The Artists' Guide to the Galaxy
Follow the Orbit of Three of Austin's Visual Artists
To a rock singer, success has a definite orbit: It's the trajectory that includes a platinum disc or a place on the cover of Rolling Stone. As launch pads for reaching this kind of success go, Austin is a regular Kennedy Space Center. With a breakthrough gig at Emo's and a slot on John Aielli's public radio show, a local vocalist can skyrocket up to the world of record contracts and celebrity dates.
But what is the route to interplanetary success for a visual artist? How does Austin rate as a starting point for a painter or sculptor? Is there one gallery, one magazine, or one radio show that an Austinite targets as a starter for his or her visual art career? There doesn't appear to be. In fact, in the uncharted galaxy of art, success is a nebula, not nearly as well defined as in rock. It seems to vary from artist to artist as much as their individual styles. Here, three local artists -- Steve Schwake, Clare Christie, and Marie Parker -- share their impressions of life in Austin and the development of their work, exposing the dynamics of success on their respective worlds.
Remember the guy in middle school business class who doodled on his book all the time, causing the people next to him to gape over his shoulder at the bizarre machine, demon, or super-being growing on the page? Steve Schwake was one of those guys.
"Middle school was when I really drew a lot and realized that other kids weren't drawing," says Schwake. "Me and my friend Bob Reeves [now an art teacher at Steve's high school alma mater] were the art guys in my class. In elementary school, everyone draws. Some people stop and some people keep going, and the people who keep going are the artists." Schwake still prefers otherworldly doodles to management theory.
The machines, demons, and super-mutants that Schwake creates on the page now grow more bizarre by the painting. Schwake's world is composed of a colorful set of characters or shapes that he calls his "artistic vocabulary." The most common offender, a cocoon-like pea-pod figure, Schwake paints with unnerving precision, as if a body snatcher knocked up to his flat one evening and sat for its portrait. Organ and machine meet in this form.
"I use that shape a lot because it's really transformable. It looks really organic, like a cocoon or a shell. But it also has the same shape as the jet engines on an airplane, this kind of generic mechanical shape."
This shape looks its dapper best in Buttondown. Overlapping shirts cling to the chrysalis, highlighting its curvature in the way that a button-down shirt emphasizes a human's upper body. Another appeal of this shape is that it allows Schwake to play with light and shadow and pull off the three-dimensional heist: He gets the skateboarder thrill from taking a 2-D page and making people see 3-D.
The shirt itself is another recurring semi-animate character in Schwake's paintings. Valentine's Day Shirt, a grained and shaded portrait like a 19th-century Left Bank figure study, features a candy red heart popping through the collars in place of a face, top buttons resting where the eyes would have been. Insight to Riot comes on like a "Night of the Living Shirts" -- rows of shirts, fading together, emerging from one another, float toward the foreground. Lined by ribs and spines, the shirts might be a symbol for the dehumanization of modern society.
Some characters come straight from the horror shows in the basement of Schwake's imagination. The chap in Undoing Cupid is a cartoonish monster with three eyes, horny ears, green hair, and a reticulated nose. With surgical concentration, he removes arrows from a love-stricken heart. The pallor of the figure's arms, the thickness of the limbs, and the supernatural setting venerate the tomb of Hieronymous Bosch.
"I like to think of them [the monsters] as being kind of manic, all that gnashing," the artist observes. "So happy that they're crunching their teeth, almost headache, they're so intense."
Hot-rodding and skateboarding influenced his development as an artist. During teen sprees at the drag track and the half pipe, engines and boards impressed themselves deeply into Schwake's consciousness. Both pursuits reappear in the wild palette and wilder action of paintings like Male Gaze Monthly.
Schwake's I-35 character has a blue sign where its head should be. With more than a hint of Darth Vader, this faceless fiend is the open vein of mid-America: the interstate. Resident of a world that moves too fast for its inhabitants, the ghoul floats around like Death. It's a creature born from the artist's long history with the highway. "I grew up about 15 miles east of I-35. I spent a lot of my life driving up and down I-35 between our town and Oklahoma City. It's the major north and south route, and it's one of the most dangerous highways in the world. It's this vein that I've moved up and down my whole life. It's the highway of death."
If the worst thing about living in Austin is I-35, the best thing to Schwake is the music. Each of his pieces doubles as a visual for a Clash song or a rockabilly standard: shirts, demons, and highway signs serve as vessels for cowpunk voices.
Does the maverick artist have as many opportunities locally as the cowpunk singer? Yes and no, says Schwake: "There is a really good Art in Public Places program here in Austin. I wish there were more wacky galleries here that were a little more generalized, but the reality is that they don't turn a profit."
In Schwake's opinion, many Austinites appreciate and desire far-out paintings, the Catch-22 being that most of those Austinites are broke. Too many galleries, in Schwake's eyes, cater for "art that would not scare your grandmother." He strives to change that and bring his art to a wide audience.
"I would like to say success is just being able to make a living doing art, but I secretly want to be famous." A Schwake painting on the cover of Juxtapoz magazine, the "lowbrow art" monthly, would probably be his equivalent of a rock singer's personal Rolling Stone edition.
Much of Schwake's creativity springs from his "Hobby Lobby" period. While working in the craft store in South Austin, the artist encountered the mainstream of visual art. As he framed bluebonnet fields and mountains, the ravine between art criticism and what people in South Austin want opened before the artist's eyes. At first, he made art-school jokes about the ladies who came in to shop for glitter to decorate their jumpsuits. Now, Schwake admires these people who show confidence in their own taste and instincts. With the wry humor that lightens his canvases, Schwake has decided that like the jumpsuit decorators, he will pursue his own scary themes, whether the critics like it or not.
The allure of Clare Christie's creations comes from the realm where Lemuel Gulliver met the Houyhnhnms. In the land of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver found a civilization of horses so cultured and clement that he could not bear to return to the brutality of human society. Likewise, Christie sculptures such as Epiphany and Bliss celebrate the perfection of a horse's form and the depth of its feeling.
Unlike Gulliver, however, Christie did not have to travel far to become enchanted by horses. "I grew up on a ranch outside Lampasas," she says. She has been watching horses for as long as she can remember. "I always had horses around; my Mom worked with horses." Christie became a competitive rider and a riding instructor, and when she turned to art, she turned to them naturally as her subjects.
Her long exposure to the animals did more to train her inner eye for depicting horses than her years in art school. "There's a certain way they can move and there's a certain way they can't," says Christie, "and if you see a piece, sometimes you'll think: No, a horse doesn't do that. I don't have that problem because I've watched then so much, I'll know if it doesn't move that way."
Using this anatomical insight to its most uplifting, Christie produced Epiphany in 1997. In this piece, based in part on a rearing horse sketched by Leonardo da Vinci, the myriad parts of the horse all move in the same direction, light and shadow channeling the motion toward the neck, which is tossed back to give the creature a smooth S-shape. A series of turns in its body mark the points of emotion through which the creature has passed. The detail is stunning, especially considering that Christie created the piece from memory and imagination: Every joint in the leg, every hair in the tail appears to be in motion.
Horses present many challenges to an artist -- at least humans sit for their portraits. Until 1995, Christie made semi-abstract horses from wire and stick. Now she begins her bronze portraits with a sketch of the subject, then creates a metal wire armature, before molding clay onto that frame.
Christie's Texas roots can be seen in her sculpture, as in the sun-worn look of the bronze in Polo. "I definitely have Texan heritage," the artist says, and admits to "a Texan twang" in her work. But she feels it is not as bound to geography as the work of artists like, say, Frederic Remington. "The different thing about my horse sculptures is that they're not one thing or another," she notes. "They're not really Western or particularly English. They're just the horse itself: the animal."
In her pieces, Christie draws not only on her expertise with the equine anatomy, but also on the power of the horse in human imaginings. As seen in Peter Shaffer's play Equus, horses are associated with sex and power in the human psyche. The whinnies and snorts audible in her studio at her employer's stables connect with part of Christie's subconscious: She is drawn to the way horses symbolize "freedom, [as well as] power." "You have to respect a horse to work around it. You can't think that you can overpower it. You have to learn about it, understand it to work around it, live around it. I like that. It's not like you can dominate it. I like that individual spirit."
For sheer power, Christie's Knightless Noble (1998) packs the most punch. As the stallion kicks up, its Medusa-like mane flies off its head like water bursting through a dam. Nostrils flared and eyes bulging, this horse flexes its physical might. Christie based this stallion on a horse that painter Peter Paul Rubens used in his painting of St. George the Dragonslayer. This time, the mighty horse replaces the flimsy human at center stage.
Most liberating amongst the bronze sculptures, Bliss (2000) shows a horse and child, midgallop. As the child grips the horse's hair, the figures share an expression of relief. The gallop inspires Christie's childlike joy.
Allure (2000) also examines the human-animal connection. In this piece, Christie creates an ambiguous situation where a girl may be coaxing a horse or vice versa. While the girl twists her arms and tilts to the wind, the horse trots in a straight line. The artist investigates deceit and honesty in the partnership of human and animal.
All of Christie's pieces suggest motion in the manner of a freeze frame from a fast-moving film. Rest (1998), an image of a horse in repose, features heaving sides. Christie shares the concerns of ancient Greek sculptors: the variegations of muscle, symmetry achieved through uneven lines. It is the enchantment of movement that lies at the heart of her work, as it does that of her guide, Matisse.
Christie feels that Austin is a good place to create. Like Schwake, she credits the music scene with part of that: "I draw a lot of my inspiration from going to the live music shows. I'll go to a concert and come back the next day, and I'll really sculpt."
The city also has valuable resources for aspiring artists, she says, resources like the Austin Visual Arts Association. With the help of the association, Christie dreams of a time when the struggle for survival is not so harsh: "I think I'm going to be more creative when I'm not struggling so hard. When you're struggling, you worry about where the money's coming from to pay for your car, how you're going to pay your electricity bill. I'd like my mind to be on higher things."
The artist also has her personal visions of success. "I would like to work in monumental size," she says, "have something in a public place like a park or a museum or a children's hospital. I just think I would do well working on that scale."
Play With Nature
"Art is where I play. Art is where adults play."
Marie Parker actually plays in two worlds that sometimes overlap: Art and Nature. It was Nature that first alerted Parker to beauty, and it's Art that she uses to record and amplify that beauty. For more than 30 years, Parker has photographed nature, mostly with the same camera, a Canon FTB. By using a 1 to 1 ring adapter over the lens, she has managed to get extremely close to minute subjects without distorting them.
A rich sample of this style, Moss Rose, Transiting Nebula, centers on a pink flower with petals fluttering in every direction like superhero cloaks. A yellow haze in the background looks like a solar cloud (hence the space travel reference in the title).
Parker has sensed a presence in nature since her childhood on a Louisiana farm and feels it is her duty to transcribe that presence through photography. She sees herself as Nature's secretary, taking memos and dictations from the flora and fauna around her, lest their splendor be forgotten.
"All my photographs are taken in nature," she says. "I just have a very strong sensual connection with nature. It's always amazed me, even as a child. There is so much to see that you can pass by, but if you look, it's a whole other world. If you get that close in nature, there's going to be some really interesting backgrounds."
By isolating minute plants and creatures, Parker dissociates them from their surroundings. In Moss Rose, Transiting Nebula, for example, she detaches the flower from its stalk and reduces the surroundings to a dust light. Rather than capturing the reality of her subjects, Parker evinces an aura from them. As a result, the photos resemble paintings more than documents.
In making her art, Parker bypasses the analytical self. She says she never thinks of a shot or subject in advance. She cannot sit down and plan what she creates. "It's like the lens is a tunnel between me and another world," she observes. "When my eye or some kind of inner eye sees something, then I click."
The same principle applies to her assemblages, small sculpted works of found objects resting on small boards like straightened shoehorns. For years, Parker has collected buttons, pieces of metal, costume jewelry, and fabrics. Initially, she would assemble them into pins or boleros, intended for practical use, but then she began to develop them into "totems" that were less practical and more intriguing. Lines of metal, wire, and ball notes on one give the impression of music. On another, a button like a Vietnamese hat and a bead like a harlequin's masque appear to showcase heads.
Parker claims the objects approach her and accommodate themselves in her art. "When I gather things, I don't have in mind what I'm going to do," she says. "I just think they're beautiful in themselves; it's sort of like they dictate the form themselves."
For Parker's latest piece, Untitled, she covered a box in raw off-white silk, fitted a lid onto it, placed a curved pipe like a periscope or a stove pipe on the lid and balanced it on four sticks of sea-smoothed wood. The contraption is somewhat reminiscent of the ice-planet walker from the Star Wars series, although Parker's creation looks more organic than Lucas' giant robot. Four legs make it more feasible than two. The natural contours of the wooden legs and the eyelike patches on each side of the box give the piece a sense of life.
"It looked like it was walking off, looked like it was traveling," Parker says. "Then I realized it was from a dream. I had this dream about these little houses west of Austin, on these undulating hills and it was like a Disney movie. They all got up and started walking."
For Bob (1990) is Parker's shrine to a friend who died from AIDS. The upright fruit crate is fitted out like a Catholic grotto. On the back wall, a veil falls around a statuette of the Virgin Mary behind a glass-covered photo of Bob on the occasion of his First Communion. The box is lovingly wallpapered with bright flowered cloth and broken glass protects the roof. Across the opening, Parker has nailed three pieces of wood, grief barriers that look jagged and final. But on each side of the piece, cut into the rough wall, a window is covered by a laser copy of a Parker photo that draws the light through radiant colors for the same effect as a stained glass window. A departure for Parker, this piece marks the first interplay of her two artistic worlds.
An artistic conscience led Parker from Houston to Austin. When she visited the creeks and hills here in 1969, it felt like home. Getting to know the people confirmed the hunch. "I'm comfortable here," she notes. "I guess in other places what I do might be peculiar, but here I don't feel peculiar at all. I know that there are people around who have the same passions."
Even so, when Parker attended her first art openings in town, she felt intimidated by all the posturing and cravats. To her relief, the appearance of alternative spaces and the changes in Austin demography have broken the dominance of the male upper crust in galleries. She no longer fears the art world and she no longer relies on it for a sense of well-being.
"There were a number of years when I was concerned with whether or not I was an artist and if I was an artist, was I any good," she says. "But at some point I just let go, and I no longer care. I don't care if my work is described as a craft and not art. Nor do I need to have that recognition any more. At some point, I just decided that I don't need it any more. I'll just do [my art] anyway."
As far as Marie Parker is concerned, there is no point struggling. She cannot stop her creations. Like the bird that sings every morning, they continue regardless of recognition or praise.