dialogue…Eric Sall…005

“There is the aspect of skateboarding itself that is about learning the moves, mastering the tricks, and coming up with an innovative, individual style. Improvisation and adaptability are also key. In many ways it is like going to the studio.”


What led you to become an artist?

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact reason, but I guess my upbringing and environment growing up played a big factor. My parents are pretty liberal, from the Woodstock generation, and they let us kids have a lot of freedom growing up. My mom and dad are both creative people too, and I grew up exposed to people constantly making and doing things by hand. Both of them went to college for art but never finished. But I remember having a few of my dad’s paintings in my bedroom as a kid. One was a profile of an African American man set against a flatly painted American flag, and another was a painting of a silhouetted figure resembling Lenin, who was surrounded by various iconic symbols of the times like the peace sign, the Mars sign, an ankh, and a hammer and sickle. He was obviously curious about sociopolitical ideas of the times. So I grew up in a creative environment. And I know it sounds cliché, but we just spent a lot of time back then coming up with things to do, because computers were still rare, even video gaming was a bit rare then, so there was more time spent playing outside and making up games.

Probably like many artists, I drew a lot as a kid. I remember drawing cars and battle scenes. I especially loved to copy cartoons. I prided myself on how accurately I could re-draw comic strips like Garfield. Its funny because I was just talking to my dad and he liked to do the same thing, copy comic strips, things like Beetle Bailey, when he was a kid.

In my teenage years, I became very interested in music and skateboarding, and both things provided exposure to art and culture that I was pretty keen on. Skateboard graphics and logos are often boldly colored with flat graphics, and it was a natural progression from drawing cartoons to copying skateboard graphics and eventually coming up with my own images. With music, I latched onto the sounds of my parents generation, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, etc… and I loved the idea of the rock icon, and spent hours drawing pictures of Hendrix, Jim Morrison….but that was a different type of drawing than the cartoon stuff…working from photographs and trying to depict form and tonal shifts as accurate as possible. In high school, I discovered I was pretty good at drawing from photographs, and I had a great teacher who encouraged me. I made several large scale drawings and watercolor paintings both from observation and photos. She also had a cabinet deep with Utrecht oil paint, and she basically gave me free reign of it. I made my first oil painting in 10th grade, it was a triptych of Lenny Kravitz about 3′ x 4′. Typical high school subject I guess, but it cemented a love for oil painting early on. I’d won a couple of high school art competitions in the Black Hills, SD area during that time, and it just seemed like a no brainer that if I was going to go to college, it would have to be an art school. I applied to one school, the Kansas City Art Institute, and luckily I got in. That was over 20 years ago. 

Trace Lights, 2017 is availale at Gates of the West
Trace Lights, 2017

You’ve talked about skateboarding as a vehicle that brought you into the arts, and one can see the movements of twists, grinds, flips in your work. How has skateboarding been an influence?

Yes, there are several factors in skateboarding that helped shape my identity as a teenager and young artist that would go on to influence me for years and probably to this day. As I mentioned before, the graphics and visual culture of skateboarding was huge. So much about it for me was based on how things looked. You’d pick your board, trucks, wheels, even the grip-tape, based on style, how it looked, and in turn how that made you feel. And sure, a part of that is about trying to be cool by having the right gear, but it really made you feel something too. I also was drawn to the counterculture side of skateboarding. This was back in the late 80’s early 90’s, before things like the X-Games, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater brought things into the mainstream. Before skateboarding, I was into BMX. My older sister Emily (also a painter) was starting to hang out with some punks and skateboarders in our town. I wasn’t really into other sports, and there seemed to be an edginess to the scene that was a little scary and intriguing at the same time. Again, it was all about appearances early on. But once I really got into it, I was obsessed with it, and skateboarding became something else for me.

While there is a huge social aspect of skateboarding, it really is an individual pursuit. Yes there is much to learn from the camaraderie of your peers, but you don’t need a team to go out and ride. There is the aspect of skateboarding itself that is about learning the moves, mastering the tricks, and coming up with an innovative, individual style. Improvisation and adaptability are also key. In many ways it is like going to the studio.

work in progress

How do you approach a painting? Do you have a vision of what you want to create before you start painting or does it develop as you are painting?

I wouldn’t say that I have a vision ahead of time of what any given painting will look like specifically, but I usually have an idea of a process that I will use, and I have a decent sense of what the results of that process will look like. For instance, I’m working on a series of paintings right now that use a very specific process. I draw on raw canvas with charcoal and then seal the drawing onto the canvas with several layers of matte medium, which acts as a primer. Once the acrylic is totally cured, I can use oil paint over the sealed drawing. I get fairly predictable results with the process, but I still don’t have a specific plan for what the drawing will be or what the resulting painting will become. It is very much call and respond at that point. I find I work best when I improvise a lot. Though with that said, there are sometimes moments when I’m considering a certain move on a painting where I’ll take a pic and use an app on my phone to see what it might look like before I actually make the move. Or I’ll use the analogue approach and cut shapes out of paper and move them around on the painting to look at options.

How long does it usually take to make a painting?

Paintings take me as quick as a few days to as long as a year or more. I’d say the painting part itself is fairly quick. I can make big moves fast and actually many of the best things, in my mind, happen very fast. But it’s the analyzing and strategizing and second-guessing that can draw things out. Sometimes things just click right away, and other times things are difficult early on and take a long time to resolve. That is just the nature of my process. Since I don’t have a clear vision ahead of time of what the painting will look like, the process of getting to a place I’m happy with can take a while. I’ve lost many good paintings searching for something better because of it. But I try not to do that too much!

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Detail: Fixing a Hole, 2017

How do you title your work?

I always title paintings after they are finished, and it just begins with naming thoughts in my head that come up while looking at the painting, and then branching off from there, looking for detours or alternative words and phrases, so that maybe it’s not too literal or closed. I’ll borrow song titles if they seem appropriate. 

Throughout the course of your career you have participated in many artist residency programs, having the opportunity to work at the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program, in Roswell, NM, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation Space Program in Brooklyn, NY and currently you and your wife are participating in the Tulsa Artist Fellowship in Tulsa, OK which you have been at for the last year and a half. Can you talk to me about the experience of working in an artist residency?

Each one has been quite a bit different than the next. Before Rachel and I first went down to Roswell in 2002, we had been living in Kansas City in a loft where we had huge studios, we were pretty connected to the local scene in KC and had a great crew of artist friends. But we were also working at other jobs full time to support our studio practices. Working in Roswell was both eye opening and liberating. The residency is very low key, mostly suitable for people that are ready to dive into their work without much interruption. There was not much of a social scene down there at the time, so you’re really left to your own devices. It was the first time that each of us was really making our own work on our own terms, without much interaction with the outside world (again, minimal internet then…). Thankfully we had each other and the other residents! But we both saw how we could make a life out of making our art. The residency, with the gift of time and space it provided, allowed us to really commit to the idea of being professional artists.

After that year, we moved back to Kansas City, and I did another free studio residency there in an old bank building downtown. My studio was on the ground level, a corner space with two walls of windows, so that people walking by on the streets could look in and see me working, so it was almost the opposite of working remotely down in Roswell. I felt a bit like a fish in a fishbowl! It was more social internally too, with studios connected by a common space, and curated exhibitions within that space as well. I went to grad school after that. After grad school, we moved to Brooklyn, and aside from needing space to work in, I wanted to get connected somehow to my new city. I did a nine-month residency at LMCC’s Workspace program, where I had a studio in a former office building in Tribeca right by the Holland Tunnel. That was very different as well, because the program had both visual artists and writers, and we met up every week for little seminars together, with wine and cheese and such, and there was a rotating cast of curators, gallerists, writers and artists doing studio visits, so it was a bit like grad school, minus the school part. It was super fun and I loved going to lower Manhattan to work.

Sharpe Program was great too, amazing studios and great to be around so many talented artists, and a little less internal programming, so that you can just work hard in the studio with little interruption. Since then I’ve also done a residency where I had to teach as well (Grant Wood Art Colony), and we did a second stint in Roswell in 2014, and now we’re in Tulsa, where the fellowship here is brand new, and we’ve gotten to see this thing grow from concept, through some development stages, on into it’s second year where things are really coming together. So yeah, each one has been quite different, but the main thing for me is that I need space and time to work, and each one has provided some version of that, and if I hadn’t been able to do each one, it would have just been harder for me to make the work that I have.

Eric’s studio in Tulsa, OK

How do you feel working in a residency affects your work and process?

Well, I probably make the best work in residencies where the focus is just working. Like in Roswell, where I’ve been twice now, I’ve had incredible years deeply focused in the studio there. Your studio is right there at home, and that makes it easy to work anytime you want (or can). I have two little kids, so that was incredibly helpful—to be able to walk over to the studio after they were asleep, or any other time that I could manage. Plus the landscape is exotic and inspiring.

Each residency has had an effect on my work purely due to location too. Think of working in a studio where the constant hum of cars going in and out of the Holland Tunnel is right out your window 24 hours a day. Factors like whether it’s easy to get into or out of the studio play a part. Are there windows or not? High ceilings or low? Having moved around so many times, I’ve become pretty adaptable, and have streamlined my process to take advantage of certain conditions, whatever they might be.

Have you participated in a residency that you feel was particularly influential towards your work?

Roswell is tops. For me, it just felt the best—something about the openness of the landscape and the sense of freedom that is there. For some it can be overwhelming, it is remote and can be isolating, but I love the work I made there both times. I also have life-long friendships from there. And Rachel and I got married there back in 2003, so it’s a special place.

outside Eric’s studio in Roswell, NM

How does location affect your work/process?

I think I definitely made busy, overly cluttered paintings while living in New York. And I love some of those paintings! While in New York I was able to see so much work in all the galleries, which was super inspiring and motivating. I also worked as an art handler at MoMA for 5 years, and that experience was totally inspirational. So all that exposure affected my work. But it was also a lot harder to get to my studio and have focused time in there, so that was a tradeoff. I had an easier time working in Iowa City for a year, but the tradeoff was less exposure to those things that I mentioned previously. I had a funky studio provided by the university there, it was an old tuberculosis ward or something on an older part of the campus. The ceiling was pretty low, like 8′, and I spent half the year working on a giant commissioned painting that was 20′ tall by 8′ wide. I had to paint it sideways, and even then, the top edge was just a inch or so from the ceiling and the length of the painting spanned from one wall to the other. I basically painted a sideways mural in my studio—it was pretty difficult. After I finished the painting, I made a bunch of small paintings to purge myself!

How was living in Roswell? Do you believe in aliens? Did you see any?

Roswell is a quirky yet charming place. It’s not small, about 50,000 people, but it’s 3 hours to a major city like Albuquerque. When people think of New Mexico they usually think of Santa Fe, Taos, or Albuquerque. Roswell is very different. The landscape is different, more like west Texas, and the people are different. It’s not really a hippy enclave or an art town or a college town, but it’s full of some great people. It’s kind of unassuming, and it has this great art residency, and two art museums. And yes, all the alien stuff! It is a mecca for people to come visit because of that alien history, and the city definitely tries to cash in on it. It’s changing though, like many small cities, and local people are trying to create a vibrant city with culture both local and imported.Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 3.06.01 PMWhich artists do you admire?  

Dana Schutz, Wendy White, Chris Martin, Stanley Whitney, Amy Sillman, Thomas Nozkowski, Joanne Greenbaum, Katherine Bernhardt, Kerry James Marshall, Gerhard Richter

Old favorites – Guston, Matisse, de Kooning, de Chirico, Miro, Picasso, Kippenberger, Basquiat

You are married to artist Rachel Hayes, who is also currently participating in the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. Are you inspired by each other’s work? Do you ever collaborate?

Rachel is probably the hardest working artist I know, and I am constantly amazed by her ability to pick something up and see the potential in it. She is always working on something, whether that’s in her studio downtown, or anywhere she finds space in our home, on road trips, during family visits, etc…. So yes, she and her work are totally inspiring! Rachel and I have been together for over 20 years now, so in a way we grew up together, and formed our personal styles and identities side by side, so naturally there is a lot of crossover both visually and conceptually with our work, even though our processes are quite different. We have literally been in and out of each other’s studios, and have shared studios off and on, since the first day of art school at the Kansas City Art Institute. We have always shared similar interests and are attracted to similar things. People that know us and our work well probably see the influence easily. For instance, last year we shared a studio, and sometimes you would see the same color combinations in each of our work, or a repeated pattern popping up. But as for intentional collaboration, it doesn’t happen often. Even with all the crossover between us, we both have different ways of working, and most of the time we’re both so focused on our own things that we don’t really have time to think of things to make together. But we are constantly giving each other advice in the form of criticism and praise of each other’s work. And as I mentioned before, juggling our lives as parents and artists keeps us busy, and that in itself is probably our truest form of collaboration.

Fell Overboard, 2017 is available at Gates of the West
Fell Overboard, 2017

What is a day in the studio like?

I’m usually multi-tasking. Stretching or priming a canvas, jumping into a painting in progress, starting a new painting, experimenting with materials or processes, working on frames. I always have multiple things going on. But I don’t really have a normal schedule. Sometimes I’m there every day, other times I might not be in there for a week or two. Because Rachel and I are both artists, and we have two kids, we really have to find a balance of family and work that makes sense for us, and in reality it is very organic and changes often. Rachel is much more of a project-based artist, and lately she has been very busy. Due to the scale of her work and the logistics of making things happen, she needs a team to help her, and I am her main assistant. So sometimes I’m very busy assisting her. Other times I might be working on a deadline for a show, where I need to push more in the studio and spend more time there, so she might be helping me by spending more time at home with the kids. We are constantly adjusting to make the best work we can and help each other as much as possible.

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click to play

The title of your new body of work for Gates of the West, The Shape of Things to Come is a reference to Ornette Coleman’s seminal album from 1959, The Shape of Jazz to Come. Do you listen to music while you work? What have you been listening to recently?

Yes, pretty much always listening to music in the studio, with some news radio or podcasts mixed in. Certain albums will go on heavy repeat for a while. Charles Bradley’s “Changes” got played many times this past year, as did Cass McCombs’ “Mangy Love”. I like Cornelius’ new album “Mellow Waves”. The new Broken Social Scene sounds good. I’ve also been using Spotify to get some mix-tape type radio action.

Favorite art movie?

I don’t know if I have a favorite, but I love documentaries and biographies about artists. Painter’s Painting, The Radiant Child, Beauty is Embarrassing…I like John Waters’ comedy “Pecker” but I haven’t seen it in a while.

Favorite style of BBQ?

Kansas City of Course! Ribs from Gates, beef sandwich from Arthur Bryant’s, Carolina pork sandwich from Joe’s KC, burnt ends from anywhere.

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