A conversation with Ted Walsh
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
A conversation with Ted Walsh
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: Studying your work, I feel a strong pull toward surrealism, movies, and dreams. What inspires you to put a composition together? Is there a story or mood that gets things going?
Ted Walsh: All kinds of things inspire my compositions. Things I happen to see. Things I’m inspired by, literature, music, other art. A technical painting idea, an abstract compositional idea, a theme from an older painting I want to revisit. A story, a mood. ––It could be any mix of these. Anything really.
EJ: A statement on the Gross McCleaf website mentions that you "often depict scenes of home/place, time, perseverance, history, architecture, disillusionment, environment . . . the list goes on." Your paintings feel universal rather than about a specific place. Understandably, you gravitate to Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth who also harbor this feeling. What do you love about American realism? What is it about moody, empty but dynamic dramas that attracts you?
TW: I like the idea of generic places, maybe the emptiness and loneliness. I like places that feel realistic, yet they aren’t real. Hopper and Wyeth make places feel universal, but when you visit the places they painted, you see the paintings in a whole new light...
TW: ...For example, walking in the Brandywine area––Wyeth country––his vibe seems specific. I grew up with Wyeth and Hopper. We weren’t a big art household, but I knew them. I think my natural hand is like Hopper’s. I’m more ham-handed than those Wyeth painters. (Lately I’ve been looking at Jamie Wyeth’s recent work, which has some Grateful Dead in it.) Also, I had thought I was going to be an architect. That’s how I learned to draw. I’ve always loved buildings and creating spaces.
The American realist tradition was something that felt natural to take on. I’m from South Jersey, and Philly is important to that tradition. Wyeth country isn't far away. Hopper made some paintings at Gettysburg. There’s a lot of that tradition in New York and New England. Eakins, George Bellows, Cecilia Beaux, Winslow Homer, George Inness, the Hudson River School. I like their swagger. American painters were hammering something new out of something old.
TW: The old masters are present, but they’re taken with some salt. The earlier colonial painting in America was kind of stiff, but that changed. It’s like they added some rock ’n’ roll. You can see it in Walter Stuempfig, Thomas Hart Benton, Raymond Saunders. I love Sidney Goodman’s paintings. He’s one of my favorites.
EJ: I grew up near Gettysburg. While you were an Artist in Residence at Gettysburg National Military Park, what did you paint? Did you think the battlefield felt haunted?
TW: Not haunted. Maybe mystical, spiritual, metaphysical––otherworldly. I taught there. We took family trips there when I was a kid. I could go on and on about Gettysburg. It’s pitch-black dark at night because there aren’t streetlights on the battlefield. I would go out late and ride my bike on dark roads. One night I saw this blue light just glowing out in one of the fields. I started walking toward it. When I got there, it was a little blue flashlight, making an eerie glow out in the middle of the field. It all came together: my memories of being there with my family, hope and rebirth and light. It was magical.
Another day, my wife and I were atop the Pennsylvania Monument watching the sunset. There was another family there. The dad was a tough looking guy, perhaps a veteran. I don’t remember how I knew, he must’ve had a military hat or T-shirt. He sent his family ahead to go run and play, and then, looking out over the battlefield, he broke down crying. And I got choked up and I had to put my head down before I started crying too. There’s something about the place.
EJ: In the same Gross McCleaf statement, you mention that your "pictures bear calm and meditative moods. . . ." Yet they also feel full of movement and have a sense of foreboding doom that arises from the subject matter or presumption of story. How does "getting the surface of the painting exactly right" generate both calm and energy? Do you feel drama to be latent in your meditative mood-making?
TW: The surface is important because it’s like a plane of interaction between the artist and the viewer. It's the thing they’re looking at. It contains the energy of the brush. You brush the paint on and then it stays where you put it. So, you can put drama and mood in it. But at the same time, it’s staying still. You’re not actively making the surface while someone is looking at it. It is a frozen moment to meditate on.
EJ: I’m thinking of the burning mailbox painting, the bloody nose painting, and the painting of a barn with boarded-up windows. Do you prefer viewers not to know the backstory?
TW: Yes. I usually try to let viewers make up their own backstory before I tell them what I was thinking. But I’m not strict about it. I’m happy to tell anyone whatever they're interested to know. Sometimes my ideas and theirs line up. I like listening to what people come up with.
The boarded windows were a surprise. I have them in a few paintings. For the mailbox, I was thinking about old-fashioned vandalism, cherry bomb in the mailbox kind of stuff. But also, about breakdowns in communication, and wasted ideas left unsaid. My wife and kids like to play around with fake blood makeup, and it's worked its way into some pictures. This one of the nose is the first one I’ve shown. It has toughness mixed with beauty. I came across a picture of a soccer player with a bloody nose. My wife, Kay, is the model, and she was wearing the glasses, and I wanted to see if I could paint them. Then it started looking sporty, and then I remembered the bloody nose, and it went from there: everyday life picture, to athlete picture, to picture of beauty, to toughness picture, to technical challenge, back to athlete, back to beauty.
EJ: Also, in the Gross McCleaf statement: "His style toes the unique line where deep connection to the American Realist tradition meets modern influences, as felt in contemporary painting.” I think of Luc Tuymans. Do you relate to his work?
TW: I learned to paint as a modernist before I started to paint realism, and I’ve always done a lot of abstract work along with my representational paintings. Over the years there has just been more demand and attention for my realism. So, any intense abstraction has fallen away, maybe because of time constraints as much as anything else. I simply have more practice with realism. But my general sense of composition is still modernist: I’m always thinking of the big shapes and layout of my paintings in terms of abstract composition.
TW: At some point, I felt I needed to learn to paint traditionally. Maybe just to prove it to myself. I spent a lot of time in museums studying and reading about painting technique to learn how traditional paintings were made. I really got into it. My paintings leaned a lot in that direction. In this show, and in my more recent work, I draw on all kinds of influence and get the best of each world.
I like Tuymans. He does things I wish I could do in my own work. But they’re mostly abstract compositional and color things. It’s that modernist influence. It’s been hammered in.
EJ: I enjoyed reading you blog about other painters. You bring out novel but personal ideas, such as the thickness or thinness of paint. Did you see the works you discuss in the flesh? Do you vary paint thickness across your own painting?
TW: Most of what’s up now I have seen in person, but I have a few drafts in progress on pieces I saw online. I’m still working my way through the discord of enjoying reproductions of paintings and enjoying the paintings themselves. When I was younger and an idealist, I believed paintings should be seen in person. But that eliminates a ton of paintings. So, I’m learning to appreciate what I look at for what it is.
I do vary paint thickness quite a bit. I tend to work and rework my paintings, and the pictures end up having many layers. I often use layers of alternated dark glaze and light scumble, a kind of traditional way to build up a painting. I’ll rarely add texture “just because.” When I paint thickly or thinly, the painting is calling for it.
EJ: When discussing Edward Hopper on your blog, you compare his paintings Summertime and New York Pavements. Why did you choose this great pair? Do you feel you differ from Hopper in depicting flat surfaces like pavement and walls? Is there a psychological link between the painting surface and depicted surface for you? Do you mix paint on the surface of the painting or on the palette?
TW: Hopper was a huge influence, especially in my early years of painting. Perhaps I’m misremembering, but I think he was into psychology. I don’t dwell on the psychology of a piece while I’m painting it. Probably the biggest difference in our surfaces is how his are more direct than mine. We’re both studio painters, which lends itself to influence from both the old masters and the modernists. Over the years, I got sucked into trying the indirect methods of the old masters. Generally, my flat surfaces have more layers built up over time than Hopper’s. But he does have some built-up areas.
Depending on what I’m trying to achieve, I will mix paint on the surface of the painting and/or the palette. I put a lot of care into the surface. It must set the tone or add subtext to a painting on a visceral level. It’s a main part of seeing the painting. It’s an immediate visual/texture thing more than pictorial. I guess I do prioritize the physical painted surface over the surface of the depicted objects, but I’m careful not to make one aspect of the painting––surface texture, depiction, color, scale, etc.––overpowering.
EJ: You often depict changeable skies over brightly lit buildings with strong shadows: contrasting strong light against strong dark areas seems natural for you. Is this because you live near the sea in New Jersey with strong natural light? What pulls you toward tonal contrast?
TW: There’s a portion of the American realist tradition at the Jersey coast. William Trost Richards, Thomas Eakins, and Walter Stuempfig were all painting there well before “The Jersey Shore.” All my life I’ve loved the coast and the sea.
I love adding drama into the skies. It's a fun way to play with a picture’s mood. My skies have developed abstractly, though it may be unnoticed. In my earlier paintings I made my skies and buildings as flat and subtle as possible, I was trying to do a Rothko thing, with flat blocks of color laying on the surface together. And then I’d play around with making it a picture. Then I started to make the compositions more complex by adding passages of varying tones in the skies, which added drama to the story. I’m meticulous about composing the passages of light and dark in the skies. I rarely look at the sky and paint what I see: I usually start a sky in the studio with no reference as an abstract composition, and then I work it and rework it until it looks like a sky and fits the narrative. There’s that famous Hopper quote, “Maybe I am not very human––all I ever wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” I love that. It’s about the abstract quality of the picture. It’s just paint on the surface, but it's also a picture of a house. Just a simple quiet moment of sunlight.
edited by Matthew Crain