1st Class Artist and 2nd Art ~ Interview with Artist-Writer-Artist Philip Hartigan

I met Philip Hartigan in 2000 at The Vermont Studio Center, an artist residency in Vermont. His British accent and the way he sang Beatles songs during the evening bonfire events lured me in, but his art and his love of story trapped me. You may know this by now: I married the guy. And now I am eager to share with you some of his thoughts on making art, on writing, and on imagination and creation.

PMc: Your exhibition, “The Lucerne Project” is currently on display at Finestra Art Space in Chicago’s Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue. You describe the project as “A multimedia project documenting personal narratives about people I’ve never met, in a place I’ve never been.”

There are so many parts to that description I hope you will be willing to speak about. First, can you talk about how you decided to “document” a place and people you don’t really know?

PH: The idea grew naturally from my own studio work, which in the last few years has become focused on exploring memories of my own childhood through prints, sculptures, and videos. The pieces that I made started either from a visual memory, or as a result of actually writing the memories out in narrative form. The final piece of visual art would alternate between a direct telling (for example, through an animation with voice-over), or more indirectly in images and objects that seem to be derived from reality, but which are less easily interpreted.

So that’s my general process. “The Lucerne Project” came about for a number of reasons. I’ve worked on a couple of projects in the last two years, including a public art project, that used text and image to document the memories of other people. I found out, completely at random, that Lucerne, Switzerland was a sister city (twin city, in UK English) to Chicago, where I now live. I wanted to make a very big artist’s book, and I wanted to work on a project that I could add to throughout one year. So all of these things came together in “The Lucerne Project”: a 100 page accordion book of prints, a blog that I added to over a period of a year, an imaginary travel diary, and audio recordings of me reading from the diary.

The Lucerne Project: 100-Page Accordion Book

PMc: You aren’t the first artist or writer who has imagined real places in order to serve their work. Franz Kafka’s novel America comes to mind. It is difficult, though, to make a place you don’t really know become real. Can you talk about how you worked to try to make that happen in both the imagery and the words?

PH: I started with a general plan: look on the internet for images that people had uploaded of themselves on holiday in Lucerne; download them and print them out; make Xeroxes of them, playing around with multiple enlargements, different sizes, different details; print the resulting images in different combinations on printmaking paper, which would eventually be combined to make a very long artist’s book.

So the starting point is a photo of real people in a real place. But through the Xeroxing and printing process, something emerges that I call “damaged photos”: the resolution begins to break down, the meaning of the image (if it was ever clear to begin with) starts to become more obscure. As I printed the images using a printmaking process called paper-litho transfer, I found myself making decisions based on form and colour: alternate pages with faces and pages without; large, dark forms versus linear forms; dark colours and lighter colours. In this process, any narrative connections between the combined images, any stories, are accidental, only implied.

To balance that, I began writing this imaginary travel diary, which is basically a first-person series of vignettes, trying to imitate the feeling of someone arriving in a strange city for an extended stay and writing about what happens to them day by day. I think the first couple of entries started with the prints I had made, but the imaginary diary, which formed the basis of the blog, quickly took on a life of its own. After writing a few thousand words, I started experimenting with different fictional forms – dream telling, rant, journey story, opposite characters – and even putting in some of my own personal childhood memories.

So in the end, the show as it was exhibited created a sense of a place, but it would probably be unrecognizable as Lucerne to someone who has actually been there. But that’s what interests me at the moment, I think: how to work with stories that are somewhere in between the obscurity of the symbolic image, and the total clarity that is possible with writing.

PMc: I know that you are intrigued by and deeply interested in the interplay of text and image, of artists who write and writers who draw. How did you come to this interest? Was it fed at all by your own education first in literature and then in art?

PH: It started there, yes. My BA was in English Literature, and my MA was in Fine Art – Painting. All my life, since the very beginnings of my creative life in my teens, I’ve veered between wanting to be a writer and wanting to be a visual artist. And though I think of myself primarily as a visual artist now, I remain very close to the writing world: married to a writer of fiction, teaching not in an art department but in a fiction writing department, writing about art and the creative process on several blogs. The class that I teach with you, “Journal and Sketchbook”, began with the discovery that many famous writers also drew or painted, either as a way of seeing their stories better, or just as another creative outlet. It’s that idea of the ‘second art’ that fascinates me now, and the potentially important things that this stepping over into another medium has to say for the creative process in general.

The Lucerne Project: Opening Night

PMc: Why do you think you have moved more fully into the visual arts in your work? Why did you decide not to simply follow a writer’s path?

PH: Simple answer: I tried to be a writer in my twenties, got the backing of a very successful London literary agent, got very close to having a novel published, but in the end it didn’t happen. In the same month that my manuscript was finally returned to me, I got my letter of acceptance to the Fine Art MA program. (I had been painting in my spare time, showing in a south London gallery, and had applied to Winchester School of Art on a wing and a prayer.) I took that as a sign, and decided to concentrate my creative energy on visual art.

PMc: Are there artists whose work in text and image you particularly admire?

PH: There are so many. Some writers whose visual art I find compelling: ee cummings, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, Maxine Hong Kingston, DH Lawrence, Gunter Grass, William Faulkner. Visual artists who wrote very well: Michelangelo, Gauguin, Delacroix, Kokoschka, Kara Walker. And recently I’ve been interviewing contemporary artists who are less well known than the people just mentioned, but who are absorbed in writing as an important part of their work as visual artists: Dianne Bowen, dm simons, Linda Peer, Helen Crawford, Tullio DeSantis.

PMc: Since this is a writerly blog, mostly, would you mind talking about any theories you might have on the importance of visual rendering, drawing, sketching, in a writer’s creative practice?

PH: My ideas on this have developed from: seeing the effect of drawing activities on writing that takes place in the Journal and Sketchbook class; considering the work of writers such as those mentioned in the last answer. In each case, I think that moving straight from a visual art activity (drawing, painting, sculpting) to the writing produces an immediate heightening of sensory awareness. The writing becomes more imbued with details of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching. A deeper visualization often occurs, too: the writers/writing students see their characters better, see better where the story is taking place, and they see the shape or outline of the story as a whole more clearly, too. Perhaps what happens with that last thing is this: working with drawing, something that isn’t directly writing words on a page, takes the mind away from the creative problem for a while, allows it to percolate in the background, so that when the writer returns to the page, an obstacle has been removed, and they have simply been freed to go forward with the material that they were hesitating about before.

Most of these thoughts derive from empirical observation in the classroom, and from reflecting on the work of writer-artists from the past. But a lot of what I’ve said is beginning to be verified by recent experiments in neuroscience, too. Not that I think artists need that ‘verification’, really, but it’s an interesting convergence nevertheless.

PMc: You very often work with narratives, sometimes personal, sometimes more public in your creative expression. What is it about story that compels you?

PH: Hmmm. I suppose it’s that story implies a continuous time, a series of moments, rather than the still moment of a work of art. If I could find a way of telling all that I could about my memories of my childhood in a purely visual form, I probably would. But there must be a reason why I keep going back to the written and the spoken word for that, and it must be because a fully written story is still the best vehicle yet devised for expressing narrative. After all, the word “narrative” derives from words meaning “sequence of events”, and also “to know”.

PMc: Is there more work you are doing with “The Lucerne Project”? What other projects do you have underway or simmering?

PH: I am working on a public art project for the City of Urbana, Illinois, which starts with street interviews and will end with a public installation of word and image in Spring 2012.

After “The Lucerne Project” exhibition ends in mid-November, I would like to go to Lucerne, Switzerland, and work with a community of students or civilians on the reverse idea: work with them on producing their own word-and-image project based on people they’ve never met, in a place they’ve never been. That could be Chicago, or some other imagined place for them. Then I’d like to exhibit the results from both sides of the Atlantic in Lucerne and Chicago. And after that, why not extend it to more of Chicago’s sister cities? In a few years’ time, maybe we’ll be talking about The Shanghai Project, The Delhi Project, and The Vilnius Project.

For more from Philip Hartigan and the artists he knows, admires, and hangs out with, check out his blog PRAETERITA. You can also read his contributions on the art and culture blog HYPERALLERGIC. And if you are in or near Chicago, you might want to stop by Finestra Arts Space, on the 5th floor of Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Avenue, to view “The Lucerne Project”. Thank you, Philip, now go feed the cats. -PMc.←