“It does seem to be the same environment—the love of history, music, archaeology, folklore, photography. Even my stints as a carpenter all feed in. I feel there’s a place where it all gets merged together, more of a soul finding a way. While artists are their own worst critics, I do allow myself to see that cohesiveness. I’m developing a creative universe where my sensibilities can exist, or coexist.”
—Tim Wilson, artist
Let’s say you find yourself at some vast and wind-driven locale where a moody ocean meets jagged rocks upended during the last receding glacier. You marvel at nature’s power and rawness before turning to seek out hot soup and a latte. Suddenly your gaze makes out a lone figure perched on distant rocks, before an easel set precariously close to the water’s arching reach, in a position that would make a mother’s heart ache with worry. You study the figure more closely, noting its tall, gaunt proportions, and glimpse a handsome, almost elfish, face beneath an old cap with earflaps. So the stage is set for a rare sighting, in his natural habitat, of the peripatetic and free-spirited artist Timothy Powers Wilson.
I was fortunate to catch up with Tim (once his cell phone allowed coverage). He had returned to his studio in Portland from somewhere along the mid-coast and was about to head to NYC, where he had an opening for a solo show at Sugarlift gallery. Affable and gently but eloquently spoken, Tim shared generously about his influences and his “world making” approach to creating art.
You were born and brought up in southern Maine. What were some of your formative memories and creative influences as a child?
There were lots of creative influences in my surroundings, growing up with a rural upbringing in the village of West Lebanon, with barns, stone walls, a chicken coop, woodlands. It was inspiring for what would become my aesthetic, having the chance to wander the woods in a nearly nostalgic place, where my parents were restoring two beautiful old farmhouses that were home. This sense of place that fed my imagination is really the influence that stands out for me.
Within that sense of place, I’ve always been pretty wrapped up in creating things, whether it be writing, music or art. Our family household was naturally creative. My mom was a musician and music teacher and my dad a woodworker, with his shop nearby. They always supported and encouraged me, whether it was reading and writing fantasy stories (particularly stories of time travel!), drawing endlessly at the little antique school desk I had in my room, or exploring music. I played some piano and I also studied violin as a youngster (although that was short lived, out of a fear of being crushed by a cross at the local church where I once performed). I owned a keytar, a humorous and enjoyable instrument—I really had so much fun tinkering around with it. It’s basically a keyboard that you hold like a guitar, and you can play synthesizer sounds with it. A novelty, but novelties are wonderful! In my teen years I played both acoustic and electric guitar, including building with my dad an electric guitar that I named the Cosmic Muffin. I was also in two infamous local bands, Screaming Backwards and GrooveCake. Classic high school in a way, while the incessant drawing and the ideas never stopped.
At what point did you sense that art would be your passion and life focus? What special teachers or mentors might have been extra supportive in that decision?
Simultaneously and probably serendipitously, I was beginning to discover just how important visual art might be for me. I realized I needed to distill things to a focus, needed for the diversity of my interests to coalesce, and it was at that point that my unifying interest really became visual art.
I can also point to three special teachers in particular. In public school, I was in several different Excel programs (Gifted and Talented “pull-out” programs) with the same teacher, Jill Strauss. So in effect I had this personal mentor who really saw me and helped me to express things at a young age. Later, as a student at Berwick Academy, art teacher Reagan Waterhouse was very integral in urging me forward, encouraging me to pursue things. There was also this outstanding teacher at RISD, Fritz Drury. In fact, I was his teaching assistant for three years, preparing slides for his art history lectures, which was great for me. I lived above the library and spent endless hours cataloguing paintings there. He also had us visit the Brown University morgue to study the cadavers! Fritz used to tell us “Don’t be afraid to murder the darlings.” In other words, not to assume anything was too precious in our work. I had thought this originated with Faulkner for his writing students. (Note: This quote actually comes from writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.)
But I didn’t abandon my other interests. They all seem to play in. It does seem to be the same environment—the love of history, music, archaeology, folklore, photography. Even my stints as a carpenter all feed in. I feel there’s a place where it all gets merged together, more of a soul finding a way. While artists are their own worst critics, I do allow myself to see that cohesiveness. I’m developing a creative universe where my sensibilities can exist, or coexist.
Your work certainly exhibits a folkloric quality as well as elements of deconstruction. In some of your paintings you “blur” compositional sections as if arresting a sense of time, vaguely reminiscent of German landscape painters Gerhard Richter and Gaspar David Friedrich. Have you been influenced by their work … and if not, by whom?
Although quite familiar with their work, I don’t think I have been directly influenced. Similar to what people mention to me of Francis Bacon—although I do see all the similarities, and think it’s more just (observationally) a similar state of mind, or conflict we all wrestle with?
What has always been influential to me is seeing the age of things. The pentimento of old paintings—the secrets the artists once tried to obscure—that element of time, is the most inspirational. It can’t be faked. And to the trained or sensitive eye, it is always evident when short-cutted. Time is the greatest of all abstractions! You cannot see it, yet it affects and deconstructs everything down to its simplest forms and distillations. And folklore is made all the more mythic by the element of time—the distance through which the tales evolve and become classical. Time is really the greatest inspiration. The artists I look to the most—Ann Gale, Andrew Wyeth and Antonio López García—tend to use this through layering, ethos, process, palette, etc.
This talk of time segues nicely to discuss your work today, which is largely a plein air body of work. You literally travel the edges of a space, perching on rugged stone outcroppings, exploring far reaches, choosing at times derelict or decaying structures and landscapes, and managing an almost metaphysical or ghostly presence that is compelling and provocative. How do you find the places that speak to you and can you talk about that process?
Aha! Well, when I’m drawn to a place, I do try to immerse myself with a kind of sympathy, imagining different layers of history and occupation that have transpired where I stand, finding a timelessness and greater sense of a place’s character in the scheme of things.
As far as finding those places—it comes down to trusting your gut. And beyond that, trusting time. As much as I sometimes feel compelled to wander and come across sympathetic moments, I have realized it can be any arrangement of ingredients that compel an emotional response—sometimes you are supposed to drive and plod along forested paths to a clearing you never knew of, and sometimes you will be in a place where you always find yourself, yet because of a recent experience or perhaps just a process of maturity you are finally able to feel that connection and power. In either situation, you are required as the artist to show up and be aware.
I think too there’s a kind of archaeology in the process itself. Just like, to get certain textures I sand down layers of a painting in process to expose what’s beneath. You dig down and you find a lot of things you might not expect to find.
What I do respond to are comments that a gray, overcast day, an atmospheric day, is a “Tim Wilson kind of day!” It’s easier to paint on an overcast day because the sun is not timing you. There is a diffuse light sense, so there’s literally a more timeless quality. It exists in this ethereal arena—a kind of limbo where viewers can make their own markings of the paintings in terms of where and when they think that is. It’s an open playing field.
How does your love of music and writing show up these days and influence your process?
I’m not actively playing an instrument right now, save for rare occasions, so music is more part of a fundamental atmosphere, part of the overall creation of an immersive environment for me. I may conjure up different soundtracks and sometimes imagine a pretty full sonic spectrum that plays against rolling waves or wind across a pasture. At other times, through my headphones, I’ll blast anything from Max Richter to a Gregorian chant to the Moody Blues. I tend to prefer contemporary minimal composers with a more expansive, almost looping structure, something abstract and panoramic, even ambient, the kind of space that works for my kind of world-making. There’s an album called “I Am the Center” that’s very unique. Henryk Gorecki and Gyorgi Ligeti come to mind in terms of contemporary classical music, and John Luther Adams, an American composer whose music is inspired by nature.
As for writing, that too emerges in the form of vignettes or novelettes around the place where I’m painting, all of it very much inspired by the locale itself. Often, I’ll think about the potential history of the farm families that lived on the land much earlier. Sometimes I’ll get lost in my own personal narrative and a longing for a similar place of my own.
Other times, the land speaks right up and offers ideas. For example, while painting at a spot in New Gloucester, I was enchanted by the gnarled poses of a group of ancient apple trees. In my mind, a folktale emerged in which villagers were somehow enchanted, spellbound to these trees, entrapped within these beautiful but somewhat tortured poses, only to be freed on certain moonlit nights, where they would once again be their human selves, and for a while dance and celebrate along the hillside. At some point, this and other tales that get quickly jotted on scraps and along sides of paper, may finally be written down and filled out!
Some of your plein air adventures have involved kayaking to a few Maine islands and even camping out, with special permission. Where have you explored and do you hope to make plein air painting into an extreme sport?
(Laughs) I do want to experience the adventure, the physicality of muscle memory. You remember a song you have danced to more than a song you sat on the couch to! Again, it’s a process of engaging with a place. If I kayak out, I feel more engaged. There’s an immediate sense of gratification and achievement. And if I haven’t given my all to a painting, I feel I haven’t pushed enough. And when I’m camping, I’m immersing myself. I’m doing all I can, instead of just running through something and fleeing.
My locales have included Whaleback Island in the Harpswell area, which is not too far a trip, and has such diverse scenery: rocky ledges and sandy beaches to forest and bogs. I was there early and late winter and did not camp. I’ve also gone to Malaga, where African Americans after the Civil War first settled as independent citizens, and also Monroe Island, a beautiful locale off of Owl’s Head, where I brought a lot of small sketchbooks (small because they had to fit in the kayak) and camped. It’s wonderful to have an island to yourself!
Both islands sound so evocative, each unique and special. How did Malaga and Monroe affect you?
While I was surprised and chagrined to learn about Malaga’s history, I encountered no buildings or particular remnants of that period, and honestly at the time did not feel compelled to investigate in that way. I was simply drawn to paint the beauty and solitude there. I recall being captivated by a view of golden seaweed opening to a far-out pasture, while a lone tree spiraled out of the darkness, a strongly visual experience.
And Monroe consumed me in its own way, between two round-trip kayak trips bringing art and camping supplies and then the rigors of simply being there: meeting it on my own terms and seeing what emerged. Of course, there’s always more! This harkens back to the power of place, seeking out that sympathy for or magic in locations, knowing there is something more to discover, if I’m willing to dig down a bit.
I should add that I did have permission to camp from the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, with whom I’ve been collaborating on a project to document such locales.*
It’s great to hear that you’ve been championing Maine’s coastal islands and nearby rural areas. What do you see yourself doing next?
I’d really like to work on a larger scale, working towards more abstractions as well as more large-scale expressive, figurative forms. My tiny studio is just not conducive to that, so right now I’m actively searching for a bigger or adjunct studio space. Beyond that, I’d love a road trip, probably out West, documenting different vistas along the way. I also want to be restoring antique furniture, since I seem to be quite a collector! In all, continuing to create that immersive environment. It’s world-making, in a way—and I quite enjoy that concept!
*There will be a show of Tim’s work for this project for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, entitled “Sojourn,” in September 2021 at Cove Street Gallery, Portland.