When I think of "western art" there are a few subcategories: landscapes, cowboys, Native American art -- all generally quite traditional. What I like about Colorado-based artist Will Lee-Ashley's collage paintings is that they riff on all of these things, adding no small amount of the kind of nostalgic kitsch we associate with the all-American road trip, and bringing some of that more folk or academic tradition into a contemporary context. Happy to share some of his work here, and some of his thoughts about his practice!
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Hi Will! First, I'd love to know more about you. I gather you're based in Colorado. Are you from there originally?
I am from Colorado Springs, went away to college and stayed away for a while, and came back to Colorado with my wife and kids about 10 years ago.
What first interested you in making art?
As long as I can remember art has been a way for to process what I am experiencing. I remember one time in particular: our 3rd grade class gathered together around the TV at school to watch the space shuttle Challenger take off, and instead we saw this thing explode right in front of our eyes. I remember being devastated, and going home and just drawing for a long time. I know art helped me come to terms with what I saw.
You work in a combination of painting and collage, and with a western theme in the series Go West!, which has a very American association with the idea of the plains and mountains, and the wide open road. Can you tell me more about this?
When I was a kid, my family would take road trips through the West. We'd travel the same roads every year and these landscapes eventually got imprinted on my brain. As I got older, I read more and more about the history of these places and all the triumph and anguish associated with them. We've all seen too many photographs and movie scenes of the great western road-trip, so taking a birds-eye view of the landscapes and cutting the images with history made sense to me.
What is your process like?
How do you get started, or know when a piece is finished? For bigger pieces, I usually sketch out the rough composition in a notebook. When I get to working the board, I usually start with spray-paint, then work up a more classical under-painting with different washes. From there it's a cycle of making mistakes, cursing, and fixing them: adding color and images, scratching those out, and continuing on. I am sure everyone says this, but for me it's true: a piece is never done until it leaves the studio. I will just keep tinkering with it until it leaves the premises.
What is your studio like? How much time do you typically spend there?
I have one of about 12 studios at this great gallery called Helikon. They do a great job of supporting artists without being intrusive. I get there for a few hours every week (which is not enough), but it has to do for now given that I have full-time work and two little (wonderful and needy) boys.
What is your go-to when you find yourself in a creative rut?
What a great question. I have no great answer. Sometimes, I step back and do something completely different: if I am working on a large painting in my studio, I go outside and do a bunch of small, fast drawings, or take some photos.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
The best advice I ever received was not to treat any piece as precious. If I happened to get enthralled with a piece, I usually paint over it or do something to mess it up. The result is always better. For me, lines and color choices are always much better when I am not trying to protect something.
What are some specific challenges you face as an artist? What do you feel like you need most to be successful?
I am always battling my drawing and painting skills - trying to push those to be better so I can get my ideas across in the way I want to.
On that note, what does the word "success" mean to you?
To me, my art is about communication. My pieces start with something I am wrestling with personally - memory, aging, justice, etc, but they are only successful if folks can find something in them to relate to and build on.
Why do what you do? What is the most rewarding aspect of pursuing your work?
It is an incredible gift to be able to spend time working in the studio. It's not always fun but it essential part of what it means for me to be alive.
In addition to Go West!, do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects?
The next series is going to be about the history that has played itself out at the intersections in the neighborhood in which I live: buildings built and torn down and built, great lives lived and cut short, beauty and ugliness, etc.
Find more at willleeashley.com!
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