Based on a FaceTime chat in November 2021, with reference to earlier studio visits between artists Harold Garde and Janice L. Moore.
JM: Good morning Harold, and just as a reminder, we’re doing this for the Maine Arts Journal, where UMVA board members (I’m currently serving as vice president) have been asked to interview their favorite Maine artists, and you are mine. [Both laugh]
HG: Well that’s lovely. Thank you, thank you!
JM: So Harold, I’m thrilled to see you. Where are you now?
HG: I’m in Florida. It’s better and gentler on me for weather, and my place here is very convenient. My studio is on the same level as my living space.
JM: Oh nice! So tell me about a typical day now.
HG: Yeah, I wake up and have my breakfast served to me, I have good caregivers and that makes life much easier for this very old guy. The rest of my time is mine now.
JM: You can head right into the studio? You’ve told me before that losing some of your hearing has meant eliminating some things that used to be distractions from painting. Correct?
HG: Maybe in the biggest sense. I also pin up older work now and study it, and see if I still consider it finished or figure out what to do about completing the stockpile of work that I have.
JM: I’m one of those people who never considers a work done. I can always circle back and find something. Do you find that you’re that same way?
HG: What I do is reserve the right, Janice, to change anything at any time! [Both laugh] I have been quoted as saying, “it’s absolutely never wrong to go back into a work if it’s not everything you want it to be,” so you go battle some more. You may come up bruised, but nevertheless, you go into battle! Even if a piece has been filmed for something, I still have the full choice of going back into it and changing it.
JM: Sure, so does it feel like a battle to you when you paint?
HG: Every, every damn painting is a battle! And as I said, it’s always a battle lost because it’s never as perfect as we would like our work to be. [Both laugh]
JM: Well, that’s interesting. When I get to have time in my studio, my mindset is always, “Yes, I get to play now!”
HG: Whatever it is that gets us there is alright.
JM: You and I became friends over chairs, and I was lucky enough to use your chair paintings in the Some Reliable Truths About Chairs exhibit I curated at the UMVA Gallery in Portland a few years back. Are you still painting chairs?
HG: Oh, yes. Not too long ago, I started a Strappo piece, and then changed my mind on an image, and I started painting chairs again. The Mills Gallery in Orland has some of my smaller Strappo works with chairs (and others). I’m getting ready for my fifth show with them. Occasionally, I do Strappo to get back into painting a little bit, to do the smaller pieces where I paint on glass, and then transfer the image later when it’s all dry; it’s a dry image transfer. I named it Strappo, and I taught it.
JM: Now I know we’ve talked before about earlier in your career when you were doing: abstract expressionism, largely circular gestures, and that you sort of meandered into chairs because they were a cube shape or a rectangle shape.
HG: Good memory! Because the non-figurative abstract expressionist (it’s bad terminology, but we have to live with it) work I was doing wanted to feel the action and wanted to display the action. So it was actually very circular in effect, and to get away from that, I started to work with cubes, but cubes didn’t automatically spell contact with human beings, and I was very surprised when I started to convert that into chairs and how a number of my friends reacted emotionally to the chair image! Many people said (and I wasn’t smart enough to pick up on it), but they said a single chair is a symbol of loneliness, and the chair is only designed for people.
JM: Right, and I think I told you before, I believe the first chair was developed in the 1300s to get people up off the ground, and it was reserved for the head of house; only the person who was “important” got to sit in the chair, and everybody else made do.
HG: Yeah, they had to squat down and low. The other thing I learned later was that in many of the African tribes, a chair was specially designed for the exclusive use of whoever was the head of the tribe. For painting, chairs are much more flexible, as the image. It says “chair”—round back, spindle, all these variations—so I’m very free using the symbol and freer than I would be if I was doing a portrait.
JM: Harold, how long have you been doing what you do with paint? I know you went to the University of Wyoming after you got out of the service. Right?
HG: Yes. I left there roughly in 1950; then, I went to Columbia for my master’s in fine arts and art education back in New York. By the time I left Wyoming, I was painting. It was all studio for me. And I was lost. That’s where I was. That’s where I was lost, and that’s where I was found! [HG laughs] After that, though, I saw no likelihood that I would be able to support myself. I was married and started to have kids then, and knew I couldn’t support us on the sale of paintings. I realized I had to face reality. So I got my master’s degree from Columbia, and they helped me find my first teaching job in New Jersey. I continued teaching until the mid-80s when I was in my sixties. I retired and went up to Maine, beautiful, wonderful Maine, after that.
JM: When you’re heading into the studio (and I know earlier you’ve talked about your head being clear; that you don’t have preconceived notions or an agenda necessarily, or something specific to contemplate) You’ve said it’s the act itself you’re getting ready for. Do you find now that’s still the case?
HG: It’s still a case with a little bit of a variation, but not that much. Recently, in the show, I had at Waterfall Arts in Besfast, Maine, and the Mills Gallery in Orlando, Florida, there is a sense of the figurative, and it feels like a series. I start very freely in order to establish something that I can edit and add to, rather than doing something preliminary. So for years now. I don’t pre-sketch anything.
JM: You don’t draw ever?
HG: Not really. It’s a whole because it’s my paint. I’m augmenting. I’m drawing with the brush, so I don’t draw in the sense of rendering, of doing a preliminary sketch with the idea that it will then become a painting. I feel about the desire, at this old age, for a sense of spontaneity and rely, at this point, on whatever accumulated, personal appreciation for what makes the painting.
JM: And so that is in part almost an action rather than an idea. Does that sound right?
HG: Well put. Yes. I want the viewer to sense the action applying the paint required.
JM: And the last time we talked about your process, you told me that you don’t clean your brushes, and I was very jealous because I’m working with oils and that part takes a lot of time! [HG laughs]
HG: Be jealous! [Both laugh] It’s a big, big improvement. It makes it very, very, much easier in terms of preparation, and also with acrylics it’s almost like you can take a dirty brush and get a Rembrandt glaze.
JM: Yes! It’s like you’re using the old dirty brushes, and you’re cleaning them on the canvas and it’s making the marks that become your starting point.
HG: And the more recent ones, since I no longer want the action to take place, I also want respect for the painting, so there’s a lot more thinned out acrylic paint and runs that get into the painting.
JM: So you’re doing more and more layers?
JM: And, what do you think that change does to the piece? When you say it’s more respect for the piece and for the rendering, what do you think that does?
HG: It’s a visual record of the effort, or (if effort is the right word, and it might as well be) of creating the painting that, to the sophisticated observer, they can sense the application of the paint, and what I’ve allowed the paint to do. And the nice thing about that is I can leave it in there, or paint over it, layer it, for its transparency, and all of that is right there to be observed. It’s not as a preliminary thing. In my painting, I want the thing that’s spontaneous about my action. I also want the freshness of the look and the paint itself and what the paint will do.
JM: I’m holding up something to show you. Can you see it?
HG: A little bit. It’s tough on the phone, You’re going to have to come down to Florida!
JM: Yes. So I paint in oils, and over the years, I’ve made my painting rags from fabric in my life. I don’t like to waste anything, and I don’t like throwing away things that have some further use. So this is from the sheets my son had in his crib when he was little, and I use old pajamas, etc. It all gets turned into my painting rags, and now I’ve become attached to them with their abstracted marks, because of the same idea you said: they show the effort and the time and the act of making. They also hold memory. So these are my abstract expressionist pieces. [Both laugh] I’ve saved every painting rag I’ve made and used, and now they are their own art pieces.
HG: Do you ever collage them or sew them together, or mount them or something like that?
JM: No, not yet, but I have them hanging on a sloped wall in my studio. They’ve become their own installation, and I just keep adding to them. I know I’m going to do something with them. Meantime, I’m living with them and considering. I like the record of the effort, as you just said. That’s part of it, isn’t it? We’re here temporarily, and we have a limited amount of time, and what are we going to do during our short time here? What is the mark that we make in that time?
HG: That’s it.
JM: So when you’re working on new pieces now, they are unstretched? You don’t necessarily live with them around you, until and unless they’re in your studio and you’re working on them?
HG: They’re not stretched until I have a show. So there’s a lot of work. For new work, I store them on the floor and then pin them up on the walls and live with them that way before I decide if the work is truly finished. I do rely, and I’ve been lucky with good, good people who do the selection for shows. The work that has been in a show goes into storage. And what I have on my walls is work that’s probably in progress. And I just lay it down on the floor, very grateful that I’m not a sculptor. [Both laugh]
JM: When I think a piece might be done, I have to move it into my living space and catch it out of the corner of my eye when I’m not paying attention to it.
HG: Yes, that’s doing it! That’s exactly right! You have to look at it unexpectedly.
JM: Right. It has to be a surprise, People look through a mirror, turn the work upside down, and do all of those things, but to me, I have to just absorb it, not as the focus, but as a side thing. There’s something important in just living with it too, as an act, as a new creation, and it will tell you what it needs. And it will tell you whether or not it’s done. Sometimes I’ve gone back after 20 years.
What’s the longest you had a piece that you thought was done, and then you circled back?
HG: When we first go to Maine and then to New York, I very often will shuttle work back and forth, so I’m never quite sure how long it has been since the last time I worked on something before picking it up again. It might be as easily ten years as ten hours.
JM: That’s interesting, and so when you’re doing your work in progress, do you actively try to not think about it until you’re ready to address it?
HG: No. I want to think about it. There’s enough of my being a teacher in there that I want to analyze, try to study, try to see as objectively as I can. Sometimes, as you said before, you have to turn it upside down or re-pin it in order to get the sense of balance and what you want the viewer’s eye to do, and as I used to say, I try to appeal to the restless eye.
JM: Harold, you’ve been making art for a very long time, and you’ve had a lot of artist friends over the years. Do you have people that you’ve started with way back when, that you’ve formed friendships with, that you’ve benefited from, and have been able to respond to each other and to each other’s work?
HG: Hah! I’ve lived so long Janice! I’ve outgrown and outlived almost anybody. Recently, somebody said that there’s a woman in New York who is now 111 years old. I said, please do not wish it on me!
JM: So that’s a question: do you have this idea that there are things you need to say and get out that you haven’t gotten to yet?
HG: No. No, every painting for me pretty much has no history of that kind.
JM: So, no sense of: “I need to get to this, to finish this”?
HG: Oh yeah. There’s a need to go back and reexamine because there’s still learning to be done about a particular painting. And that holds true. But in a sense, I’m more content to let things be on the pile of unfinished or reexamined work for longer periods of time, because if anything, time has become more precious.
JM: Sure, I can imagine. You and I have talked about this idea before because I’ve told you that I have been living with multiple sclerosis since 1996. And so, always for me has been the sense that I’m not sure how much longer I’ll have use of these hands and this body, so I better get to it and get it all out and said now, while I can. (And I’m happy to add that I’ve been able, when I can be mindful of limited time and limited energy, to make work for over thirty years so far.)
HG: Yes. And that’s the healthiest attitude. I’m not going to be around long. I’m not going to continue to let myself be eaten up by this Trump generation, the things that we live through, or how hard it is for somebody to live off their artwork, because there’s so few of us who even pretend that the sale of the artwork is going to support us, and for how long? So, we have to have a sense of “goddammit, they’re trying to get in my way, and I’m going to push them out of my way, whatever the hell it is, and get to work.” I think I said at one time, because I’m not strong enough, wise enough, or in a position to blow up city hall, I might as well get in the studio, shut up and paint. [Both laugh]
JM: Is there an accomplishment that you are particularly gratified by?
HG: Yes. Because by glimmers, Janice, what happens is sometimes something will happen to let me know that there’s somebody else who gets that some work of mine is significant. And one of the great things that has happened to me is I have the dream couple—the absolute dream couple—who are my major collectors. They say that between the two of them, they’re going to hold their collection as a body of work until there’s a suitable place for it to be permanently installed. And that kind of triggers, you know, how do you have the nerve, or have the dream that it’s going to be wanted?
JM: Ultimately, you do it for yourself first and foremost. Right? You’re one of those people who has to do it (and I consider myself in the same category). I would have lost my dang mind a long time ago if I did not get to work out life through a paintbrush. So you have that, your large body of work, and isn’t it great that it’s actually received, and has meaning for people? I’d like to say, “it’s a well-played hand, sir, this life you’ve chosen and you’re living.”
HG: And now I feel the same way. For all of us, what happens to this pile of work that we’ve done? So when I’m lucky enough, when people from the University of Wyoming come through and have just acquired two more works for their permanent collection, that is very gratifying. It’s also gratifying that when my collectors talk about things, they want to make sure that the work will be in a place where there’ll be a lot of viewers because they feel that people have a lot to learn from my work. I hope they’re right! [Both laugh] I enjoy these things. Like Rob Shetterly quoted, which I cherish: “Harold Garde gives other artists permission.” Yeah.
JM: Yes! Isn’t that awesome?
HG: It doesn’t matter whether it’s accurate or not. [Both laugh]
JM: Well, it is accurate because you approve of it!
Well, Harold, thank you so much. Is there anything that we didn’t touch on that you want to?
HG: Yes. Find a way to giggle a lot.
JM: I do. Well, I think life is absurd and we are an absurd species, and so if we cannot celebrate and notice that, then we’re missing the point of being alive. That’s always been my mantra anyway.
HG: It’s a good one! And wit is very, very hard to come by. It’s a hell of a good vessel to move into the next thing.
JM: Yes, and with wit you can get the thing that you want heard and understood across so much faster and more succinctly.
HG: I hope that people can also find humor in whatIdo. However you get there is alright by me.
JM: Well, I will end, Harold, by saying that it’s always a pure delight whenever I get to talk with you. I always look forward to it. Our encounters always make me feel regenerated, re-invigorated and happy that I do what I do, and so so happy that I get to interact with you.
HG: You’re a Goodie! Thank you! It’s a lovely way to end. Just very briefly, I think you probably know that we don’t paint for a legacy. Should it happen in any way, it’s one of the funny coincidences—not a worthy goal.
JM: That’s right.
HG: And thank you for this. I really appreciate the chance to talk with you. Be well. Be well. Be well, and again, giggle a lot.
Image at top: Harold Garde, Witness, acrylic on canvas, 31.5 x 64 in., 2010.