DAY XIII • ON THE ROAD WITH CHRIS WILLCOX

Wednesday, September 25th

On The Road - Journal Entry No. 3

I always feel that first introductions can tell you a lot about a person. Aspects of the way in which we conduct ourselves when interacting with someone new will carry on throughout a developing relationship. I found this notion especially true in my initial conversations with artist, Chris Willcox. I first met Chris in Salt Lake City at the starting point of the Land Art Road Trip. After loading the trailer with our belongings, I realized that I needed something to keep me warm in Utah’s rainy weather. I returned to the trailer where Chris was experiencing a similar response to the temperature. After exchanging a few words, I struggled past the mass of newly added paraphernalia in the space. “I have a really warm sweater you can borrow,” he offered when he noticed that I foolishly placed my things in the depths of the trailer. “It’s a really nice one. I know I’ll be jealous that you’ll get compliments for it instead of me.” In a way, it was like Chris spoke ‘fashion.’ Without even seeing his sweater, he convinced me to wear it. Within minutes, he pulled out a bright red cardigan decorated in equally colorful details. He was right; it was definitely warm and, as he predicted, it garnered many compliments from the group.

I soon found that the jealousy he predicted to accompany this loan was clearly a joke. He seemed happy to have helped me, a stranger he met minutes ago, to keep warm. Further into our relationship, I found that he behaved in the same way when it came to his work. Chris loves sharing his art and the difficulties he has faced which have inspired it. In fact, right before this trip, Chris was in Washington, D.C. celebrating an immense exhibition that he headlined at the world renowned Smithsonian gallery. Volkswagen had rewarded his talents as an artist with disabilities by gifting him a generous career-boosting grant and space on the walls of their offices. He shares his passion despite his severe dyslexia in ways that are heartwarming and inspiring. That goes for anything he loves, including yoga, massages, and his girlfriend back in New York. He invites you to share his joy, no matter what form it takes. 

Luckily for me, I was able to see the way in which he maintained peace, created his work, and interacted with other artists. Even in uncomfortable situations, Chris kept cool and was always there to provide comfort and support for those who needed it. As we continue our travels, he remains stress-free while also preparing for his first solo show. Organized with Gerson Zevi, it’s set to take place only a few weeks after we return from this epic journey. With a lot of time in Quemado, I had the opportunity to speak to Chris in more depth on the process behind his paintings, his struggles and successes.

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Q + A W/CHRIS WILLCOX

VISUAL ARTIST - NEW YORK, NY

Sarah Mendelsohn: So Chris, how did you first develop an interest in art?

Chris Willcox: Well, it’s so hard to pinpoint because it happened so early. I have pretty severe dyslexia, so I was doing very poorly in school and art was sort of a thing I was able to do. It was a place where I could succeed and I could show myself, my teachers and my family that I was capable of something. So I really think that was the first major thing that pulled me towards art. It was also a tool by which I could experience a catharsis for all of the frustrations that I had with my learning disabilities.

SM: So did you end up pursuing art when you went on to college?

CW: I did. Eh, yeah. Well, my family is definitely a bit more conservative than many other artists’ families, I think. So it was very important for them that I attend a university. I went to Washington University in St. Louis, which is a really good school that also happened to have an art school. So I majored in art there. I double majored; I got a degree in philosophy as well.

SM: Oh, wow. Now in addition to being an artist, you’re also working in the science realm. Is that right?

CW: Yeah, neuroscience. I don’t actually conduct experiments; I’m more on the journalism end of that world. I produce a television show called the Charlie Rose Brain Series. It’s sort of a round table format with a couple of people discussing different aspects of neuroscience. Anything from diseases of the brain like schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to things like creativity, aging, movement and position making. The brain is a really immense topic, so we have a lot of material to cover.

SM: Is neuroscience something you’re also interested in?

CW: I’m absolutely fascinated by it. It goes back to having learning disabilities as a kid. The relationship between the brain and the mind is something that has always been of interest to me. My philosophy coursework was very much focused on something called the philosophy of the mind, which focuses on questions like: what is the relationship between the mind and the body?

SM: Is that something you worked on with Infinite Earth, the project you recently exhibited? I know you told me they chose artists with disabilities. They obviously see the connection between art and learning disabilities.

CW: Yeah. For me, there’s a main parallel that I tried to address in that exhibit. It was having a lack of control. I try to set up my paintings so that I don’t have too much control over them. They are sort of just products of circumstance and many accidental things. Being out of control is something that I’m intimately familiar with from having these disabilities like dyslexia. I was out of control with my ability to learn, so I implemented that same feeling in my work.

“I try to set up my paintings so that I don’t have too much control over them. They are sort of just products of circumstance and many accidental things. 

... I was out of control with my ability to learn, so I implemented that same feeling in my work.”

SM: Can you tell me a little bit more about your creative process? You said you don’t put too much control over it and you just let it flow naturally.

CW: Yeah, I mean there are some painters who drip paint and let it slide to the bottom. That’s not really what I’m doing. I paint the canvas a single color, a gradient or something. Then on top of that, I’ll just overlay liters of paint. I sort of slash around with really big tools. I use a lot of different tools like rags, brushes, big knives, squiggies. One of my favorite tools is this hand held concrete leveler that I use to paint. It makes the most beautiful marks; my best paintings are made with that concrete leveler. So that’s the process, and the accidents come from the tools I use. It’s not that I’m manipulating the material to do different types of things. I just move it around so that these little accidents happen by the physical property of these fluid mechanics. It gives it a much more interesting touch.

SM: I’m very interested in learning more about your exhibition at the Smithsonian. They claim you’re an emerging artist, which we talked about before, but how did you get involved in this program? Did you apply or something?

CW: Yeah, it was an open call, so I applied. It was an essay and images of my work.

SM: I’m curious. Now that you’ve won, are you going to leave the work you’ve been doing with the television show?

CW: That’s sort of plan, to phase it out. I’m in no rush. I really do enjoy working on the program and it’s been really exciting, a real adventure. I’ve learned a lot about composition from working on that show. I’m used to composing in two dimensions, or three. Whatever you want to call it. My images stay the way they are; they don’t change over time. They are never four dimensions, which we do on a television show, and I think that’s very interesting. It’s all the same principles: moments of tension and building up a release that exist in a painting, but doing it over time has been really interesting. It’s fun.

SM: I also noticed that color is a really important factor in your paintings. You use a lot of bright and bold colors. How do you decide on what color you will use? Does it come from an emotion or feeling?

CW: I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to tap into a specific emotion. It’s not like, “Okay these two colors are sexy together. These two colors are frightening. This is calming.” It’s more the intensity that they have to them. I’m after the charge that they have. It’s sort of more a question of optics than emotion. I also find that a limited palette can be more dramatic and allow you to focus on just the intensities of those colors.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to tap into a specific emotion. It’s not like, ‘Okay these two colors are sexy together. These two colors are frightening. This is calming.’ It’s more the intensity that they have to them. I’m after the charge that they have.”

Painters typically have several variations of blue in one painting, which I think is beautiful, but I also think there’s something equally striking about using one variation of a color without yellow on top of that. I pick my colors very specifically and I pay attention to how they interact. It compliments the method that I’m using: one color on top of a different color. It would be difficult to involve more than one hue of a color doing that. I have tried it at times, but it’s a much more complicated kind of painting. I wouldn’t say worse. In my experience it can be better to have fewer variables to play with.

SM: I’m very interested in learning more about your exhibition at the Smithsonian. They claim you’re an emerging artist, which we talked about before, but how did you get involved in this program? Did you apply or something?

CW: Yeah, it was an open call, so I applied. It was an essay and images of my work.

SM: I’m curious. Now that you’ve won, are you going to leave the work you’ve been doing with the television show?

CW: That’s sort of plan, to phase it out. I’m in no rush. I really do enjoy working on the program and it’s been really exciting, a real adventure. I’ve learned a lot about composition from working on that show. I’m used to composing in two dimensions, or three. Whatever you want to call it. My images stay the way they are; they don’t change over time. They are never four dimensions, which we do on a television show, and I think that’s very interesting. It’s all the same principles: moments of tension and building up a release that exist in a painting, but doing it over time has been really interesting. It’s fun.

SM: I also noticed that color is a really important factor in your paintings. You use a lot of bright and bold colors. How do you decide on what color you will use? Does it come from an emotion or feeling?

CW: I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to tap into a specific emotion. It’s not like, “Okay these two colors are sexy together. These two colors are frightening. This is calming.” It’s more the intensity that they have to them. I’m after the charge that they have. It’s sort of more a question of optics than emotion. I also find that a limited palette can be more dramatic and allow you to focus on just the intensities of those colors.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to tap into a specific emotion. It’s not like, ‘Okay these two colors are sexy together. These two colors are frightening. This is calming.’ It’s more the intensity that they have to them. I’m after the charge that they have.”

Painters typically have several variations of blue in one painting, which I think is beautiful, but I also think there’s something equally striking about using one variation of a color without yellow on top of that. I pick my colors very specifically and I pay attention to how they interact. It compliments the method that I’m using: one color on top of a different color. It would be difficult to involve more than one hue of a color doing that. I have tried it at times, but it’s a much more complicated kind of painting. I wouldn’t say worse. In my experience it can be better to have fewer variables to play with.

SM: For sure. What’s also interesting about you is that you do a lot of yoga; I’ve witnessed this as I’ve gotten to know you. I heard you say once that since you’ve been doing yoga more frequently, you’ve seen an improvement in your artwork.

CW: Yeah, there’s a difference. I’ve only been doing yoga for a little over half a year, so I can’t speak on the longevity of practicing it. It does a lot for me, though. It helps me find calmness, a stillness which has an effect on my painting. I can’t make a good painting if I’m scatterbrained or nervous. Those emotions would take over the painting and destroy it, which makes it very complicated for me when something is going on in my life. I had a friend die and I couldn’t do any work. The yoga’s been really helpful because it’s given me that peacefulness. I also really like the relationship to the body that you develop through yoga. I’m definitely more a cerebral person and yoga helps balance it out a bit more. I’ve been trying to make work that’s more about this bodily response other than an intellectual, conceptual response.  

SM: Also, on this trip you tend to do yoga in the landscapes, sometimes on top of or next to the artwork. Has this process impacted your feelings and if so how?

CW: Certainly with the environment. It’s a great way to engage with the environment because it’s quite meditative and you are subservient to the elements in that case. Doing a sun salutation when you can see the sun is really different when you’re doing it in a studio in Chelsea in really dingey conditions. Yeah, the exhibit I have that’s currently in the Smithsonian is very much about the way my art relates to the earth. So being here has taught me a lot more about that. It’s been really inspiring and a bit too much for me to wrap my head around sometimes, the immensity of the spaces.

“It’s a great way to engage with the environment because it’s quite meditative and you are subservient to the elements in that case. Doing a sun salutation when you can see the sun is really different then when you’re doing it in a studio in Chelsea in really dingey conditions.”

SM: For sure. Has there been any place we have visited so far that has resonated with you?

CW: The most dramatic was Spiral Jetty: just the beauty of the environment was like nothing I have ever experienced before. The texture of the salt, the warmth of the water, it was also my first night here so there was a lot of excitement about that place. We went for a swim in the Salt Lake and the water was just so beautiful. We were only in about six inches of water, but we just laid down and it held you up like a mother cradles a child. It was amazing. I’ve never been in water like that. It gives you a real sense of place. It’s an interesting experience.

SM: What have you gained from this experience, either personally or artistically?

CW: I think it’s seeing the art, which is so unbelievably ambitious. It’s really exciting to me. Painting in the grand scheme of art is generally less ambitious. That’s maybe not the right thing to say because it’s not always true, but painters can be very intimate, so it’s making me reconsider the role of ambition when it comes to the  size and scale of a piece. It’s tough to draw lessons at this point because I’m still in the midst of it. I’m just trying to soak in all of my feelings.

SM: You also have a lot of paintings with the colored mirrors at the bottom.

CW: Yeah, the colored mirror is something that I’ve been using a lot of for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it’s the visual impact that it has. Mirrors are really gorgeous objects, totally beautiful. I didn’t even intend to use them in my art. I just bought them at Canal Street Plastics and put them in my studio because I thought they were so gorgeous. Eventually, I decided a painting just wasn’t working. I was looking at this beautiful blue mirror and I thought, “Wait a second, there’s a relationship here.” So I put it on it and immediately went back to Canal Street Plastics, got them custom cut and then glued it on. The visual impact of it is really nice. On that note, there’s also a quality of light to them that is similar to that of the paintings. A lot of them have this sort of backlit quality. Mirrors, of course, reflect light back at you. I think it was the consistency of light in the paintings and in the mirrors that enabled them to works so well. Also, we were talking about accidents, we were talking about chance. I think many artists use mirrors in that way. Mirrors tap into that dialogue of chance, something you can’t control; it’s similar to the way I can’t really control the way the paint splatters or falls. I can’t control who walks in front of the mirror and what actions they take while doing so.

“Mirrors tap into that dialogue of chance, something you can’t control; it’s similar to the way I can’t really control the way the paint splatters or falls. I can’t control who walks in front of the mirror and what actions they take while doing so.”

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Chris Willcox's current exhibition, Superpositions, is available to view in Washington, D.C. by appointment only in December and January.

Contact info@gersonzevi.com for more information.

Originally published on Promote & Preserve.