I am an artist of many minds and I have two studios to prove it. One is a painting/printmaking studio, fully equipped with the tools to produce prints and paintings. The other, an old greenhouse, is a studio of limitless possibilities. My painting studio is haunted. I’m not uncomfortable with that. Actually I have welcomed these ghosts in over my decades of studio practice. It’s not at all like being in a scary movie; the place is more like an old antique shop in amber light, its walls and shelves filled with paintings and curious objects—families of sculpture, tacked-up drawings and an old leather chair. The ghosts who inhabit this space with me are here by invitation. These are the artists I have admired in my life. They tend to represent a tradition rooted in values and discipline. Some inspire and console me, but they are taskmasters who demand a focus on work. I roll up my sleeves every day and go into that studio space with the resolve of a professional. This is no burden. I enjoy the work and I like being there, but this studio is not a place for play. Very little about it is set up for that. My tools have a history, my pigments a lineage and the blank canvas has a narrative that seems to have been preordained. Everything here is so in the service of work.
Regarding play, I appreciate humor and fun in literature and film but see little of it in the art world, with a few notable exceptions. I have rarely taken the idea of play with me into my studio, and it wasn’t until quite recently that I realized that I could tap into a wonderfully playful aspect of my creative resources. This realization came to me while working in neon, which was to me a new and different and very eclectic medium.
I enjoy moving between different mediums. The freedom to change the physical nature of what I am doing stimulates something. I like to take an image as a painting for example and rework it as a print, which has its own aesthetic and limitations, or as a sculpture, and suddenly I’ve got new challenges. Each iteration teaches me something about my imagery. I enjoy dealing with the unexpected and also getting to experiment with new materials and tools. Likely this experimentation is the closest I have gotten to being playful with my art. Using a hand that is less controlled by the conscious tradition of painting, welding steel, wedging clay, or cutting blocks can bring an element of surprise to my art that I find compelling. Then there is the added benefit of collaborating with an expert. I have collaborated with Master Printers, Ceramicists, Neon Benders, Welders, and more recently Sign-Makers.
In the last decade I began to move into what was to me an unknown world of Electric Art. In the interest of increasing my three-dimensional options I fell upon neon. I was looking through the internet for help with this new turn and I found a shop in Lewiston, which happens to be my home town. It was while working with a neon-bender, who was taking my Sharpie drawings and turning them into beautiful electric lines, that I stumbled into the fabrication section of the sign shop. I saw a process that fascinated me. They were bending and fabricating metals and plastic and it was like nothing I had seen before, or even thought a possibility to integrate into my art. I suddenly realized that my drawings could be realized on a scale and scope that I hadn’t considered. I just needed a reason to go there. That’s when the thought of marquee signs came to me, and the birth of Hopeful followed.
While I rattle on about authorities in my painting studio and how that presence loomed over my painting and printmaking, I have always kept a blotter-sized calendar on my desk that keeps me on track with appointments, deadlines, and other obligations. The thing about these big rectangles of smaller rectangles that define my time is that they are covered like tattoos with colorful, imaginative drawings. The truth is I am a consummate doodler. I mean on an epic scale. My compulsion to draw is exemplified in twenty-two years of these twelve months of thirty (plus or minus) days of activity, with images representing appointments for dentists and doctors, children’s birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and surrounded by images in reaction to whatever may be going on in the world at that moment. I have always suspected that these insignificant doodles were in fact masterworks, but never knew what to do with them. They are mostly unconscious drawings rendered in colorful Sharpie marks and blocks—shorthand sketches of my internal mind that exist completely free from gatekeepers, ghosts, or jurists. Just my imaginings. Of course these calendars are important to me as a record of my daily life, but they are also a joyful, colorful representation of my creativity.
I started to rummage through these thousands of doodle drawings with the idea of using them to create electric marquee signs or neon sculptures. And all of a sudden I found value in these seemingly insignificant gems. I was alive with the possibilities. I thought they could be conceived in sculpture but realized this new art form was more immediate if translated into digital art: yes, NFTs. My attitude was why not experience it all? I found collaborators who eagerly navigated the technology. This gave way to imagery that showed a side of me that I had kept separate. As a result I started drawing everything I could think of: rocket ships, squids attacking whales, ship disasters, skulls in the desert, tin men leaking oil, dumpster fires. Anything that came into my imagination became fair fodder. So far I have had two releases of my drawings in digital form. In this new digital world there are very few rules. Actually none. There are no gatekeepers and more importantly no ghosts. Here I am a long way from the attitudes I take into my painting studio, but remarkably it has made the work in my painting studio more meaningful for a different reason. I found I could erect guard rails between mediums and not flinch at the differences or lecture myself that there should be a consistent correlation between everything I create.
These images in turn informed the light pieces that I have described. I found myself more relaxed creating the new pieces, playful even. I wasn’t shy about my casual line because this wasn’t supposed to be art; these doodles were ends unto themselves and could fit into all new kinds of digital and electronic technology. All aspects of my new work are mine. After all, I make it and I decide what’s good or bad. Now there seems to be more air in my creative life and a lot more fun too. I found fabricators and sent off sketches. They returned as scaled up substantial pieces. The only issue was where to put them. My painting studio couldn’t abide by them; besides taking up too much room, they just didn’t belong to the same aesthetic. I needed more space.
Then I discovered an old greenhouse for sale in Portland. 5000 square feet of broken glass, concrete, and rubble. I had to have it. As a working space it was different from anything I had ever seen before. It came completely unencumbered by anything I thought a studio should be. This was just in line with the new work I was creating—the building felt like a piece of sculpture. I named it the Electric Greenhouse. Then I started filling it with electric art, marquee signs, and lighted sculptures. The neighbors were welcoming, and I was constantly asked what I was planning to do. The best part of the whole experience were the neighborhood children. They basically loved it and gave me their full approval.
This was a new space that needed new art and new criteria. It was a fun place. I can’t help but smile when I go there to play. As it fills up, it takes on a glow. At night it has a life of its own. The colors make my life feel more vivid. All of these elements are part of me—the humor, the goodwill, the public pieces, the fascinating light from my greenhouse, and the amber solace of my painting studio. It has taken me decades to learn how to play in my world of art. It has always been there for me but I just didn’t recognize what I had until I stumbled out into a new world.
I wonder what a forty-year-old Charlie, sitting in his Bowery Studio, surrounded by his painting tomes would think of this seventy-seven-year-old man, who is sourcing his doodles to create light sculptures and marquee signs in the Electric Greenhouse, and whose tools are Sharpies, colored paper, and light bulbs. I would like to think that this would please him, but I honestly think he would frown at this audacity. I mean being an artist is serious business, isn’t it?
All photos by David Wolfe and Charlie Hewitt.
Image at top: Going Electric.