An Interview with Paul Whittaker

September 10, 2010

Paul Whittaker is an Evanston based artist, the latest to be featured in our local art exhibition series Local Art @ EPL. You can currently view Mr. Whittaker’s show, entitled Circular Logic, on the 2nd Floor of the Evanston Public Library. Mr. Whittaker creates his art using a variety of mediums and materials and often draws inspiration from his background as a biologist. Circular Logic is full of vibrant colors, beautiful details from the natural world, and intriguing views of our sometimes warped urban environment. The show is on display at the Main Library through October 1st. We recently spoke with Mr. Whittaker via email about art and science, nature and the city, and the need to create.

Your biography states that you began creating art in 1992, later in your life than many artists begin. Can you tell us a little about your background as an artist? How did you get started in art? Was there something specific in your life that sparked a need to create? What drove you to create in the beginning? What drives you now?

It was actually 1993, in the Lutheran Social Services Alcohol/Drug Dependence Center, out in Elgin (I came to this area in 1992). I’d been drinking too much and not getting anywhere, but I really didn’t like labeling myself “an alcoholic” and I was tired of the counselors telling me I was “in denial”. I felt like walking out the door, but I had nowhere else to go, so instead I went to the art room and started drawing.

A few months later I rented the apartment I still live in now, close to an art supply store (Goods of Evanston, which now specializes in framing). I found making art much more helpful than antidepressant medication or 12 Step meetings (which I eventually abandoned). I started out with one set of Crayola color pencils, and a sort of sophisticated “color by numbers” scheme, where I traced over photographs and colored in using each pencil in rotation, creating an unusual color balance that people liked (I’d done the same thing in kindergarten, but never really taken art classes that seriously or thought of it as a career).

By 1995 I’d started adding oil pastels (also going to Rational Recovery meetings, which I found incomparably more helpful than Alcoholics Anonymous, which had pretty much been forced on me by the rehab industry and the New York State courts). I started to think of art as my occupation and stopped applying for menial jobs.  I got involved with Art Encounter, up in the Noyes Center — going to their critique workshops and also working part time as their grant writer.

So I was able to reinvent myself, so to speak. At first it was humbling, being around professional artists who’d been doing it all their lives. They liked my color compositions but made fun of my amateurish methods.  Joanna Pinsky — Director of Art Encounter, a wonderful lady — encouraged me to work larger and invest in better materials.

As for what “sparked a need to create,” I guess I’d have to say it was the collapse of my old life in upstate New York. From 1987-91 I was involved in a very abusive relationship, with a woman who drank more than I did and didn’t have my tolerance for the stuff (she was on disability for bipolar disorder). We lost our children to the foster care system because of the drinking and fighting that went on, and my attempts to get them back were wasted because my partner refused to cooperate. I was basically forced into rehab, too, and when I “relapsed” my parental rights were terminated along with my partner’s.

I was devastated. I threw some suitcases into my car and split for Chicago a few days after I got the memorandum of decision from the Court (I had an aunt and uncle in Northfield, who I’d been close to growing up). I spent much of my first year here sleeping in my car, wandering around the north side of Chicago and north shore suburbs in a funk.

When I did get stable (after my aunt died and left me some money) I needed something to do — I didn’t have a job, and my prospects weren’t good. So I started making art on a regular basis. It gave me an occupation — a new career, of sorts — and kept me from going mad over what had happened. I guess you could say it was the desire to not go mad that first drove me to create, and now that I don’t feel like I’m on the verge of going mad I don’t feel as driven to create. Making art is not an easy way to make a living.

Your art seems to draw from many different styles at once. How do you describe your art? Do you see yourself as fitting in with any specific artistic movements or styles?

Well, as I got involved with Art Encounter 15 years ago, I started studying art history and going to gallery openings. So I was able to absorb a great deal without being confined to any specific school or movement. I’m mostly self-taught, of course, with my art drawing on my scientific education rather than formal training as a studio artist. I didn’t like being called an “outsider artist” — I worked hard to create a finished, professional look and I’ve been a member of the local arts community for 15 years. The two local artists who’ve influenced me the most and mentored me to some extent are Joanna Pinsky (mixed media, color theory) and Peter Jones (photography/scanning).

You’ve titled your show “Circular Logic,” which seems to me to be a play on both the geometrical themes in much of your work, as well as the (sometimes ironic) logic implied in your photographic pieces. Can you explain your thinking behind the title?

That’s basically correct. I called the piece I used on the [exhibit’s promotional] card “Circular Logic” because the layout was very logical and comprised of circles — a visual pun. I went through my slides and decided that would be a good title for a show at the Evanston Library. And our culture is full of circular, self-fulfilling reasoning that leads to the wrong conclusion.

According to your biography, you’ve studied as a research biologist. Much of your artwork seems to evoke an interest in math and science (geometry and biology, specifically). How important is your scientific background to your artwork? How do the worlds of science and art relate to one another in your work?

I have a BA from Cornell and a doctorate from the University of Texas, Austin. My dissertation research was on the population biology of parasitic plants (mistletoe) and the insects that feed on it. My father was a very prominent plant ecologist at Cornell and I was for a time thought of as his “heir apparent”. But he died suddenly in 1980 (I was in graduate school at the time) and for reasons I’ve never really understood I never had much of a career as a biologist.

So many people have these stereotypes, of the scientist as this nerd in a lab coat, and the artist as this penniless, bohemian free spirit. But the personalities are much more similar.  In my experience, both professions are filled by people in search of the unknown, who are independent and creative but plugged into mainstream society.

I learned color theory from the electromagnetic spectrum used by scientists rather than the color wheel used by most working artists (which is a simplified version of the same thing, with the ends of the visible spectrum — red and violet — at the top of the color wheel). I grew up working with microscopes, binoculars and other optical aids.

Color theory is very important in biology. Poisonous insects (and some other animals) tend to be conspicuous, or “aposematic” in their coloration. Edible animals tend to be “cryptic”, or hard to see against their background. I applied these ideas to many of my color compositions.

You describe your colorful, semi-abstract, semi-Cubist figurative pieces with the wonderful phrase “folk art for the space age.” Will you please expand on this idea a bit more?

This catches me a bit off-guard — I thought of the phrase without thinking in detail about exactly what I meant. 

People used to ask me if my abstract designs were computer generated, and I told them no. We have this vision of the future where everyone will do everything online, chatting away on their iPhones or BlackBerry’s or whatever. I’ve often found people who grew up doing everything on computers often aren’t very good at basic math, and that we too easily dismiss folk art as “primitive”.

But if you look at very old countries — Iraq and Pakistan come very much to mind — they are often poor, overpopulated, downtrodden, with huge areas that were once fertile devegetated and turned to desert.  I’m afraid that — not Star Trek — is our future. Along with technological advances have come huge losses of natural resources. I keep thinking the key to our survival on this planet is getting back in touch with the organic, recognizing the wisdom of so-called “primitive” cultures who lived much more closely with the land.

Your photography work depicts very beautiful details of nature on the one hand, and the (often literal) signs and symbols of mass urbanization on the other. Do you find that nature or city life particularly spark your creative imagination? Is one more of an influence on you than the other? Tell us a little bit about your thoughts on nature, particularly from the point of view of someone with a background in biology and someone living in a heavily urban environment.

By 1996 I was going to a lot of art openings where there was free wine, and I was poorly prepared for a return to social drinking, having been told repeatedly that complete abstinence was the only way. Anyway, one night coming home I nearly hit some pedestrians with my car and my license was revoked. I started looking at traffic signs ironically, as something that no longer applied to me, a form of visual expression.

So I started photographing signs, demolition sites, other — often ecologically degraded — urban sights that nonetheless have a kind of poetry to them (and feeling virtuous, in a roundabout, circular way, of my independence from the automobile.  PARK/EAT/Watch for Pedestrians specifically parodies the car dependent lifestyle). I started working out of the Peter Jones Gallery in Ravenswood (closed now) and spending more time down “in the City”.

I grew disillusioned with life as an artist — tired of critical acclaim without financial remuneration, and constantly having to ask relatives for money — and started thinking about getting back into biology and conservation. I got involved with Openlands and their TreeKeepers program and I did pick up some work that paid better than grant writing for art organizations — doing tree inventories of Chicago Public School campuses. I found I could do botanical illustration by scanning and printing leaves, flowers, other objects and I wrote an “Illustrated Guide to the Trees of Chicagoland”.

But my publishing contract with the University of Chicago Press fell through, leaving me in a precarious financial position. And I found I was getting more mileage from the semi-abstract art I could create from my scanned images than from illustration. (I’d literally come “full circle,” going from being an artist back to being a biologist and then back again to art as my main occupation).

What I did find in researching my book was that the “forestation” of the Chicago area closely follows patterns of human migration into the area – mostly from northern Europe and the northeastern US, some from the Southeast and from Asia, a little from the western US. That urban conditions are hard on native trees — hickories in particular — that produce large seeds and require stable conditions to mature. That most common street trees — ash, honey locust, Norway maple — are species that adjust to the urban environment. That a disproportionate number of our “invasive” trees (Tree of Heaven, Siberian Elm, White Mulberry) come from Asia.

Urban conditions lead to loss of species diversity and benefit a relatively few species that coexist with humans. Squirrels, white tailed deer, pigeons, seagulls, mallard ducks, Canada geese, sparrows. Row planting of trees facilitates spread of pests and diseases – Dutch elm disease, emerald ash borer.

I’m tired of hearing naive environmentalists carry on about “global warming.” They should “accept the things they cannot change” — specifically global climate change — and “change the things they can” — which includes a host of local problems. Throw out the petitions, go plant native plants or cut buckthorn in the Forest Preserves.

How do you find Evanston and the Chicagoland area as a place to work and exhibit as an artist? What inspires you as an artist about the community where you live? 

I don’t really have the firsthand experience to make accurate comparisons. But I’m told Chicago is a very tough market compared to other world class cities — New York, LA, London, Paris — and that’s mostly what I’ve experienced. And of course if artists can’t sell and make money they get discouraged. I’ve found enough support to keep working but not everybody does.

Evanston provides quite a bit of support for the arts, and of course that is largely how and why I became an artist. And we certainly have a great deal of artistic talent in this community. But we don’t view art as a money making occupation like they do in Santa Fe, for instance. We tend to see art as a tool for teaching, or advertising, as something to help decorate restaurants or sell real estate.

Of course, if I take a piece across the street to Good’s to get it framed, they expect to be paid, and ask for a deposit. The normal rules of business practice are in effect. But we tell creative artists they’re never going to make money doing it. Well why not, they’re generating wealth for the community. There are organizations that charge artists a jury fee for the privilege of giving their art away! I mean, don’t working artists deserve support? I think Evanston could turn into a major regional center for the visual arts if we stop saying “you’ll never make money doing that,” take out the checkbooks and start buying from local artists.


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