After graduating from high school in Louisville Kentucky, Cletus Wilcox lived out of various vehicles and states while traveling the country, rock climbing, and picking up odd jobs along the way. About six years ago WIlcox began pursuing a real career in painting. He was living in a trailer in Vegas, where he completed a whole series of work to be shown in Vermont. Wilcox lived in Colorado for a moment after Vegas and then purchased a house in New Albany, Indiana whilst living there.
He has since moved back to his hometown to focus on his career. He's working to create an identity within the community, rather than traveling around without making the connection. His work is predominately abstract. However, he does utilize collaged imagery, pulling a lot of figurative or patterned work that sort of stimulates a separate narrative on its own.
F-D: How long have you been in this studio?
Cletus Wilcox: Since November.
F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to lay it out or did it develop organically?
CW: I definitely have an idea for how I want to lay it out. Right now it’s not that. From the first time I saw the building I knew I wanted a clean, beautiful, open space that would function primarily as a studio, but also as a gallery. Renovating the space is an art project for me.
F-D: So, if you’re seeing this place functioning as a studio and gallery, how do you see the gallery existing? I see these huge garage doors and it feels very inviting, do you have any formulated thoughts yet?
CW: Yea, well that’s one big thing, right? I’ve noticed, when these garage doors are open, a lot of the people that may be walking by and asking for change will come in and take a look around. They always react, and that’s the dopest thing ever. Obviously they don’t have a place to sleep, their situation is very unstable, but they stop and we have a conversation, and I get critical feedback from them. It’s amazing. How the space develops and changes will really be dictated by the neighborhood--everyone in the neighborhood.
F-D: Has the location of the studio (i.e the neighborhood, city, building, etc. ) influenced your work in any way?
CW: The artwork, not necessarily. It’s influenced the way that I will pick up material off of the street to use as material. Perhaps some of the trash from Portland has made its way into my work. The neighborhood affects my work in that I really want to be a part of that community. This neighborhood is in a continuous state of change and I wonder how I can be a part of that in a positive way. I’m trying to actively include community outreach into my business model. I want to make sure that the community feels as though I am an asset to them.
F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself, inside the studio and out?
CW: I typically get here around 9:30 or 10 o’clock. Then the typical day looks like this: standing right about here, and staring. I typically work until around six or seven. I’m typically either in here or running around attending to studio related errands-- going to the printer and all of that. I work until the evening and then I try to go get some exercise. I do some Crossfit and other things, but at times it's hard to pull myself away from the work.
F-D: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
CW: Because I make work without a preconceived plan, it’s really hard for me to answer that question.
F-D: Well, let me rephrase the question, what do you think the paintings think they are about?
CW: My relationship to the paintings is all about balance and composition. I’m really interested in making a multitude of strong images that can live together in the same space. If I’m looking at any one piece and notice that there is something that stands out to me, that is more worked than the rest of the piece, I’m going to work on it differently. Balance of composition and color are what I am always trying to help the piece find. The work for me is about basic aesthetics: is it visually appealing? I like thinking about what I’m seeing. That little bit of veil in between the artist and the art is interesting to me.
F-D: What mediums do you work with?
CW: All two-dimensional materials: spray paint, oil paint, gold leaf, acrylic, mixed media, collage, anything I can get my hands on that is primarily two-dimensional. I’d love to get into some three-dimensional stuff; but getting into new material is a bit of a process for me because I don’t have that background from art school. If I decide to go down a new road I try to prepare myself and be as knowledgeable as I can be. Mixed media or collage is typically what the work turns into— and so I guess that’s also what I would label myself as. I’d also say that I’m a painter, for sure.
F-D: Can you tell us about your process and how it has evolved?
CW: I typically work on seven to nine pieces at a time and that’s, honestly, something I would really like to improve on. It’s important to be able to step back from what you’re working on, focus, and look at it from a neutral perspective, outside of whatever zone you were in while working on it. That’s something I have a hard time doing when I’m only working on a couple of paintings.
The process for me, is not planned, it’s very reactionary. If a mark appears on there, then it’s there because another mark somewhere else on the piece. It’s high risk, but the process has evolved. As I take more risks I get more comfortable taking them. The process, for me, is conducive to abstraction, it allows for more risk taking and that’s what keeps me coming back and keep going as an artist. The hallmark of my process would have to be, simply, remaining open.
F-D: Do you work with narratives, plot, or a general progressive ideas?
CW: The Tim Faulkner show was really the only time. The collection itself wasn’t made with any plot, again, but with it being so close to the election, I couldn’t really pass up the opportunity to say something-- I think a lot of people felt that way. I do a lot of collaboration, and if I get a piece back from someone and there seems to be a narrative heading in a specific direction, I notice that I get hit with the urge to paint over any section that is eluding to a narrative or story. I’m anti-narrative in a way. If anything begins appearing figurative, if there appears to be a story on the table, I like to take it off of the table.
F-D: Do you consider your work to be autobiographical at all; does personal history work its way into your making?
CW: In a very indirect but intimate way. The schools that I went to as a child, their architecture, things that I find beautiful, definitely find themselves in my work. So in that way, they are autobiographical. That’s about it, though. I suppose I’m telling my aesthetic story.
F-D: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?
CW: I’m really aware of my surroundings and the exterior world. For example, I look out of the garage doors and see the colors on that fence and the bright number six on that garage door. If you walk down Main Street there is a bight white, shingled building with a bright pink door; it’s stuff like that that I find visually interesting. I like the accumulated texture of a city. None of that stuff was made intentionally, time made it that way. I tend to really love and look for that in the world, and I kind of want that to work its way into the paintings. As if their finished result just accidentally occurred— as if the image just happened after a million other things occurred.
What I like about that, and my process, is that there is no intention in that— but it’s still art. When I’m in the studio and I’m standing here, the frame of mind never changes. I’m constantly taking pictures of things that I see outside. That green dumpster with the yellow guard rail over there, for example. I’ll go take a picture of that, bring it back, crop everything else out in Photoshop, so that it’s just that square with those colors and you can’t really identify what it is. They become studies of how those images make me feel. It’s like, in a way, they are sketches or rough drafts. How do adding these colors and shapes make me feel.
F-D: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
CW: When I was working on the last show that I had, at Tim Faulkner, I learned a big lesson. I was making everything for that show in my basement. Eventually I ran out of room, and so I rented a small studio at Mellwood Art Center. At first I really hated the idea of working outside of the house. I thought it would impede on the amount of time I could spend in the studio. The act of leaving my house, driving to the studio (which, of course, is a work space), and going to work, ended up making me more motivated. It increased my productivity and, in addition, when I’m home I’m more relaxed because I’m separating work and home. They can be separate spaces again. It was important to me to have those two things be separate.
It was also helpful because, at first, I was having a hard time thinking of being an artist as a full time job. I couldn’t take it that seriously, but having a separate space has really helped me become more professional and think of it as a business. Having a studio’s rent to pay is also a motivator. Having to pay for that helps, in a way. It makes the reality of being an artist, well, real. It’s been really impactful for the "work" part of my work and it’s been really validating in that way.
F-D: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?
CW: I’d say that my work firmly falls within the categorization of abstract expressionism. Artists that have been a huge influence on me are, like, Rauschenberg, who’s use of media was across the board. Cy Twombly has also been a huge influence. He’s such a master at making marks that are devoid of intention. It’s really difficult to make a scribble on a canvas that doesn’t look like someone was trying to make a scribble. It’s hard to remove intention and education from mark making. Those two artists have influenced me in the most meaningful ways. In general, I feel like myself and other abstractionists are just standing on the shoulders of abstract expressionists before us.
F-D: When asked; what do you tell people you do for a living?
CW: Full time artist.
F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?
CW: Risk for my work is living hand to mouth, for sure. Having a mortgage, and now a studio, my back is constantly against the wall in order to meet my goal of making my bills go away. I’ll send a check and they seem to temporarily, you know, leave. You constantly have to hustle in order to make it as an artist. The reward for that being, selling work.
As far as risks in my art, I don’t know. I’ve always taken risks and so everything is a risk. There are plenty of times where I’ll place a bit of gold leaf, or collage in an image or texture and I’ll hate it for the first day that it’s there. Then I live with it for a while and figure out how I can alter it. I’ve gotten used to taking a risk and then being able to think about how I can make it workable again. Several years ago, if I had done something that I didn’t like, I might just decide that the piece is crap, and be done with it. Then put it away.
F-D: Words of wisdom?
CW: Support your local art community. Make art, buy art. It doesn’t have to just be visual art. Support people that are trying to create something.
F-D: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
CW: I am having an open studio sometime this summer, but I haven't decided on a date as of yet. Right now I have a bunch of projects up in the air and nothing concrete, so I'm reluctant to reveal too much.