Briefly describe the work you do.
I make paintings, drawings, and works on and out of paper that operate slowly and emphasize materiality. I work with a range of subjects in groups or series, exploring content that is more or less a reflection of my thoughts or research at the time of making. I also make prints and artist books.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I came from an artistic family – my mother had gone to art college and worked as a painter and printmaker, and my older brother is a talented draughtsman. Our house had their work throughout, and I remember feeling like they were both capable of magic when I was a kid. Both of my brothers are musicians, which is how I identified myself for the first part of my life.
In fact, growing up I really desired to make and write music more than anything. I’ve begun to realize how important this has been to my development as a visual artist. I was not a kid who spent all his time drawing or painting – although I was crafty and loved making things with my hands. I did spend a huge amount of time playing piano, and the experience of spending focused time alone, expressing myself with my hands helped me transition naturally to the study of art when I began studio classes in college, which I essentially fell into. Once I began I just didn’t stop. Like a lot of artists, I was an awkward kid that had difficulties relating to other people – music was my preferred method of communication. Visual art, by the time I found it, offered new possibilities to me, as well as a community of like-minded makers, and I threw myself into it with verve.
But going back to the piano for a second — so much of my work now is really related to very specific surface qualities. I am always thinking about touch – my own touch when I am making the piece, the way the piece “touches” an viewer, the perceived surface that touches the eye…. All of this relates back to the piano for me, which is an instrument based entirely on touch.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
A lot of my practice falls right in line with those traditional notions. I have a studio in my home that is very conventional in its layout and design – I spend a lot of time in it working with pencils, paper, oil paint, canvas, panels, brushes….. These things still hold enormous potential and fascination for me. I see myself very much a part of long and ongoing history of people working quite seriously with them to turn the contents of their mind into physical objects, as a means of making sense of the world.
I’m fortunate enough to teach at a college that has wonderful facilities, and make use of them to create my own work as well. All of my print work happens in the shop at school, and I made use of the large tables and drying racks recently to dye a huge batch of mulberry paper. Working in this shop is a very different studio experience – like all print shops in schools, it’s a public space that is shared by artists. This context can be a great foil for me, as it gets my out of my home studio and interacting with other people in relation to the work. My students are great for getting feedback as well – I work with them everyday, and have a very thorough understanding of what their sensibilities are.
But I’m also interested in changes of scenery or working environments as a way of changing up the work itself. I try to take work with me wherever I go, and draw and paint when I’m on the road visiting friends or family. Although the specifics of a place don’t necessarily end up in a piece, the energy of the place can.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I believe it’s the artist that enlarges our ideas of the possible in every aspect of lived experience. On some level this is what makes us tick – it’s a shared commonality of thought and an important role. It’s sounds so silly and naïvely romantic to say, but there you have it.
In my experience, artists tend become comfortable with nonlinear thinking early on, which contributes substantially to the above. Most artists I know are also suspect of immediate solutions, slogan culture, groupthink, neo-tribalism….. the list goes on. It’s a deeply political way to live one’s life, when you get right down to it. So many of the logistics of being an artist (lack of money, time spent alone, notions of success) are so contrary to the conventionalities of society that to do it at all is in essence an exercise in resistance. This resistance, or “pressing back on reality” as Wallace Stevens would say, becomes the artist’s reality.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
This is a question that I feel like I will answer differently every, week, month and year of my life. But the short answer is this: I figured out long ago that the only way I could really do this was to work everyday. “Work” may vary greatly from moment to moment, but I stick to that no matter what.
During the summers, I fall quite nicely into a routine of getting into the studio mid-morning, and working through into early evening. And I could do that daily for the rest of my life – I’m someone who really works well with a routine. I used to work a lot at night, but mostly I’m a day painter now.
During the school year is another story, and I continue to work daily, but whenever I can. Weekends of course are prime studio days for me. I find that I begin and finish work on the weekends when I have long stretches of time, and keep the work moving along during the week in the afternoons or evenings. The quality of work time is also dependent on whether I’m drawing, painting, or assembling a larger piece – I’ve become very good over the years at making the work in between the necessities of life.
I should mention that I teach 5 days a week at a college an hour away, and although I do have lighter days on campus than others, 2 hours of every day are spent in the car. Mercifully, my commute is low-stress and I’m able to get a lot of thinking done about the work during my drive, which has kind of become a studio in and of itself. I always keep a sketchbook with me for those inevitable flashes of insight that happen– I make a lot of notes and quick drawings in the car. Recently I’ve been bringing small drawings, with me wherever I go, and working on them in odd moments. Office hours, over lunch, even during my classes if my students are fully engaged with their own projects. I just recently finished some drawings I started on a camping trip earlier this year, and I painted in my hotel room while staying in Paris last May on a school trip. I’m an every day kind of maker.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
5 years ago I was in my second year of graduate school, so my work was changing quite a bit.
The work has become quieter in a lot of ways, less personal, more poetic, more abstract. I used to make large assemblage paintings about really specific personal experiences – now I feel that I’m working more with the essences of those experiences. The work I’m making right now touches on privacy, anonymity and intimacy, but my interest in those ideas came out of a personal uneasiness with social media. I don’t know that that corollary is visible in the work, but I’m not certain that it needs to be.
I made a large installation piece, End of Silence, that was really a watershed piece for me – it was the first time I’d explored subtlety on an epic scale, and although my intentions behind it were personally driven, they were explored in a way that was so much more evocative than descriptive. Everything changed after that. The work became leaner, “slower,” as I like to think of it. The figure has crept back in this past year, but won’t stay for long.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
I have a lot of artist friends I’ve met over the years, whose work I admire and whose opinions I take seriously. I try to be active in critique groups to keep a structured dialogue going outside of an academic setting. My best friend is a writer and works in nonprofits completely outside the visual arts, but we’ve been close friends for almost fifteen years. She knows my mind and my work better than anyone, and she’s a great sounding board for ideas – we’re on the phone twice a week, at least. I also still keep in close contact with some former professors of mine.
I read a lot, and I gain a lot of energy from writing that attempts to articulate unnamable or fuzzy states of being– Virginia Woolf does this, and the amazing Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Some others: Wallace Stevens, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard, Wislawa Szymborska, Mary Ruefle, Jorge Luis Borges, Federico Garcia Lorca.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
I’m sure I’d be making music.
Brian Hitselberger (b. 1982) is an artist living and working in Athens, Georgia.
His work has most recently been exhibited in group exhibitions at ATHICA in Athens, Georgia, Dalton Gallery of Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, Barbara Archer Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, The Contemporary in Atlanta, Georgia, and Cabinet in Brooklyn, New York. In 2012, his solo exhibition Many Times But Then was exhibited at Greenville Technical College in Greenville, SC. He has held residencies at the Elsewhere Artists Collaborative, the HUB-BUB Arts Initiative, and the Hambidge Center for the Arts. He received a BFA in Printmaking from Tulane University in 2005, and an MFA in Painting from the University of Georgia in 2010. He is currently Assistant Professor of Painting and Printmaking in the Art Department of Piedmont College.
In addition to his studio practice Brian maintains Two Steps Press, an artist/writer collaborative imprint producing chapbooks and limited editions.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.