Christopher Stott is a fantastic contemporary realist painter who lives with his wife and kids near Saskatchewan, Canada. I stumbled upon his website www.christopherstott.com and was stunned by his work which is old school, yet beautifully modern. I had a great chat with him. By the way, we completed this entire email interview in one day! Cool. I think you'll like what he has to say about his work and art in general. Read on ...
MICHAEL: Hey Chris, I absolutely LOVE your work man! Wow. You're now focusing on "Contemporary Realism," which I also love, but what does that term mean to you? How do you define it?
CHRISTOPHER: I used to say I was a "still life" painter and that usually conjures up images of very traditional fruit and flowers in people's minds. Although those subjects are being done in fantastic ways by people today, I found my interests in objects that are not "traditional" at all. Although I think the reason I paint them is the same as painting traditional still life. Here's one way to put it; "contemporary" means the objects/subjects I paint can only be found in modern times. And the "realism" I use tells a viewer (without seeing a painting first) that you're going to be able to tell what it is. It's not abstraction. It's a slow, "old school" way of painting something new. I love seeing people use old master techniques to paint subjects from today. I think it's an exciting way to look at our world. It's kind of an "everything old is new again" revitalizing.
MICHAEL: Wouldn't this be a different world if everyone could take the best of what's old and make it relevant for today like you're doing? Anyway, I find still lifes of all types amazing. Everyone can relate to them ... even opulent ones. I literally see still lifes everyday everywhere I go. Surely you must?
CHRISTOPHER: You know how many times I get people saying to me "my dad used to have a typewriter like that" or "my grandmother had a clock exactly like that! I remember the phone at my grandmother's house"? I'm not sure if I paint nostalgia, or paint a thoughtful moment for someone, but everyone seems to be able to relate. It's almost like still life has "quiet thinking" at its core. It almost launches you to somewhere else, a different time and place.
MICHAEL: Yes. Still lifes are timeless. When I look at your work, it's like I'm looking at myself in a way because I collect the things that you paint!
CHRISTOPHER: With my subjects, I'm aiming at our inventions, devices, appliances, etc., that we all use in some way. We have modern versions of all the objects I paint, but painting the versions from a few decades ago somehow brings them importance that's missing from the ones we use today or highlights the issues we talk about. Everywhere, at all times, I'm seeing still life. I see it in my kitchen, my desk, the door leading outside my house, the work bench in my basement and it's especially interesting to see it in other people's places and spaces, because you can see the connections everyone has with the familiarity. And I agree about seeing all still life as amazing. Everything from Pieter Claesz to a Thiebaud row of pies ... there's something to enjoy (and learn!) in all of it.
MICHAEL: Your work really reminds me of the great work of still life artist William Harnett. He's one of my all time favorite artists. To me, he's like the "man's man of artists." I'm convinced that if he were alive today, his work would basically be your work. Was he an influence for you?
CHRISTOPHER: Well, isn't that interesting. I was looking at his work a few weeks ago. Some artists today produce work that is very strikingly similar to his work. He has proven to be a popular influence today. I would say that his work is an influence of mine as well, although I'm trying to steer the aesthetics in a slightly different direction. I like that there's continuity or a continuation with what he did and what myself and other artists today do.
MICHAEL: Another thing that really grabs my attention about your work is your use of the color white for the background of your paintings. It's very classic, yet as an artist you know there are many shades of white. How do you decide on what to do with the background which could be a complete painting all by itself?
CHRISTOPHER: The white background or neutral, warm gray tones I use because when I look at very traditional or centuries old still life, they are deep, dark, browns. I think it was normal for a candle-lit or fire-lit world, to see things this way. I've got big windows and am able to work beyond daylight hours (electricity!), so it only seems natural that the grounds I use are white, or brighter than the dimly lit world of the past. I use varying values in the whites/grey to help define space, shape, light and weight to the objects. Also, our modern advertising often places its subjects in neutral or sparse grounds to bring the object forward and make it recognizable. I'm using this in my designs as well. The negative space or the space around the objects is just as important to the entire painting as the subject itself. I think presenting the paintings as I do somehow modernizes the entire practice of painting. It's that "everything old is new again" theme. I paint (my technique) like it is 1640, but my subjects and designs could only make sense to an audience in the last half century, from 1950 until now.
MICHAEL: I asked that question because I'm always wondering about which shades of white show off paintings to best effect, especially in galleries or a home. What about ultra pure white or ivory?
CHRISTOPHER: A friend of mine just hung one of my pieces in his house and he had a cool white wall, so he moved the painting to a tan colored wall and felt that it was much more pleasant on that wall. The gallery in California where my work is also shown has an "off-white/tan" wall, so the painting's whites stands out much more. If you have a white wall, a broad, dark frame really helps to bring presence to paintings. Strangely, it seems to work on all wall colors, if you ask me.
MICHAEL: I totally get that. Your respect for the past is impressive. However, as you know, our world doesn't really respect the past unless it's something people can "sample" (as in pop music) or duplicate for the sake of making money. When you look at the work of the old masters (after all, they were human), do you see mistakes or things that might have been improved on?
CHRISTOPHER: I'm not sure I can see anything that could have been improved on. It is what it is. It was practiced relentlessly, so I'm sure that they achieved (or got close to) what they were aiming for. Something that always crosses my mind is the actual practice of this slow, methodical painting and how it transforms the painter. I think I would understand who the painters were, what their frustrations were, what they thought of while they were working. It's like meditation, getting entirely lost in the work. I mean literally moving paint around, mixing colors, staring at your subject, contemplating your next move ... all this has stayed the same. And it's perpetual. One painting leads to the next, which leads to the next, etc. It's almost like I'm picking up where they left off and just carrying the torch of the quiet observer, documenting the world around me in my time. Funny how there's still such a drive to continue with the practice despite photography, video etc. Painting continues. I wonder if it's the lifestyle that it offers that attracts people to it? It's a slow, deep process that requires years to get a hold of.
MICHAEL: I think painting will always be around because ultimately, it's about getting to truth through detail, patience and deliberation which clearly shows in your work. There's no way you could create what you do while multitasking ... talking on your cell phone, watching television, babysitting and surfing the internet at the same time (although you may try. LOL)! Interesting that you say you're documenting things because your work is almost as crisp and clear as photorealism. Do you ever get tempted to explore other genres like photography or video?
CHRISTOPHER: My art education was not based in any traditional art. There was no painting technique taught. Everything I do has been self-taught over the last seven years of trial and error applied to roughly 800+ paintings. Instead, they focused on the thought of art, not the practice. Because I was in school at a time when digital media was breaking through, everyone turned to video and digital photography for artistic expression. And I participated fully and did very well. In fact, I graduated with high honors and was hired by my school after graduation to help oversee the transition of the photography department from analog to digital. I still find myself viewing video (as in fine art video) and viewing fine art photography. I enjoy it all and like the thought provoking challenges. But like I mentioned in an earlier response, the lifestyle of painting lured me in. It's what got me interested in pursuing an art education in the first place. Like a great big life-sized game of Plinko, I found myself almost naturally arriving at painting after bouncing around other art practices. I feel like I took much of the skills I learned and apply those to painting. Almost bridging gaps that I see and making my own connections from photography to painting.
MICHAEL: Wow, that's great. You know, I think that many really talented artists like you don't realize how intimidating they can be for some people. People may look at your fantastic work and naturally assume that they're not worthy of having such things. They feel the work is beyond their reach. Of course, artists aren't responsible for peoples' reactions, but do you have any thoughts about this?
CHRISTOPHER: I think you're right. I used to be so entirely intimidated ... no, wait ... I *am* still intimidated by what I consider really talented artists. I'd stammer and stutter if I ever found myself face to face with Scott Fraser or Daniel Sprick or Robert Jackson. Since I spend my life doing it, I think I definitely am becoming more insular in my way of thinking. My wife recently met a new friend, and when she was visiting our house for the first time she came in to the studio. I guess it was an uncomfortable experience for her as a few weeks later she told my wife that she used to consider herself an aspiring artist, but after leaving my studio she felt like giving up. So I had a long talk with her because I felt awful, the last thing I ever would want is to have intimidated someone and made them feel like giving up! Hopefully the reverse is true for her now. That's a good example of the way art becomes a walled garden. I sat on a board of directors at a gallery and we had many meetings trying to figure out how to get people in to the gallery. We had our regular patrons like artists, collectors, academics, etc. But what about everyone else? The experience of the gallery staff was that people would walk in off the street, almost by mistake and as soon as they realized where they were, they'd freeze in their step, body language changed and they quickly high-tailed it out the door. Our reactions were almost, "No, wait! Come back! We're not snobs!" These are great questions. I haven't thought about many of these things for some time. I can remember always telling my wife that the art school experience was like living in a fantasy world that only some people would understand.
MICHAEL: You mentioned earlier that you really worked on your talent. So many people also seem to think that natural talent doesn't require much work. Do you come from an artistic family and what do you think about the whole nature vs. nurture thing?
CHRISTOPHER: I was "the kid who could draw" in school. That was my special talent, the ta-da trick I used to perform. I recall one day in 8th grade when our very uber-masculine, sporty teacher was fulfilling some artistic requirement and told us all to draw his desk and all the objects on it. A still life artist was born that day. I nailed it. All I did was apply these skills that came naturally and for many years after that I naively thought anyone could do the same thing. See it, think about it, make a plan of action in your mind, look at your paper, map it out and start drawing. Simple, no? And now when I think about it, I drew all the time as a kid. And I even went to the library to get all the "how-to" books on art that I could get my hands on. I was nurturing a skill that nature gave me. Once I was in art school, the challenges began. I remember hearing a painter say that despite your natural propensity toward painting, drawing, etc, you have to challenge yourself. It cannot be so easy all the time. That means you're being lazy and not pushing yourself or moving to the next level. I think nature vs. nurture is balanced. Both affect you. I think all cognitive sciences are coming to this new awareness, that both are in play. So if you have a natural skill, that's great, but it's useless unless you really, really work at it. Do I come from an artistic family? No, not at all. At least not on the surface. There's always been this thing where people look for the "gene" that I somehow inherited that passed by everyone else. I'm not so sure that's how it works. It's that I enabled the skill, recognized it early on and no one told me I couldn't pursue it.
MICHAEL: Finally Chris, we all know how art is repeatedly marginalized in society. What role does art play in your daily life and what would you say to people who don't think art matters?
CHRISTOPHER: Part of me wants to say, "If art doesn't matter, then why have we been doing it for the last 50,000 years?" "Why has everything we've learned beyond the written word come from the arts ... architecture, paintings, sculpture, mosaics, tapestries?" Another part of me realizes that people don't know it matters and that every single day they encounter it, because it surrounds us. It's so pervasive in our world that we don't actually see it anymore. People think it only exists in galleries on a wall, for elite, wealthy, educated people to participate in. I wouldn't challenge anyone to think differently if they said art doesn't matter, I'd just think they were a product of a highly cynical culture. In my daily life, art is in the music I hear, the movies I watch, the books I read, the pictures I have on my walls, to the massive outdoor sculpture my city just installed at an important intersection not far from my home (which I'm happy to report is one of the best in the entire city). So it's everywhere.
MICHAEL: It has been great fun chatting with you Chris. I wish you much success in the future. You deserve it. Your work is great.Check out Christopher's fantastic work on his website at www.christopherstott.com