Conversation with Roy Fowler and James Carroll

by James Carroll, Director of the New Arts Program

September 26, 2006

Roy Fowler


On the occasion of Roy Fowler’s survey exhibition at RACC (Reading Community College), Cedar Crest College, Northampton College, and the New Arts Program, the painter was welcomed by James Carroll for an interview on New Arts Alive, a cable television program in support of the New Arts Program.

James Carroll: Good Evening, I’d like to welcome you to New Arts Alive. With me this evening is Roy Fowler. Roy is a painter visiting us from New York, but like most New Yorkers he’s from somewhere else. That’s why New York has all these things going on, adding to it. What I would like to begin with, is to have Roy give a synopsis of his work so that we can have a premise which will help us look at it, and we can add to that as we go along. If you would, Roy, give us some insights.

Roy Fowler: Okay, James, first of all, thanks for having me on the show tonight. I  grew up in Santa Barbara by the ocean and a lot of my work reflects that. I went to the University of California in Santa Barbara and studied landscape painting. When I moved to New York I became a frequent visitor to the Museum of Modern Art, and I guess you could say it has become the landscape that I work from.

Carroll: Primarily you work with watercolor, with the emphasis of its transparency on paper.  What do you use on the larger canvas pieces? Do you use acrylic or do you use oil?

Fowler: I use oil paint. I’ve gone back and forth with watercolor and oil paint for twenty years. I began using watercolor when I was teaching at Wayne State University, commuting there once a week, and I needed a medium that I could travel with. I was teaching a graduate seminar and I would go into class an hour early and get something done before the class started. I accumulated a lot of these watercolors combining geometric elements from Navajo blankets with landscape imagery, and when I brought them back to New York at the end of the semester I started making oil paintings from them. My work is primarily landscape, but there have been a lot of abstract elements that I’ve added and taken away through the process of my working life.

Carroll: You also collage it or cut it up or break it up so it’s not always just an object, but it could be a number of objects or images which come from some influences in the city, your visits to different museums as well as different people working.

Fowler: Lately I’ve literally been constructing collages and I’ve been making oil paintings after the collages.

Carroll: So they generate themselves from the act of the collages.

Fowler: Yes, that’s right, and they’re the ones, I think, that are going into your New Arts space in Kutztown. I can talk about them a bit, but they’re unfinished, so I’m not quite sure which direction they’re going yet.

Carroll: Roy is going to be having a show in the spring of ’07 and this will be the first time the show will be simultaneously showing in four locations. One location is RACC (Reading Community College), one will be in Allentown which is at the Cedar Crest College, the third one is in Northampton which is in Bethlehem and the fourth will be at the New Arts Program which is in Kutztown, which is sort of centered in those four sources. When Roy refers to some of the work, he has formulated ideas of the different locations, certain things and certain works. The works you’re talking about now, the large ones on oil, you’re not finished with them but you’re seeing them at this point in time that they’re going to be shown at the NAP space.

Fowler: Yes, they’re pretty far along. I brought two images of unfinished paintings tonight, but most of the elements are in place. I might add some paint to them.

Carroll: But you’ve got it sort of physicalized. And we went down to the RACC space to sort of check out that again so you could refresh your memory on it. What we’d like to do is go to the first slide that we have. This slide is dated two years ago, 2004, and it’s 16” x 20”. When we see it on the monitor we have no idea what size it is, anything that comes on a monitor, whether it’s painting or anything. So here it is, 16” x 20”, and it’s oil on canvas, so it’s small.

Fowler: These are still life paintings of seashells that I made when I was in Santa Barbara a couple of summers back. I made one of these every day for several weeks. I would get up each morning and begin work with the first light of day. As a group they became portraits of the light in California, I would say, more than in the traditional still life genre, which usually is a metaphor for human existence. I mean in my paintings there aren’t any copper pots, or lobsters that are ready for consumption. They’re really seashells as forms in nature.

Carroll: Well, you speak that your interests always have been the water and the beach because you grew up on the shore.

Fowler: That’s right, and I’ve also been painting the waves for a long time. I had been looking around for a form that was analogous to the wave, in this case, the spiral. I was thinking of these more as forms that are defined by light rather than weighted objects that are very realistically defined.

Carroll: Okay, this first one that we just saw and the second one that we have, are they in succession?

Fowler: They’re in succession. The first one you saw is the first one I made, and they evolved over time. That was the only one actually that had the landscape in the background. I decided that was really too complicated for what I wanted to do. I was really interested in the shell itself, so the rest of them, including the next one you’ll see, are just shells on the tabletop.

Carroll: Well it’s a very shallow space, when you’re dealing with a landscape you’re dealing with things going away from you; it’s a recessive, a deeper quality to it or proposes a deeper quality. Here we can see it’s like a mantle space.

Fowler: Yes, and it’s also like painting space, the picture plane. They’re really just floating on the surface of the painting, except there are cast shadows as well. The cast shadows were the wild cards in the composition, the chance elements. I pretty much painted them wherever they appeared and that would be the beginning of the composition every day.

Carroll: It also has to do with the colors you’re using too, the blue-purple.

Fowler: They kind of formed a diary, a portrait of the light out there. I think they were more about that than anything else. As a matter of fact when I came back to New York I kept trying to continue the series. I had such a good time working everyday from them, I brought watercolors out on my fire escape in New York and I had all the shells set up on a table but it just didn’t feel right.

Carroll: The climate wasn’t the same.

Fowler: It was still summertime but something was missing and I realized that they were really paintings about California. I just brought the seashells inside and tuned my radio to the Columbia radio station for Phil Schapp’s morning broadcast of Charlie Parker and got out the scissors and started cutting up the watercolors. That’s when the collage came into play. I just ended up making collage to the rhythm of Charlie Parker and I think that transformed the shells into something that worked better in the New York environment. They became New York shells, so to speak.

Carroll: Okay, now we’re going to go on and see some works from the same year, a little smaller, 10” x 14”, but they’re collages. Are these some of the paintings that were cut up?

Fowler: Yes, these are the ones that I mentioned. I began by cutting out the shells and sometimes I used shell shapes, sometimes I just used the leftover scraps. It was really just the rhythm of making them that won out in the end. They became more abstract in feeling. There’s still a very shallow space in them, that’s the collage space, and I think it’s kind of similar to the tabletop space I was using.

Carroll: So these are the cutouts?

Fowler: These are the cutouts.

Carroll: So there’s no modulation of anything as far as paint or anything.

Fowler: Yes, they’re watercolor on paper, cut out and pasted on another piece of paper. They’re in relief, but the relief is about 1/16” deep. In making these I became just as interested in the negative space that was between the cut out shapes and I started drawing with that as well.

Carroll: Well, in a way if you relate to it becoming an important element, it loses its identity as negative space. Then it becomes an important space or a usable space. I always think when something’s negative you try cutting it out and getting rid of it, but here it becomes an important space.

Fowler: Well it’s also something you really use in the medium of watercolor. In watercolor, once you paint out the white it doesn’t come back. There’s a lot of planning beforehand when you use the watercolor medium. You’re always thinking about the space that’s between objects and kind of planning where everything’s going to go in advance. It’s like you see everything in reverse before you start.

Carroll: Do you see it in reverse?

Fowler: Well, I see the space around things as much as the things themselves. That’s actually changed the way I paint, I would say. I really prefer thinking about space than about the object. I don’t really try to paint volume. I’m more interested in shape. I would say that the shapes between things are more interesting, more exciting.

Carroll: Okay, this is the next piece of the collage. This is also the same size, 10” x 14”.

Fowler: They’re very small and in that one you can see a real little snippet of scallop shell in the lower right hand corner. I guess I brought in two of the more abstract collages tonight. Some of them have more shell imagery in them; they get a little more complex then. You’re going into realistic space, space that’s surrounding a shell, and then outside of that into the more abstract collage space. They can coexist.

Carroll: This one is done … it’s the earliest piece you have tonight. This one was done in 2000. I’m reading the script.

Fowler: Yes, that’s correct.

Carroll: This one is much larger; it’s actually close to 6-1/2’ x 8’. Its 78” x 96”, oil on canvas again.

Fowler: Yes, this is going into the Northampton Community College exhibition. I’ll be showing the bigger landscape paintings there. This particular image is of a flame tree, also called a tiger’s claw. It’s based on a watercolor I made on a visit to Hawaii. I’ve made nine visits there so far in the past ten years, and every time I  visit I make a set of watercolors. Each trip is different. As a painter, my work evolves over time and in each visit the work changes. Each ensemble describes the trip as one complete event, watercolors adding to one another the way a musician adds lines to create a work of music. In this painting, the shapes are very flat. They fit together like shapes in a jigsaw puzzle.  When I moved to New York I studied with Paul Georges, who had studied with Hans Hoffman and Fernand Leger. Hans Hoffman’s belief was that the essential planes were the plastic language of the twentieth century, and had evolved from volume flattening out. I think I inherited that way of thinking.

Carroll: In looking at this painting, even though it’s three years before the collages, I can see how the collages fit into transition. It’s kind of hard to realize this being big, from looking at it on the monitor. Actually most of your work has a very simplistic quality to it. It’s only when you see it in the real that it can go beyond that. The monitor makes it become more simplistic, I think, than it really is. Great pieces are really simple. Ones that don’t work are really complex.

Fowler: I find that there’s a lot of information in my watercolors. When I transpose them into oil paintings I tend to weed out the excess. It’s more of a reductive process for me.

Carroll: Do you use a lot of watercolor preparatory for your oil paintings?

Fowler: I look through the watercolors I’ve already made and choose one that might work in a painting.

Carroll: So it can be a composite from a number of then?

Fowler: Actually it doesn’t really work that way for me. I comb through them to find one that has an abstraction that I can really identify and I think will work well in a large image. It’s difficult going from a small image to a large image. Also not every image can be translated from watercolor to oil painting. You have to invent each move as you go along. Painting opaque colors in oil is just really a different game. That’s what makes it fun for me in my studio.

Carroll: The history of the paint itself is inherently different. One is transparent; one is opaque, as you said. Okay, we have another large one.

Fowler: The next one will be an image from California. It’s pretty much the same scale, 78” x 96”. This one came from a watercolor I made in Santa Barbara of monarchs wintering in a eucalyptus grove. Habitats are set aside for them now and they return year after year in their migrations. I made a watercolor of them. A friend of mine commented I didn’t have enough butterflies in it. I felt self-conscious painting butterflies for some reason; I got in maybe a dozen of them but when you’re actually there on the site there are thousands and thousands that actually hang from the branches. They’re just resting, they’re not feeding or reproducing, they’re just there. When the sun warms up they spread their wings and when it cools, they fold them back up.

Carroll: Is this part of the migration that goes down to Mexico? You know, I heard that they don’t arrive early, they might arrive a couple days late, but never early, which I find kind of interesting. You would think that they might, they do actually start from a very long distance.

Fowler: I was at the University at Santa Barbara and I taught a walking and painting class modeled after one I had taken as a biology student with Dr Beatrice Sweeney. We used to hike out into the areas around Santa Barbara and look at the flora and fauna, so I thought this was a great idea for a painting class. We would pack up our paints and hike for a couple miles, allowing us time to distance ourselves from our daily worries and think about what we would paint. We’d end up in some really nice area in Santa Barbara, paint, and then hike back. Combing through these a couple years later I pulled this one out. The painting I made from this one took me about four months to pull together. You see the white spaces in there. What you’re actually seeing has been painted many times and often I’ll bring back the white between layers. Leaving it there is kind of a telltale mark of a watercolorist. I actually like the white; to me it operates as a highlight. It’s more of a found highlight than a rendered highlight.

Carroll: We have your two paintings of waves and then we have two slides that have to do with waves too. Would you like to show the slides first or would you like to go to the paintings? Maybe the paintings. We’re starting right off with a close-up and we’re able to see your marks, which are pencil marks, the gridding of it. This is the big surf.

Fowler: The grids are there because these images come from photographs. I’ve painted the landscape and the ocean in a lot of different ways. From history, from photos, from my imagination and from on-site experience. These are from photos. I’m working on the idea that I might get in the water someday, actually swim out there and try and photograph them myself. Right now it feels like that would be too difficult so I rely on photos others have taken. I’m attracted to the waves because I like the spiral form, I really enjoy painting water; I like that the wave is figure and ground at the same time. The ground plane sort of rises up and becomes a standing object. They also create kind of a vaulted space. I mentioned earlier that I really enjoy painting space more than objects. To me, these are paintings of the space that the water forms. They’re also, to me, paintings of events. I think you would categorize these as events rather than objects.

Carroll: They come and go quickly.

Fowler: They come and go, they have universal form, and they’re the same all around the world. Some are bigger than others, but it’s basically the same thing whether it’s two inches or twenty feet. When I make these there are several different steps. The drawing comes first and I try to make it look like what it is, recognizable as a wave that captures some of the energy and motion. Then I make sure that it works as a painting as well. There are certain spatial demands and then I like the colors to work with each other so they convey reflected sky, reflected light, and also refracted light passing through the water. Then, as you can see zooming in, each one of these dries in a unique way. The final step is getting the wash to really work with the image in a way that even I can’t duplicate. Sometimes all these different steps are like a combination lock, you know, two spins to the left, two spins to the right, then two spins back to the left and if everything is lined up right, it just opens up and clicks. My process is I’ll paint the image over and over and over again. I have one I’ve worked on for about twelve years; intermittently I’ll go back to it.

Carroll: Well, let’s go on to the next one we have here. This one is 22” x 30”. They’re both untitled other than you put the word “WAVE” in parenthesis. It’s the isolation of some of your symbols that you have here, of marks, which I find very intriguing. It gives you the floating element, the turning quality in the transparencies of what we see with waves, or what I can imagine. I don’t know that I’d want to be in it, but you would probably, growing up there.

Fowler: It’s definitely in my background. I still go surfing even though I haven’t lived by the beach for 30 years. I still enjoy it.

Carroll: There’s a perception on your part that would be different from mine because I was never born on the shore. You were mentioning that you’re a second generation Californian. I never think of the west as having a lot of them. A lot of people are moving out there but the old diehards are not that many, but you’re second generation, I think that’s quite unique.

Fowler: My mother was born in Santa Barbara and I was as well. I think I probably inherited my love of the ocean from her. I guess I will say that when I was a little boy and I began surfing, she used to carry my surfboard down to the beach for me. It’s kind of hard to admit, but there you have it.

Carroll: I think that now we’ll go to another set of slides of work that are 22” x 30”. This one was made in 2000.

Fowler: Yes, these are a little earlier. Some people can find these a little threatening and I think that perhaps speaks of their fear of the ocean, perhaps from a childhood experience or something. But I’m looking at the form of them; I find it’s really universal. It’s in your fingerprint. I can almost see the exact thing if I look at my finger and it’s in the spiral galaxies as well. I was speaking earlier how still life is usually a metaphor for human existence and I think waves can be that as well. I think that in the twentieth century we’ve learned so much from science. We’ve learned about our history and we’ve learned about the history of the universe, and it’s really the same history. I don’t think it’s so far out to see these as metaphors for ourselves.

Carroll: Do you suppose the destruction read into them would be because of the experiences we’ve had the last couple of years over in Asia?

Fowler: Well, actually these were in a show that took place not that long after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and that came up a couple of times. But these aren’t violent images; they’re a lot more decorative than they are violent. You know, some people react to John Chamberlain’s sculptures as being violent because they‘re made of crushed auto parts. But his work is more about sex than violence, and how the pieces, those funny parts, fit together. It’s not my intention to paint a frightening turbulence.

Carroll: To you it isn’t that way, but others could get that sense from it. We’ll go on to another one. This is from 2001 and here again, continuing with this water wave but not quite in the same way. As we get in closer we not only see the strokes that are there, but we also see the lines that you’ve used as your preparatory grid. Do you grid all of your watercolors?

Fowler: Its part of the process of working from photographs and I’ve left it in these. Although I don’t have examples right here, I’ve used the grid a lot in my work. I’ve painted the grid in; I’ve often used layered grids with landscape imagery. I see it as mapping out the picture plane.

Carroll: Do you use a grid for your large paintings, your oils?

Fowler: Yes, same grid goes from photograph to watercolor to oil painting.

Carroll: There’s also an element that’s here that could be said to be influenced or borrowed from Chinese brush painting. The marks, because you’re utilizing the space, are not about filling; it’s not about any of that. You’re using all the great processes for it, that’s what makes it much more interesting, much more exciting.

Fowler: I have a way of drawing, I think every artist does; you develop your handwriting. It doesn’t matter whether you’re drawing a person or an empty space; you’re using the same shapes. You just make them convey whatever you want  them to convey. I think painters paint the same thing over and over again.

Carroll: Okay we have another work completed this year, is it not?

Fowler: No, actually these are watercolors that are based on visits I made to Hawaii. These are 22” x 30”; they’re a little larger than the ones I make on site. The imagery in this one is from a mountain which is a volcanic formation. Instead of converting them to oil paintings I just worked up to larger watercolors.

Carroll: What’s the largest watercolor you’ve ever worked on?

Fowler: I haven’t made any real big ones; this is it for me, 22” x 30”. When I’m in Hawaii I look for different topographical aspects of the landscape or weather events. I try to focus on a mountain, a rainbow, or a rainy evening. I’ll try to have one subject and depict that specifically.

Carroll: Do you do that for your whole stay there?

Fowler: Yes, the accumulation of them as ensemble becomes a description of place.

Carroll: Okay, this one is also 22” x 30”, isn’t it?

Fowler: Yes, this is the rainy evening I was talking about, it was made as it was getting dark and raining. I think the raindrops in the watercolor, the sand in the paint, and the guessing at colors in the coming darkness is part of the experience for me. It gives it an authenticity and cements the group as a whole.

Carroll: Again, the watercolor use of the white paper. Did you ever cover the whole surface with paint?

Fowler: Sure!

Carroll: But it doesn’t look like it. Do you ever use any white watercolor or opaque white in making white spaces?

Fowler: Not really. You know when you do that with watercolor you have one chance. You can use white for correction but you can’t really paint on top of it or it turns it into a different kind of painting.

Carroll: What do you do with the ones that don’t work, have you had many?

Fowler: I make collages out of them! Actually I’m looking for a way to recycle them. If anybody has an idea that would be a good thing to call in with.

Carroll: Okay here we have the two larger ones which are 54” x 46”, which is somewhere between 4-1/2’ and just a hair under 4’. These are oil on canvas.

Fowler: Yes, these are oils and they are based on the collages we saw earlier. You can see there’s a little leftover shell imagery, a nautilus in the center and a conch to the left and a couple starfish in there and maybe a hint of abalone. They’re in there but not so pronounced that they call attention to themselves. I think on the whole the painting is abstract and in that way it’s become more adapted to the city.

Carroll: We have one last painting we’ll see tonight. Again, this is oil on canvas.

Fowler: Yes, same size.

Carroll: Very much related in many ways to the collage, it has a collage-like quality to it.

Fowler: I have to fabricate the image of paper glued onto paper. There’s a realistic space inside the collage bits and then there’s pictorial space that’s formed by the negative spaces between the collage bits. There’s some contradictions going on in these things and the challenge is to keep them simple in the middle of all those contradictions. I think they’re pretty close.

Carroll: So Roy’s going to be having a show coming up next spring and the audience will be having the opportunity to view some of these examples as well as other additional ones. Roy, I would like to thank you for coming and visiting and sharing with us. I would like to thank the audience for tuning in. I’m James Carroll and good night.