Monday, February 13, 2012

Ten Minutes with Veteran Artist Martin DeWitt

I first saw Martin DeWitt's paintings at a show titled Homecoming this past November at the Duluth Art Institute. After this interview I was surprised at how much we had in common, from Tom Terrific to our love of both painting and Mexico. Though a bit long for a single blog entry, there are a lot of rich insights here. Take it in.

Ennyman: How did you first become interested in art as a career?
Martin DeWitt: Probably my earliest memory and taking notice was when we went to the grand opening of Disneyland in 1954 in Anaheim, Calif – and seeing the Monsanto sponsored “House of the Future” – even as a 7 year old kid, I was impressed by the cool design – and futuristic “products” that were sure to make our lives more efficient, easier, especially for the apron clad woman of the house (we of course now know that Monsanto developed other products – heavy into military weapons – Napalm used in Viet Nam.) Mid-century, science and design merge, space exploration, discovery, these ideals were the mantra of the 60s. Maybe because I really liked the “Tom Terrific and his Mighty Dog Manfred” Terrytoons TV show – all that travel in space and Tom’s ‘funnel” hat was especially impressive.

Both my older brothers are artists and they had early interest in art and design. My oldest brother Terry is an architect, and Mike is a painter. As a young kid I watched them as they started their interest in art and art careers and ended up following in their footsteps. Over the years, we have exhibited our work together in a few “DeWitt Brothers” exhibits. We moved from Southern California back to rural Galesburg, Illinois where I grew up in the 60s. We had a strong art program in the schools even back then. Our high school art teacher took our high school art club to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum. Plus, we had family in Chicago, so we drove in or took the train in to the city quite often, and visited the AIC and other museums quite regularly – it was great to be so close. In 1962, as young teens my brother Mike and I joined the local art guild – the group ended up renting a storefront in downtown Galesburg to open a community gallery, hold classes, and start an annual art competition, called Galex (now in its 46th year), its become a national recognized show. In addition, as a high school student, I won an art scholarship sponsored by the Univ. of Illinois School of Art & Design - a weeklong art camp at “Allerton Park Estate” in central Illinois. There I met other kids from throughout the state who were interested in art and were heading into art careers. In college, I moved into the studio area – and taking on the painting challenge – where I am today, still at it.

E: Who have been your biggest influences?
MD: My early years my artist brothers no doubt. My teachers over the years, mostly in art but also other academic course work, were always influential. Several remain mentors to this day. My college and university art faculty, of course, especially studio and art history faculty led the way in influencing a work ethic and exploration curiosity.

While working on my MFA degree in Illinois State Univ., I applied for a Painting Fellowship at the Brooklyn Museum School – and was selected – and ended up living in New York and Brooklyn for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s. This was a huge opportunity for me. With concentrated time in NYC I was able to get to the galleries – hang out in Soho, go to all the museums regularly, the Met, Whitney, MoMA, Guggenheim, Brooklyn Museum and Botanical Gardens (spending time in the Japanese Gardens at BM was a huge influence on me…and my work, as I was developing a direction and personal passion).

I remember going to a performance on a hot late afternoon at the Kitchen in Soho in 1977 – John Cage and David Tudor performed a concert called “Homage to Conch.” Cage had lined up a series of different size conch shells filled with water on a card table – Cage was sitting in front of an open window at the table with the conch shells – with all the sounds of the city going on, sirens, traffic fumes, taxis beeping, dogs barking – while amidst those sounds from the outside, Cage “played” the gurgling conch shells while Tudor played Satie on the violin.

Gosh, endless influences – the biggest...? Does “what” count as “who.”? If so, nature has been my muse – Lake Superior, Smoky Mountains, So. Cal. light and the Maine coast. Otherwise, taken from my artist’s statement... Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky’s “compositions” and his On the Spiritual in Art are classics I refer to regularly… Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics; Tantric focused imagery and ideation; the spirit filled Chi (“empty”) space in Chinese landscape painting; Giotto’s (13th c. Italy) wonder-filled ambiguous pictorial space and George’s (Morrison) surrealist and light filled Lake Superior horizon paintings; Robert Erwin’s “perceptual space”; Richard Tuttle’s sensory ‘no-things’, Corbu’s Ronchamp cathedral portals of light - have been there on the forefront in transforming space and form with light - the way we engage the community and the world. The likes of giants Gerhardt Richter, Howard Hodgkin, and Pat Steir are paint movers and shakers that require a point of reference and for me a frequent look see.”

E: In what ways has the fine arts scene changed since you were in school in the 70's?
MD: The biggest change in the current art scene from 40 years ago has been the influence of technology, social media. Artists can be immediately connected to other artists, the community, and the world actually. Collaboration was big even in the 70s, alternative spaces taking off. As grad and undergrad art students at Illinois State Univ. We sought out empty storefronts and secured cheap space to set up studios in downtown Bloomington – and started a co-op gallery along with a few art faculty. Some of the earliest alternative spaces were started up in Chicago in the early 70s and we were encouraged and followed that model. Our goal then was and we did go to New York City, a group of us, lived in Brooklyn and either shared or had small studios in cheap lofts. It’s so great to see so much going on at this very moment in Duluth and Superior, Grand Marais, Bayfield. No doubt part of a continuum of art and artists inspired by this place, on this big lake.

E: What was your take on pop art at that time? And how do you see it today?
MD: I loved it! The in-your-face imagery, mirror-ization was really Pop culture was really ramping up in the 50s-60s…growing up in So.Cal – as a kid – having more of everything was a good thing! The marketing boom was peaking - it seemed natural to respond to the Viet Nam era culture in some shape or form. Cool, calm and collected on the outside, rumbling on the inside – something had to give – explode! I thought that pop art was especially slick – and indeed did truly reflect our bulging consumer and mass culture. Again, it made for artists to respond. There was a global response to 9/11 - and now Iraq Vets and Artists Against the War - a big question is, how did Viet Nam and the anti-war movement change or impact the direction of contemporary art then – still wondering about that. Today? Technology and social media continues to have such a huge impact on contemporary cultures throughout the world. It seems natural for artists take advantage of technology as a resource, medium and art form – plus networking possibilities offer immediately response and opens for dialogue - an art form unto itself, and enhances the communication role that art performs. Back in the 80s – the notion of “pluralism” was bantered about – well, today, studios and galleries are filled with a limitless array of expressive response to contemporary culture – and rightly so – and I like it.

E: In what ways did your Mexico experience influence the direction of your art? (In what part of Mexico did you live?)
MD: I have maintained a special interest in modern and contemporary art of Latin America – with its bold colors, unique cultures, and its considerable social content reflecting the many successes and struggles of its people. I also remain intrigued by pre-Columbian art and architecture, on its own merit, as well as in relationship to Native American art on this side of the “border”. My wife Sharon and I have travelled to Central and South America every year for 25 years, the Caribbean including Cuba as well, sometimes with student or artists groups, on our own, or with family. The importance of the arts in these countries remains huge, essential to the culture. Very influential about these places, like here, has been the integral presence of the indigenous cultures – that to this day are vital.

Over the years, we have made a point of spending meaningful time in major art centers, like Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, Taxco, Merida, Cuernavaca, Oaxaca, and San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. We have established life-long connections and friendships with artists and non-artists in these places – via study abroad student and artist trips and Sister City partnerships. Most recently, we spent three months in San Cristobal. We also made a recent life changing trip to Cusco and Machu Picchu, Peru, the major 15th c. Inca site – where I say in my artist’s statement, “…intangibles of space, time, place and light have played out…layered cultural memory has surfaced in my recent paintings” – due to these memorable experiences. Specifically, in our travels, we’ve seen decorative vinyl table cloths…in lavish or simple homes, tiendas, churches…while in San Cristobal, I searched out a source for these “El mantel de vinil” with colorful patterns and images, often directly related to the Central American culture…down in the San Cristobal market and shopping zone, I found an entire table full of patterned at a fabric store. I selected 3 different styles…and I incorporated these into the paintings I did while I was in San Cristobal – title of this series of paintings is “En la mesa donde la conversación se inicia I (at the table where the talking starts).”

E: What advice would you offer to young people interested in a career in the arts?
MD: Spend as much time as humanly feasible making art – being expressive. Look at as much art as possible – get to galleries, visit museums…get out of town. Get off the computer and learn to draw. Take drawing seriously as an art form unto itself. Learn history and art history – make the connections, consider the impact and influences. If in school, travel, study abroad. Talk to people from other cultures. Be active in your local community, volunteer in a museum or art org. (looks great on a resume and may even end up as a part time or full time paid position let alone the experience of meeting great people and serving) -- join or start an arts group. Duluth is where it's “art” – get active and be involved. Seek out cross-disciplinary collaborations. Get on the grant trail – and when you do write a grant, make sure you have a “community” component linked to your proposal, if that is an option. Also, consider learning a skilled “trade” – or other moneymaker, like: electrician, welder…or health related job, that may pay the bills and studio overhead. This requires a longer discussion.

E: As do many discussions here at Ennyman's Territory. Thank you to those who have been reading. Enjoy the week.

Top photo, left to right: Martin DeWitt, Simon Grey and Sharon Sanders at the Stagecoach Gallery

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