“As I am working on a painting I feel each mark is a discovery”
AT: Where are you from and how/why did you start engaging with art?
GH: I grew up in the northeast USA, in the Buffalo, New York area, near the Niagara Falls. I was about 17 years old and enrolled in a local community college in the Buffalo area. I remember needing to fill some credits for a liberal arts degree I was working on and thought taking an art class would be interesting. I ended up taking several drawing classes from the artist Barbara Buckman there. I drew flowers and tress, and small objects like seashells, pencils and scissors to learn shading and perspective; I also did contour drawings of the human skeleton and figure, and my hand. Pretty typical drawing class stuff, but it was all new and fascinating to me. I remember Barbra made the act of drawing feel important and interesting. She also played the local Jazz station on the radio; I was a jazz drummer so I not only felt it was atypical to listen to music in a college class, but cool too. It made an impact on me; she made an impact on me. The few classes I took with her opened up a new path of me. Although, I didn’t really start making art consistently till I was 24-25 years old, I never forgot the feeling I had in those classes. It really changed my perspective and understanding of how to look at something, my surroundings, and other people, to take the time to truly absorb a seemingly mundane object and see the life and beauty in it. I found the act of drawing was fun, compelling, and interesting, and at the end of it you had this relic, this picture of your effort you could keep. Maybe it was just a crude image of a flower but it had the same energy and life as the real thing.
AT: When did it become serious?
GH: When I was 24 years old I enrolled at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design in Denver, Colorado. Almost immediately after beginning there, I found a technique for painting that would define my trajectory—dripping and pouring paint. So I think I could say it was then, but I didn’t make a decision, I didn’t say “I am now a serious artist;” I was just interested in painting and went with it. It was a very natural process and I never stopped. I was constantly curious about painting—and I still am.
AT: Are there any person who has been significant in your breakthrough as an artist?
GH: Clark Richert. He was a professor of painting at Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design when I was a student there in the mid 2000’s. He was a diverse teacher with a lot to say about the merging of math, science, and art. He was significant in influencing my trajectory in systemic painting, color field-like canvases, and an emphasis on color and color interactions in my artwork. I remember having long studio visits with Clark where we would touch on all sorts of topics that would spark new ideas, for my painting, and perspective on life. Vito Acconci. I took several years of independent study and a handful of classes with him while attending Brooklyn College pursuing a master degree in painting. He was influential, perhaps in a surprising way, because he would never really say a lot to me about my art. We would just let me do my thing. He didn’t say much about my work because he knew I wasn’t struggling and had established a good trajectory for what I was making, so we would end up talking about all sorts of other topics: life, poetry, food, religion, culture, and why he liked living in Chinatown, and why I liked Brooklyn. He also enjoyed my writing and poetry so we would often discuss that, or talk about his writing and architectural projects. It was all very enjoyable. He later told me that he felt I was completely capable as a painter so he didn’t say much about my art because that might influence me, and thought it better I keep guiding myself. The time I spent with Vito was very formative because he was good at getting me to open up my mind to think about things that were past my art, to see a bigger picture, and where I fit in it and where I wanted to fit in, or more so to keep carving my own path.
Untitled, 40 x 50 cm, acrylic on panel, 2016
AT: What is your first approach to the work? How would you describe your practice?
GH: Contemplation. I often like to sit in my studio or outside in nature and just let my thoughts drift. I’ll think about past work of mine, and materials I’ve used, and think about things I have recently read or paintings at a gallery or museum I saw, and let ideas come. I’ll often write my ideas down into words in my sketchbook so they don’t get lost. I had a teacher, sculptor Rebecca Vaughn, who would say if you can’t sketch your idea into an image, then put it into writing. That advice was priceless for me and I do it all the time. Next I’ll chose one of these ideas and start to do experiments in my studio. I try to execute it the best I can using the medium I was trying to understand. However, this may not work, but I’m ok with that because sidetracks can lead to even more new ideas and off shoots of what I was trying. One idea can easily grow in to two or three. I deal mainly with paint so I often stride to find sublet ways to manipulate and control it, to behave how I want it to, but at the same time let the paint be paint and behave as it is meant to.
AT: What are your favorite tools and materials for working?
GH: My hands are my main tools. They are what help me make what I envision into reality. They are what control my brush, or my pen, or the drip bottle I use. They do all the manual labor involved in my work, and they do all the delicate and precise effort as well. I rely on them for exactness, but I also expect them to make mistakes and falter from time to time. I welcome this, because I think beauty often lies where the accident happens. This is why I prefer using paint. It can behave unexpectedly, leading me to new ideas and techniques in my artwork. It is tame and wild at the same time. I also rely on my hands to help me better understand the materials I use by touching them. For example, when I pick out a new paper or canvas to try, I need the confirmation from my hands that the material will work with the idea I have. It is something I have always needed to do to know I am making a good decision. Overall, I consider my hands versatile tools.
AT: How do you feel while you are working?
GH: As I am working on a painting I feel each mark is a discovery. I have a good idea of what will happen with the drip and even perhaps with the colors—but then there is always something unexpected that happens. So there is a bit of suspense. But also joy because I am enjoying the process, and the wonder of what is going to happen. What will the interaction of colors be—in each drop and in the entire painting. I try to be empty—to not think too much—to not let random thoughts take my attention away from what I am doing. To be there with each drip and see and experience how it falls onto the canvas and what colors are revealed, and what shape or form it may take. To me it’s important to pay attention to the act of doing, the act of making, because that kind of focus gives my art the highest quality. Ultimately, painting is a joyful experience for me and I want that to come through in my art, to the viewer.
AT: Do you usually think about the final outcome beforehand?
GH: Sometimes I do because I am excited to see what it will look like, what it will feel like. I look forward to seeing how the colors interact. I am curious to know if the finished panting will be harmonious, or will it be full of tension—or a bit of both.
Untitled, 152 x 152 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2015
Untitled, 152 x 203 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2019
AT: How do you understand that a work is finished?
GH: Most of the time it is when the entire canvas is covered with paint, much like one would complete a jigsaw puzzle. For example, in my “Amalgamation” paintings, when the entire canvas is covered with paint drips, and there is no canvas left showing, the painting is done. Or when every cell of the grid is filled in my “Color Array” series—the painting is finished.
AT: Where does the inspiration for the work come from?
GH: My practice has momentum, in that the more I know about the boundaries of a medium, the more doors open up to show me new ways to take something. The impetus is the act of doing, which is often confused with inspiration I think. A lot of what I do is just “hard work.” However, it’s not hard to do when you enjoy it and it’s easy to enjoy it when you are present with what you are doing. It’s probably better said as diligently working, having a heightened awareness of what it is you are doing, without putting pressure on yourself to achieve a specific outcome. There is a great freedom in that for me. Inspiration can be nice when it happens, but often what leads me to new ideas or discoveries in my painting is painting. Inspiration as activity, work diligently and new ideas will come.
AT: Do you think art can be learned or it is something innate?
GH: If by art you mean creativity, I believe creativeness comes from a universal source, a person does not generate creativity, instead it flows through you. This is not restricted to only a few, it is available to everyone, although, perhaps only those who are in tune with creativity can harvest it fully. I think if you allow yourself this connection with creativity you can chose to apply it were it is needed or where you desire it. Creating art is definitely an option. A big part of making art is creativity, so you don’t need to really learn that because you have it available to you already, but you need to know it is there for you, that seems to be the gambit. However, I would say there is a great deal of the technical aspects of art making that can be learned to advance an artists practice.
AT: Are there any artists who influenced your works? Why?
GH: I have been paying attention to several artists lately. Svenja Deininger, Dashiell Manley, Anthony Pearson, and Frank Stella. They all have a solid sense and mastery of their materials and how they manipulate them. You can look at their work for hours and it never gets old, there is always a freshness that emanates from their compositions, always something to notice and learn I feel. What is influential for me is that I can feel they are connected to what they are doing, that they have a relationship with the materials, and whatever it is, intellect or intuition that helps produce the works, it all seems seamless and powerful. I can tell they have tapped into the universal source of creativity.
3RD AMALGAMATION, 152 x 178 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2017
5TH AMALGAMATION, 152 x 178 cm, acrylic on canvas, 2017
AT: What do you find to be the most challenging or daunting thing about pursuing art? What is the most rewarding part of working as an artist?
GH: I’m lucky that I don’t usually lack for ideas or find myself in creative blocks. But the art world can be bureaucratic and you have to fight to stay true to your vision, whether it’s in the form of a gallery setup, the number of paintings you’re being asked to create, or whatever else. Someone’s business interests are always involved, but I make a concerted effort to put my art and my vision first.
AT: What do you do besides art?
AT: I am a musician. I have been a percussionist most of my life, but I also play the guitar and bass guitar. I often practice an instrument as a way to unwind. For me it’s a good method to stay creative; playing an instrument is so abstract and in the moment, it really taps me into the creative flow. I find it challenging too. I enjoy playing music and listening as well. I also write poetry. My poetry is often about the thoughts, feelings and emotions I have during my day-to-day life. Writing poetry is the way I get to express the aspects of my life other than painting. I find writing and reading poetry to be very freeing. Something else I enjoy is painting watercolors of flowers as a reminder of how delicate and beautiful life is. It is a simple way to help remind myself to just look, just look at the flower without breaking it down into thoughts or words, or analyzing it by trying to understand it conceptually. I just look and paint what I see.
AT: What are your goals and expectations for the future?
GH: I want to keep working. I think it is important to keep making art even if things feel difficult or overwhelming. Things don’t have to make sense or feel good all the time. That’s how life works; it’s always full of challenges and ups and downs. I think good art comes from consistently showing up and exploring regardless. I hope to keep having the privilege of making art for a living.
While Shedding Shadows, Maybaum Gallery, San Francisco, 2019
Gregory Hayes (b.1980 Buffalo, NY). Hayes is a contemporary artist based in Brooklyn, New York.