Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Art Space Talk: Fred Wessel

Fred Wessel is a professor at the Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford. Fred teaches drawing, egg tempera painting and lithography. He currently co-directs Workshops in Italy, bringing small groups of artists and art-lovers to Tuscany and Umbria to paint and study the Italian Renaissance. His work is included in many private and public collections including, The Museum of Modern Art, NY; The Brooklyn Museum, NY; The Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA; The Library of Congress; The Wichita Museum of Art, KS; Smith College Museum, MA; The University of Tianjin Fine Arts College, People's Republic of China.

Venetian Scarf and Tassel, Tempera, 24" x 18"

Brian Sherwin: Fred, you studied at the University of Massachusetts. Can you recall your academic years? Who were your mentors at that time? What about your influences at that time?

Fred Wessel: I went to UMASS to study with Bill Patterson six years after earning a B.F.A. in Advertising Design/Illustration at Syracuse University. Bill was a grad student at Syracuse in the Printmaking Department and I took a printmaking course with him as an elective in the second semester of my senior year. He gave me a great gift….the love of drawing, which has served me well ever since.
I worked at an Ad Agency in NYC for a couple of years following my graduation from S.U. then set up a small cooperative printmaking studio in Boston. Six years later I decided to return to college to earn my M.F.A. I discovered that Patterson was teaching at UMASS and followed him there. He became my mentor and also became a great friend.
Bill has since retired and UMASS, unfortunately, has become a school that is no longer very friendly to the realist tradition.
Melancholia, Tempera with Gold Leaf, 14" x 18"

BS: Since those years you have went on to become an educator. From 1976 until present you have been an art instructor at The Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford. My understanding is that you are currently a Professor of Printmaking. Can you tell our readers about your educational philosophy? What do you expect from students? Also, how have you found balance between teaching and creating your personal work?

FW: I am like a utility player in baseball, Brian. Each semester I teach three courses selected from lithography, advanced graphics, freshman drawing, figure drawing and egg tempera painting.

My educational philosophy is simple; I expect a "marriage" of artistic vision and a mastery of the craft needed to execute it from my students. I am one who believes in first teaching students technique, which has become a dirty word in some of today’s art schools. My teaching effectiveness depends on my success in building a student’s self confidence then motivating the student to embrace the piece of artwork and do whatever is necessary to nurture it and let it grow.

The balance you speak of is difficult. I find my painting production decreases by a good thirty percent while I am teaching. Fortunately, I think I have created a balance by entering into a phased retirement program at the university. I will teach only one semester during each of the next 3 years after which I will retire in full. I adore my students….this will provide me a way to wean myself away from teaching them that which I have to offer them and continuing to interact with them without quitting cold turkey.

Jillian in Cucina, Tempera, 27" x 17"

BS: Fred, your art can be found in several public collections, including-- The Museum of Modern Art (NY), The Library of Co ngress, and The Brooklyn Museum. Your work is also in several college and university collections, including, Harvard University, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and S.U.N.Y. Where should our readers go to view your most current work? You are represented by The Arden Gallery, correct?

FW: Unfortunately, most of the works in the collections mentioned above are not on permanent display. The Evansville Museum (Evansville, Indiana) is an exception and has two paintings permanently displayed in its figure and still life collections. I am represented by the Arden Gallery, 129 Newbury Street, Boston, MA, and my work can always be seen there.

BS: Allow me to ask some specific questions about your art. My understanding is that you have long been interested in realism and that you utilize several traditional techniques-- such as the use of egg tempera and 14th Century painting methods. Can you further discuss this interest and the methods that you utilize?

FW: I am interested in playing with realism to idealize both positive and negative shape and form. I am speaking here about tweaking the abstract nature of every good piece of representational art. I love the paintings of Raphael who took this idealization to its height. Part of the inscription on his tomb in the Pantheon states that while Raphael was alive Nature feared that the beauty of his artwork would overtake the beauty that she could create.

I absolutely love the egg tempera process. I discovered it for myself in 1984 on my first trip to Italy. The rich beauty of the early Renaissance art in the Uffizi Gallery quite literally brought me to tears. I paint using the techniques documented in the early 15th century by Cennino Cennini in his book Il Libro dell’Arte. Tempera is the perfect medium for someone like me who loves to draw.
The tempera process is closer to drawing than it is to painting, with colors and tones slowly developed using a myriad of small, crosshatched lines. Luminous colors are achieved by layering thin films of these tones with veils of intense glazes. I came to this medium through a career in printmaking. Both require a love of "process" and patience.
Molleye's Gazing Back, Tempera with Gold Leaf, 15" x 16"

BS: Can you go into further detail about your influences? What specific artists have inspired you?

FW: Again, Brian, it is the great early Renaissance masters like Ghirlandaio, Mantegna, Botticelli, Simone Martini and especially, Fra Angelico that have had the most influence on my work. Whenever I am in Rome, I visit the grave of Fra Angelico in the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and bring a gift of a rose, a used brush or something else I deem appropriate at the time. The serenity in his work, his color and magical use of gold always humble me. He is, without a doubt, my "main man". I have become a pretty good gilder and can make my background gold do many things yet I am absolutely humbled by Fra Angelico’s enchanting use of the gilding process.
Last fall I was a visiting professor with the University of Georgia’s study abroad program in Cortona, Italy. The crown jewel of the little town’s formidable art collection is Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, found at the Museo Diacesano. Designs punched with a variety of tools into the gilded angel’s wing reflect light in controlled patterns and make it visually kinetic…. the wings almost seem to flutter as one views them from different vantage points in the room. I would go down to the little museum that housed this beauty at least twice a week, unsuccessfully trying to figure out the masterful technique that Angelico used to enable this illusion to take place.

I look to these artists of the early Renaissance as a source of inspiration that I can use along with contemporary content and image making. I look to the Renaissance as the artists of that time looked back to early Greek and Roman art--not as a reactionary but as one who rediscovers and reapplies important but forgotten visual stimuli.
The Turkish Scarf, Egg Oil Emulsion, 16 1/2" x 12"

BS: As a painter interested in realism and traditional techniques and methods of painting... are you concerned that those traditions are being lost in schools today? Or do you feel that they will always be with us in one way or the other? Does the direction of the mainstream art world concern you?

FW: I am inclined to put my faith in the latter, Brian. Yes, in some cases, traditions are being lost in some schools but realism/representational has survived and flourished since the beginnings of art and will continue to survive because it is timeless. I can anecdotally state that my classes are always fully enrolled and often have a waiting list for openings. There will always be students who want to learn how to capture an event, a personality or even a simple subject, infusing it with the sensitivity of color and form while sharing this with the viewer in a realist vision.

I am not at all concerned with the direction of the mainstream art world. The art world is a huge place and there is ample room for us all. As I get older, I become less interested in the ever-changing "isms" and where I fit in or don’t fit in the general scheme of things. I am passionate about my painting and that is all that I care about. I just want to finish the work to the best of my ability and put it out there… then begin a new piece. The public and critics can sort out which is my best and which is my worst and where it all fits or doesn’t fit into the grand scheme of the art world.
Becca (Tuscany), Tempera with Gold and Palladium Leaf, 9" x 6"

BS: Tell us about the workshops that you have been involved with. How can our readers find out more about them?

FW: After my 1984 trip I realized that I needed to return to Italy to carefully study the masters that had so impressed and influenced me. Bill Patterson and I started a workshop abroad for students from UMASS and the Hartford Art School. Our original workshops included visiting artists such as Gregory Gillespie, William Beckman, Jack Beal, Sondra Freckelton, Scott Prior and many others. This evolved into Workshops in Italy, a series of two week workshops in Tuscany and Umbria for artists and art-lovers.
We still bring a small, select group of art students with us but the trip has evolved into a workshop for adult artists of all levels of expertise. I am now doing the workshops with Jeremiah Patterson, Bill’s oldest son. I teach traditional egg tempera in our Italian studio while Jeremiah takes members of the group painting "en plein air". Teaching in Italy is a real thrill since it affords one the opportunity to work and visit the many fine examples of tempera available in Italy’s many museums and churches.
Our workshops offer our participants a unique opportunity to work in breathtaking landscapes, study great art treasures, get to know some of our wonderful Italian friends and sample the best of Italian wines and cuisine. We believe one can’t fully understand the art of Italy without sampling the food, wine and culture of this amazing country. Those interested can find more info at: www.workshopsinitaly.com.

BS: You paint still life, flowers, and figures... do you favor one over the others? Also, would you say that you are more interested in the process of painting itself than the end result?

FW: My work (paintings) started with still life painting, which I still enjoy producing once in a while. My flower pieces came out of a past association with Sherry French Gallery in NYC. Sherry often had themed shows that she encouraged her gallery artists to be involved in. One such themed show was the annual "February Flowers" exhibition. I painted a number of floral pieces for these exhibits but haven’t done another since leaving the gallery last year. Like still life painting, I still enjoy painting flowers…and I think I still have more of these paintings left in me….but my real joy now is my figure painting.

I’ve known Molleye Maxner, the model in many of my figure pieces, since she was a young child and started painting her when she was in her early twenties. Molleye has a dance company with her husband, Kelly, has traveled the world and is passionate and knowledgeable about many things. I work from photos and, if possible, directly from my model. As she’d sit for me we have many discussions about our travels, her dance experiences in places like Turkey and Vietnam or courses she was involved with at Mount Holyoke College. I strived to put all of that history into the portrait paintings I did of her. I know most of my models quite well and it is important to me that the painting reveal their inner as well as their outer beauty.

I do love the process of painting…it is very meditative…yet it is the final painting and the viewer’s connection with it that interests me most.
The Red Dress, Tempera with Gold Leaf, 25" x 19"

BS: Tell us more about your process... what is the preliminary work that goes into your paintings? For example, do you draw often? Do you keep journals?

FW: I start a painting "in the 21st century" by developing its plans and color studies on my computer with Photoshop. I used to do them as watercolor studies in bound journals (part of me misses this ritual) but I can accomplish what used to take me 2 or 3 days to do in a single afternoon. This gives me much more pure painting time.

After planning my image, I shut down my computer, mentally return to the 15th century and begin executing my painting. I often listen to books on tape, opera and even Gregorian chants while painting.

The tempera painting begins as a full, tonal drawing in ink on my hand prepared panel. I often start by doing a silverpoint drawing then cover it with a fully developed ink drawing. If I am applying gold to my painting using the traditional water gilding technique, it must be done now. After gilding, thin layers of color (pigments mixed with egg yolk) are carefully applied until the painting is complete. A larger painting can keep me busy for four to five months.

BS: What have you been working on lately? Can you describe the direction that your work has taken as of late?

FW: I have always used gold leaf in the background of my paintings. In past paintings I have used it decoratively by tooling ornate patterns into the gold. Recently I began drawing into, and with, the gold by using selective tooling and burnishing techniques. I have been working on a series that has drawings of charts of the constellations in the gold background. The charts are interpretations of 17th century engravings made by the astronomer artist John Flaamsteed.

I found Flamsteed’s work on a large and beautiful web site, Atlas Coelestis, which is the creation of Italian historian, Felice Stoppa, of Milan. I emailed Stoppa and asked for permission to use Flamsteed’s work in the background of my painting, Becca (Sundial). Felice took an interest in my work and we became friends. He sent me a hand made, limited edition book of Flamsteed’s engravings and I made a silverpoint drawing of his daughter, Giulia, for him. My wife, Lee-Ann and I finally got to meet and visit with him during a 3 day excursion from Cortona to Milano this past fall.

I have also started to create drawings by laying different colors of gold one next to the other. I am now working on a larger painting that references Fibonacci’s spiral in the gold background behind my model as she contemplates this sacred geometry in the simplicity of a conch shell.

Tunic and Pearls, Tempera with Oil Glaze and Gold, 12" x 16"

BS: Will you be involved with any exhibits in 2008?

FW: I had a very successful show at Arden last Spring and I am in the process of amassing enough work to have a show there again, probably in 2009. It takes me at least two years to produce enough work for a one person show. I am also very excited to be involved in the planning stages of a three-person tempera show in an important gallery in Chelsea, also for 2009. Unfortunately, it is too early in the planning process to elaborate on it at this time.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art and the direction that you have taken?

FW: I want my work to possess a certain spirituality (not religious) and radiate with a beauty that deeply affects the viewer. I can’t help but think about something my good friend, Jack Beal, said about his early painting goals. Jack once told me he wanted to make paintings "so beautiful that the viewer couldn’t ignore them!"

I believe that in our search for novelty in post-modernist art making, we often lose touch with certain basics: beauty, grace, harmony and visual poetry are nowadays rarely considered important criteria in evaluating contemporary works of art. I strive to re-introduce these basics back into my work.
You can learn more about Fred Wessel by visiting his website-- www.fredwessel.com. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page-- www.myartspace.com/interviews.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

1 comment:

Diana Moses Botkin said...

Such beautiful work and intelligent comments! It's easy to see why Fred's work is in high demand. I only wish I was closer geographically and could take classes!