Do you see a connection to Mughal Indian painting or outsider/insider artists such as Keith Haring, Martín Ramírez, and Adolf Wölfli? Who influences you?
HLW: Ramirez and Wölfli are amazing artists, and I see the connection, though I haven't been directly influenced by them. Haring is amazing too, though in person, side by side our works are very different: he’s a very public artist, pretty much of the street; I don't have that interest. Indian Art, Persian Art––it's all amazing.
HLW: Really, I like all art. Some people reference my work to Egyptian art, some to early Greek or Medieval. People say there’s a timelessness in the work, which I do like hearing. Over the years I’ve grown in and out of artists, but some constants are: Picasso, Matisse, Leger, Lichtenstein. I like all the greats. Also, I’m interested in design, be it graphic to interior, my works always have a strong design sense about them. I like looking at illustrators too, though it may not show in my work.
My most important influence is my wife, a classical pianist of the first order. Her sense of discipline, study, and perfection of musical masterworks is always something gigantic to think about. Recently I heard her slow down a particular passage and play it over and over with subtly nuanced variations, eventually closing in on just a few notes within the passage and then playing those few notes even slower and slower, repeating them with the slightest variation of touch until she understood just the interpretation, inflections she needed. That type of perfection, study, and listening gets into one. Witnessing musical practice sessions is part of my life, and it factors heavily into my being and thinking
EJ: Do you use fixative before you frame your work? Is there a special kind of paper that you prefer to draw on? Why do you seldom use color?
HLW: Before the works are framed, I do give them a light coat of fixative.
I use Lenox 100 paper. I like thinking of the paper’s history and its life before it reaches me. I like imagining the factory where the paper is made, the people working in the factory making the paper, the person driving the truck that delivers the paper to the art store. Somehow the paper finds me and we start our connection. One must respect the paper and connect with it. As for color, well, there aren't tubes of colors or spectral colors. There’s a language within the world of gray and the riches it has to offer. I never think of them as colorless. To me they are rich. Sometimes In digital images and websites the works may look purely black and white, but in person one feels the specificity and language of gray.
EJ: In your bio your work is described as "iconic.” Many images are bilaterally balanced, and your subject involves humanity, nature, learning and growth. Titles and portfolio descriptions use one-word statements such as: Wonder, Quest, Search, Flourish, Harvest. Do the titles precede the pieces? Do you title the individual pieces after you finish them? When and how did you first start working with the Tree of Life symbol?
HLW: Titles never come first. If they did, making the picture would be like an assignment. The title grows as the work develops, appearing when necessary. The categories on the website are general categories that interest me. I prefer short or one-word titles.
People do suggest the Tree of Life symbol and I see the connection. Many of my Centerpiece Series images spring out of little vases or small vessel shapes and then burst into mega plant-like forms celebrating growth and life. Some are more like still life and utilize tabletops and the space behind. Some are rooted on the ground or suggest a ground.
EJ: Other symbols recur. A flat grid form that changes density and size. Roses. Leaves. Cups. Insects. Birds. Cacti. Stars. Does the grid form relate to order? Do your subject forms change meaning over time?
HLW: A grid is pretty much a grid, a bird is a bird, a star is a star. They aren’t symbolic or intended to be other than what they are. One can never really control what a viewer has in their mind...
HLW: ...I remember once a viewer told me he was an avid chess player and asked me why I was putting chess boards into my drawings. Of course, they aren't chess boards, but that’s what he saw (at least that day). I want the works to feel solid, structured, felt, built, founded, and carpenter-like, while also feeling human, lyrical, playful, poetic, and always uplifting.
EJ: Smile stands out, evoking a face and a place simultaneously. Do you aim for mystical presences in your work? Have you ever made a set of cards? Or thought of the work in terms of divination such as with the Tarot or I Ching?
HLW: The central leaves of Smile have an upward, positive flow like a smile. I can see how you could see a face. I haven’t created Tarot decks or practiced the I Ching. I don't think of myself as a mystic, but possibly this comes through in some works. I like creating a moment and something that’s not too scripted and allows one to think. The style is fast and quick. You can identify it immediately, yet the subject can be very slow and reveal itself slowly. I like the play between the fast release of the style and the slow release of the subject.
EJ: I am intrigued by how the left and right backgrounds can differ, as in Flow and Bird. Do your backgrounds continue to be a magical infinite space for you even after images are revealed in the drawing? Do your “perfect” drawing forms divide and activate empty space?
HLW: Flow has two slightly different sides, though I see it as all part of the same place, just not a continuum of the landscape. So, it's free to take liberties. I like how the ancient Chinese scrolls include different seasons, times of day––sometimes even years––all as part of the background and all next to or even on top of each other. This approach includes time and ignores Western logic. (Though some of the great Western masterpieces will play with this idea in the background: Leonardo's portrait Ginevra de' Benci is a good example.)
Bird offers a slight change from left to right along the very bottom, it kind of snaps the drawing together, adding a bit of dynamic play along the bottom edge that helps to bring the surface up, so that bottom asserts itself to the main shape or character. I think foreground and background, whether full or empty, must create a unified air. Otherwise, shapes and forms may be better served as pure cutouts.
EJ: Does making your own work influence your teaching?
HLW: I never want my students to make my work or anything like it. However, I instill all the other aspects of being the artist that I am: discipline, planning, passion, focus, hard work, ideas, strategies and developing one’s own language, especially at the upper levels. There are many aspects to the complex world of teaching––many levels––from the most introductory novice, amateur level to professional art students. I've taught at all levels during my career, and each has nuances and strategies. I always remember something that Josef Albers said in an interview. He was asked how and why he produced so many great students, but none created work that looked like his own. Albers’s answer always stayed with me: “To follow me, follow yourself.” That's my teaching philosophy too.
edited by Matthew Crain