Neoteric Art: When did you determine that you were going to be an artist?
Ted Stanuga: I remember clearly the time when art became the center of my life. I was 11 and there was a lot going on in the press about Jackson Pollack and abstract expressionism in general, most of it trying to be humorous and all of it derisive. The teacher of my 4th grade class at that time shared these articles with us and amazingly every day our assignment was to listen for about an hour to a piece of music she played for us and draw at the same time. I tried to draw covered bridges ala John Nagy and other landscape or seascape works that were all around us thanks to the school of California Landscape Painting. I also liked but more so, the velvet paintings I would see in Tijuana. The process to me was stunning: The artist would line up about 10 canvases and paint each section on each canvas the same but in different colors, so at the end of a period of painting there would be the same crashing wave seascape in 10 different versions. I would watch these guys all afternoon and learned a ton about paint application. This was Southern California at its most southern and most Californian, on the border of Mexico in Chula Vista, still somewhat rural in those days in the shadow of the Imperial Valley growing community. This was a very conservative political environ, where nonsense like abstract art was not considered serious except at school under the great eye of Mrs. White our inspired teacher. So this is where it started—at school in school and at school on the streets of Tijuana.
In Jr. and senior high school I was calling myself an artist and trying everything a liberal educational system with vision could provide me, and it was this background and love of painting I took on the road after high school going to Montana for what turned out to be an education in the way to go about work. I worked on ranches and in the Zinc Plant for Anaconda Copper Company and it was here that I heard about a painter living in Great Falls that did strange abstract paintings. I met Jack Franjevic in his office as head of the art department. He had studied at the School of the Art Institute and then in New York with Hans Hoffman briefly, and was a jazz drummer and also brought a colorists eye to abstraction. I studied with Franjevic until 1972 except for a brief vacation in the Marine Corps where I worked at Balboa Hospital in San Diego as an office assistant to the Chief of Medicine, after which I returned to Montana to study. He eventually said to me that I needed a city around me and suggested that I transfer studies to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which I did in 1973. Franjevic said that a solid tradition of abstraction existed here and that I would find much to inspire and further educated me. When I arrived and set up a studio I found that all around me were the Hairy Who and not much of abstraction. There was little at the school other than the museum that I could take seriously, until I met Tom Kapsalis. The third and last teacher in a line of what I would call visionary teachers, generous with information and experience enough to allow them to teach at a level comparable to their art. He pushed me hard and after I had taken all of his classes I left the school and went to Landfall Press to work with Master Printer Jack Lemon. It was here that I mixed colors for the artists, learned about process by watching them and also learned another level of commitment by watching and working with Jack. He sharpened my eye.
Doing my own work though in an environ of imagist dreams took its toll and I experimented for a while in a variety of expressionist styles of figurative work, still life, and landscape. I had a few shows with this work, and even got into the Brooklyn Print show in the early 80s at the Brooklyn Museum with one of my snarling dog pieces that I still hear about. This diversion lasted 4 years after which I returned to abstraction which I still do today.
NA: You’ve been painting for 30+ years. How has your viewpoint and/or the act of painting changed for you over the years?
TS: It’s the culmination of work and experiences outside of the art world that have impacted me the most. I mentioned a few already but the one experience that really stands out for me is The Fruit Pickers Strike. It was 1963-4 and high school athletes were drafted more or less to fill the void left by the striking pickers that summer, I was one of them. Some migrant families had to cross the picket lines to survive. It was not long before we got to know each other by working long long hours together every day and sharing meals. It was then I began to understand how they lived, and of course once that happens and you pay any attention with your heart, your life is changed forever. I became a thinking political human being that summer and knew that if my work was ever to carry any significant cultural weight, it would have to make sense to the people that worked those rows every day. The only way that I could make that happen was to bring to my work the urgency and commitment that those pickers brought to their struggle for survival every day in the fields. This was clear to me then on some level although I could not have articulated it and now it’s this thought that is with me in my studio every day and what made me take warmly to aspects of life in Chicago. This town is about work and the ways to go about it, at its best, and about how deviating from these principles can destroy you, at its worst. Chicago keeps both notions alive at all times in ways you cannot find anywhere else. I have plans of leaving Chicago sometime, but its influence will always be visible in my work and lunch box.
NA: Describe your work and process.
TS: Right now most of my work is in black and white. It originally started with an idea from Duke Ellington and his Black and Tan Fantasy compositions…but quickly as I saw more color in this apparent limitation, the work became a reflection on or a meditation about our culture, like so much bunting at a funeral. Mine (funeral) which gets closer every day and the failed American experiment in Democracy one can experience every evening watching our liberties evaporate on the news. Well that is where it all started anyway and although all of that is still in the work at some level…it seems to have transcended those initial conceits and now speaks about complexities both personal and cultural.
To start with I make a drawing on either paper or canvas not knowing anything about where to go…this is a change from years of preparing carefully the work in advance—I have become completely experimental as a result. Once the drawing is on and somewhat fixed, I begin to work into the charcoal with white or ground color if different than white, obliterating lines with light or paint and going through a general simplification process…something I am trying to do in my life at all times as well. Once that coat is completed I sand it smooth and begin to redraw in various shades of the same colors with paint (oil) and continue this process leaving aspects of previous layers visible, ( this too is a life process for me ) until the piece will no longer allow me to do anything to it and it sings kind of, or just stands their quivering. Something I have a tendency to do when something important is afoot. I do this over and over again like a meditation that will help me find a balance between what I know and what the world is ultimately expanding my understanding of both.
NA: Does gallery representation mean the same to you now as to when you were first starting out?
TS: It is different now with a variety of ways to sell the work, I am not so interested in finding a gallery solely for that purpose. It still can be a major source of credibility along with museum shows, and all artists need that. We seem to be on the verge of not only seeing American Artists taking a huge back seat on the culture bus, but also of the internet making it possible for artists to truly have an impact in their own financial destiny. This has not happened yet because serious art sales are not happening online, but it seems to be coming, or at least a version of it is coming. I work with a variety of people in getting my work a home, and the relationships I like the best are the ones where the people involved get into the work at a level that allows them to push a little, I respond well to that, because I value the collaborative thought process so much. On the best days, things can happen with the work that would not happen without the collaborative effort.
NA: Are there any new artists and exhibitions that you find interesting?
TS: Yes, and I will just list a few artists: Tom Kapsalis; Justin James Beckman; Chris Roberts; Mike Helbing; Sarah Maple; Lucy Slivinski; and Frank Connet.
The Art Institute is finally having a show or two that are making sense to me—the last paintings in both the Hopper and Homer shows are amazing. Close to the end of his life Homer painted a ship that traveled the world and is docked, sails down and its strange cargo is being unloaded. Hopper has for his last painting an empty yellow room.