Interview with McWillie Chambers
Interview conducted by Darwin Cyphers Manning July of 2009
DCM: What is your earliest recollection of making artworks
As a small child I was fascinated with cars. I used to play with my toy cars on the back porch of our house. The porch had a cement floor and at some point I began to draw roads and houses, trees, streams, and stores and whole towns in chalk on the floor. I remember these drawings of houses and landscapes that were flat, but somehow were made very real and I think acutely observed. It was complex beyond my years. It must have seemed oddly obsessive to my elders. When it rained a lot of the drawing would be washed away but I would quickly redo it, always differently than before and ever more elaborately. I never minded that it was going to be washed away as I liked redoing it anyway. I probably learned a lot about observation from this play and also something about the continual process of art making.
DCM: Did your family and friends encourage your interest in art?
McWC: My mother and my grandmother encouraged me to draw. No one thought about it one way or the other, like all children I had my thing that I liked to do. It was not really on the radar that I would become an artist. There was a family friend, Betty Charlet who lived down the street. She was a gifted amateur artist and liked to paint, draw, and make ceramics. She saw that I had some ability in drawing, and helped me get materials and helped me with techniques as well. She was very generous with her time and encouragement. Later when I was about 12 or 13 my mother saw to it that I was able to catch a ride on the bus that took children to catechism in the nearby town of St. Francisville. My mother enrolled me in summer art classes there as there was nothing like that in the town where we lived. So I rode with the children who were going to catechism and I went to my art classes and came back to the church when the catechism was over and rode back on the bus.
DMC: Did growing up in the turbulent south in the 1950’s have an effect on your work?
McWC: I feel like everybody who grew up in the South in the late 1950’s was affected and marked by it. I haven’t ever done art that had much political content. I have always been more interested in the formal aspects of art-making as opposed to narrative art. I can only say that over the years that I have been doing these paintings of men I often have a black man and a white man in the paintings together, happily co-existing and interacting on the beach or as comrades on the playing field for instance. When I have more than one figure in a painting I like to play with the relationship between the two figures, and when I make them different colors it makes it more interesting. I suppose there is an implied social and historical content that has to do with my upbringing and where I grew up.
DCM: Looking over the span of your artist career can you think of one challenge you have been able to rise above and continue your vision?
McWC: One of the important challenges of my life is the fact that I suffer from the auto-immune disorder psoriasis. The writer John Updike also was a psoriatic and he wrote an amazing essay on the subject called, At War with my Skin. He captured the emotional and life-changing effects of this ailment perfectly. Even the title says it all. The sufferer develops uncomfortable to painful skin lesions that come and go with unpredictable frequency. The trajectory is always towards increased severity. There is no cure and the treatments are either ineffective in the long term or have very serious side effects. There comes a point when the lesions are constant and never go away.
Many people develop psychological problems such as agoraphobia and find it very hard to go out in public and lead normal lives. There is always something distressingly wrong with you… and your “outer covering”, the protective barrier that all people rely on unconsciously, is dysfunctional. Psoriasis is a very isolating condition. I realize that these paintings of men I have been doing for the last 20 years are a real search for companionship. The paintings somehow counteract the feelings of isolation. One learns to rely on inner resources for help with challenges. Artists know how to dig deeply and find their inner resources. In some ways I think my painting has helped me to cope. In fact being an artist and having a purposeful and thrilling activity every day has helped me not only to cope but to thrive.
DCM: Can you tell me something about the sports aspect in your recent work and what drew you to this?
McWC: The sports aspect is a recent thing that has only been developed within the last year. Several years ago a friend sent me a magazine because it had a spread about her house and art collection – it was a glossy magazine of her city. In the magazine there was a photo of a handsome black man and a handsome white man holding footballs with a coach standing between them. I left the coach out of the picture and made the painting “Anton and Matt”. Later I made a lot of paintings from photos of football players. In a way they are a way of coming to terms with my relationship with sports, race, and especially the “manliness” question. I was never athletic as a young person, I never had any athletic ambition. Where I come from that means I was not cut out to play football. I was too slight to play football and I was given the job of water boy for the football team. That was absolutely the lowest rung on the high school ladder. I had to clean the locker rooms, wash the uniforms and gear, and put up with the bullying. Some of the players enjoyed the bullying more than the football. I have to say that was not a job to instill self-confidence. It gives me a slightly perverse satisfaction to “nail” these young men in my paintings. I think I have captured their confidence and their vulnerability.
In my thirties I found out I could play tennis pretty well. I got into playing tennis quite a lot. I spent a lot of time practicing against the walls of handball courts here in NYC. It was very helpful to get some physical confidence, helpful to me as a person. In some ways I wish I had figured that out a lot earlier, but sometimes we learn things in life kind of late, but we keep learning things and it’s a healthy process. Those football player paintings are a way for me to make peace with being a failure with sports in high school. I worked from a lot of photos of football games and players. I think these paintings say a lot about the general sexuality of sports. A lot of people will not like to hear this but sports have a huge sexual component that no one seems to ever talk about.
DMC: Are you very interested in other artist’s work?
McWC: Oh yes, I love to see other people’s work. I think I am more into other artist’s art than most other artists that I know. The fact that I worked at the Borgenicht Gallery so long taught me to appreciate other people’s art and how to be an advocate for other artists. That was a big help to me as an artist, and opened up a lot of possibilities, because I learned so much. When you work in a gallery you’re representing a variety of artists and you’re obligated to all of them, and to help them all. Whether or not their work is your cup of tea, your job is to understand it and present it to other people. Sometimes I wish other artists would be more open to other artist’s work. Often artists see other artists as the competition and really they are the food, the fuel, and the natural allies.
DCM: Did you continue a strong relationship with any of the mentors/teachers?
McWC: One of my teachers, Leland Bell, and his wife, Louisa Matthiasdottir became dear friends of mine. They were very supportive and encouraging. I have to add the artist’s of the Borgenicht Gallery were my teachers in many ways. I was 22 years old when I started working there, very young and very green to the art world. There were some remarkable older artists in the gallery that were always very nice to me and helpful.
DCM: You mentioned copying paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, can you tell me more about that?
McWC: When I first came to NYC I studied at the New York Studio School for a brief time. I studied with Leland Bell. Leland arranged for some of the students to be allowed to copy painting at the museum and I was one of them. The Met was very hospitable to us. They gave us easels to use and a drop cloth and they allowed us to leave our wet copies there while we were working on them in painting racks in the basement. When I think about it now it must have been a lot of trouble for them but everyone was very friendly and we really enjoyed it. I copied a Corot painting of a seated woman, a Gerard David crucifixion, and a Ruisdale landscape. It was a wonderful experience. I have not noticed anyone working like that recently, it is probably too dangerous, because someone might knock over the easels. In those days the museum was practically empty on weekdays, mostly we only had the guards for company. The Met hired amateur artists for the job in those days and they must have liked being around the great art works in the museum’s collection. I remember one guard who was always telling us about the “palette knife technique”. He had a theory that if you make the paint thicker at the bottom of the painting and thinner at the top it would produce distance in the picture. That one guard would tell everyone that trick. I think they were kind of lonely and we were a captive audience. There were not that many people who went to museums in those days.
DCM: You deemed these paintings “rarefied objects”, ones that you were only used to seeing in books, so it must have been eye opening for you to see them in person?
McWC: Oh yes, to stand there in front of great paintings was an amazing experience. I have never changed in my excitement for seeing these great art works. The museums and galleries are a great resource that we can enjoy in NYC. Copying paintings was a wonderful way to learn… to see them as paint on canvas, not focusing on reproducing them, but being able to understand them with your own eye, to figure out their geometry and harmony and content from such an intimate vantage point. Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein was a painting I was particularly impressed with when I stood in front of it for the first time. It was one of the first paintings I was drawn to that did not have high- key color. It was the underlying structure, the geometry of the painting that spoke to me.
DCM: Do you have any traditions, superstitions or methods to how, when, or where you do your work?
McWC: When I begin to work I need to settle my head down, I have to sort my mind out, and put aside my worries and preoccupations of everyday life. In order for me to make art my mind has to clear, and that’s when I lose myself in it. That’s when I make what’s most honest and what I am striving to make, when my mind is clear and I am in the subconscious kind of thought. To get in that “zone” it takes a while and sometimes I have to work around it until I get there. Sometimes I have to order my studio first, I don’t like a chaotic situation to work in. I prefer to start work early in the morning when things are quiet and before the world outside my studio interferes. I back up away from the painting a lot, I make a few strokes and then back up and look at it. I think I must walk miles and miles when I am painting, it is very important to my process.
Then I also like to listen to music, all different kinds of music and it varies from day to day. I enjoy playing the piano and have played the guitar on and off. I have found playing music to be a big help to my painting, because if you play a musical instrument you have to focus on it and it is really a good way to clear my mind. Sometimes I will go to the guitar or play the piano when I feel stuck in a non-productive place in a painting, then I can go back to it in a fresher way. I almost always listen to music while working and music is a way to clear the mind and get into that zone I need to be in so that I can work well.
DCM: When you first arrived on the art scene, were there any surprises at what you found and were you happy with what you discovered?
McWC: I had an idea as people do outside of New York, that anything that goes on here is a big deal. If someone had a show in New York it meant a level of success. But as we know having a show in NY does not necessarily get you anywhere, it might and it might not. I had a very vague notion of career as a young artist. Mostly my notion of career came from the older artist I knew. The generation of artists who were older when I was young had been through the depression, and World War II, and had very few opportunities until later in life, if then. You might be represented by a gallery in NY by the time you were 60. If you lived into your 70’s you might have a museum show outside of NY. That was about it, you might sell a little bit once you were established, but the expectations were very low. So as a young artist I never had very high expectations, because no one did at that time.
DCM: I was wondering when you referred to the arrival of the art stars what you were discussing?
McWC: Well, before the 1980’s there were some famous artists, but they really had to earn their stripes for the most part. In the 80’s suddenly there were trendy artists who were young and getting famous, getting lots of money for their work and were having “sellout” shows. Before that most young people had not had exciting careers as artists. There were a lot of reasons for it, but it really changed the way that people thought about being artists.
DCM: Do you think it is more common now to see “art stars” or people who have had long substantial careers?
McWC: For most artists they work so much of their lives with nothing happening for them career-wise. I think that one of the biggest difficulties of being an artist is dealing with that. It’s very hard as an artist to deal with what sometimes feels like a vast sea of indifference to one’s efforts and one’s accomplishments. Some artists have early success, but you can’t be a trendy young artist after about 45 years old. The art world chews them up and spits them out and it is hard for them to find a different identity and hard to deal with their sometimes diminishing prospects. I have also seen instances where artist’s careers were built up over a long period of time and success has come to them in progressive increments.
Careers are much discussed but the really important benefit to being an artist is that is it a wonderful life on the whole. Your rewards are personal satisfaction and doing what you want to do and doing it how you want to do it. It is a wonderful privilege to create your work at your own pace with your own two hands. Not many people live a life with that kind of luxury no matter how successful they are in worldly terms. One does hope that people will appreciate the works. No one wants to do all this work and put so much heart into their work without having the feeling that someone someday will appreciate and enjoy it.
Anyway as to failure, there is no such thing as failure for an honest artist, we just sort of do what we do, how we do it, it is a matter of “personal best” and always making progress in one’s work. You know this very well from living in a household of artists and art professionals.
DCM: When you started working for the Grace Borgenicht Gallery you said you were thoroughly impressed, was there something in particular that caught your attention about her work ethic? Are there a couple of things you learned about being around so many great artists?
McWC: Grace attracted quality, and she had very high standards for behavior, and for accomplishment. I will give you an example. Shortly after I came to New York I worked briefly for another gallery part-time. One day I was asked to paint some big wide cardboard mailing tubes, and glue little squares of plywood to the tops and bottoms of them to make pedestals for a sculpture show they were going to install. Even as green and inexperienced as I was I knew this was going to look awful. Grace would never have done anything like that. If we had a sculpture show everything would have been beautifully arranged, cleanly installed and very professionally presented. This kind of thing taught me a lot about the proper way to run a gallery and the right kind of respect one had to have for the artists that we represented. You had to work hard, and quality should come first, in terms of people, behavior, and artworks. I was very lucky to have had that kind of experience early in life and I worked there for 23 years so that gave me plenty of time to learn that lesson.
DCM: How has being a gay man impacted you? You were working for a long time before this aspect of your life appeared in your work, why do you think that is?
McWC: Being a gay man is an important part of my identity so it has to be an important factor in my work. For many years I painted landscapes and still-life paintings and other subjects that did not have any particular sexual content. They were about painting, and the formal considerations of painting. I was not repressing my “gayness” in my paintings I was happily painting for painting’s sake. I am delighted that I made all those paintings and I like some of them very much. I had a slow trajectory from knowing I was gay – to exploring my inclinations and the gay community – and finally to embracing it all. There is a lot of bias and prejudice towards gay people in society and there used to be a lot more. In society being gay is a little like being left-handed. I am also left-handed by the way so I know what I am talking about. Everything is designed for use by right-handed people. You have to adapt and improvise. So when a gay man walked into a gay bar 35 or 40 years ago he was with people he did not have to explain himself to and he did not have to apologize for who he was. Many years of hanging out in gay bars gave me a lot of confidence and helped me to sort out who I was and where I fit in. Being accepted by people in the gay community was an important step for me in my development as an artist and as a person. It was bound to emerge as an important aspect of my work. Also I believe I have something to say in my work that I am uniquely qualified to present and having a mission like that is an essential on-going encouragement for me as an artist.
DCM: What was the significance of Fire Island to your development as an artist, how did it influence your work?
McWC: Fire Island is a long sand bar south of Long Island and there are two gay communities, Cherry Grove and The Pines. I spent summers out at Cherry Grove for a number of years. It was as liberating to me as the gay bars were, because to live out in this gay ghetto on this beautiful beach was amazing. It is very quiet as there are no cars, which makes it somewhat idyllic I think. I found a great subject matter out there on the gay nude beaches. I found it inspiring. It’s hard for me to say why I needed to focus on this in my work but when I got out there it was right in front of me and I decided to paint it. I suppose that is the natural response of a painter. The first time I went out there was in 1994 and I had been painting for a long time, but I found it rejuvenating out there. In a way a lot of things that I’d been working on just came together out there and solidified. I thought here is my subject and I started painting.
DCM: Throughout all the different inspirations that you’ve had in your work, could you say that there is one central message that ties together all of your work?
McWC: I think I would have to say that it would be “light” – color, luminosity, luscious color, is what I’ve always seen emerging as the central message. With my paintings of men there is more of a kind of sensuality in them with a narrative that is semi-sexual. For me my earlier paintings also have this feature, but it comes out through their color and luminosity. I think there is a sensuality, a clear bright sensual light that is always present in my work.