Stephen Fieser's "Juxtapose", an exhibition of small drawings and prints about the human figure,
will be at the gallery from May 17 to July 3, 2011.
When did you start making art?
Age 13, I would say. It was then that I started announcing too often and too loudly that I was absolutely going to be an artist.
Did you study art in high school?
I did. In the last two years of high school, I went to a Vo-Tech. That was the most wonderful opportunity. because then at age 15 I was working at making and learning design and illustration about 3 hours a day, 5 days a week in school. That was the first time I didn't hate being in school. It was wonderful.
I had my first art job working for a TV station. We just called it commercial art back then, but it encompassed illustration and design. I had my first art job at the TV station before graduation and stayed there about a year. I sort of drifted from one kind of job to the next with periods of not working. When I wasn't working, I was self-educating. Eventually, it drifted into full time conventional design work.
I didn't go to college right off the bat. I had visited a number of art school during my senior high school year. I was shocked to find out they were going to force me to take non-art subjects. That was intolerable and I refused to go to school. It seemed like the job of learning to draw was so demanding. I couldn't imagine getting anywhere if I were distracted with these other subjects that, at that time, held no interest. It was very arrogant and dumb, but that's how it was.
I became fairly obsessive about studying figure drawing and anatomy. Everywhere I went I was carrying an anatomy book trying to memorize bones and muscles and trying to draw them from memory. Eventually I did independent study through Syracuse University and got an MFA in illustration. But even that was 75% self-education.
Along the way, I was really fortunate to meet the sculptor Richard Koontz, who died 5 years ago. Richard lived in Camp Hill and we met drawing figures at the Art Association every Thursday. We became good friends. He was a much older man with a really astonishing background as an industrial designer, inventor and sculptor. In time, I began studying sculpture formally with him. For many years we had a weekly date. Either officially studying or I would just go to his house and pull one of his sculpture from some shelf and set it down and start asking questions. He was my real mentor; by far the most potent influence from a living person that I knew.
He shared my interest or point of view that you shouldn't just draw figures from the model, that you should be able to invent them, put them in any pose and draw them from any point of view. In his case he would sculpt without models. There was a certain power of design in his figures that I loved and to this day still keep trying to absorb. I have a few thousand of Richard's drawings he willed Cherie and I through the generosity of his daughters after he died. A lot of his sculpture came to us and thousands of drawings in addition to some sculptures Cherie had purchased for me over the years from Richard. Occasionally I'll still take his drawings and make copies of them to try to think what he was thinking when he drew them.
How does your wife, Cherie, influence your art making?
She absolutely has and does. How to get specific about it, let me think.
Our tastes developed together. We married in our early 20s. I was just discovering what prints were at that time. She joined me in that discovery process. For gifts she would go out and research and buy me prints from artists I liked. We would think about what we liked and made choices together.
Cherie is especially fond of woodcuts. She likes things that are really strong and bold shaped. I do too, but that's not in this show, that's ahead. About a year ago, I began exploring a certain engraving process that was pretty close to the way that I draw. The next step is to begin cutting wood and printing it by hand or by letterpress. That's something I know Cherie will enjoy seeing.
We both like figures, but she's encouraging me to draw cats. I adore cats and they are really really hard to draw. For months I've been thinking about what can I do with cats that's not simply copying what I see. How can I do that as I do with human figures. That is, to absorb the idea and then through invention produce something original.
In so many ways our tastes have developed together. In practice, that has a lot to do with how we put the house together, how we do the garden. We think very much alike that way. That same aesthetic, I think in some ways, informs the art that I'm doing by myself.
What inspired you to draw without models?
It was my practice. Children tend not to draw from something they are looking at. I kept doing that. Then later on in mid-teens when those who did go to art school were mostly drawing by looking at an object or photograph, I did that a little bit but it seemed more natural to draw from imagination.
What really hammered it was a book that was extremely influential. It was Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters by Robert Beverly Hale who was the famous figure drawing and anatomy teacher at the Art Students League. It was around 1972 when I got that book. He was making the case that in earlier centuries, let's say before the mid-nineteenth century when the academic process took over, that it was the practice of old masters to draw with and without models. He maintained that many of those famous old masters' drawings were invented. A person should learn the forms of the figure, the structures and functions of anatomy so acutely so that one is able to draw them. So there from on high, was somebody saying you should do what I already wanted to do. That gave me more of a structure for doing it. That structure was the study of anatomy. I return to that same book and other books by Hale again and again. Right now I'm reading through a book of his lectures.
Once in a great while, I feel like I've come to a standstill and the fire dies out. It's very rare, it has almost never happened. But when it does happen, I go back to the beginning, which was the book by Hale and the study of anatomy. That reignites the motivation and everything grows out of that.
I illustrated for many years. Even then illustrating was a context for drawing people. All of those children's books and all those illustrated magazine articles began not with the setting but with figures. At first trying to tell the story with just the postures, movements and gestures of figures. Like the old masters, starting out with nude figures and later clothing them as a way of getting to the human structure first. That's how I did those children's books. That's exactly how they were done.
How long does it typically take you to finish a drawing?
Some of them come together in a couple of hours, but that's a little bit misleading because I might throw away five to get to that one. Most typically the drawings in the show are day long drawings. Many of them did use references, but bits and pieces of references. I might look at a photograph of a model in some book made for practicing art. I may look at the shoulder area but I'll turn the book sideways. Now it's not a standing figure, it's leaning or reclining. I'll just draw that area and then put the reference aside and do something else from imagination. Then I'll look at a completely different reference, maybe a hip area or leg which might fit, and draw that little area from reference.
So, I'm switching back and forth between references and inventions but the pose as a whole is completely new. Hands, feet and heads are almost never drawn from references. It's actually very hard to do so from a model in a life class or from a photograph that you've set up very carefully. Hands almost always are kind of meaningless they way they are. Fingers coming at you; they look like stubs. It's not a good shape. Feet from many angles are meaningless shapes. It's good, in any case, to be able to change things to make the shapes communicate and have a stronger structure.
It's probably a day long process for most of those. The ones in the show represent those days in which I had pretty good luck, where all that risk and experiment paid off. The prints were generated from those or other drawings.
For the process of making a plate, I work on a plastic plate with various engraving tools. It takes probably about a day to get the first proof, then I judge it and alter the plate. Then it's harder to tell. After the first day of working on a drawing or a print, it's important not to start obsessing over little parts that can ruin the overall effect. So, after the first day of working on it solid, I'll only work on it for an hour at a time at the most. That may happen over months. So it's hard to say what the cumulative time is in the end.
Where are your favorite people-watching spots or places to draw people?
When we travel, any park or plaza is great. Beaches are good. People are very free in their movements and covered with less fabric. If you go to a mall to draw, it's not very productive. People's movements are very restrained. They don't sit on the floor much. They don't jump around. Their arms don't swing as much. Their heads don't turn as much. But once those same people are outside in a park or something like that, then the range of postures and gestures becomes huge. On a warm day when moods are elevated at a beach or something, the most astonishing, or at least interesting, poses appear to be drawn.
In your notes, you wrote that you feel you have free range to draw people without their consent in those public spaces.
One day I was in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library on 5th avenue. There's a drawing in here of a girl sitting beside her boyfriend. She hugging him and kissing him on the neck. There were hundreds of people there, tightly packed. People know they are being seen in a park. That's why I do feel free in that kind of setting because there's some implicit consent. I was sitting, maybe five yards away, in a whole line of people on benches. As I was drawing them, there was a guy a few yards away on his cell phone who was reporting on me. He was saying, “It's a beautiful day! The birds are singing and an artist is here drawing these people!” Then I looked out across the way and there was a guy with a camera with a lens that was, like, three feet long! Okay, I'm exaggerating a little bit. It was pointed straight at me. I know he could count my eyelashes with that lens. He was really really in my space, while I was somewhat in someone else's space, while being talked about by someone else. It seemed just perfect. I tried not to make awkward expressions for the benefit of the photographer. It seemed all very democratic, fair and right and fun.
What are favorite drawing materials to use?
More than anything these days, I'm using water soluble colored leads. The type I'm using most is called museum lead from Caran D'ache. These are loose leads that you fit into a holder. They're extremely loaded with pigment. I can draw with them dry and wet. A lot of the drawings look like a wet media; that was from dipping these in water and drawing with them. I'm using some of those same pigments in the prints. It's a very unusual process. I like to use dry pigments for intaglio. I just stumbled upon a woman's blog in which she invented that process for herself. I've never heard of it elsewhere. I immediately tried it and began developing more ways of doing that.
I love drawing with water soluble leads and a nice soft paper like Stonehenge or Strathmore 400. They really take it nicely.
Could you talk about the influence of calligraphy and sculpture in your drawings?
When we go the city and go to museums, I usually make a beeline for the drawings. I'm always disappointed because they always have very few. Then I go straight to sculpture. Always have. I spent a lot of time going through my own books of sculpture. I'm interested in a lot of sculptors from the first half of the twentieth century who were past that academic period in the nineteenth century. From 1910 up until the early 1960s, there were a lot of sculptors who had this same point of view about absorbing anatomy and making things that were in the category of realist figures. But you know there was a lot of invention going on. People like Carl Milles and certainly Richard Koontz. There were so many sculptors from Northern Europe and the U.S. during that period that were producing a certain kind of sculpture that I love and just can't get enough of.
When I'm drawing, I'm often thinking, “What if this were a sculpture?”. Some of the forms that I draw are really a sculptor's idea of forms. For example, a lot of sculptors would make a plane for the top of the shoulder. So at the collarbone, there would not just be a bump on a lump, but the collarbone would be a division between the front plane and a slanted top plane of the shoulder. With examples in front of me, I could point out scores and scores of ways that sculptors organize form and make it very strong and clear. Take the really subtle forms that are on the body and make them a little bit more architectural and little bit more digestible.
As for calligraphy, I practiced that decades ago. I'm very interested in letter forms. Sometimes I almost practice it so that I could be able to write in cursive legibly, which is really hard for me. I flunked handwriting in grade school and to this day sometimes in odd hours I'll fill pages with cursive practice trying to make legible writing. In my design days I did a lot of hand lettering, which is different from calligraphy. In calligraphy you write out in single flowing strokes, whereas in lettering you sort of draw and build up each letter. I'm really interested in letter forms as well. There's a sculpture and architecture to that.
But getting back to calligraphy. I especially love Asian calligraphy even though I'm not able to read a single character, unlike Cherie who can now. Chinese twentieth century art has a very strong grounding in their old traditions , which are so close together with writing and drawing. Chinese brush and ink drawing are extremely calligraphic. It's like music. The impression of movement is so powerful. More than any other art form, it strikes me as music does. There's a very powerful emotional effect that comes from motion and change. There are a lot of twentieth century Chinese artists whose names I can't read or pronounce, but whose books I go through by the hour. I look at the way that they almost write their figures and plants and mountains and streets. Some of that comes out in my drawings where the same strokes that I use to describe a shoulder blade or something could be a stroke used to write a character.
How is your artwork as an illustrator different from this body of work?
All those years I was illustrating, I was doing the thing I wanted to do more than anything else. I was not a frustrated fine artist by any means. I really loved making pictures that were made to augment the stories. There would be the story of the text and I would invent a whole new visual story that went with it. I was not copying “so and so did this and then they did that'”and then I would draw them doing that. It wasn't like that at all. It was a very free and inventive process of inventing a visual story to go with the word story. When they are together, you don't know the difference when you are looking at the picture book. You think the author is saying what I'm drawing and you think I'm drawing what the author is saying but actually it's only at little points that is the case.
A few years ago, the mural project at the bookstore came up. That had a lot to do with my change of focus. It was the first really big, demanding project in which I was not starting out from someone else's narrative. There were no specific directions from Eric or Catherine [Papenfuse]. They were the most wonderful patrons and benefactors because all they were doing was encouraging my development of the idea. Though the mural is full of history of anecdote, more than anything else, it's a figure composition. It's an abstract design it was meant to be decorative. I was doing what I felt murals should do, traditionally have done and it recent decades have failed to do. That is, to not be an illustration but a decorative surface that is wedded to it's architectural setting. So, it was actually made for outdoors. The horizontal band was a way to lock it to that long stretch of building. That's how the river got in there. I wasn't thinking, oh, I'll do something of the river. I thought, this is a really long wide building; I'm going to have to do something to acknowledge that and then I'm going to have to do something to interrupt that. Suddenly, it came to me that the river could be a unifying line that goes the length of it.
It really developed in the most abstract terms but it became a figure composition. Most of the effort was spent on the original sketch, which was about 9 feet long, working out the positions of figures. Before there were figures I would make these swoops thinking, I know here's a vertical; it'll be a tree. Now I'm going to have to do something to balance or lead to or bypass that vertical. So I would make some swooping lines and then some other swooping lines and then little by little those swooping lines became figures in various positions. A lot of those sections of the mural came from my sketches so they didn't begin as swooping lines, but as a specific anecdote and they were built into that - the general sweep and flow of the thing.
When that experience was over, I was kind of addicted to the idea of designing with figures. That was always a component of the illustration, but the narrative was so demanding I couldn't add 50 different figures just because I wanted to. The mural made me want to do more with the figure as design apart from a narrative. The mural has a setting, but it's dominated by figures. Now I've gotten rid of the setting and I'm working with single figures and double figures. I'll keep playing with fewer and more clusters of figures in sculptural arrangements.
In illustration you're accomplishing a number of different things at once: a narrative, a design. You're partnering with the author, even though in most cases you never meet the author or speak with them. It's a collaborative effort. In these drawings, the driving motivation is to find the most interesting presentation of a figure completely without reference to a story or anecdote or situation even though after the fact they may be imagined into the work. Sometimes I'll add a title that will suggest that, but that is often after the fact. Even the absence of clothing is a way of avoiding setting and time and place and social position, that sort of thing. All of these are very important in illustration, the setting and the clothing are a big part of telling the story. Now I'm saying there's no story and there are no clothes and this is getting closer and closer to pure design and the way you react to the position of a figure.
How long have you been doing illustration professionally?
That started while I was in high school. In that first job I was doing a lot of airbrush. I did a lot of images that were station ID things for special times of the year between programs. They would flash their logo with this airbrushed picture that I would make of some kooky thing. Then by my early 20s I was settled into book publication, primarily as a designer. I was pushing towards illustration, so I began assigning myself cover illustrations in my role as designer. Instead of getting a photograph for the cover, it would be an illustration. Then I began studying illustration more formally through Syracuse University. Really, it began at age 16 doing it for money. By age 20 and onward that was my work, illustrating an designing. The children's books came around age 30. So for a number of years I was designing by day and illustrating nights and weekends. Then I would cut back my design job to a few days a week. Then I started teaching and designing. Now I'm not teaching or designing, just doing this.
Do you have a favorite illustration project that you've worked on?
At the time I did each of the childrens' books, I was absolutely engaged and committed and fanatical about it. There was one called The Silk Route, a historical book about trade between China and Byzantium in the seven hundreds. That had a lot of scholarship, even more than the others. In all of them there's history involved and a lot of research. But that one is the one that if I were to ever do it again, I'd want to do more work like that. John S. Major is the author of that. He's a professor of Asian Studies at Dartmouth, I think. He is the author of many scholarly books on Asian subjects but he stepped into writing juvenile books. In this case we collaborated together directly and became friends in the process.
It was supposed to be the first in a series of six trade routes books. Just as we were working on this, our publisher, Harper Collins, was bought by Rupert Murdoch and they, little by little, changed it from a privately-owned publishing house to a very very commercial one. They fired our editor who was in charge of doing all this history. After that no one was interested in history. The idea of that whole series died, but it's actually the best selling of all the books after all these years. It's the kind of book I'd love to do again if there were the climate for it.
I've heard that you play piano. Do you compose your own music?
I do. I'm not so good at reading, although the last number of years I've been learning to read some pretty complex music. Like drawing from imagination from childhood on, the most natural way to make music was to improvise or to deliberately compose things. For a while in my teens that motivation to draw and to be a musician was probably about 50 / 50. I pretty quickly realized that I didn't like performing. I didn't like being in front of people at which point so much of what I could do would evaporate. So I turned more and more to the idea of composing, just building these musical structures alone. What becomes of that and all those compositions, I don't know. I'm getting older and I'm getting a little nervous about that. But, drawing still has to take priority.
Do you enjoy cooking?
I do. Cherie is a really good cook. But, in the various changes of working roles, me being home all the time, it makes sense for me to cook. I enjoy doing that. I do almost entirely Italian cooking. We love it. Its a way of learning something rather than trying to do a little bit of everything. I want to understand what that cuisine is like.
Are there any new skills that you'd like to learn?
Printmaking is fairly new. Cherie and I really enjoyed looking at prints and learning about them from decades back. It was always my intention to make prints but it's taken me 35-40 years to actually getting around to doing it. I studied lithography with Don Forsythe at Messiah a couple years back. He was a wonderful teacher, but it was so technical that I couldn't continue with it. It was just not the right medium for me. The technical demands were so great that it just didn't' leave me enough room to give attention to the drawing part of it. It was intimidating. I might be able to do it again now. I feel I'm getting more acclimated to printmaking. I want to do wood engraving and wood cutting and perhaps lithography again and all sorts of printmaking techniques. It's very exciting.
I'm 55, I think. I feel really energized by trying to learn a difficult skill. Its as scary now as it was when I was 16 or 18 trying to figure out how to draw a body. It actually makes you feel young and energetic to be in that position.
Are there any places you'd like to travel to?
Highest on the list for both of us are Italy and China. We've never to Europe. I sort of have fantasies of a trip to Italy in which we take cooking lessons. Which region, I don't know because from top to bottom it is so attractive. We have been to China and can't wait to go back. Cherie has been studying Chinese language over the past several years. Chinese culture was an area of great interest for her since childhood. She's the leader in that and I've become equally enamored with Chinese tea culture and Chinese woodblock printing and art. To go there and walk through the parks and see the Asian sensibility that is manifest in everything – on the pavements you walk over, they are different.. and vary varied. The walls and roof tiles, the buildings, the way trees are arranged in the park sin southern china – it's sculpture. There are things that just jar you into realizing you know nothing about what its like on the other side of the world. Its intoxicating. We are very eager to go back.
What do you think of the art scene in Central Pennsylvania?
It's really fun to know how many people are in their studios working and showing in galleries.
Lancaster is very lively. I'm especially thrilled about whats happening in Midtown [Harrisburg] right now. So much of what we now love about this city has to do with the energy and enthusiasm of Eric and Cathy [Papenfuse]. We keep meeting more and more people doing wonderful things. I think with the emerging galleries and venues in Harrisburg, we're suddenly becoming aware of a lot really wonderful stuff that we had not been aware of previously.
Any advice for artists?
Two of my favorite artists are Thomas Hart Benton and Isabel Bishop. I remember Tom Benton writing that art isn't such a bad occupation if you can get through the first 30 years. He sold a few things but he was not living from his art until he was much older. I was shocked to read last night that Isabelle Bishop, even though she was a renowned artist from the 1920s and onward, she was not making a living at it until she was much older.
Richard Koontz was working at the high level of industrial design back in the 30s and 40s for Raymond Lowey (the father of modern industrial design). He went from one rather privileged and very responsible position to the next. But later when he focused on sculpting, he made a conscious decision that he was not going to get tied up with the business of selling and showing. He wanted to make the stuff unencumbered by the demands of the gatekeepers in the art world. So that allowed his artwork to become fully developed. He really reached astonishing heights. He believe in the way of the amateur, in the best sense. An amateur being someone who does it for love.
If it's possible to live by it, that's wonderful, but if it's not, you may actually be able to develop most fully, if you're not connected to the demands and gatekeepers of the marketplace.
Let me replace that. Advice for artists: Do it obsessively. Let's go with that instead.