Today I sat down with artist, Christopher Clamp, on site at the Jerald Melburg Gallery, in Charlotte, NC. It was fascinating learning about his process. He’s quite a thinker and adds many layers of meaning to every piece he does.
I was looking at your pictures & I was fascinated. I felt a little foolish that I didn’t ask you when i was here last [interviewing Jerald Melberg] if you did anything artistic. That would seem an obvious question. So when did you start painting?
CC: When I was in high school, I always drew pictures and did comic strips and things like that. But it wasn’t until my sophomore year in high school that I picked up acrylic paint and I just fell in love with the texture of it, and the smell and everything.
Initially I wanted to be an art teacher, so I was going to go to college to kind of pursue that route. But when I went to college I was able to pick up painting classes and that was when I threw myself into that.
Right. But this exhibit is with oil…
CC: Yeah….So when I was in college, it was primarily acrylic paint that were taught at Winthrop. But it was one summer…I was really interested in oil paint because many of the artists I was inspired by, they were working in that medium and I wanted to know more about it. But there really wasn’t anyone around me that was using it. So I had done this little project over the summer at one point and it gave me some extra money, so I went ahead and invested in some oils and just tried to figure out how to do it and picked up a great book by Ralph Mayer, called The Artist’s Handbook, and that really taught a lot about the chemistry of oil painting.
Awesome…Awesome. And I don’t know a lot about oil paint, I’ve never used it. How does it compare to tempera or any other sort of paint?
CC: So oil paint, to me, one thing I love about it is how flexible it is…and flexible in many ways. Physically, it’s very flexible, if you paint properly with it. But also the dry time. Because acrylic painting always seemed to me like it would dry before I even made a brushstroke.
CC: And I like to kind of work into the painting a little bit…to model the image or the object a bit more. But with the oil paint also, there’s something hard to describe, but with acrylic paint, it’s very flat, in terms of how it feels but also the depth of oil. I mean you can make a dark color in oil paint or a rich color in oil paint and it immediately just feels like it goes into the picture plan. That was something i just noticed initially. It had a whole other layer of depth to it. I was very seduced by it. And obviously the smell of it is really great.
Stories in Stillness
So I was really fascinated with this exhibition, Stories in Stillness. And they’re objects and antiques from your Grandfather?
Tell us about that.
CC: Ok. Well, I grew up in a small town in South Carolina called Leesville. Now it’s called Batesburg Leesville. My grandfather was a millworker, but he was also a farmer and he collected a lot of things from wherever he would see them, on the side of the road or wherever, so the barn was just full of this stuff.
He really helped raise me and my brother because my parents worked really long, strange shifts in mills just to help pay the bills. So I would spend a lot of time with him, just rummaging through the barn and just playing with all of these objects. They seemed to take on this whole other being to me, as a child. But also, now, as an adult, when I go and visit my parents, I’ll find some of these objects and they even have a whole other meaning to me now, looking back on things. I find it’s an interesting tool to use to kind of convey a story or something maybe related to a person I’ve known or a current event or something like that.
You mentioned in the brochure that they take on a whole new meaning if you take pictures, frame them and it truly does transform them to art and it is kind of like a different thing. It makes me think of Magritte’s pipe: Ceci n’est pas une pipe. And it’s not a pipe. He’s changed the physical object to a piece of art. And that’s what you’ve done with your grandfather’s antiques.
CC: Well thank you. I appreciate that. Yeah, it’s funny you mention Magritte and that’s a painting I’ve always enjoyed and I use that as a comparison when talking to people about my work or abstract work also. It’s not what it appears to be.
But with the paintings from this show, I guess it’s been this way with me and my paintings I’ve done through the years; In many ways I paint them for me. It’s almost a way for me to reconnect with that time of life that was very transformative to me.
CC: …reconnect with people, family that are no longer here. Or just reconnect with something…So many of the times the paintings are kind of done to kind of reach for something or explore something. I think it’s great that other people enjoy the paintings and like to look at them or share them or even take them home. That’s another thing that’s really special to me.
Yeah, that’s got to be such a high to have done all this work and be emotionally involved in this painting that reminds you of your grandfather and then have someone appreciate it so much that they buy it and take it home. Then they are appreciating it too, on a different level. I just think that’s got to be huge.
CC: Oh, absolutely. And another thing that’s really fun about it to me is I try not to talk too much about the work when I have an exhibition and they want me to talk, give a gallery walk-through, I try to stay somewhat vague because they have a whole other meaning to me that I don’t want to spell out to someone else because it’s very personal thing that I think I can be very unique to every individual. One thing I’ve been fortunate to experience is sometimes people will come up to me at an exhibition and maybe they’ve seen a painting of mine as an object in it and it just kind of clicks. It’s like a catalyst for a memory that they’ve just forgotten. They haven’t remembered this in forever….They just tell me this story about something that happened when they were a kid or someone they knew, and you can just tell that it’s very touching moment because their eyes are very twinkly and I LOVE it because that’s not my story. That’s their story.
I think it’s great because the painting served as a catalyst for this connection and I just love all of that.
Attraction, 2005, 2006
Yeah, there’s such transformative power in art…It’s just amazing.
CC: Yeah. This was several years ago, but I was fortunate enough to be included in an exhibition in New York state at this museum. The show is one that I had often followed. It’s called Representing Representation. They used three of my paintings and I was just blown away that I was included in this show. And about a month later or so, I had had a young girl reach out to me through my website in an email. They had to write some sort of term paper… They had gone to see the show with their high school group and had to write some sort of paper on a painting. So she asked me a few questions in the email. Just to elaborate a little bit, just to break things down a little bit, and I did that. And she wrote an essay, that was kind of a short story where the painting kind of came into part of it, but it was very autobiographical. She ended up sending it to me. I was just so honored that she picked my painting for that.
That’s amazing! I bet that was such a high!
CC: It was great!
So you have the Stories of Stillness, but then I saw you had Butterflies. Is that a different series?
CC: A lot of times with my work, I might have the object. I might start with THAT, and say I have to paint THAT. And I don’t know why. Maybe it just sort of tugs at me from something I remember…maybe I don’t quite remember, but it’s going to resurface at some point. So I start the object of the painting. Sometimes I’ll plan things out much more meticulously. So the first painting that that butterfly appeared in was this painting, Aria…
CC: And I just loved it with all the different colors…the vibration and lines, with the bellows and vents and keys. It just has this great vibration. I loved it and wanted to paint it, but I needed something above it to kind of interact with it, without interacting with it, at the same time. I wanted it to be organic to contrast this artificial object with…and I’ve used feathers before in this show and also previous shows. But I didn’t want to use that again. In my mind, as I was working on it, I playfully just called it Aria. Because I thought it was another contrast to this very informal object, using that formal term. Then…and I like that….so as I would continue to paint, another musical term popped up. And that was Madame Butterfly…
CC: And then I said, hey wait a minute, that’s something to think about…butterfly. So I did some research and I looked into different types of butterflies and colors and shapes and everything. That’s when I selected this one. I found the perfect photograph that I wanted to use, and I thought it was a great addition in terms of color and how playful it was….
That is great.
CC: And after that painting, I really liked that image, or that possibility. I’ve been doing a lot of research on butterflies while I’ve been working on that. So I had started to plan out this painting, Union. And I was carefully planning this one out because I really wanted this to be a much more elaborate setup. This one was dealing with a lot of current events that I wanted to focus on. So the butterfly here is the perfect thing to kind of oversee this painting and connect the shapes and there’s this triangle shape that now fulfills and this was an Eastern Swallowtail which is a very common butterfly that we have around here. This is a female butterfly, due to its markings. I liked that idea that you could use the butterfly, where it’s from…its gender… things like that to kind of tell a story…even if no one knows it.
CC: So this one, her wing is actually broken…
Right. What is the salt?
CC: Well the Morton’s Salt container, I’ve used before in paintings; and I love it as an object.
Yeah, it’s great!
CC: When I grew up there was all this old advertising stuff around.
LOVE that kind of stuff.
Union, 2016, 17
CC: Yeah, I love it too. My grandfather collected all this stuff. You know, the Sunbeam Bread girl….You know all this stuff. So the Morton’s Salt containers are something that was very dear to me. I wanted to use them again. I wanted to use, you know, there’s different labels from different years, with different illustrations, which I liked. So I decided to use this image again, using this ring of salt around them, which…
CC: …in many cultures is believed to be a protective barrier and I liked that. This is an old table top that I got out of my grandfather’s barn, actually.
CC: So here you’ve got these three girls here, because the butterfly is also female, the three sides of the triangle. I like to play into a lot of the symbolism that is numerology. But this one, you know it’s a painting about current events, but, to me, it was just a curious image that hopefully the audience can come into and keep seeing something different each time, maybe asking questions of the painting and continue in a conversation. Not just looking at it and moving on.
And then the third painting I did in the show was called Duality and this was one I was planning out while working with the previous painting, Union. Again, while I was researching different butterflies, I thought, wow, this is so neat. I can use it as another piece from my image bank that can represent so many things.
Someone once asked me what my pictures were about. In many ways they’re about relations or relationships. Like I was telling you earlier about trying to connect with someone. You know these objects personify someone to me. Or someone I’ve known…or would like to know someday. And sometimes it’s the relationship of the object to another object. Trying to examine relationships.
Some artists don’t seem as concerned with the audience. They’re more concerned with making their image…And that’s fine. I totally respect that. With me, I’m very much thinking it through, with the audience in mind because I want someone to come to the painting and it speak to them on some level and for the audience to spend some time with the painting and go through those layers, like you described and maybe discover something within the painting that is within themselves.
All images c. Christopher Clamp
c. LTAWB 2017