Paul Scott Malone is a Texas-bred artist who now resides in Arizona. That’s a place that strongly influences his work www.paulscottmalone.com and his life. We chatted about what inspires him and what I see in his work that was even new to him.
MICHAEL: Hey Paul, Your work is very painterly and seems strongly organic and tied to nature and the origin of creation. How do you describe it?
PAUL: Hello Michael, good to be here. To answer your question is going to take two chapters, both of which have come to me not as a beginning to my career, an idea to launch me into action, but as a middle ground or even ending to years of contemplation. First, let me say that I do not consider myself or other artists for that matter, to be anything special. We are not, I believe, shamans or visionaries or the voice of God. I feel I am in closer affinity with a working man - a plumber or carpenter or auto mechanic - than I am with an inspired clergyman. I make objects and often repair objects, which are simply what they are - a mass of oil paint on a canvas.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. And so, how do you explain your work?
PAUL: In the past, I have tried never to interpret my work, what it is or what it means. I leave that to others, those who view the paintings, perhaps those who know about such things, but viewers do find all manner of familiar objects in the mass of blended color that the work presents. They see faces, giraffes, shooting stars, creepy movie characters, cloud formations, rocky precipices, that sort of thing, always in bright and often earthy colors. Probably because, as you pointed out, my work is quite organic. It's of the earth, explores the earth and is closely associated with the earth, as well as that from which the earth came - the stuff of space, all that populates space. But, again, I've always been hesitant to lead viewers in that direction, encouraging them instead to find whatever they could discover in the lines and formations and brilliant colors.
MICHAEL: I think the whole earth creation thing is hard to miss in your work. How can people not see it? Your paintings seem to capture nature before we could even call it “nature.” What’s your inspiration?
PAUL: There has been a slow change coming over me in recent years, especially lately for some reason, perhaps my move from Texas back to the desert of Arizona where everything is organic. Desert and sun dominate all. The desert has a way of intruding itself into everything. Sand, which of course, is the fundamental building material, flavors everything, even the evening meal. Mountains, which seem only half formed, lie amid their secretive beauty in every direction, the sky, so immense, the clouds in constant motion as if searching for their wayward partners and at times these enormous monoliths appear to cover the earth like a cosmic army. More than all is the light in the desert. The light is so intense you can get a tan without ever going outside and it is like no other light I've ever known, anywhere. It brings out the truth in everything, like a shape, like colors held in the light, it becomes true. But overriding all that forms the place is a truth greater than its light and it was in Arizona that I painted most of the paintings I now have to show. One can't help but feel that the place is not quite finished. Everything remains in a state of becoming. The rest of it lies waiting to be constructed, molded, windblown, eroded.
MICHAEL: I love what you just said, “State of Becoming.” That pretty much describes us all, if we’re awake to life.
PAUL: That's why, in recent years, after much thought and discussion with a few friends, I started to change the way I look at my work, what it is, where it came from, what it wants to reveal to us. I think now - this is why your question is so fortuitous - that perhaps what I am and have been attempting to do in my work, without consciously knowing it, is re-create, from an imagination's view of what it might have been, the origins of the physical world. I'm trying to see the very beginnings of what we now know to be this enormous place in which we live and die, from clashing stars and planets in the inspiring void of space, to the desert mountains in my home place of Arizona which often appear to need the hand of a sculptor to finish them, to the rough and perhaps rather misshapen and mis-colored first attempts on the part of plants, (and I have a number of floral elements in my paintings). It’s at a time when color was not yet as intense and varied as it is now and the forms of the plants were crude at best, evolving slowly to create what has become over the eons of time the bountiful and beautiful plants and flowers we can see today, see and know and even smell to our infinite delight. But I'm attempting to show how that delight began! And I have to do it with a partner - an imagination - that doesn't always agree with me.
So my work, my paintings, even my drawings, I see now, may be one artist's attempt to depict what the physical world was like before it worked on itself and became what we think we know it to be today. Back when things were still a jumble and a mess. Before gravity stepped in and did its remarkable business, bringing us all together a single, functioning - though often malfunctioning - machine, the one place in the universe where all manner of life could somehow find its way by crossing the enormities of space to find this place and flourish. Still, do we know, is it finished? Am I, in the imagination I have to use, and with the help of creeping silent nature, also depicting where we are in the ongoing process of becoming what the physical world may become? I assume so, but who can guess? Has the natural world, our local one and the one out there swirling around in apparent chaos, achieved everything it can?
MICHAEL: It's clear to me – from seeing your social media photos - that you yourself are the true painting that you're working on. Your work is simply the material evidence of what you're exploring internally -- within yourself.
PAUL: If my (paintings) have achieved the status of "true painting," as you put it, assuming that photography can claim involvement in the issue of art, then my photographic portrait, it would certainly seem, must aspire to the nature of true art as well. As I understand true art or the more righteous term, "fine art," it is an expression of human emotion, immediate or long-lived, that is lifted from the heart or from the depths of the mind, by some stirring occurrence in the natural world. It’s either static or radical, an occurrence stolen from the pastures of the land in which we play, and made concrete by some medium that exists in what we consider the natural world. It would then make sense that the material I am "exploring internally - within (my)self,'' after long years' duty in the hard work of composing such an exploration, may easily create a strong emotion or some other feeling that arises from a strong emotion, experienced in the external nature of the external universe or experienced in the internal nature of the internal universe. Therefore, the work I'm doing internally, which is really just another way of saying thinking long and hard about a particular topic or desire, could easily lead to such an emotion as mentioned before and just as easily influence the creases and crags and smiles and silences that have at different times resulted in the unimportant expressions on my face. My internal explorations, I mean, are more than likely what have led to the incidental creations of the "you yourself" who is depicted in the "true painting that (I'm) working on.” I take it you mean as a lifelong project, but with that I would have to disagree. So, yes, the photographs that represent me on the social media sites may well be a painting that I am disposed to pursue, but they are first and above all intended to be fairly pleasant images of myself meant to assist in attracting visitors to my sites where the principal concern is the pursuit of business in fine art - in my case oil painting, a bit of acrylic, some drawing, some pastel, but no photography. Photography used in such a way would be more advertising than fine art even if it is a lifelong project.
MICHAEL: Many, if not most, artists and writers by necessity spend a lot of time alone working. Is there loneliness in your work or merely alone time?
PAUL: Loneliness! A terrible emotion, a subset of sadness, one I have certainly known at times, but perhaps oddly never in or even near an art studio. I cannot think of a single moment during all the years I've been painting that while doing the work or after having done the work, I have felt anything, not even a fleeting thought or memory, that I would call loneliness. In fact, more often than not, the feeling I have while working, and especially when my work time reluctantly comes to a close, is that of standing before a crowded stadium and bowing in acceptance of the applause for the good job I've done just showing up TO paint. Simply put, to be at work, that's all I ask of life. To be in my studio, surrounded by all the things and smells and sights, and in fact to be doing anything associated with that work, from making a canvas, to repairing a leg on a work table, even to cleaning brushes (as long as there aren't too many) is a joy, a kind of ecstasy. To me it is exactly where I belong in the world. And by long and close association it feels like home. So, a succinct answer to the question - making art, to the best of my memory, has never made me lonely.
MICHAEL: Sure, I get that. Still, creative people DO spend a lot of time alone creating.
PAUL: Even the alone part of the isolation question doesn't much bother me. In fact, it's generally a pleasure to be away from the jabbering world, if just to think. When in the early morning I walk into the studio, there is present, along with the chill, something of a challenge to it as I look around, seeing a dusty old building full of materials and equipment, all of which seem welcoming, as if they are there only to help me, the elements that will solve the equation, the challenge, a building devoid of the troubles of unfortunate humanity. And besides, I have a friend who lives only in my studio and who does nothing but listen to me; never says a word. As I go about my work day I explain to him - I believe it might be the ghost of my brother - every little detail of each separate task I have to perform, its purpose, its technique, and all he does is walk or sit behind me and listen. I assume it's my internal voice explaining to myself the importance of each phase of each project I'm working on, but I also assume it's a willing student, a second participant in the process, who comes along to ease the burden in my mind of the silence and isolation that is so necessary in any artist's job.
MICHAEL: That’s brilliant. Yes. What was your first experience with art? Do you come from an artistic family? When did you realize you'd become an artist?
PAUL: My first experience with visual art came when I was perhaps eight or nine years old and my mother took me to art classes in the summertime at the studio, which was also an art shop, of her best friend who also happened to be my mother's mentor. My mother was a banker by profession, as was my father, but she also painted, almost exclusively roses and toward the end of her life, almost exclusively on commission. I possess only a half dozen or so of her artworks. Back then, I used to doodle in class, which often got me in trouble with the teacher and higher authorities and I made other unusual drawings in notebooks which I hid between the mattresses of my bed, though my mother had seen some of these during our at-home study periods. Perhaps this is why she thought I might do well at painting in a class of children under the instruction of a more experienced "Master" whose name was one of those perfect Southern pearls, Fernie Parker. But then my poor sister attended these classes too, therefore skill must have had little to do with it, as she had no inclination toward art whatsoever, except, much later, in college, she developed a stunning understanding of the history or art, so much so that we often now enter into competitions over the old masters. So perhaps it was just something my mother had found to keep us busy during those sweltering months of summer, months she was allowed by the bank to take off for the guidance and protection of her children. I know not these many days later.
MICHAEL: So you do have some art training.
PAUL: This instruction in oil painting went on for three or four summers and, besides coming home with paint all over me, I remember nothing more than enjoying it as I had never enjoyed anything else in my life. I'm not sure that I learned anything except "thick over thin," a common painterly term, and even then, I’m not at all certain that I understood just what she meant. There were several of my pieces from that class left among my mother's belongs when she died - all but one of these I burned, but as far as I recall nothing else exists. I should mention that I grew up in Houston, Texas, so this was a thoroughly Southern experience, with accents so think they wouldn't pour out of the honey jar. For the first time, a life-long occupation, whatever that was, toyed with my mind.
Except for my mother's painting, a beloved labor that no matter how hard she tried was mediocre at best, as she knew, and a pastime of hers that my father hated for some reason, though my psychological theorizing on the cause is simple and heartbreaking. I believe painting took my mother's attentions away from him and put them elsewhere, often for long periods of time (a common problem among serious artists), and he was so selfish she couldn't put up with it. Like a potential lover, this thing must be held at bay. So except for my mother's efforts, I must admit that my family was not artistic in any way, certainly not when it came to something like fine art, though I should mention that my father did build two sailboats when I was in my early teens. The first one capsized and sank and the second was crushed by a car tailgating the trailer as we were taking it somewhere for repairs.
MICHAEL: How did your artistry develop from there?
PAUL: Despite those negative experiences, I persevered in my efforts to chase a life of art and catch it. My next early experience with art came when I was thirteen or fourteen and I wrote about a hundred awful lyrical poems, probably having to do with love or baseball. Of course I remember them as awful and I'm sure they were. But on I went and wrote about a hundred more. I toted these with me back and forth to school -- because, well, you never know when inspiration, as some people like to put it, is going slam you in the forehead and it's always better to be prepared to write it down in a notebook. Somewhere in there, no doubt sheepishly and through subterfuge, I came to realize that a young friend of mine was also a poet. Somehow my literary strivings became known to her too; we shyly mentioned this to each other and there were some discussions held between us very quietly, no doubt whispers on the way to gym class or something. Eventually a question was asked, probably by me - more discussions and then one day she and I began to share our work, with red faces and trepidation, two or three days a week in the afternoons after school, reading out loud, sitting in the prickly grass behind the auditorium building of the high school. I think I might have gotten my second or third kiss on the lips out of the transaction, but I really remember little of the whole affair except that in one of her poems she actually used the word "love" and mentioned the term - I'll never forget this, "bodily ecstasy." I knew then I had fallen in love. And if you fall in love with the poet, don't you fall in love with the poem, perhaps even poetry? As is always the case with art, and artists, trouble is but a few quick steps away. Somehow, if I recall, her mother took notice that the two of us were spending a great deal of time together and one day it was announced that we could no longer see each other. I remember repeating to myself a phrase that I had heard somewhere, perhaps at home, perhaps a neighbor, perhaps the television: "What a shame." That's all I could think of to console myself, though consolation was not a message I much needed. From all of this I did take away with me something important, something that through the years of hard toil I would certainly need, and that was the conviction that I would be a poet in some fashion for the rest of my life. Indeed, I would take up art, fine art, as my complete way of life. I felt I had no choice now and it was a conviction I've held on to all these years, during good times and bad. There is a poem in every kind of art, sculpture, painting, jazz. It's that poem, that art, which is always on my mind when I wake, always troubling my thoughts when I go to sleep.
MICHAEL: You know, it seems that most people who are actively involved with art were exposed to it at a young age. That seems to be gone now with the lack of arts funding in public schools. What do you think?
PAUL: Whether most artists were exposed to art and artistic training at a young age I wouldn't know. It seems like it depends on the individual and how much he or she seeks out involvement in the arts. Whether funding for art education - I assume you mean grade school - has declined I know nothing about except that it makes sense as funding for everything in the arts and humanities has been suffering for years while the country moved politically more and more to the right. Without that elemental schooling in the basics of art, I can only guess that those who come out the other end, say in college or even beyond, might be delayed in their development somewhat. Of course, they can always teach themselves. I was first exposed to painting at a very early age by my mother and her mentor. I learned a little bit from them in the studio of my mother's friend. But for many years after that, as the misfortunes and fortunes of life took me over in the midst of my own youth, I fell away from such training, any training, and for many years I didn't "study" fundamentals at all, until I more or less gave up the writing of fiction and poetry and took up painting full time. As an adult, I completed three drawing classes and one watercolor class at a small college in Illinois. That is the extent of my formal education in the visual arts. I do, nonetheless, hold an MFA degree in fiction writing and contemporary literature. Even by then, however, I was painting a hundred or so paintings a year and producing dozens of works on paper at the same time. And I was showing and selling them. For a young person who truly feels the call of art, it seems to me that initiative, not funding, is the great educator. With or without art funding for schools, those children who know they have been called to art as a way of life, will learn how to do what has to be done. And more than likely, they'll be doing the teaching themselves.
MICHAEL: The lives of many talented artists are often difficult especially given bad economies and the public's lack of understanding about contemporary art. How do you deal with this?
PAUL: When I was young and eagerly reading, usually all night long, the writers I admired - Faulkner, Joyce, Katherine Anne Porter - and reading about painters I wished I had been -- Pollack, Cezanne, Matisse -- and going weekly to sit in holy reverence and meditation at the feet of the enormous canvases hanging in Houston's Rothko Chapel - well it was about then that I made firm a long-held determination, pondered off and on since grade school, to spend my life as an artist of some kind. I also decided that if I was going to be an artist of some kind that I may as well strive to be a great artist of some kind, and, if great, then I should labor to be one of the greatest. The greats, the ones we remember long after they're gone. I wanted to be like them, to make art out of miraculous stuff. Make the art miraculous too, if I had it in me. I'd only know if I tried. And I saw from these artists I admired that to make great art, truly great art, the greatest art, meant you had to be willing to take tremendous chances. You could not just re-write last year's popular crime novel or paint more precious kittens for the covers of Hallmark cards. You had to write sentences that ran around the block and made little sense to most people when they arrived. You had to do that strange stuff that Pollack had done, slop paint all over the place, even on his shoes. Well, pretty much nobody pays you to do that kind of work. It often takes years for brilliance to be recognized for what it is, first by that small cadre of cohorts in art who finally see the glow in your work but seldom have much money to buy any of it - and second by the larger public and wealthy patrons who usually have to be shown what's great, which can take years and even then they're slow to invest. Before long, the striving artist learns that taking chances pretty much always means living on the downside of the pay wave and the others who wanted to pursue lives as serious artists all knew it too - so it was good to get used to it.
Get used to being poor, or something close to it. It's as much a part of life for an artist as cleaning brushes is. I know. I live in two rooms, roughly 400 square feet, barely enough room for my books, with a small studio out back. I know - and I'm one of the lucky ones. Income. Bills. A car note. The sick baby. The cost of shipping when you're lucky enough to get in an exhibition that happens to be far away. Everything costs money. First, I've learned, it's a good idea to give as few hostages to fortune as possible. Credit, we should all know, can eat away at that little savings account in an insidious way. I know. I'm living through a bit of that right now. I also have a small car note on a twelve-year-old car. For reasons I won't go into I have a legal fee to pay each month. I could go on but why? We all have to pay something because of the things we've done or because of things we are doing. As I said, I'm fairly lucky really when it comes to money. I have a small private income that pretty much covers my bills, but then I haven't been on what you'd call a vacation in seven years and I have a faucet that needs fixing. I also have the credentials and experience to teach. Over the years, I've taught English Literature and writing part-time at five colleges and universities. These have usually been short stints, paid little, but let me put some money in the bank. Soon however, you start to miss that studio, the smell of paint, the sight of a completed painting. You want to go home.
So it all comes down to time. Do I spend my time teaching or working at some crummy job, or making sculpture and figuring out some way to get by? A lover with a good job can help, but then one is walking on shifty ground ethically in this field of work. The feelings really need to be sincere before taking on such help. If so, if you are truly fond of each other, then consider yourself lucky and get to work. But in end, time. What is my proper life? How do I spend my time? It is that struggle, the need to live something like a middle-class life, the kind you were more than likely raised in, versus the necessity to live the often difficult and obscure life of an artist that helps strengthen our characters and hence our art. This struggle mirrors the fundamental struggle of art as a whole. In all great art, we find some kind of titanic struggle under way, and could it be that the struggle arises in part from what most of us experience as we're working to emerge into the light of recognition, that time when our names become known to at least a small group of aware art lovers and when, all of a sudden, that painting you could not give away a year ago is now worth a good sum of money? So, again, Time. What makes it worth it to me to spend my time trying over and over again to get it right, something that seems impossible - up before the sun, often cleaning up after dark, tromping through the streets or the apartment in a foul mood uncertain whether the piece you're working on is any good? How can I tell? It's all in the risk. It's that struggle we live through, as Faulkner did, as Cezanne did, that in the end tells us how to spend our time, and it also tells us who we are, and who we're going to be.
MICHAEL: Wow, I'm very touched by your honesty. Most artists aren't this candid and daring. Your life seems to be in direct opposition to what many young artists today seem to be pursuing; fame, money, you know. Yet you seem much more soulful and successful at being a true artist. Finally Paul, Is there a message in your body of work? What do you want people to know and what are your plans for the future?
PAUL: We spoke before of the possibility that my work, with all its color and outrageous formations, is showing us one imagination's depiction of the origins of the natural world. It is an idea that I had not considered until recently, and yet you saw in my paintings, before we really even met each other, the likelihood that my body of work is an attempt to reveal one artist's view of creation. I didn't do that; I didn't even know I had tried. But my imagination, with its wealth of hidden knowledge and images, offered up a host of ideas and created a lot of paintings that could possibly be just what you saw in them and what I am now seeing in them too. Your observation led me to see what I would like people to know, remember and think about - the enormous capacity of the human imagination to make us act. Art is just the imagination's greatest celebrant.
At times, I believe the interior universe, the silent universe, is just as a large and complex as the noisy, active, visible, exterior universe that we can see so well, in some places, across the night sky. This other universe of course we cannot see, but consider what the human imagination has brought to life in the minds of certain people, people who then created remarkable concepts and objects that enhanced human life. Not only in art, though art may be the greatest manifestation of the imagination's enormity and abilities, but in medicine, other sciences, business, mathematics - the realm is immense. Each of these endeavors, be it economics or sculpture, began as a tiny thought in a brain rampaging with millions of mundane ideas and was plucked out of that soup to become something that changed human life, usually in a positive way. The importance of this swells with each new trick of the imagination, because each new idea that is born in someone's imagination leads to hope, perhaps the most important emotion. We can be fairly certain that some imagination somewhere is going to bring to our future doorstep something magnificent. We can hope for it and plan on it. There is always more to come. In art it tells us that more masterpieces will appear, and perhaps the ones yet born will someday be considered even greater than those which have come before. The imagination can create no telling what; we should be always on the lookout.
MICHAEL: And with that, we’re done. Thanks Paul. Great chat.
Check out Paul and his work at www.paulscottmalone.com.