Saturday, February 7, 2009

Finding words... a conversation with Maurice

Update: Part two of this conversation is now posted here.
Dr. Maurice Sevigny is both a local artist and the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Arizona... in other words, someone who has made a lifetime of the study of art theory, the practice of art—and the teaching of it. He has a studio in downtown Tucson, which I visited last year during an open studio tour. The studio is jam-packed with framed work and works in progress on easels and pinned to partitions, in a crowded circle around a countertop island from which he surveys his creations, plucking them from the wall to rework as the muse strikes him.
The work he's doing is (essentially) representational, but distinctive in its embrace of digital technology to provide underpainting and abstraction for his images, which he overpaints with mixed media.
I thought it was exceptionally nervy of me to ask him for an interview, out of the blue, but he is generous, and his answers are very stimulating. Well versed in the conversation of art, Dr. Sevigny is articulate, educated and experienced. Of him, I got to ask all my questions: the ones my art teachers forgot to talk about. With gratitude, here's one expert's point of view.

Why we do it

Edgar: Why do we do art?

Maurice: Why do we do art? ...We do art because we have to. It’s a form of communication for some people, a form of expression for others, it’s a form of catharsis, and therapy for some. There are as many reasons for doing art as there are people. For me it’s a balance, and I’m doing it as something of a therapy in my life. At the same time, I’ve always done it, and it’s a way of being, and art is a way of knowing. So, my work is representational to a degree but abstract because I take what I know and I invent in it something that didn’t exist before. So, to me, bringing something to fruition that was not in existence before is… a trip.

E: You said art is communication and expression. What would be the difference?

M: Well, when it’s communication, it’s the artist doing it, when it’s expression, it’s the reader [that’s looking at it] interpreting it. Often, those things don’t come together. What someone interprets is different from [what] somebody expressed or intended to express, but it doesn’t really matter, because art is a two way street.

A segue to audience

If you don’t have an audience, do you even have art? Maybe: Because, if you step away from the painting, suddenly you become the audience; the real fact is, that art is a dialog, a sense of communication, usually a dialog between the artist and the object, and the object gives permission to continue or stop. Or the object becomes, you know, the game. You’re looking upon it, and you may be comparing it to what’s real (or not real), and then you may be saying, “How can I change that?” or there may be parts that you want to change. So, there’s this little bit of creativity and creation involved in the art concept.


And I always find it amazing when people come to my studio and want to know how long it took for me to make a particular piece, because they are sizing up the price. They’re asking, “How long did this take you?” My answer is always, “Sixty-five years,” because I couldn’t have done it last year… it’s a process, and you are the sum of who you are, at that moment.

E: That’s an excellent answer. I like that. Now, we make art, I think in many cases, as an expression of our response to what is around us ...

M:… or inside us.

E: … or inside us, yeah. And I know that there are lots of art movements where people are trying to get to that very directly.

M: Trying to be spontaneous, trying to let things emerge… I’m not sure that’s possible.

E: I’m not sure it’s possible either, because we have a context, and we can’t avoid it.

M: Everything is contextual.

E: But art, I think, is seen by western culture as being “creativity,” and there’s this idea… some of the non-objective artists are trying to pull something from nothing – and [it’s a struggle to make that] work. But what you said a moment ago is, that art was a “way of knowing.” And I find, as many artists do, I find out about what I feel about what is going on “out there.” And there’s some sharing obviously, because we’re making marks, instead of keeping it up here, inside our skulls. It’s a complex process, not simply one thing or the other, and it’s not strictly creativity. Much of it is reproduction, much of it is reaction.

M: Well you’re talking about art as function. When the function changes… if the function is religious, it brings back images of spirituality.

E: Right.

M: If your work is commercial, your job is to sell something or create some kind of metaphor for something else. If it’s illustrative, you’re trying to tell a story, that may be more communication. If it’s for its own sake, then it may be abstract, or it may be much more about the surface qualities and less about the emotional qualities or psychological impact. So, you’ve got intention, and you’ve got function, and you’ve got materials and you’ve got different subjects. If you’re going to be a naturalist, then you’re going to render something, if you want to be an artist, then you want to render it in a way that no one else is rendering it, because that makes it to be a signature or a brand. It’s important because, as in business, if yours looks like everybody else’s, then it has less value if you’re going to the market.

On function

E: What is it to you? What is the function of art for you?

M: You know, it changes. Right now… I think in some sense, the way in which I get back to art --because I haven’t made art for 25 years-- was in preparation for embracing a new self, because I may be retiring in the near future. So, before one can retire, when their identity has been all wrapped up in some kind of work or job, you need to have a new identity to embrace, to say goodbye to that [old] identity. But for me, it’s a kind of catharsis or evolution into something that I’ve postponed being for a long time, in order to make a living. Now, it’s going to be a way to supplement a living, so in some sense, somewhere between a commercial world and free expression.

Essentially, for me, because I have another income, I’m not constrained to commercial art. I can keep experimenting and developing new things. And the art I’m working on currently is kind of taking advantage of new tools that are electronic and digital to design and experiment and be more efficient. So I’ve got that luxury of time to play with technology and traditional media combined in ways that other people weren’t doing before.
So, to me it’s still invention. And also a chance to embrace the introvert side of me… getting away from my public life. Going into the studio, having alone time. Telling something it’s going to be ‘red’. And it becomes red without arguing why it has to be red. So, it’s an opportunity for pleasure, opportunity for stress reduction, opportunity for a lot of those things. And opportunity to get to know this other side, [that I’ve put aside] for twenty-five years.
[Edgar's note: I'll have more from this conversation posted soon. Dr. Sevigny's image, from his website, is used with his permission.]


TSL said...

Wonderful interview. Looking forward to to reading the rest!

Barbara Muir said...

Hi Edgar,

What a great interview. I agree that painting like writing is something you have to do.

Maurice sure seems like both a great guy and a great thinker like you.

Take care,


Edgar said...

Tina—It was a great conversation. I'm editing the rest down to useable quantities, and giving people time to read the first bit.
... and I have to work on making art, too.

Barbara—I think of art (including literary and performing arts) as a calling: you either have the calling or not. The calling is independent of talent. I know people with extraordinary drafting/painting skills, but no desire to make art. Hate it. Bored by it.

The thing about callings, is that if you ignore them, you are unhappy/feel an emptiness, or you have an abiding sense that you should be doing something other than what you are doing.