A Conversation with Sharon Butler


© Sharon Butler and Figure/Ground
 Sharon Butler was interviewed by Julia Schwartz. September 19th, 2014.

Sharon Butler exhibits regularly, including 2013-14 shows at NADA New York, George Lawson (San Francisco, CA), Islip Art Museum (East Islip, NY), Pocket Utopia (New York, NY), Lesley Heller (New York, NY), The Painting Center (New York, NY), Union College (Schenectady, NY), Parallel Art Space (Queens, NY), SUNY Westchester, and Norte Maar (Brooklyn, NY). Since 2007 Butler has published the influential art blog Two Coats of Paint, which was awarded a generous grant from the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program in 2013. Other publications Butler has contributed to include Art21HyperallergicThe Huffington Post, and The Brooklyn Rail. In conjunction with each exhibition, Butler often publishes an artist’s book, available online at Two Coats of Paint Press.  She lives and works in New York City. She received her BFA at Massachusetts College of Art and and MFA at  University of Connecticut.  

Sharon Butler in her studio, photo by James Prez

Sharon Butler in her studio, photo by James Prez

Can you talk a little about your background and where you grew up? What about early experiences making art? 

I grew up down a dirt road in the woods, and I remember spending lots of time by myself. I used to do things like cut pictures out of the Sunday newspapers and organize them in folders, make sculptures out of melted candle wax, or make clay out of flour, salt, and water. In the winter, when the ice was thick enough, I skated for hours on the huge reservoir across the road from our house. My favorite book was called How to Make Something from Nothing. Authors Rubye Mae and Frank B. Griffith rescued things like detergent bottles, chicken bones, and toilet paper rolls from the trash and turned them into (not always useful) household objects. I never had all the right components for my projects but I would improvise. In art class we used to make ceramics and experimental films. I also liked writing and used to hide my journal under my mattress so my older sisters wouldn’t read it.

Sharon Butler drawings

Sharon Butler drawings

 That line “I never had all the right components for my projects but I would improvise” seems so you. 

One time I was making marbled paper and I didn’t have the right materials so I used olive oil! At the time I wanted desperately to live in a neighborhood with other kids, but in retrospect, the long hours spent by myself prepared me for life in the studio. I also loved using the typewriter (I never thought of it as writing) until I went to college and had to stay up all night typing term papers. I probably would have started writing sooner if I’d had a computer back then.

What about school- what was that like for you? Who were some of your mentors? inspirations? influences?

I had to find my own path, and I think that’s probably why it has taken me so long to develop my voice. As a senior in high school I took an art history survey and I loved it, but since I wasn’t then much of a drawer, it never occurred to me that I might become an artist. I studied art history at Tufts, then worked as a magazine designer for several years before returning to school to study painting and drawing at Massachusetts College of Art. Because I was an older student (late twenties) with a good background in art history, the professors tended to give me extra time and attention. From the beginning, I explored abstraction and the object-image situation—painting from life was always a chore for me and the faculty let me opt out of the intro classes. When I graduated, I moved to New York where my then-boyfriend was in film school at Columbia, and began working on a series of small painted-wood constructions. Sean Scully, Moira Dryer, Terry Winters, Brice Marden, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Ryman, Elizabeth Murray were all influences. For a period I was deeply engaged with the landscape, and in retrospect, I realized that the dark, pastoral images I was painting all essentially depicted the view from my childhood window. I stopped painting for a few years to work on some digital and installation projects, and when I returned, I fastened onto post-war easel-sized abstraction—particularly the earliest work of Ab Exers like Krasner, Motherwell, and Rothko.

What about current influences? Whom do you look at now or listen to?

In the 1980s, while I was at MassArt, Frank Stella gave a series of lectures at Harvard which were published in a book called Working Space. His ideas about paintings as objects, emerging into the viewer’s space rather than creating the illusion of 3-dimensionality within the picture plane, still resonate. I look at paintings primarily as objects rather than images. Other influences for my current work are the Supports/Surface artists who were working in the south of France in the 1970s. I discovered Claude Viallat’s work online a few years ago and have been drawn to the movement’s combination of abstraction, process, materials and politics ever since. The 1960s Italian movement Arte Povera has also informed my thinking, particularly the notion that the art we make should always reflect contemporary politics and society.   Work by Richard Tuttle, Robert Rauschenberg, Rachel Harrison, Gedi Sibony, Imi Knoebel, and Blinky Palermo, specifically their use of unorthodox materials, has also attracted my attention.

Sharon Butler_Stadium_2014 _2014_pencil.pigment.binder.canvas.tshirts_72x84inches

Sharon Butler_Stadium_2014 _2014_pencil.pigment.binder.canvas.tshirts_72x84inches

It’s interesting that you mention Support/Surfaces, because I meant to ask you about  that after reading your Two Coats post about the survey show at CANADA.

Yes, although I’d seen much of the S/S work as jpegs, the show at CANADA was my first experience of the paintings themselves. Fantastic show. I’d like to see more.

Sharon, one of the things we have talked about over time, exchanging studio visits, is the degree to which our studio environment and locale is essential to and is revealed in our work. You have worked in several studios and each one has had an impact on your work, and led to a new body of work.   I think of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series whenever I’m driving around that part of Santa Monica, and how his work in embedded in the environment, and the environment is embedded in the work; they are inseparable, interconnected for me at this point. 

When I first started painting I used to wrack my brain wondering what to paint. Granted, it was in the early nineties, a period in which many painters were asking the same question, but what I ultimately learned was that my best subjects are simply, and sometimes unconsciously, pulled from my immediate surroundings. Materials and processes as well often arise from everyday life. For instance, when I was working on W. 39th Street in the garment district, I first began thinking of canvas as fabric that could be folded, laundered, frayed. In DC, I made paintings that referenced public sculpture, primarily the Modernist pieces in the National Gallery of Art sculpture garden. At 117 Grattan Street in Bushwick, where I had an amazing view of the neighboring rooftops, structures like silencers, ducts, and ventwork found their way into the paintings. During Hurricane Sandy, I was up on the Connecticut shore, where several boats ran aground, sails were shredded, houses flooded, and propane tanks floated down the street – events that still have an effect on my images and use of materials today. Unlike many artists who stay in the same studio for twenty years, I prefer to move around. A new commute and a different view propel the work forward in unexpected ways.

One thing that is interesting to me is the importance of your materials as context, as establishing your environment, say the fabrics when you were working in the Garment District and so on. Structures seem to carry through though, no matter where you are… What is happening in your new space?

I spent the summer in DUMBO, in a space that had big white walls and a white floor. The size of the walls affected the work—I made a series of 72 x 84 inch paintings on unstretched canvas. Commuting to the studio on my bike has been important, too, because each day I ride from my apartment near 96th Street in Manhattan down the Hudson River bike path, past all the soccer fields, playgrounds and basketball courts, through SOHO, Chinatown, and over the Manhattan Bridge to DUMBO. Surrounded by the city at such an intimate level, I began painting more loosely and incorporating curving lines, floral prints, sports fields, bleachers, and colorful scraps (and text) from T-shirts I found on the rack at the Salvation Army store on 96th between Broadway and West End Avenue. After a couple years using a metal straight edge and masking tape, my new favorite tool is a set of French curves.

The image of you riding your bike around and making things, well that’s also very you in the present.

I hadn’t thought much about riding my bike around the city and how it informs the work until [now].

Sharon Butler, Invasives 2014_pencil,pigment, binder, canvas_72x84inches

Sharon Butler, Invasives 2014_pencil,pigment, binder, canvas_72x84inches

First off, you’re not kidding about the curves! I’m certainly familiar with your small works, but these are big. The color is so rich and the curves and floral drawing is really quite different from things I have seen over the years.

I was at the Salvation Army looking for Lilly Pulitzer or Pucci-type prints to add to that yellow painting, Invasives, but all I could find were stripes or small floral fabrics like calico prints. When I got back to the studio, I decided to try drawing the floral pattern right on the canvas using a flexible curve, and I fell in love with the organic shapes that grew out from the center. I went back and forth about using color—adding it, taking it out–but ultimately decided that I liked it as a pencil drawing.

In the past I’ve worked on smaller canvases, but for these new paintings, the larger scale seems right. I can use a wider variety of tools like paint rollers attached to mop handles or plastic spray bottles, and the collage elements don’t get too precious. I like putting the unstretched canvases on the floor so that I can walk around them as I work. If someone was watching me through the windows, I would look like a cleaning lady scrubbing the floor!

When you were talking about the impact of Sandy, it made me wonder about the ways you might have been affected emotionally, and how that enters the work, if it does.

Yes, it does. Process and choice of materials both carry emotional weight.

Sharon Butler Blow_2014_pencil.pigment.binder.canvas.tshirts_72x84inches

Sharon Butler Blow 2014, pencil pigment binder canvas t-shirts, 72x84inches

Do you prefer to leave that in the work rather than talk about it?

When I was growing up feelings were rarely discussed in my family, so I’m not naturally inclined to define or articulate emotional content. Nevertheless, it surfaces in the work.

I can appreciate that.

What about kinds of paint? Color? I remember sitting outside my studio and starting to have this conversation with you- about color.

I’m a fan of muted tertiaries and dirty pastels, even though, for viewers, they aren’t as immediately lovable as bright primaries and secondaries. When I was out in LA last year, painter Marie Thibeault, an amazing colorist, suggested during a studio visit that color is emotion, and I think she may be right, which could be why I’m not drawn to it. Vivid color isn’t as much of an emotional trigger for me as texture, structure, and line are, which is why, I think, color that calls attention to itself only plays a peripheral role in most of my work. Now that I’m thinking about color as emotion, I would say that awkward color choices carry meaning, too. And with oil paints, I like how the color changes over time.

This is so interesting. It makes me think about my messy palette and messy ugly colors, how I can never use pure simple colors; they just never stay simple!  I remember a conversation with George Lawson about color; I was musing aloud about my always grayed color and he said ‘it’s because you’re neurotic.’ (or something like that).

Funny. One of my early  painting teachers told me I think too much, as if that were a bad thing. Same with George’s comment about neurosis, right?

Yes, that’s great!

So, what is your routine like? In addition to your studio practice, your blog Two Coats of Paint is well known to artists. Does that take much time on a regular basis? What about teaching?  Family? How do you manage all these aspects of life and career/practice?

I’m not sure when life became so full and busy—maybe when I first started teaching in the late-1990s and I had to juggle the tenure-track commitment with time in the studio and raising my daughter. Several years after achieving the rank of full professor at a small state university in Connecticut, I realized my plate was too full, and I gave up the full-time teaching job to pursue other opportunities. I taught a course at Brown University for a few semesters, and now I’m teaching MFA seminars at the University of Connecticut and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Instead of teaching 3 full days, I only teach two days a week, which has been a wonderful change. I spend about 10-15 hours a week on the blog and related activities —several years ago I married a talented writer who helps out with editing–and the rest of the time I work in the studio. The key is that I consider all these activities integral to my art practice; each informs the others.

My daughter is 15 now, and although I have joint custody with her father (whom I divorced ten years ago), she spends most of her time with him in Connecticut. I don’t think anyone in the art world would tell a female artist that having kids will ruin her career anymore, but having a committed artist who prefers living in New York to suburban life in Connecticut as her mother has been difficult for my daughter. For better or worse, the upshot is that I have more time in the studio than most artists with kids.

Do you have any advice for other artists?

My advice for other artists is to work hard in the studio, be generous with other artists, and try to contribute to the larger art community. If you want kids, chose your partners wisely because, if you stay married, you’ll be spending more time with your in-laws than you ever thought you would. If you split up, you still have to deal with him/her/them forever. And don’t raise the kids outside the city unless you like attending sports events. Unfortunately, our culture is obsessed with organized sports, not art.

Excellent advice. And yikes on the second part; I doubt they teach that in art school! 

A few years ago I published an article called “Neo-maternalism: Contemporary Artists’ Approach to Motherhood” in The Brooklyn Rail about artist mothers, and I’m thinking of writing a sequel that covers the exasperating teenage years.

That sounds like a gem; I’d love to contribute to it!

What’s coming up next for you?

I’m looking forward to a few upcoming shows. On the weekend of September 26-28, I’ll be participating in the DUMBO Arts Festival, a big neighborhood-wide extravaganza that features art in the streets, pop-up exhibitions, and an open studio event. In October two group shows in Bushwick are on the calendar: “Exchange Rate,” an exhibition organized by Seattle’s Robert Yoder/ SEASON that will be at Theodore:Art and “Abstraction and its Discontents” at Storefront Ten Eyck. I’ll also have work in a two-person show (with Theresa Hackett) at MAKEBISH in the West Village. In November, I’m heading up to Portland, Maine, where I’ll be a Visiting Artist at the Maine College of Art. That closes out 2014, which has been a very productive year.

Sharon Butler Jay St. studio

Sharon Butler Jay St. studio

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Sharon Butler and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Schwartz, J (2014). “A Conversation with Sharon Butler,” Figure/Ground. September 2014. < http://figureground.org/a-conversation-with-sharon-butler >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com