Interview with Timothy Vermeulen


Neoteric Art: Give us some history on yourself.

Timothy Vermeulen: I was born in Paterson, NJ the son of a funeral director. For many of my formative years we actually lived in a funeral home and had a morgue in our basement. I have never figured out exactly what effect this has had on my psyche.

I also come from a strict, Calvinist background that emphasized our unworthiness and “total depravity.” Once, in a graduate school critique, I said that my work was about life and death; one of my professors disagreed and said she thought it was more about salvation and damnation. Now I see that my funeral home experience, while strange and frightening, has had nowhere near the powerful, daily, sometimes crushing effect that my religious straight-jacket has had on my essential nature.

IshmaelandQueequegI have a B.A. in Secondary Art Education from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI and an M.F.A. in Painting and Drawing from the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana. I currently live and work in Chicago.

NA: You say your paintings are small, figurative, autobiographical narratives. Your narratives, while formed through self-portraiture, are often based on established stories or series from literary sources. How did you get started working in this vain?

TV: This started all the way back in college in a collage course I took. I began to do a series of pieces with images of dolls. This led to a number of paintings about puppets, which led to a series based on a medieval puppet show of Punch and Judy. I started to see that what was drawing me to the established narrative was an autobiographical impulse, so I began to place myself directly in the images and moved from puppets to real people.

NA: Do you elaborately plan out your series before you even begin the first painting?

TV: For a project like Moby Dick, I begin by carefully reading and taking notes on the text and criticism of the text. Then I cull out scenes that most strongly affect me personally and that bring up powerful associations. I then begin making little sketches and gathering source imagery. Finally, I start to collage the images together from many sources and do a rather finished under-drawing in preparation for the final painting. I work on all the images at once so I can keep all the elements balanced.

TheProphetNA: What does a narrative painting have to contain for you to consider it to be a success?

A strong personal resonance that I hope has some universal significance.

NA: Discuss your current series, “Moby Dick”.

TV: I read “Moby Dick” in college and it has always been a favorite. A couple years ago I was listening to a program on NPR devoted to the novel and I was moved to tears by a reading from the book. I thought it would be worth a reread to see if there would be close ties with my life and work. I consider “Moby Dick” one of the strangest productions in the history of all the arts. This sprawling novel encompasses all of the contrasts of human experience: life/death, salvation/damnation, good/evil, man/nature, etc. Like many of my past projects, I have placed myself within scenes from the narrative and situated them in a contemporary context. The images refer to issues that may be personal, social, political, and/or religious, and the dramas may symbolize internal states, social conflicts, and past traumas. Objects, settings, and human interactions carry symbols of the subconscious and collective memory.

StrikeThroughtheMaskNA: What is your overall painting philosophy?

TV: For many expressionists the action of painting is like flying over a mountain in an airplane. I consider my work a kind of expressionism that is more like a slow, painstaking crawl up and over a mountain.

NA: Who are some of your favorite painters?

TV: Anonymous medieval illuminated manuscript painters, Van Eyck, Roger Campin, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Gregory Gillespie, and local artist Tim Lowly.