Rankin Willard is a talented young artist who lives in the heart of North Carolina.  When I stumbled upon his website www.rankinwillard.com/, I caught myself smiling because his work is warm, fun and refreshing yet delightfully familiar.  He’s a witty guy whose personality shows in his work and in our chat.  Enjoy.  

“… I've seen in recent years a greater interest in contemporary art and specifically a desire to know the artist. Collectors, and I include myself in this, seem to care about more than a single piece. They want to understand the artist's vision and watch them evolve ...”

MICHAEL: Hello Rankin, Your "Pop Art" is very cool.  I love the fact that you've actually created ice-pop paintings. Clever and fun. What inspires you to create?  Why Pop Art?

RANKIN: I once had a curator whose only critique of my work was that I must have a good sense of humor, which I took as a compliment whether she meant it as one or not. So, I appreciate that you enjoy a good visual pun.


RANKIN: In all of my creative pursuits, I do everything I can to increase entertainment value and decrease grim. I want my work to be unabashedly fun. I see no reason I can't express truth using bright colors, but first and foremost it has to be awesome to look at.

The pop art quality is a byproduct of my interest in minimalism. When I'm trying to find an image that is bold and crisp while still having emotion, using pop characteristics and subject matter have helped bridged that gap. My apologies if “bold and crisp” sounds like a hard cider commercial, but now that I think about it, I'm sure that is just one of the many ways my work is like hard cider.

MICHAEL: Still Rankin, many if not most people in the art world remain a little dismissive of bright, neon, primary-colored confections.  Wouldn't the art world take you much more seriously if you were dark, depressed and droned on about the ugly questions of life?

RANKIN: Well sure. But where's the fun in that?

MICHAEL: Another thing that I like about your work is the simplicity of it ... background, subject and color.  Do you think in terms of simplicity while you're painting or is that coincidence?

RANKIN: Simplicity is the goal. I want the imagery to be as pared down as possible without sacrificing the emotional punch. I began working in paper collage for this exact reason. The medium lends itself to creating precise planes of color. When I'm using paint, glass, glitter, pom-poms, mylar or whatever it may be, I dig for the best way to create a minimal piece by highlighting the material's innate strengths.  And I just took 69 words to describe simplicity, so I'm obviously also a fan of irony and a cheap dirty joke.

MICHAEL: You have a cool name. Perfect for an artist. Is there a story behind it?

RANKIN: Rankin is an old surname from my mother's side. I didn't get to meet any of the original Rankins, but I'm proud to carry it on. When I introduce myself, it usually takes a couple of tries for someone to get it right just because it's a bit uncommon, but once they do, it tends to stick.

MICHAEL: How are you feeling about being an artist in this digital, mobile age?  Are people stopping long enough to look at static paintings or devices that aren't in the palms of their hands?

RANKIN: I doubt I would be a working artist if this weren’t the digital age. There's only one Pope. He only has so many commissions to throw around. (0 Characters Left)

The internet gave me a vast amount of opportunities I wouldn't have had as a young artist outside a world capital. (25 Characters Left)

I come down on the side of technology 99% of the time. It doesn't replace seeing art in person, but it's an amazing addition. (14 Characters Left)

I see more art on Tumblr than I could in a lifetime 50 years ago. Seeing art in the digital world can lead people to art in the physical world. (-4 Characters Left)

#TeamInternet  #ArtBookGuy  #RankinWillard

MICHAEL: Haha! Are you a full time artist? Are more people buying your work as the economy improves?

RANKIN: Art of some form takes up most of my time, yes, whether it's my personal shenanigans, work for corporate clients or individual commissions. I've seen in recent years a greater interest in contemporary art and specifically a desire to know the artist. Collectors, and I include myself in this, seem to care about more than a single piece. They want to understand the artist's vision and watch them evolve. While the market is improving with the economy, the recession also brought back an appreciation for artisans. That is doing quite a bit to drive growth.

MICHAEL: You’re in North Carolina?  Where exactly?  While North Carolina has some lovely art museums and Asheville is lovely, we both know it's not a contemporary art hot bed. Or is it?  Does it matter?

RANKIN: I live right in the middle of the state, in the Piedmont Triad. You may know High Point from the International Home Furnishings Market or Winston-Salem from Maya Angelou and smoking. That area.

North Carolina has a young creative class that is growing our arts and crafts industries and people are open to new ideas. I saw my first Chuck Close 30 minutes from my house and with a computer and FedEx, anyone has access to a distribution system. I can't complain.

MICHAEL: Why not go to New York?  You're not that far away from it.  Isn't THAT the place to be for young artists?

RANKIN: I spent the summer after college interning with Sandra Gering at her Manhattan gallery and it was an immersive experience. It felt important to be exposed to top artists' work as well as the inner workings of the art business. Not to mention, Sandra is delightful and I worked next to a Leo Villareal installation and an Alex Katz painting. What's not to like?

However, there are lots of things to consider when you aren't forced to be in a specific place for your work. I could rattle off the small fish-big fish, small pond-big pond thing or the economics of the gallery system or the explosion of the very top of the contemporary art market or the continuation of artistic brain drain outside of megacities, but that's not why people choose where to live. I may end up in New York or another artistic hub, but at the moment I'm more focused on having a strong body of work if I do.

MICHAEL: What kind of reactions do you get from people when you tell them that you're an artist?  How do you think people tend to view artists today?

RANKIN: Most of the time I get … “Cool. What kind?” That’s my favorite because people seem very open to expanding the idea of an artist past a traditional oil painter. I do get the occasional, "And what do you do for money?" but that's rare.

The people I come across want to be participants in the arts to some degree. The gap between the artists and the audience is getting smaller.  With people exploring the arts in their own ways, it has very much demystified the profession. So, I'd guess the view of artists today is somewhere between “You do you,” and “Let's all make things and sell them to each other.” Both of which are cool with me.

MICHAEL: Did you go to art school?  If so, what did it do for you that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise?  If you're self taught, do you think you missed anything by not going to art school?  

RANKIN: I went to a liberal arts college, but I didn't study a traditional arts program. I was always a good student, but my art classes before college were always mildly contentious. The elementary school kid who argues over the “no white space left showing” rule during coloring time probably wouldn't work well within a highly structured arts curriculum.

I studied across three departments: the theatre department (studying performance and design), the communications department (studying popular culture and media) and of course, the art department (studying photography, sculpture and art history).

From exploring acting, dance, writing, criticism and art history, I gained inspiration and my studio classes gave me practical stills to put that inspiration to work making things. Could I have gotten all this some other way? Probably, but not in the compressed form school provides. Not to mention, I picked up 90% of my friends.

MICHAEL: What do you think about the contemporary art world/art market today?  Most living artists are struggling while Picasso and Warhol continue to pack shows and rake in millions well after their deaths.

RANKIN: I'm about as good an armchair economist as I am an armchair, so when a Picasso sells for $100 million, all I can say for sure is that painting is worth $100 million dollars to the person who paid $100 million for it.

“Show business” is half business after all; we can't blame business people for employing the star system when it works. One thing the high end of the market does really well is use high prices to protect pieces that are culturally valuable from being neglected.

The ultra high end exists in all arts and entertainment, music, film, etc. The problem you're speaking of, the artist who is not uber-famous, struggling to make a living in the art world, is more a result of the mid-level art market being underdeveloped. It's absolutely an issue, but the art world is just people; change is hard.

MICHAEL: Very interesting. Finally Rankin, Art is such a tough profession. Most people don't care enough about art enough to buy it.  Why not stop this foolishness and go to law school, med school, business school or learn how to write computer code? You know, get a real job to support yourself?

RANKIN: I bet if you asked any defendants, patients, CEOs, or Mr. Zuckerberg himself, they would not support me changing vocations, but I can't say it hasn't crossed my mind. It's like asking someone in a long term relationship if they've ever considered just packing a bag, walking out the front door and picking the first locale they see on the airport destinations board.

Sure, sometimes art is hard, but it's also wonderful. So, if I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to do something fun, shouldn't I? The best advice I've gotten is not to underestimate how many choices you have in life. I do my best to make as many choices I can that might lead to something interesting. Art is one of those for me.

MICHAEL: Thanks Rankin.  Nice chat.

RANKIN: Thanks Michael.

Check out Rankin Willard at www.rankinwillard.com/.