Conversation with Caleb Stoltzfus
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Conversation with Caleb Stoltzfus
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: On Gross McCleaf’s website you describe a farm in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. You write: “The land vibrates with textures, sounds, smells, and crawls with life. Stand in one place too long (to paint a picture, for example) and the dusty straw ground slowly pulls apart . . . revealing the smooth, wet clay beneath.” Did you grow up on a farm? Why the strong bond with dirt and earth? Are you always looking for the basis of things? Or is this feeling a result of standing and working for days on one spot?
Caleb Stoltzfus: My upbringing was suburban. But my dad farmed for much of his life, before I was born, and he comes from a long line of Amish farmers. Farmers often believe, from their experience, they must conquer nature, overcome its dangers. I appreciate Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis’s framework for thinking about nature. Essentially, in the first chapter of Genesis, where God defines man’s relationship to the Earth, there’s a Hebrew word, radah, that some have translated as “dominion over.” But Davis argues that a better translation might be “master among.” To master something is to understand it, implying that it’s complex and worthy of respect. I’m compelled by how nature and man’s response to it encapsulates many rich concepts. There’s much to ponder within that dynamic.
EJ: Your Walt’s Farm paintings recall Andrew and Jamie Wyeth: a rich palette of brown and grey emphasizing winter in Pennsylvania. Like theirs, many of your paintings focus on grass, pebbles, and things deteriorating. You depict piles of lumber and firewood and the inviting darkness of barns. You write: “The farm is an arena. It is a place of fear and instinct.” Regarding your take on nature, do fear and instinct today in 2023 differ from 50 years ago?
CS: When I was working on the Farm Series, it was within the context of one of the most intense political moments that I’ve experienced (2018-2021). Coming from a Conservative background, and living in the city during the pandemic, made me grapple with rival ideologies that were circulating with a particular intensity. Andrew Wyeth’s work uses his personal experience of his home, neighbors, the local landscape––observational paintings, in other words––to explore universal topics. I believe autobiographical paintings are important because they are expansive enough to encapsulate contradictions.
CS: I appreciate how observational paintings use lived experience to present topics that don’t fit neatly into one worldview. For example, my recent paintings of interiors of Woodford Mansion, the historic house museum in Fairmount Park, where I am a caretaker. The objects in the collection are beautiful examples of eighteenth-century craftsmanship and design. Living with these objects as a caretaker is a complex experience. While I appreciate the artistry of silver teapots, Chinese export porcelain, and furniture that was owned by the elite of early Philadelphia, I temper that appreciation with recognizing the enslaved labor needed for their fabrication. Living in an eighteenth-century Georgian mansion adjacent to the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood provides daily stark contrasts. There are wide varieties of lived experience here, and as much as possible I’m trying to document that without resorting to oversimplification.
EJ: You seem darker than the Wyeths, and favor structure over light effects. Do you think of somber scenes as poetic? As inherently narrative? Is there no story in cheerfulness?
CS: You’re right that most of my paintings aren’t about light. I try to suck the light out to emphasize the “thingness,” the materiality of the subject. I approach painting like a sculptor, where light plays a sort of secondary role. My interest in materiality and construction of paintings is how my relief paintings developed, since they let me consider form and explore my compositions as three-dimensional objects. You’re right that my paintings can have a dark tone. The picturesque doesn’t hold my attention for very long: it’s the places containing a sort of complicated narrative. I love when paintings have an underlying humor. My family has always used humor as a coping mechanism in the most serious circumstances: in church; at my grandfather’s deathbed. Sometimes the absurdity of circumstances can only feel recognized when we insert some absurdity of our own.
EJ: You’ve had unique opportunities to study painting. Your biography states that you studied “multi-figured composition in the Russian tradition under artist Daud Akhriev.” Are there distinctions between the classical methods taught in the Russian tradition, and those taught at PAFA, and at Covenant College?
CS: Neil Carlin, my first teacher at Studio Rilievo, gave me the most important thing you can get from any education: the foundational confidence/framework to pursue a career as a painter. He gave me the tools to build good paintings, hard skills to be able to paint from observation in a controlled studio, and the discipline to work for months on a painting. At Covenant, I began dialoguing with more modern artists. Jeffrey Morton had an honest relationship with his medium, with its materiality, that contradicted the priorities of my classical education and disrupted my path toward a traditional way of making pictures. Through Daud’s pure skill as a painter––the dazzling nature of his work––I saw the power of the image as décor. My paintings respect this. I want them to be pleasant to look at. It might sound superficial, but the power of design is important. Daud’s paint quality helps describe materiality, which I’m interested in right now. His images felt real, they invited the view into them. Despite their romanticism, they aren’t just windows into another world.
EJ: From Instagram, I gather that you do studies outside and then sometimes enlarge the studies as bigger works that are also painted onsite. Is this correct? Do you use the studio to finish work? Do you ever work from photos? If so, do you take your own photos? How do you choose your subjects?
CS: Many of the larger paintings in the show were painted using smaller studies done onsite. I did that because I thought it would be more efficient. But the difficulty of working in the studio is conjuring up the same excitement that comes naturally from working from life. Occasionally, I’ll use the studio to edit work, but rarely. I do work from photos, the larger works that are based on smaller studies are often supplemented by photos. But it’s a dangerous practice and I try to avoid it, since I find my priorities change because of “fidelity” to the detail of the photograph. The study that I make onsite becomes an important reminder of the original intent. Choosing my subjects is instinctive. I can often sense if a place or object has a memory or a history to it. An easy example is Coda, a “found object,” that tells a story on the side of the road in the park.
CS: In other cases, my paintings’ subjects are constructed rather than discovered, like in The Rat King. With it, the place itself had a complicated richness, yet I needed to alter the scene by arranging objects to emphasize that potential. So, the paintings in this series are straightforward landscape reconstructions. This is one way I’m comfortable with the image’s “dishonesty,” if you could call it that.
EJ: Are you still working on the Walt’s Farm series? Why do you seldom put animals in the farm paintings? I imagine that at least insects, worms, and birds are around when you are out, if the farm animals are penned. Do you want to keep the focus on animals that have died via the presence of bones?
CS: I’m not currently working on the Walt’s series. As for animals, I’ve tried putting them in the composition, but they were distracting. When I included sheep, they would commandeer the painting, making it about something I wasn’t interested in anymore. I guess you could say animals made the paintings feel scenic, rather than symbolic. Using bones in the composition suggests the presence of animals on the farm, it emphasizes the struggle of animal versus nature, which is a predominant theme in that series.
EJ: Early works depict more figures. Why are you now more interested in landscape?
CS: I want to bring figures back into my observational paintings in future work, and I’m always experimenting with inventive work in my studio. For this show, I wanted to tell an effective story without people. I wanted to create poignant images using objects and nature. Perhaps it’s because painting is a solitary existence. To include people would require scheduling models and inviting external elements into my life. I think it will be worth doing sometime. I contemplated hiring models at the farm, and asked my wife to pose, but it felt unnatural, or like a diversion. Even with my paintings of Woodford Mansion, which is open to the public, I felt most compelled by my personal relationship to the objects and atmosphere of each room. These paintings were made after hours, when the museum is closed, and the Mansion becomes my home.
EJ: On Instagram, you posted a commissioned painting, Cornucopia, that looks like there’s a quilt pattern behind the image. I love how the clouds look in this effect. What was the idea for this approach? Did you work from quick drawings of figures?
CS: This is a rare example of using Photoshop to arrange figures. The quilt pattern is part of my method to accurately transfer a composition onto the canvas. I overlaid several photographs I took of the subjects to create the final composition, and I used the grid to guide me as I fit the figures onto the canvas. As the work progressed, I felt it was dishonest to hide the grid under a layer of paint, I felt that––to be honest to the image––I should reference the fact that this is a product of a collage of photographs. I probably won’t use this approach again.
EJ: Also on Instagram, you have an intriguing problem-solving discussion with @vincent_desiderio about Centennial. You said you wanted the painting “to be about line and paint, bound together by the dark image of a deteriorating structure.” Yet you felt that “somehow it always fell back into more of a ‘window’ onto the scene instead of a constructed object.” What an enticing way to describe the dilemma of painting! Are you still contemplating this issue? Perhaps color could solve the problem?
CS: This question of construct vs. image is a central question for me, and something I will explore for the foreseeable future. As I mentioned, my education began with the Classical approach to painting, which creates a stage or a “window” into the painting. I still hold onto much of that technique, and in some of my interior paintings I revisit the idea of the "stage.” But after studying with Jeff Morton and then with Daud, and then generally following my nose as I explore what kind of painting interests me, I’ve found that I really want my paintings to acknowledge that they are constructs. A few months ago, after seeing an incredible Stanley Lewis show in NYC, I realized that many of my paintings don’t want to just be images at all––they want real body to them. So, I started pulling out the surface into three-dimensional space to create my reliefs. These paintings-turned-relief burst out of the canvas like they were under intense pressure. I find that manipulating color as I observe it feels dishonest. But I do think that as I've grown as a painter, I've come to terms with some of the inherent dishonesty of the medium.
edited by Matthew Crain