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Six of the Best, Part 4

Part 4 of an interview series in which I invite artists to respond to six questions about art, process, and creativity. Today's artist is painter Kurt Ankeny, who lives in Massachusetts. If you're on Google Plus, you might also be able to catch Kurt live and on-air sometimes in a Hangout.

"Massacre of the Innocents," oil on canvas

Philip Hartigan
: What medium/media do you chiefly use, and why?

Kurt Ankeny: I'm an oil painter. I prefer oil because it is infinitely plastic (which fits nicely into my background as a cartoonist) and because it holds so much affinity for our own mortal casing. Oil is the part of our flesh that our current society likes to deny, tries to banish. Greasy, sweaty, our own nature offends politeness and decorum. Oil paint can throw that back in our faces in ways that other mediums cannot. And the pigment is in its simplest form, dirt. I like the earthy quality, the raunchiness of oil paint. It can play nice, it can behave itself in polite society, but it isn't fooling anyone, not for long.

PH: What piece are you currently working on?

KA: I'm working on a five panel painting with the working title of "Mother and Child" and a diptych, "Mary of Egypt."

"Mary of Egypt," work in progress

: What creative surprises are happening in the current work?

KA: In "Mary of Egypt" one panel is an abstract composition conveying Mary's lifestyle before epiphany, and then the right panel is after. What surprised me most was the composition of the right panel (which is divided into two sections, making a de facto triptych) which did not work for a long time despite numerous scraping/re-paintings of the panel. What eventually resolved the issue was making the right most section of the right panel wider, so that the balance between the two sections was not so even. Once that happened, everything clicked into place very quickly. 

PH: What other artistic medium (or non-artistic activity) feeds your creative process?

KA: I think those of us that end up as artists have a natural tendency to always be living inside our heads, to be always filing things away for later use. As an artist, I nick a bit here and lift something there. It doesn't have to be from art, though it often is. The way Cézanne used blues and greens, the heavy reliance of Matisse's palette on viridian, the whiplash motion effects and pulsing tumorous masses of AbEx painters like de Kooning and Mitchell, the lines of Uglow, Klimt, and Schiele. But it's also frequently from reading. I like the way words, especially those of poets, songwriters, and philosophers twist our normal thoughts into something new and surprising. There is a process there, as the information flows into your mind through the cloud of electric sparks which not only receives but also creates the information. And as it filters through your brain, sparking neighboring neurons and tickling nearby clusters, something new is frequently formed. In those spaces, I find the seeds for new paintings, new ideas on art.

PH: What's the first ever piece of art you remember making?

KA: There's lots of art that I have from childhood that I don't remember making, but there's one piece, in middle school or slightly before that stands out distinctly. It was a little drawing on a sheet of typewriter paper, of a little skull-faced demon in a leather jacket with a huge, fang-filled grin on its face. And I distinctly remember being repulsed and attracted to it deeply, both at the same time. It was so scary to me, and that fear I had of my own creation made the drawing seem to come from somewhere that was not-quite-me.

Anyway, my mother came along, and was absolutely disgusted by the evil little figure leering at her from the page, and my father was disturbed as well. Now, this may have been because at the time they were semi-fundamentalist Christians, and therefore prone to thinking that their child might be possessed, but nonetheless it was a powerful message to me as a young person that this image that came out of me could have such power to cause reactions in people. And because of their disapproval and partially because of my own thrilling fear of the drawing, I folded the demon out of sight and pushed it under the top layer of the wastepaper basket, too scared to physically destroy it.

So it's the story of my first piece of art and the story of my first act of artistic cowardice.

Looking back, though, if I had that piece to look at now, with adult eyes, I'm sure that its power over me would have faded and become a bit of juvenile silliness. But having destroyed it, I have only the memory of its power.

"Salome," oil on canvas

: Finally, and you can answer this in any way that's meaningful to you: why are you an artist?

KA: Because I can't help it? 

Honestly, there are so many easier paths through life. I take the long view of art, partially because, being 36 years old and still completely unknown, I must, but also because I feel that the art needs time to mature inside oneself, and that it takes a great strength of personality to throw off the shackles of a successful art-selling career and make drastic changes to the artifacts/residue of your life-long artistic practice. Especially if success finds you early. 

This is partially why I think there is so much ill-considered emphasis on the Young Genius in the art world today. The Young Genius makes a good story, and if one clips their roots while young, you get a marvelous, beautiful little artist which has a great story of precocity, and which is much more likely to stay planted neatly in a small pot which is marketable and easy to care for. They're like little bonsai trees. Magnificent in miniature. An artist which has deep, gnarled roots, and has weathered years of storms, is much sturdier, much more unruly, and much more likely to tear up the front sidewalk. Which is how I find it most comforting to think of.

If you liked this interview, and you'd like to keep up to date with the series, why not Subscribe, or sign-up via Google Connect, using one of the options over on the right? Thanks, and keep creating.


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