Thoughts on Creativity: An interview with artist Paul Gagner
I love hearing what keeps other writers and artists inspired and motivated. The creative process is different for everyone, and the work we create (and how we create it) can be deeply personal. That’s why I have such appreciation for people who are willing to open up and share their techniques, work habits, and sources of inspiration with others.
I met Paul and his wife Maureen about fifteen years ago when they were living here in Madison. Both Paul and Maureen are incredibly talented, inspiring, and creative. Not to mention awesome and kind.
Recently Paul shared some insights with me about his own creative process.
Thank you, Paul, for taking the time to answer my questions! I love your work and I’m thrilled to get to share it here on my blog.
I was born and raised in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. It’s pleasant little town surrounded by farmland and forests. My early interest in art was based in comic books and the Sunday Funnies like Bloom County. My tastes always gravitated towards humor. When I was 7, I went with my family to this amusement park outside of Minneapolis and St Paul called “Valleyfair.” I distinctly remember standing in line for what seemed like hours to see Weird Al Yankovic in a free concert. It was spectacular. I was kind of obsessed with Weird Al for several years. I had a whole closet full of Hawaiian shirts. After high school I did some traveling and I met my wife when we were both working at Yellowstone National Park. We moved to Madison, WI were I enrolled at Madison Area Technical College. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I liked art. I settled on graphic design thinking that it was a more tangible degree then fine art. At MATC, some professors suggested that I continue my education at a art school. This took me to New York where my wife, Maureen, grew up. I went finished by BFA at the School of Visual Arts and then a MFA at Brooklyn College.
In my work, I’m most interested in the anxieties associated with the creative process and my fear of death. This might seem macabre, but I do offset it with a healthy dose of humor which softens the blow. Some of my work deals directly with anxiety while others speak to my shortcomings, such as my forays into abstraction which I love, but can’t seem to get right.
Holly: What or who inspires you?
Paul: All sorts of things inspire me. Too numerous to name. You never know when something is going to strike you, so I try to listen and take in as much as possible. I know this sounds a little new-agey, but it’s true. My subject matter is whatever is happening in my life at that moment.
Holly: How has your work changed or evolved over the years?
Paul: I’m not sure how my work has changed. There’s physical changes, like painting on larger surfaces. I’ve gotten away from sculpture mostly because of space issues (it’s so damn expensive in Brooklyn). I suppose over the years, my paint application or style or whatever you want to call it has changed. When you first start painting (or sculpting) you mimic the artists that you most admire and as you grow, hopefully, your voice becomes unique or your own. I hope that I’m heading in that direction.
Holly: What does your work mean to you? Is it an expression, or a release, or…?
Paul: To me, my work is therapeutic. It helps me to make sense of the world around me. By nature, I overthink everything. If it weren’t for painting, my existential angst would get the best of me. I have friends that are stand up comics and they would always tell me that comics are very troubled individuals. I think there’s some similarities with artists. Were also troubled individuals, or at least I am.
Holly: Do you have certain work habits and routines you stick with?
Paul: I have some habits and routines. I had a professor at the School of Visual Arts that once told me that he would take a blank canvas and start by throwing/dripping paint on it, walking on it, scribbling, otherwise completely fucking up the surface. Once it was a thoroughly messy and ugly painting, he would go back into it and “fix it.” In other words, his painting would emerge from a broken and accidental start. I always really liked that method. I don’t paint exactly like that, but I do like accidents and I try to embrace failure as much as possible.
Holly: What have been professional or creative milestones for you? What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Paul: I had four collages in this curated publication that a friend made called “Yam.” The publication was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent print collection. So, I guess I’m in the MoMA which is amazing, but funny since it’s in a sneaky backdoor sort of way.
Holly: What are your thoughts on creativity and the creative process?
Paul: The creative process is a tough thing to describe or talk about. I taught a class for awhile that dealt with this idea and how to harness it and control it. It was very difficult to do, since everyone works differently. I try to pair down and make my work as simple as possible. I have some creative proverbs that I live by such as “your last painting begets your next painting.” This seems obvious enough, but sometimes we forget that a problem is never truly resolved in a single work, so whatever problems that remain or arise from your painting will be the basis for the next painting, and so on and so forth. Also, “your painting should always surprise you” is one that I hold dear to my heart. I can’t plan a painting. To do so, I find totally boring. There’s no point. To be surprised by what you create as you’re creating it is like improvising in music. If my mind gets too involved, the painting looks contrived and I can see it right away. I’ll always paint over these. There’s just no point.