Sheila Butler...on a continuous roll (part I)
Three Swimmers, Sheila Butler, lithograph
September 5th, 2014 to October 17th, 2014
Opening: September 5th, 5-8pm
Artist will be present at the opening reception.
The exhibition will feature a selection of print works by Butler from throughout her career, focusing on some of her main artistic concerns. The exhibition is the first of a two part retrospective in collaboration with the University of Manitoba School of Art Gallery. The exhibition coincides with the 30th Anniversary celebration of Mentoring Artists For Women’s Art (MAWA).
Interview with Sheila Butler by Suzie Smith – February 2014
Suzie Smith: Who influenced and/or encouraged you to become an artist, and when did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Sheila Butler: My hometown was one of many small steel mill cities in Allegheny County, the area that surrounds the urban centre of Pittsburgh. A wealthy patron endowed a large amount of money for free Saturday art classes for children in the whole area, and each school could only send a few students. My bus trip to the big city took more than an hour, and then I took the streetcar to the area of Pittsburgh called Oakland, to the Carnegie Museum. For me, at that age, the serious trip to the large urban setting, to instruction that took place in an auditorium in the architecturally impressive venue of Carnegie Museum, formed an aura that undoubtedly lent intensity of purpose to my participation as a student.
The instruction included our preliminary writing of notes about the lesson from the previous week. Then, after listening to the instructor’s commentary on the assignment for the day, we summarized his remarks. Then we turned our papers over to the other side and began to draw. We had very modest equipment, just crayons and paper and a small drawing board.
Even as a child, I immediately loved that approach to art making, in that it was the first process that had been presented to me with an intellectual component rather than on a solely intuitive basis. In the Museum Saturday classes the overt joining of language and visuality had strong appeal for me, and it still does.
At approximately age 13, for the first time, I had the experience of drawing from the live model, and that was significant. I didn’t know it at the time, but later I realized the whole pedagogic format was fashioned very much on the French academic tradition.
That traditional studio experience, working directly from the live model on a model stand, was one of the formative experiences of my life. It presented the first glimmers of such a host of problems, both intellectual and material. And what did that emphasis on the human figure represent to me? Well, even at the beginning, it wasn’t just about what people look like. I began to be able to imagine how art works to construct commentary on the human condition. It led to the question, what could I make of that realization in visual terms?
So in summary, the early teaching I received was encouraging, although old-fashioned for the time. As I and my fellow students matured, the Saturday classes moved to studios at the nearby Carnegie Mellon University. (At that time it was Carnegie Institute of Technology.) And I proceeded to enroll there as a BFA student in 1956. I went to Carnegie Institute of Technology [CIT] because I didn’t know the names of other possible post-secondary art schools, and I didn’t know how to research that information. So I went there because that was it.
I realized later that instruction in other schools, especially in the eastern United States, in New York and so forth, was primarily concerned with the Modernist abstraction that formed the theoretical mainstream of the mid-twentieth century. As I’ve described, CIT was an old-fashioned school at the time, but a good version of that. So that’s what I started with, and I soon became aware that as an artist I was living in a historical context that I needed to understand and respond to.
Primarily through reading and through travel to view exhibitions, I became sophisticated in terms of the history of the twentieth century, and I understood, in theoretical and historical terms, how I fit into my time. Through my own studio work I learned about abstract elements and representation of subjects. But I never believed that the best path for me was to leave subject matter behind. I understand the value of Modernism, and its revelation of the construction of pictorial space, but I have never left subject matter. And the subject was the human being and what all that meant to me, and I hope to other viewers who looked at my work.
SS: What role do you think the figure plays in your work?
SB: Well, as I say, it’s the earliest problem that I understood as art. So the issues that I was dealing with broadened for me, but I couldn’t leave it because the human figure was such an expansive field of concern.
I’ve done a lot of writing about my own work, and I’ve given many artist talks, and a primary point that I always address is the two-dimensional format of pictures, and all that is possible, in both spatial terms and illusionistic terms, with pictures. Modernist abstraction emphasized that we no longer want to restrict pictures primarily to the creation of illusions of the three-dimensional world. Acknowledgment of the two-dimensional surface enriches visual form with the rewards of an aesthetic that is two-dimensional.
So I found that I could do all the visual abstract manipulation of the picture, whether it had subject matter or not. For me, pictures are not worth it unless I’m simultaneously viewing both levels — both representation and abstract formal elements.
I’m counting on the patience of readers as I review in detail this aspect of recent art history because it was, from the beginning, my personal context as an artist. In early Modernist abstraction, creation of subject matter was for a time a banished practice, and these were formative years for me. So in a way I came into it at a difficult time, because as I was maturing, the dominant mainstream consisted of abstractions of various modes. Extensive cross-disciplinary theoretical investigation in the late twentieth century greatly expanded our expectations regarding the history, political definition and evaluation of contemporary art and artists.
The historical context that I lived through is to a great extent what I talk about when I talk about my own work. I couldn’t have made pictures that look as they do if I had been thinking only about a storyline. Somehow I was mature enough at age 13 to begin to imagine vast possibilities. I feel that representation and narrative remain important to me because they deal with emotion and personal connections to viewers, and because I don’t have to emphasize a total narrative as artists did 400 years ago, I can suggest partial narrative.
SS: It seems as though your work tells a story, both fact as well as something going on under the surface, unspoken, or something harder to grasp. To what extent is narrative important to you?
SB: Well, I’ve given many works well-considered narrative titles that I hope will lead viewers into the visual experience. All my paintings have some reference to narrative, even though some of them are fairly sketchy connections. With one show especially, Sympathetic Magic, 2000–01, I quite consciously and with very deliberate intent devised long narrative titles, and they were important to me. They were literally sentences, some borrowed from poetry or novels and other literary sources. Others were my own writing. But the titles and the experience of writing/selecting were an important part of the process for me and I thought it reflected well on the work. So I’ve always done that to a certain extent, but that show emphasized it much more.
SS: I’m thinking of how your work can both be telling a fact-story that’s going on, but also have other things happening.
SB: Yes. I feel that my pictures can refer to memory and imagination, and also refer to something that I actually stood and looked at yesterday, all simultaneously pictorial. So yes, they’re never limited to one visual or language-based or emotional source. I feel that the consolidation power of pictures is remarkable and reassuring.
I feel that all my pictures in any medium that I’ve worked with are concerned with layering the subject matter. In painting that happens with great immediacy. But with printmaking, just technically given, because that’s how the materials work, you have to consciously separate and layer the imagery in both material and temporal terms. That is, I’m thinking about the narrative in real time that is the process of making a print. With painting you can quickly make changes. Whereas with the print, it’s a gradual buildup often on individual surfaces, and if something doesn’t work, the negotiation backward and forward in time on the plate or the matrix that you’re using is very different. But I think it’s really valuable for a picture maker to have both mediums; that you’re able to do both drawing/painting and printmaking is very helpful in understanding the structure of a picture.
SS: In both your painting and print-based work you often have multiple panels. What do you like about the fragmented image, or do you see this as fragmentation?
SB: Well, I feel that our life becomes visually more fragmented the longer we live. Partly, that observation is old-lady musing, but I think that may be a general development in human experience. Because picture making now comes to us via fast-moving technological means of all kinds, fragmentation to a large extent has become the name of the game. Some critical thinkers feel that painting as a material and aesthetic historical practice needs to be set aside. But as I continue to function as a viewer as well as a producer, I feel that painting is so flexible that it will take on the visual look of most things that it needs to take on.
So much has been written about our changing twenty-first-century experience of time, and your question about fragmentation seems to me to be relevant to temporal concerns. I think of Michael Baxandall’s writing about pictures and language and their differing relations to time. His line of inquiry is how an immediately available field, a picture — and you know what he means, you look at it and you’ve got it — compares to the narrative structure of language, which inevitably reveals itself in linear time. Whereas I think of a picture as All Time. You know, I can layer visual images and I can be telling you about something I read when I was ten years old, and something that happened to me four years ago, and on and on.
SS: As much as your work is often about intimacy or emotion, it is also about the human condition. What role do political and human rights issues play in your work?
SB: I feel that those issues play a very big role. Because I’ve always worked on collaborative works — my work does not always come from a studio where I’m the only person who sees it in progress. If you look through my CV, you’ll see that major collaborative projects have always been part of what I’ve done, and those were so useful. The first one, in 1969, was called Our Environment, and I did that in Pittsburgh immediately before I left for the Arctic. As it turned out, that show was the end of my Pittsburgh life. After that I was a Canadian, and I have been for most of my adult life.
SS: Since then you’ve worked on many collaborative projects, such as Art and Cold Cash, Off the Beaten Track, Girls and Guns, Anirniliit: Breathing in the Cold and Just My Imagination. How do you think collaborative projects have informed your practice?
SB: Well, the first experience that I described was broadening in every way. I certainly learned by working with the other people, both lay people and professionals in the arts, and that’s what I like about collaborative work. After that, I worked primarily with other professional artists. We would talk about whatever the issue was that we were dealing with, and I would hear people I respected propose things that I would never have thought of alone; it was so creatively informative. Even the practicalities of raising money and finding a venue and dealing with whatever political ideas you are expressing; just the practicality of how to make it work in the world is rewarding for a member of a group.
SS: I noticed in many of your works references to comic books or graphic novels, or at least the idea of the villain and the superhero. In She Takes Refuge in Dreams you directly use comics in the work, but there is also something more general about how your images get fragmented into panels, or a certain flatness, or lack of illusion, that reminds me of comic books. How do you see your work connecting to comic books or the graphic novel?
SB: Well, it’s Leonardo meets Superman, you know. As an unsophisticated young artist, I loved comic-book drawing. I loved the style of the drawing of the arm, when Superman goes *kapow*! I still like those images, where you see Superman’s arm, so beautifully foreshortened, like Michelangelo. You know, that’s really where they get that form of drawing, from the Renaissance. For me, it‘s linked to my pleasure and interest in drawing from the live model.
So for She Takes Refuge in Dreams I used my dream texts as the basis for altered comic books. For these comic books I did small sequential drawings of what was happening in the dream texts, and I inserted drawings and words into existing comic books. That was fun, because sometimes the two narratives come together in a readable way. You can read the comic book, or you can read the dream and sort of take your choice. But through the whole thing you can follow both the dream story and the comic-book story as an unbroken language and picture narrative, if you prefer. I exhibited the comic books on a table where people could actually put on white gloves and read them, and many people did.
SS: What do you see as the function, or purpose, of your artwork? Is there a message you’re trying to get across to the viewer? If so, what is it?
SB: No, I don’t think that I have ever worked on such a naïve approach to the arts. I don’t think of art primarily as an individual experience. I think of art as a committee project over centuries, and I’m much more interested in large art movements than I am in any individual artist, including myself. So I’m interested in how I fit into a trail that an anonymous monk experienced in the year 900. Then, how that trail developed through Europe, until I inherited certain traditions as a child in Pittsburgh. But the idea of individual genius I think is untrue. I don’t think it’s interesting and I don’t think that’s the way it works. But I’m very, very interested in how I can be part of a cultural pattern that continues after thousands of years.
SS: And finally, can you say something about your working process?
SB: Well, fundamentally I’ve always felt that I had to have a studio that I could call a studio. It couldn’t just be me working in my bedroom, you know; there had to be a separation possible. Especially when I had kids at home and a teaching job and shows, I had to have a professional space, especially if I was going to invite curators and critics to visit.
In order to be a practising female artist — I mean, it’s easier now, but it was difficult – my residence was often a building that could be my studio and then my family and I lived in the rest of the space. For example, we lived in old stores that had ample studio space. So I think that in order for me to have a good sense of self, I needed that professional space. Especially when I had to meet with people who were perhaps skeptical, and I was trying to defend this as work that was legitimate for an audience of some kind. So I’ve always had a studio, and that remains important to me.
Currently in Toronto, I didn’t want to have to do a long commute and I didn’t want something scary, where I was afraid to go to an old warehouse or something similar. So I’m happy with what I have. I live about a 15-minute walk from the studio and the building is a huge, rambling couple of city blocks that used to be a factory. So it’s partly private storage units that people rent, and it’s partly small businesses, and partly artists’ studios. So it’s good; it’s not scary. And we’ll see – but I’ll always find something, you know.
Sheila Butler is a multi-media artist primarily known as a painter. She now lives in Toronto. After teaching at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg for sixteen years, Butler moved to London, Ontario where she was a professor of Fine Art at the University of Western Ontario for another fifteen years. She has had numerous national and international exhibitions of her work. Butler has a long history of collaborative exhibitions as well. Her work is included in collections such as the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, The University of Toronto and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, among others.