Chad Whitaker: Using Honesty and Vulnerability
2016. 19”x 27”x 9”.“Containment 21”, Used bed sheets, glue, plastic, cardboard, urethane, acrylic, varnish, stain.
This month, I’ve had the most enlightening opportunity to interview Chad Whitaker of Harrisburg, PA. Chad got in touch with us to see how we find our artists. I saw his work and was very intrigued – because I didn’t understand it. (One of the great things about most artists is that if you ask them about their work, most will be happy to tell you about it. Although the interpretation is always up to the viewer, only the artist can tell you where it comes from). Chad’s work I found to be very fresh, very unique and very revealing – especially after our conversation. And I dare say that as an artist myself, a number of his views on his art and artists are ones that I believe I would do well to align myself. I’ll leave you to form your own opinions. Enjoy.
STM: Chad, thank you for getting in touch with us about your work. It’s great to be able to talk about work that is totally unfamiliar to me and many of our readers.
Your bio (which can be read on Chad’s site, www.whitakerstudios.com) reveals much about where your art, originates within you, so let’s start right out at that point. You mention that your art comes out of recurring dreams and painful memories of your past. How, exactly, has creating your art helped you to deal with those memories? Besides expressing yourself, what does creating your art actually do for you inwardly?
CW: The first time that I used art, as a method to work through a difficult situation was a sculpture I built in response to a painful reoccurring dream I had about a lost love. The relationship ended without much closure. I built a bed in which a single fluorescent light under a blue sheet represented the absence of that person. It was in that simple piece that I discovered that using honesty and vulnerability in my art almost acted as a therapy session. I am not a person who can easily open up verbally about my feelings. I don’t know if I could have dealt with my father’s passing a few years ago without the therapeutic effect that art making has on my psyche.
2017. 24”x 32”x12”.“Containment 27”, Used bed sheets, glue, plastic, cardboard, urethane, acrylic, varnish, stain.
2017. 24”x 37”x12”.“Containment 54”, Used bed sheets, glue, plastic, cardboard, urethane, acrylic, varnish, stain.
STM: What brought you to using visual art as your vehicle of expression?
CW: I remember as a child feeling like I didn’t fit in. Art was one of the few things I was good at as a child. I could draw and suddenly I felt like I found myself. I also grew up skateboarding and that scene was also filled with the “weird” kids, I looked up to the older guys who were typically artistic as well. Making the choice to become an artist was easy, it was the only thing I was good at, although it took many years to find my own voice as an artist.
STM: Tell me about your creative process.
CW: I tend to always work in series, typically lasting for a few years. I continue a series until I feel it’s run its course. The beginning of the series is the challenging part; I have an idea or a problem and figure out a solution. Once the idea that I want to express is concrete, the fun part of exploration begins. Not that you can just become a mindless maker of objects, but you can just keep making everyday until the series runs its course. I try to flush out the concept/meaning thoroughly before I begin.
2016. Working in my humble studio in Enola, PA. Laying fabric for one of my ‘Containment” pieces.
STM: As your work sparks, in me at least, intriguing questions, when on display, how is your work received? Do you find that viewers approach you to ask what your work means? What do you say to them?
CW: I really enjoy the opening receptions for my shows, especially when regular people off the street venture into the gallery because they’re more honest than other artists. I love being on the spot, answering difficult questions, even if there’re one I haven’t considered before about my work. The question that always is brought up is- “What are these things?” I keep my answer brief, basically explaining that they are non-objective sculptures created from bed sheets and that they are hollow forms underneath. I explain that your previous experiences in life will determine how or what you see. At this point the viewer trusts me that I’m not trying to make them feel like a fool because they don’t get art. Most people can relate to the personal/intimate aspect of a bed sheet. I really enjoy hearing people’s interpretations of what they see.
2017. From a showing of my solo show “In Dreams” at 3rd Street Studio Gallery in Harrisburg, PA.
STM: How do you answer questions like, “How long did that take you to make?”, or how much money do you make off your work?” Do these types of questions offend you? How do you answer them?
CW: The how long question is complicated because I usually have 5 or more pieces going at once. My art is process driven and each step requires drying/setting time. Sometimes I say 34 years as a joke but it’s true. My art has been with me as long as I can remember being alive.
As far as sales are concerned, I’m lucky to have a fulltime job that allows me to keep the integrity of my work without being overly focused on sales. If I depended on selling work to keep food on the table then I’d probably be afraid to take chances and just make boring, safe art.
STM: Which experiences in Croatia have affected your work?
CW: I was fortunate enough to study in Zagreb, Croatia during the second year of my MFA program. I would say the most beneficial thing I learned while abroad was patience. Going from an American art school with a plethora of tools and materials at your fingertips, I took for granted that at 1 a.m. I could just go to the store to get supplies if I needed them for a piece. Things were much different in Croatia. Even in Zagreb, the capital city, I had a much more difficult time finding the materials I needed. I had to plan a sculpture in advance and work with detailed drawings to figure out exactly what I would need. I remember spending a whole week searching for a PVC pipe and silicone I needed for a project I was working on. Though sometimes it was frustrating, I learned that you didn’t have to make 10 artworks a week to feel accomplished. Quality over quantity. I also learned that regardless of how busy you were there was always time for a two-hour coffee break.
STM: What inspires you? What perks up your ears, makes you grin, gives you a deep belly laugh?
2017. Detail shot of “Kiss Her For Me” from my solo show “In Dreams”, at 3rd Street Studio Gallery in Harrisburg, PA. Dimensions variable.
CW: In my ripe old age of 34, I still find humor/joy in the absurdity of everyday life. I may seem like a dark person but I love life and laughing everyday. Truth is definitely stranger than fiction.
STM: What kind of mentors or artists do you or have you looked up to? And what is it about them that draws you to them?
CW: I have only had a few people in my life that I would consider mentors, one being my father, who taught me that with drive, passion and hard work, anything is possible. The other being a sculpture professor I had in my first semester of graduate school named Dr. James Nestor. He was an old school guy, very direct and was not afraid to hurt your feelings, but had a genuine passion for seeing people succeed in making art. In my first semester I was mostly doing abstract printmaking and video without much content. He basically told me to cut the BS and start being honest with myself. That idea, as hard as it was to hear at first, stuck with me to this day. Nestor has since retired and I’m proud to say I studied under him and he taught me about myself as much as art.
2017. Installation view of my wall of 41 “Containments” from my solo show “In Dreams”, at 3rd Street Studio Gallery in Harrisburg, PA. Dimensions variable.
STM: Artists have any manner of ways of producing their artwork. Do you have a prerequisite of being ‘motivated’ to create every day? Or do you create even when not feeling inspired? What gets you into the studio and keeps you there?
CW: It’s rare that a day passes where I don’t make some form of art. I feel guilty if I don’t because I know that there’s someone else out there willing to take my place in that gallery if I get lazy. That’s a big motivation. Also I don’t “feel” right if I don’t relieve that pent up creative energy everyday.
STM: Many people, sometimes even artists themselves have the view that the starving artist’s image is true. Do you find that to be so? What bearing does that view have on your efforts in your artistic career?
CW: I thought that idea was beautifully poetic in my 20’s but now I know it’s much easier to focus on making art if your stomach isn’t growling from not being able to afford to eat. I’m by no means well off - I live within my means but it’s hard to be a broke sculptor. Tools and materials aren’t cheap! I’m fortunate to have a career outside of the art world that allows me a decent income without draining my soul. I’m energized at the end of the workday to get into the studio and create something better than I made the previous day.
2017. Installation of my solo show “In Dreams”, at 3rd Street Studio Gallery in Harrisburg, PA. Dimensions variable.
STM: Considering money, fame, and notoriety, artists always have something they want. What do you want? Do you consider yourself to be succeeding in getting this and why?
CW: I’d say my end goal would be to completely support myself through making art. It’s a long way off an intimidating thought to leave the security and benefits of a fulltime job though. I’ve also had for a long time the notion that ending up in an art history textbook was also a sign of success.
I feel as long as the shows keep coming and that I’m producing new work that I’m excited by that I’m on my way as being an artist, though.
2017. Installing my wall of 41 “Containments” from my solo show “In Dreams”, at 3rd Street Studio Gallery in Harrisburg, PA. Dimensions variable.
STM: What have been your greatest obstacles to producing your work towards creating an art-rich life?
CW: Finding the balance between working a normal job, my family and finding time to make art, without neglecting anything. At this point in my life, having a strict schedule is crucial to keep that balance. I don’t sleep very much and that helps.
STM: What was your biggest setback or failure? Where did it take you?
CW: I’ve had times over the past decade where depression and self-doubt have kept me from creating work. These periods luckily have passed and were only a few months at a time though. I feel like being able to find yourself after theses artist blocks is crucial to working through the dark times. I’ve always been able to come through each time as a stronger artist.
STM: What’s working well for you in your artistic career/endeavors? What things have you found don’t work so well?
CW: I find that the harder I work, the luckier I get. My experience is that if you keep making new stuff that you are proud of then you’ll get the recognition you deserve. I also don’t believe in just staying in the studio cave all the time. Social media is a great tool but I try to support other artists by going to as many openings and events as I can, even when I’m exhausted and just want to have a relaxing night in. Meeting new people and having a genuine attitude goes quite a long way.
2016. A studio shot of my work table with a few pieces drying.
STM: To what other activities have your creative abilities taken you?
CW: I’m trying to learn guitar(?) I don’t know, most of my life relates to art in some form or another, which is great though.
STM: Looking back on everything you’ve done, is there anything you’re most proud of?
CW: While I’m very proud of completing my MFA degree, I think the fact that I’m still creating art at the same if not more intense pace matters to me more. The great thing about being an artist is that you have no one but yourself to blame if you don’t produce. My advice to kids going through BFA programs is to party less and make way more art! You’ll never have this amount of free time and little to no debt as you do now. Take advantage of being around professors and other students 24 hours a day. Ask questions, participate in critiques and try everything!
STM: What do you want people to know about artists?
CW: We work a lot harder than you think we do! I think the public has this idea of contemporary artists as lazy, flippant and carefree. That is certainly not the case of most of the ones I know.
2017. A portrait from the opening night of my solo show “In Dreams”, standing in front of my mixed media installation titled, “Kiss Her For Me” at 3rd Street Studio Gallery in Harrisburg, PA. Dimensions variable.
STM: Who is “Chad Whitaker”? What is one thing you want people to know about you?
CW: I’m just a humble, hard working, regular artist trying to get my distinct style recognized and appreciated.
STM: Where can people find you and your work? And is your work for purchase?
CW: The absolute best way to stay up to date with my work is through my Instagram- whitakerstudios. Though I usually sell through gallery exhibitions, I am willing to sell to anyone, anywhere. My work is fairly light and easy to ship. The best way to purchase some of my art if you’re not local would be to email me at email@example.com or even better would be to message me on Instagram, as those works are the most current.
STM: Thank you Chad very much. I’m glad we had opportunity for this chat.