An Interview with Artist Thornton Willis

September, 2013

JK: Turning to your childhood, you were born in 1936 in Pensacola, a seaport at the western edge of the Florida Panhandle.

TW: We lived out in the country where the houses were some distance apart and neighbors were sparse. My father was an evangelical preacher in the Church of Christ. The religion wasn’t Pentecostal, but as a young child, it seemed quite harsh to me. My father was strict about religious matters, but I always felt loved by him. I admired  him in many ways—he was a Latin scholar in high school, read a lot, attended college. We could just never see eye to eye about religion. As I got older, I was pressured to make a decision about religious commitment. Though I was resistant, I did try to get in line with the dogma and belief system, but I never could. Looking back, I don’t think my religious upbringing affected me much—except that I believe in the spirit of man.

JK: What did you enjoy doing as a child?

Thornton Willis at age 5 or 6

TW: I liked to play sports, ride my bicycle and draw. My dad used to read the Sunday comics to me when I was 4 or 5. I would sit in his lap and look at the cartoons. I saw little boxes with things happening inside, and I would try to copy them. Early on, I drew animals and cartoon characters like Steve Canyon and Superman. My dad began to realize that I liked to draw, and he encouraged me. He would tell his friends, “Thornton can draw!”

In school I was always the one in my class who could draw. It was something I really enjoyed, and I was pretty good at it. I remember doing a pastel drawing in fifth grade of Washington crossing the Delaware. I entered the drawing in a school art contest that was for 6th graders. I won, but, being in 5th grade, I couldn’t receive the prize. As I got older, I realized I had a special interest in art and focused on it more. I would draw portraits—like my dad sitting and reading, which he did a lot. But no one ever introduced me to art, and I didn’t visit an art museum or read a book about art until I was in college.

JK: Yet you had a precocious appreciation of art as a means of emotional expression.

 TW: As I’ve thought about it over the years, I’ve come to understand that I wasn’t really impressed by kids who could achieve a good likeness, and I didn’t try to draw things very realistically. I could do it, but what really interested me had more to do with the sensation of drawing—the touch, the eye responding when you make a mark, the actual motion when you draw. I’ve always thought you could express feelings through marks. When I was in 4th and 5th grades, World War II was still going on, and kids were drawing war scenes. I thought the best ones had some feeling put into them, where lines were used to express movement or emotion. I was drawn to color, lines, and the materials themselves. All these things attracted me to art—and they still do. That’s probably why I later found it so appealing to stand in front of works of de Kooning, Kline or Pollack, their marks and their vitality.

JK: When you were growing up, your family moved quite a bit.

TW: When I was seven, we moved from Florida to Tallassee, Alabama where my father had been given a new congregation. That year, my mother had a nervous breakdown, and her family eventually had her committed to a state institution. At that point, my paternal grandparents came to live with us—with me, my brother who is five years younger than me, and my father. When I was nine, my father was given a new congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, so we moved again.

At that time—at the age of 30—my father was beginning his college career at Huntingdon College in Montgomery. He was also involved with Montgomery Bible College. The college had a junior high school that I attended for two years. The school had extreme religious views, and I hated it. There were no athletics, and I really liked sports. My father, who had been dirt poor, always wanted the best for me. He pushed me to continue my schooling for two summers so I could enter 10th grade a year early.

JK: Ready for high school, you moved once again, this time back to Pensacola.

TW: My grandparents wanted to return to Pensacola, and my brother and I moved with them. My dad stayed in Montgomery, but would visit us frequently. I think my mother’s breakdown and my experience in Montgomery left me a bit off balance. I hadn’t liked moving from place to place, and being pushed ahead in school meant that I was the youngest in my high school classes, which I didn’t enjoy. So by high school, I was rebellious and uncooperative, and I set out to do as little as possible. I never cracked a book and was proud that I could get by that way.

JK: You graduated from high school at age 17.

TW: I wanted to enlist right away, but I had to wait until I turned 18. I spent 3 years in the Marine Corps. My military experience was pretty uninteresting, and by the end of it, I was really ready to hit the books!

JK: You first attended community college.

TW: I had to make up for my poor grades in high school. My second semester I took an art appreciation class mainly because my girlfriend took it. This was really my first glimpse at contemporary art, and it was eye-opening. I remember seeing art reproductions, most in black and white. I responded to the Post-Impressionists—Cézanne, Van Gogh—and was especially taken with a Picasso. I was beginning to realize that I was interested in abstraction. At around 22, I began to make clumsy attempts at paintings, applying oil to canvas board with a palette knife. I’d made a village scene with a smear of paint here and there to suggest a figure, trying to emulate Van Gogh’s use of texture.

JK: Next you spent a year at Auburn University.

TW: My dad had done some graduate work at Auburn, and he convinced me to go there to study architecture. It didn’t take long for me to see that I was in the wrong area. Imagine having to take college algebra and calculus when you hadn’t even taken high school algebra! What I really wanted to do was study painting. The chairman convinced me to study commercial art, saying that way I could make a living and paint in my spare time. As it turned out, I was stimulated by a course in beginning design that was taught by a painter. The course also had a drawing lab where we were encouraged to experiment.

Looking back, some of the things that I learned from my brief time in architecture have had an influence on my approach to painting. Back then, we used to make isometric drawings from which I learned to work with forms three dimensionally, to draw them as though they were right in front of you, and then project from key points on the forms in order to reconstruct them in different positions in space. Today, I often begin a painting with a kind of automatic drawing, a loosening up to get a certain suggestion. But when I get down to isolating shapes, I tend to see them from different angles, making projections that influence the final forms I give them, even though I’m painting them flatly.

JK: At Auburn, you saw an exhibition of abstract work that deeply affected you.

TW: There was a traveling show of work by students of Hans Hoffman that included one Hoffman painting. It was the first time I’d seen real abstract paintings, paintings from the New York School. I was totally fixated on those paintings. The show was there for about a month, and I’d visit it every day. The work was powerful, expressionistic. This was a very emotional, gut-level type of experience for me. It made me want to make paintings.

JK: Next you attended the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

TW: My girlfriend was going there, and tuition was cheap. I recall taking a watercolor course where what you needed was great finesse. I wasn’t very good at that, and I hated the course. My whole approach to making art has been to work back into things, to work intuitively with an experimental approach. I was lucky to have a few good teachers who encouraged me. I learned a lot from Vernon Merrifield—not necessarily how to paint, but what abstract painting was about. He talked to me about Abstract Expressionism, about what was going on in the New York art world, what mature painters there were doing. He had a car and we would go to New Orleans to see exhibitions.

JK: You graduated in 1962, got married and taught in the public schools for the next two years.

TW:  I had some connections back in Pensacola, and I got a job teaching junior high. I was very excited about painting, but at that time, I wasn’t yet sure I wanted to fully commit myself to it. I wasn’t ready to put myself out on a limb and try to scratch out a living as a painter. In Pensacola, I had the opportunity to live a comfortable, conventional life. I had a decent job and friends and relatives around me. I taught for two years, but I was restless and torn. My wife, Peggy, encouraged me to go to grad school. I knew that if I went, I was making the decision to devote myself to painting.

JK: You knew that painter Melville Price, a member of the first generation of Abstract Expressionist painters, was teaching at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

TW: Yes. In 1964 I enrolled in graduate school with the specific purpose of studying with Mel Price. Price was close friends with New York School artists like Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning and had been a member of The Club at the Cedar Tavern. And the University of Alabama was like a breath of fresh air. The school was considered the Yale of the South—very liberal, especially the art department. My ideas about art began to change because the environment was so conducive to working experimentally.

Mel was my primary teacher. His earlier work was more conventional Abstract Expressionism, but later he was influenced by Pop art. He made large paintings, sometimes collaging in images and including big letters. It was very exciting for me to see his work—and in Alabama at that time, you rarely saw big paintings!

Melville Price: Holiday, oil and mixed media collage
on canvas, 130 x 104 cm (51 x 41 in), 1964
(Image source: Spanierman Modern, New York, NY

Mel encouraged me to go wherever the painting might take me. I began to understand what it meant to be an artist, to live creatively. Abstract Expressionism had arrived at a mature place by the time I became aware of it, and it had a major impact on me. I was looking at the work of de Kooning, Kline, Rothko. I even tried to paint like them. Once a faculty member looked at a painting of mine and said simply, “de Kooning,” and walked out the door. But this comment made me happy—it was the type of painting I was aiming for! When I graduated, Mel Price encouraged me to go to New York City.

JK: Did your early passion for Abstract Expressionism have a lasting impact?

TW: The idea of trying to find those places in one’s self where shared human emotions reside—we all feel love, anger, sadness—and to somehow inject those emotions into painting is one of the primary tenets of Abstract Expressionism. It’s something I’ve always tried to hold onto.

JK: Here’s a painting from your graduate school days.

Untitled, acrylic on unstretched canvas, approx. 122 x 152 cm
(approx. 48 x 60 in), 1965

My earliest body of work—something I could call that—evolved from graduate school and the influences there—the teachers in both painting and sculpture, the exhibitions I had seen, and the steady stream of news and pictures from New York art magazines. Every painter has influences. They may be famous past artists or contemporary artists. I wanted to join in what was going on, and I had to choose my influences. I was simultaneously attracted to the ideas prevalent in gestural painting, the Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning, Kline and Pollock, and also to the more reductive or cooler forms of expression found in Mondrian, Barnett Newman, and Stella. My mentor, Mel Price, combined some elements of both in his work. In my very early paintings, you can see the struggle, at times not very successful, to meld these two interests. I think that this definitely set the stage for all of my career and offers insight into, for lack of a better word, my “style.”

JK: You also made some shaped canvases.

TW: I admired the Washington Color School artists—Stella, Noland and others. I’d seen some three-dimensional painting and realized that canvas is malleable—you can shape it. I began some work on shaped canvases using a cheap spray gun to fog in color. I would mask out some areas with tape, working in a sort of hard-edge way.

Untitled, acrylic on shaped canvas, approx. 114 x 107 x 4 cm
(approx. 45 x 42 x 1.5 in) 1965-66

JK: After you graduated, you didn’t immediately move to New York City.

TW: I was invited to fill in for a year and teach the classes of my former teacher, Vernon Merrifield, at the University of Southern Mississippi. That following summer, the department chair told me about a job opening at Wagner College on Staten Island. I applied, got the job and moved to Staten Island where I lived for about a year. I continued to make the shaped canvases. A painter friend, Ed McGowan, introduced me to his gallerist, Henrietta Ehrsam, at the Henri Gallery in Washington, D.C., its first contemporary art gallery. Henri liked my work and included a piece in a group show. She sold it for $500 and offered me a solo exhibition. I wanted to leave Staten Island, and by the time of my show, I’d gotten my first loft in the city on 7th Avenue near 23rd Street in Chelsea. I taught at Wagner for another year, commuting back and forth.

By this time, my work had completely changed. It seemed like everyone in New York was working really large, and I did as well. I painted canvases that were around six or seven feet high. I was working with the idea of banding, an idea that came essentially from artists who were working with stripes—like Gene Davis and Ken Noland. I worked experimentally, using masking tape to create wavy bands of color. I would drape strips of wide masking tape across the canvas, allowing them to bend and sometimes intersect. I was still applying paint with a spray gun. I’d spray over a few strips of tape, remove the tape, apply new strips and spray again. When I showed the gallerist the work, she just about fainted, but she did give me the show.

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