An Interview with Artist Larry Spaid

June, 2008

Larry Spaid is currently Professor of Art at the Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught in the Department of Art and Art Education since 1973. He received an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA in 1973 and a BFA from the John Herron School of Art, Indiana University, Indianapolis, IN in 1969. Spaid has been exhibiting his work since 1976, including in 17 solo exhibitions in the US, the UK and Italy. His work is found in many private, corporate and public collections. Public collections include: Ball State University, Muncie, IN: Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN; Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, PA; Lessing Rosenwald Print Collection, National Gallery, Washington, DC; Temple University Law School, Philadelphia, PA; Trenton State College, Trenton, NJ; University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA; University of North Carolina, Greensboro, NC; University of Tokyo Museum of Fine Arts, Tokyo, Japan; and Widener University and Widener University Law School, Widener, PA. Spaid lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.

Julie Karabenick: Throughout your career, your art has been powerfully influenced by the many years you’ve spent abroad.

V/C-F #43
V/C-F #43-Revised, acrylic on canvas,
183 x 137 cm (72 x 54 in), 2007

Larry Spaid: I’ve spent over 10 years working and traveling outside the US, including extensive time in Mexico, Asia, Southeast Asia, North Africa and Europe.

V/C-F #55
V/C-F #55, acrylic on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 2004

I’m never really a tourist when I travel—I don’t participate in organized situations. As a creative person, I feel that through my work, I’m paying homage to the cultures in which I’ve immersed myself.

MED-28
MED-28, acrylic on 140 lb. paper,
38 x 28 cm (15 x 11 in), 2007-08

My military service awakened a sensibility to my origins. I come from a working class environment—a farming and small factory town in Indiana—and my exposure and reaction to a similar environment in Southeast Asia helped clarify my aesthetic interests. For example, I found that I respond strongly to traditional utilitarian objects, building structures, artisan crafts and objects of ritual.

D-2
D-2, acrylic on canvas, 178 x 132 cm (70 x 52 in), 2002

I was and continue to be greatly impacted by how simple—yet complex—the culture of Southeast Asia is. Designs for utilitarian objects are often based on the availability of materials and their possibilities—for example, cooking and agricultural utensils are based on the size and shape of bamboo; building and utilitarian devices are constructed from natural and discarded man-made materials; natural plant fibers and dyes are used in the fabrication of containers and woven objects.

Pre-L #5
Pre-L #5, acrylic on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 2005

To some degree, each of my paintings is comprised of my interpretations of symbolic elements derived from my experiences. However, I’m not concerned whether or not viewers recognize or understand the specific sources. I hope that the work itself is intriguing enough to gain their visual involvement and appreciation.

H-4
H-4, acrylic on wood, 36 x 29 cm (14.25 x 11.6 in), 2002

In Southeast Asian culture, color choices are often symbolic. Thus pure white is a funerary color, yellow, orange and red have associations with the sun, climate and harvest, and green is obviously connected to vegetation. I’m sensitive to the cultural significance of color, but I’m not concerned with communicating this as a painter.

C-5
C-5, acrylic on wood, 36 x 29 cm (14.25 x 11.6 in), 2002

JK: During your time abroad, you record your experiences and impressions in journals.

LS: I’ve been working from notebooks for 38 years. My work represents an analysis of journal studies and notes I’ve made during my travels. I document my observations of shape, color and atmosphere, and later formalize them on canvas, rag paper and wood in my studio.

Girard Avenue Return #99
Girard Avenue Return #99, acrylic and oil on canvas,
168 x 122 cm (66 x 48 in), 2000

JK: Geometric shapes feature prominently in your work.

Pre-L #18
Pre-L #18, acrylic on canvas,
203 x 152 cm (80 x 60 in), 2005

LS: Everything I see can be reduced to geometric or organic shape. Dimensionality or the implication of volume is unintentional, the result of material use rather than aesthetic choice.

Girard Avenue Return #70, oil on wood,
37 x 29 cm (14.5 x 11.5 in), 2000

JK: Most of your forms look as if they’re drawn freehand.

LS: My technical concerns utilize a variety of tools and masking techniques as well as the free hand. I relate to the handmade and consider the viewer’s ability to recognize the handmade aspects of my process to be important. I find an artist’s smears, fingerprints and pinholes to be exciting components of the work. These are signatures in themselves, so consequently I sign my name on the back of the piece.

Untitled
Untitledmixed mediums on 300 lb. paper,
19 x 14 cm (7.5 x 5.5 in), 2000
Untitled detail

JK: Geometric structure sometimes enters your work by way of the grid.

V/C #10Med-23
V/C-F #10, acrylic on wood,
37 x 29 cm (14.5 x 11.5 in), 2004
Med-23acrylic on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm 
(30 x 22 in), 2008

LS: My only conscious use of the grid is in certain backgrounds that respond to fabric and weaving practices.

JK: How would you characterize the space in your paintings?

LSI’m interested in a stage-type presentation that has a dualistic feeling of flat and deep space. I want my work to read as an interesting object—something one looks at—as well as into. For me, the vertical format has less of a landscape feeling. The picture plane is emphasized and a minimal stage-type space is achieved by placing the majority of the format’s contents toward the bottom edge or front of the stage.

PV #5
PV #5, acrylic and oil on canvas,
102 x 76 cm (40 x 30 in), 2001

JK: You typically work in series.

 LS: Yes, I usually work on a large number of pieces of the same size and format all at once using a variety of wash and impasto techniques. Normally, I do a series of studies on paper or wood prior to beginning a group of larger paintings. The studies are like stretching exercises before a run and are often more rewarding.

The C-Series below was derived from journal studies and notes completed in Cambodia in 2001 of gate and scaffolding structures.

C-#5C-#6
C-#5acrylic on wood,
37 x 29 cm (14.5 x 11.5 in), 2002
C-#6acrylic on wood,
37 x 29 cm (14.5 x 11.5 in), 2002
C-#8C-#10
C-#8, acrylic on wood,
37 x 29 cm (14.5 x 11.5 in), 2002
C-#10, acrylic on wood,
37 x 29 cm (14.5 x 11.5 in), 2002

The Untitled series on 300 lb. rag paper was started prior to my study leave experience in Southeast Asia in 2001 and completed upon my return.

UntitledUntitled
Untitled, acrylic and oil on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 2001
Untitledacrylic and oil on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 2001
UntitledUntitled
Untitledacrylic and oil on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 2001
Untitledacrylic and oil on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 2001

JK: Did you spend much time doing art when you were growing up?

 LS: My first memory of drawing goes back to when I was an only child on a small tenant farm in Northern Indiana. This activity was done either in coloring books or copied from them. Imaginative drawing was something I rarely did. Drawing provided me an escape from an environment and situation that I now regard, as a parent of two, to have been oppressive. Drawing also provided psychological support while I was a soldier during the war in Vietnam and, most importantly, became a means for me to visually express in an abstract manner my observations and feelings.

My high school art teacher suggested that I apply to art school because I could draw better than anyone at our small regional school.  The Herron School of Art in Indianapolis was a private museum school at the time. I was offered a partial scholarship, and, upon my arrival, I visited my first art museum. Two weeks into the program, I changed my major from Commercial Illustration to Fine Art Painting. During the summer between my third and fourth years, I was accepted into the Yale University Norfolk Program for Art and Music. This was my first experience in New England and, more importantly, my first exposure to a New York-based art faculty. Jack Tworkov, George Wardlaw and Al Held had enormous influences on my giving up figuration. During my senior year, I completed my last figurative painting. Constructivism, Modernism, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism had taken hold.

JK: You began an MFA program at the University of Massachusetts in 1969.

LS: Yes. I was inducted into the US Army at the end of my first semester and served for two years, the last year in Vietnam. Drawing provided a meditative and escapist activity that allowed me to block out reality. I found that I began to use line, mark, shape, form and tone as complete visual elements rather than for merely recording my observations. I used my environment as an indirect reference.

JK: During the late 70s, you produced some paintings and lithographs that were unique in your work through the presence of illusive, reflective shapes.

Untitled
Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 154 x 183 cm (60 x 72 in), 1977-78

LS: In the late 70s, I focused on formal and technical issues as content. I was interested in a technical approach: how an additive and reductive system of making abstract shapes that were lyrical, gestural and impulsive could be finalized by a reflective, illusionist shape.

Untitled (Diptych)
Untitled (Diptych), acrylic on canvas, 135 x 274 cm (53 x 108 in), 1978

It seemed the reflective element could define the space by making it less ambiguous.

I did some related lithographs that also included reflective shapes. Their initial designs related to my painter’s discipline, but their completion was mostly technical.

Untitled
Untitled, 11 color lithograph on 140 lb. paper,
sheet size 53 x 76 cm (21 x 30 in), 1978

JK: You refer to your next groups of work in several mediums as the Edges and Corners Series. At this point, you had dropped the reflective elements that clearly receded into space.

Untitled
Untitled, 9 color lithograph on 140 lb. paper,
56 x 41 cm (22 x 16 in), 1979

LS: Yes. In this series, I was working in a gestural manner with a great deal of reduction. The format’s edges and corners, in addition to the interior shapes, became important compositional tools. I was interested in the visual tensions I could create by manipulating them, and I was attempting to simplify and enhance the elegance of shape and surface. I wanted to encourage the viewer to look both at and into the work.

Edges & Corners #3B
Edges & Corners #3B, oil on canvas,
178 x 147 cm (70 x 58 in), 1979

From 1980-84, I taught at Temple University, Rome. As a result, I was able to travel and work throughout Europe as well as in North Africa and Turkey.

JK: Your Mosque Series resulted from this time abroad.

LS: My work from this period was influenced by mosque interiors, traditional utilitarian objects and the design of the Moors. The mosques I visited in North Africa and Turkey were the most tranquil and meditative interior spaces I had ever experienced. Non-Muslims were permitted to enter some of the mosques during non-prayer times.

Mosque SeriesMosque Series
Mosque Series, watercolor on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 1984
Mosque Series, watercolor on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 1984

I attempted earlier works that defined the mosques’ interior atmospheres, but I felt these works failed. So I evolved shapes from mosque rug patterns, lighting and architectural details. I placed the shapes frontally in a shallow, ambiguous space, hopefully inhibiting entry.

I returned to the US in 1984. I worked in a studio in my home and in 1987, purchased my present studio on Girard Avenue in Philadelpha.

Girard Avenue Series #46Girard Avenue Series #47Girard Avenue Series #51
Girard Avenue Series #46, oil on 300 lb
paper, 57 x 77 cm (22.5 x 30.25 in), 1986
Girard Avenue Series #47, oil on 300 lb.
paper, 57 x 77 cm (22.5 x 30.25 in), 1986
Girard Avenue Series #51, oil on 300 lb.
paper, 57 x 77 cm (22.5 x 30.25 in), 1986

The Girard Avenue Series is a synthesis of my four years abroad and my move back to Philadelphia. It reflects my responses to the Italian area of Umbria, the Nile River of Egypt, and Eastern Turkey, as well as an inner city working class area of Philadelphia undergoing gentrification with its confusion, rubble, and visual pollution. The above works are examples of this collision.

JK: I find the large dark shapes that increasingly dominate this series have a haunting quality.

Girard Avenue Series #48Girard Avenue Series #51
Girard Avenue Series #48oil on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 1990
Girard Avenue Series #51, oil on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 1990

LS: The Girard Avenue environment was a long way from my studio in Rome. I was responding to what was at hand—an ever-changing environment of gritty, tarred roofs, open lots, utility lines, security wire, crumbling masonry, litter and crime. I felt down at the time, and yet there was visual interest in this working environment. These paintings actually proved to be significant therapy.

Girard Avenue Series #48
Girard Avenue Series #48, oil on canvas,
183 x 137 cm (72 x 54 in), 1990

JK: Soon you were off to teach and travel abroad once again.

LS: I lived in Tokyo from 1991-94 in an area called Fuchi-Shi. Teaching at Temple University, Japan, allowed me to travel throughout Asia, Southeast Asia and Indonesia. During this time, I completed over 500 works on paper that responded to traditional structures, work utensils, and objects of ritual.

Fuchu-Shi #10Fuchu-Shi #12Fuchu-Shi #13
Fuchu-Shi #10, mixed mediums on
300 lb. paper, 19 x 14 cm (7.5 x 5.5 in),
1991-94
Fuchu-Shi #12,mixed mediums on
300 lb. paper, 19 x 14 cm (7.5 x 5.5 in), 1991-94
Fuchu-Shi #13, mixed mediums on
300 lb. paper, 19 x 14 cm (7.5 x 5.5 in),
1991-94

The works above are part of a very large series of pieces done in acrylic and oil pastel over collage. Overlays in my work can be thought of as responses to the re-use of materials in utilitarian devices and structures. I would take a quantity of pre-torn paper on my excursions in Japan, Indonesia, Malasia, Thailand and China. I recorded on-site reactions in acrylic wash and would finalize the works upon my return to Tokyo. For example, Fuchu-Shi #13, upper right, was a response to a rope merchant’s antiquated cutting device on the island of Java in Indonesia.

The works in charcoal below are part of my Departure Suite. They are summarizations of my time in Japan and were completed just prior to my return to the US.  There are no specific references in them. The work evolved with an impulsive approach and helped dampen my concerns about returning to the States.

Fuchu-Shi SeriesFuchu-Shi Series
Fuchu-Shi Series, charcoal on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 1994
Fuchu-Shi Series, charcoal on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 1994

The oils on canvas below were completed in Philadelphia the following year. I was trying to formally and technically minimalize my work from this period.

Fuchu-Shi SeriesFuchu-Shi Series
Fuchu-Shi Series ,oil on canvas,
41 x 30 cm (16 x 12 in), 1995
Fuchu-Shi Seriesoil on canvas,
41 x 30 cm (16 x 12 in), 1995

JK: Your next series also involved reflections on time spent abroad.

LS: I had a very difficult time adjusting to the US after three years in Japan with extensive travel throughout Asia. I felt I was out of direct source material. I was able to get grants from Temple University for the purpose of analyzing and editing the large body of work I’d completed abroad. Thus in this series, I was responding to my own finished pieces rather than working directly from journal sketches and notes.

Girard Avenue Return #73Girard Avenue Return #61
Girard Avenue Return #73, oil on wood,
36 x 30 cm (14.25 x 11.6 in), 2000
Girard Avenue Return #61,oil on wood,
36 x 30 cm (14.25 x 11.6 in), 2000

The resulting Girard Avenue Return works represent a synthesis of many years of research abroad. The paintings in this series were not a direct response to the specifics of the cultures I’d lived and worked in. Rather, I made individual pieces based on groups of work, continuing to explore the physical and, for me, meditative process of producing many same-sized works that were similar in surface, material and process.

Girard Avenue Return #103
Girard Avenue Return #103, acrylic and oil on canvas,
168 x 122 cm (66 x 48 in), 2000

The circular-type forms were a result of a gestural approach in the initial drawing stage. This series attempts to summarize the sources for my work up to 2000.

Girard Avenue Return #102Girard Avenue Return #98
Girard Avenue Return #102, acrylic and oil
on canvas, 168 x 122 cm (66 x 48 in), 2000
Girard Avenue Return #98, acrylic and oil
on canvas, 168 x 122 cm (66 x 48 in), 2000

JK: You also made some sculptures during this period.

LS: For the past 30 years I’ve been altering found, purchased and traded-for objects I’ve been drawn to. The rationale for any one choice is difficult and complex to explain; however, I do tend to respond to utilitarian devices, whether new, used or discarded. The shapes generated by these sculptures often find their way into my paintings.

Altered Grass CutterAltered Brush HandleAltered Shrine Cup
Altered Grass Cutter, 25 cm tall
(10 in tall), 1998
Altered Brush Handle, 20 cm tall
(8 in tall), 1998
Altered Shrine Cup, 10 cm tall
(4 in tall), 1998

The sculptures above are part of 20 completed in 1998 during a two-month period when I was reconsidering what my painting was about. To me, they are 3-D drawings. A few have become friends.

JK: You began another series prior to going abroad again—this time a study leave to Vietnam and Cambodia.

PV #2PV #6
PV#2, oil on canvas,
102 x 76 cm (40 x 30 in), 2001
PV #6, oil on canvas,
102 x 76 cm (40 x 30 in), 2001

LS: I began the above paintings before leaving and completed them upon my return. I felt the work lacked tension, and I used these paintings as an entry into a new body of work. I overlaid geometric, hard-edge shapes that were taken from my study leave drawing journal. I wanted to superimpose radical shapes and colors to create unique and questionable combinations. The outcome was successful, but revealed that oil paint was too awkward a medium for my interests. I needed to stain, wash and repaint my surfaces with a material that dried faster and was less technically challenging. Acrylic paint suited this purpose.

PV #10PV #11
PV #10, acrylic on canvas,
152 x109 cm (60 x 43 in), 2002
PV #11, acrylic on canvas,
152 x109 cm (60 x 43 in), 2002

My next several series were made as a result of study leave to Vietnam and Cambodia. Technically, the grounds in these works were influenced by the traditional fabric coloring techniques I researched in the Red River Valley of northern Vietnam and the Angkor region of central Cambodia.  Formally, the grounds were influenced by the light conditions, environments and atmospheres I observed and documented during almost 3500 miles of travel by land and water during this two-month period. The central frontal shapes evolved from a variety of things I observed and found to be of interest.

C #14C #12
C #14acrylic on canvas,
97 x 71 cm (38 x 28 in), 2002
C #12acrylic on canvas,
97 x 71 cm (38 x 28 in), 2002

For example, in C #14, the central shape was derived from a Buddhist shrine under restoration that had been extremely damaged by the Khmer Rouge and was covered with bamboo scaffolding. The background decision was due to the setting sun of the moment and the fact that I was suffering from a five-hour truck ride over damaged roads.

The central shapes in C #12 were derived from staked reed fishing traps used along river banks, and the background relates to the extremely warm afternoon light along the Tonle Sap River in central Cambodia.

C #11D #13
C #11acrylic on wood,
37 x 29 cm (14.5 x 11.5 in), 2002
D #13acrylic on wood,
37 x 29 cm (14.5 x 11.5 in), 2002

The central shapes in C #11 were developed from a village bridge structure of whitewashed palm tree log and woven steel cable in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam. The ground pattern and color represent the nature of the jungle’s floor during the dry season when I was there. A bundle of fruit tied together with telephone wire that I observed in an open market in Nha Trang, Vietnam, inspired the central shape in D #13.

V/C-F #77V/C-F #106
V/C-F #77, acrylic on wood,
37 x 29 cm (14.5 x 11.5 in), 2004
V/C-F #106, acrylic on wood,
37 x 29 cm (14.5 x 11.5 in), 2004

LS: The Vietman/Cambodia Final Series was evolved with a specific 2004 exhibition installation in mind. The two works above are part of a group of 69 pieces, and occupied a 30′ wall width. With this exhibition, I attempted to finalize a chapter of my research.

JK: The large paintings below represent summary statements of your travel experiences to that point in time.

Pre-L #19Pre-L #20
Pre-L #19, acrylic on canvas,
203 x 152 cm (80 x 60 in), 2005
Pre-L #20, acrylic on canvas,
203 x 152 cm (80 x 60 in), 2005

LS: The evolution of these paintings was like emptying a drawer of over 30 years of visual travel memorabilia onto ample surfaces and then playing a picture-making game. I painted three such works simultaneously, adding and subtracting similar elements in each. These compositions or stage sets are comprised of shapes, colors, lines, textures, patterns and opacities/transparencies from a host of cultures. I was interested in creating a third world urban tension in contradiction to a quiet atmospheric background.

JK: Some of the works on paper from this series have more specific references.

Pre-L #1Pre-L #6
Pre-L #1, acrylic on 300 lb paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 2005
Pre-L #6, acrylic on 300 lb paper,
76 x 56 cm (30 x 22 in), 2005

LS: Pre-L #1 combines journal studies from a number of days on the muddy canals of the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, where I witnessed agrarian life revolving around fishing, rice farming and fish farming. Pre-L #6 combines journal studies from a two-day excursion up river from Hue, Vietnam, on route to an ancient temple complex that survived the Vietnam/American War.

Med-10Med-41
Med-10acrylic and oil on 300 lb. paper,
76 x 56 cm 
(30 x 22 in), 2008
Med-41acrylic on 140 lb. paper,
38 x 28 cm 
(15 x 11 in), 2008

My most recent work, as seen above, deals with the notion that “less is more.” I’ve attempted to be more selective in the configuration and number of shapes used.

V/C-F #33-Reviseddetail
V/C-F #33-Revised, acrylic on canvas,
102 x 76 cm 
(40 x 30 in), 2007
V/C-F #33 Revised detail

The more I paint, the more the process becomes a meditative exercise. At this point, I find it necessary to minimize the number of visual elements per format, to juxtapose them in a simple configuration, and to create a variety of shape characters generated from observation and process.

VC/F #38-RevisedVC/F #45-Revised
VC/F #38-Revised,acrylic on canvas,
102 x 76 cm 
(40 x 30 in), 2007
VC/F #45-Revisedacrylic on canvas,
183 x 137 cm 
(72 x 54 in), 2007

I now require further input, and will be spending time in the near future in Ireland—influences to be determined—and Laos to investigate traditional weaving techniques and design motifs, with future research plans in India.

Larry Spaid in his Philadelphia studio
(photo credit Susan Fenton)

   

 More about Larry Spaid at: larryspaid.com

Interview images and text copyright © 2008 Julie Karabenick & Larry Spaid. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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