A conversation with Thomas Paquette
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
A conversation with Thomas Paquette
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: Your website bio mentions that you dropped out of your freshman BFA studies and traveled the country for six years. What did traveling touch that book learning did not?
Thomas Paquette: During my “hobo years," I went on several adventures by freight train and hitchhiking that lasted anywhere from a week to several months. But it wasn’t a full-time gig: I always gravitated toward further education. When I wasn’t enrolled in colleges (I attended five), I used public libraries to follow my own curriculum.
EJ: You seem to value surprise, and your paintings capture the anticipation of new vistas. Did making choices dominate hoboing? Does the idea of “the road not taken” affect your work now? (I am thinking of Robert Frost’s poem.)
TP: Ha! I always felt that hopping freight trains was a perfect apprenticeship for an artist. You risk your life with both. They take you to unexpected places, on a timeline you can’t predict. Book learning makes everything appear so knowable. Looking back at history, events seem inevitable.
TP: A painting appears the same way. Hidden beneath the finished artwork are decisions as random as a freight train going in some general direction that appeals. Preferring "the road not taken" is something of a habit. I have regional maps of the US in which the routes I've taken are spiderwebbed by thin markers, filling in as many gaps as possible. I try to think that way.
EJ: What is the name of your current show at Gross McCleaf?
TP: On Nature. If that sounds philosophical, then I succeeded, because nature is my muse on many levels.
EJ: Is it easier to recall a place you visited if you painted it? How do you decide which place to paint?
TP: My most vivid landscape memories––a sunset near my house when I was three, a spectacular moment in the Yukon Territory when I was nineteen––weren’t painted, and I have no photos of them. Perhaps that is why I paint landscapes today: to reclaim those peak moments. Subjects least manipulated and subjugated by humans attract me. I believe any spot or subject in the universe holds promise for painting. It just needs the spark of a curious mind, an engaged eye, and some fortitude.
EJ: In the video Art in Embassies: 3 Questions you mention sitting in the back of the family car "watching the mountains disappear"––a beautiful image. In painting, isn't moving away from something the same as moving toward it?
TP: Moving away from something is the same as moving toward it––that’s a koan I’ll have to meditate on. Distance from a work is crucial for its best development. Using various techniques, I often remove myself from a painting during each session, for more objectivity. Landscape is indeed an inspiring subject to someone who values surprise, change, nuance, and natural processes. Landscapes are intrinsically creative forces. First, they evolve as complex systems from the interactions of geologic, biotic, and climatic forces over time. Then, when experienced as subjective witnesses, landscapes offer a light unique to that moment. The observer sees not just with her eyes but with layers of knowledge, familiarity, emotions, and, most crucially, curiosity.
EJ: Why is it important to be objective to a painting? What are your techniques for staying objective? Is painting studies one of them?
TP: Painting is not so different from writing, for instance. The goal is communication. Being effective requires borrowing someone else’s eyes, and pretending you are seeing the painting for the first time: “What do I see? What seems wrong? What is interesting, and what isn't? Who the heck made this mess of a painting?” I make a variety of studies sometimes to get to a new perspective. I take breaks facing away from the canvas until, as much as possible, I forget what I did and surprise myself in approaching the canvas. It all boils down to overcoming myopia.
EJ: You did several studies, Variations on Post Storm Light, that seem to be the chief influences for the painting Post Storm Light. Do you generally work from studies made on-site or use reference photos? Do you work differently when you are painting a large, multi-paneled commission?
TP: I don’t have a prescribed way to paint. Every painting holds its own destiny. I often make studies to discover potentials in a larger work. But often the studies are completed long after the large work is done. Painting different versions lets ideas talk among themselves, and often the little tough guys want the last word: “OK, that other painting is fine. But what if . . .?”
EJ: After they have their last word, do you paint another view or subject but hold onto their wisdom? I am curious about how your different works overlap.
TP: Their wisdom is particular. As is the larger work’s. So, I move on and try to ignore them. But they’re always invited to speak up in the future. I can't predict what they might know that I have yet to learn.
EJ: How did you discover the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts? Did it provide your artist residency at national parks? You've exhibited paintings in embassies, an unusual route for artists. How did that path open for you?
TP: I answered a call for applicants for the NFAA’s program in Art Calendar, a now-defunct magazine. I was rewarded well for scrambling to meet the deadline: three winters in Miami, just painting. The National Park System and NFAA have no connection to each other, nor are the national park's artist-in-residence programs like each other. There is no template or central office for them: a residency in one park will hardly resemble another in terms of length, duties, or experience. As there is no established protocol for it, this year I helped advise the Allegheny National Forest on setting up its own artist residency program.
I was surprised when you said that my career was closely associated with government. I do suppose government touches everything after all, and I must remember to thank them for providing great assistance to the universities I attended, as well as to the museums and libraries that are so key. But the largest part of my career has been centered on my exhibitions at wonderful places like Gross McCleaf Gallery, where people who are interested can see my paintings and help support me through collecting my works.
EJ: I am familiar with the NEA and the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian. But I was surprised to learn that embassies exhibit and collect art. Your involvement with embassies and National Parks reminds me that land is a shared possession. As a painter, do you also consider landscape borderless?
TP: In the early nineteen-nineties the State Department’s chief curator saw a show of mine at a gallery in Washington and wanted to place some of my paintings in an African embassy. That began my long relationship with the program. Art by American artists gives cultural context to visitors at our embassies. One secretary of state said that art is “the most important tool in the ambassador’s toolbox,” which I can’t vouch for, but it does make me feel I am contributing to world peace and diplomacy. Art in embassies might serve as a bridge across our artificial borders and differences. Is the landscape itself borderless? Not exactly. But we humans make interesting, sometimes lamentable shambles as we build fences everywhere. Nature is more fluid than that.
EJ: What artists excite your vision of landscape? Do you relate to the Canadian artists Group of Seven? To the Hudson River painters?
TP: The Group of Seven certainly. Maybe it’s my Canadian heritage or having spent much of my formative years among similar northern environments. Their paintings were shockingly bold, diverse, and often great. As for other artists: George Inness, Daniel Garber, Bonnard, Vuillard, Derain, Lucien Freud, Anselm Kiefer, Ernest Lawson, Soren Emil Carlsen––the list would never end.
EJ: I admire your tenacity and your ability to make the three-year mega-project, America’s River Re-Explored: Paintings of the Mississippi from Source to Gulf. How did you get the overhead views? Your paintings containing figures or buildings feel fundamentally different from the ones that depict unspoiled nature.
TP: I made sixty-seven oil paintings for the Mississippi River project, including several small works, measuring just a couple inches square. The paintings from the air were from a chartered airplane. I wanted to see the expanse of the delta in the same comprehensive way I was able to experience the river at its beginning, where it pours out of Lake Itasca (as seen in Veritas Caput, a painting in this exhibition). There I could walk across it. The river’s mouth, though, can only be seen in parts even from up in a plane.
The exhibition was a personal exploration of a famous river that’s obscured by its own power and familiarity. I feared I would be painting river bend after similar river bend, but I found lots of river stories to paint: people fishing and wading, cars in parking lots, levees and floodgates, nuclear power plants and bridges, ice, and subtropical swamp. Normally, I seek out pure nature as subject. But the subject was the Mississippi River, and I felt it couldn’t be shown without the imagery of floods, barges, Mark Twain, and all else.
EJ: On your website, I got a kick out of the "mountains" made from leftover paint...
EJ: ...French Creek Study is more abstract, and more about paint. Are you working more abstractly in a new body of work?
TP: I do have a particularly large mountain of waste paint on my palette just now. I try to be careful about what I throw away, but considering the quantities of paint I use, these mountains are inevitable. I have also used leftover paint to create smaller, completely non-objective paintings that are almost ludicrously thick with paint. These paintings need to wait for just the right colors that are left over from other work. "No New Paint" is the rule, and the process continues until the day they feel done. I have always moved between abstraction and representation; I like teetering on the precipice that divides them. It’s a liminal place as when the rational world morphs into dreams at night.
TP: Thirty years ago, many of my larger landscape paintings were upwards of an inch thick with paint and quite abstract. I don’t predicate my work on producing a style. Large or small, thick or thin, abstract or realist: all my work is pursuing the flow of energy from curiosity to curiosity.
edited by Matthew Crain