Briefly describe the work you do.
I work in mixed media, though my emphasis is on collage.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
My undergraduate degree is in illustration from Auburn University, and I went to graduate school at the University of South Carolina in drawing. While I was at Auburn I took an astonishing biology class, and was really interested in the way the class used diagrams and other ‘information graphics.’ I came to see those images as having a kind of authority that my drawings didn’t have. That led me to using those images in my own work – an attempt to co-op some of that authority. Initially I would make collages from textbooks and other sources, and then use them as the sketches for drawings. Eventually I realized that the collages were more interesting than the drawings, and my focus has been on them ever since.
There are some facts from my life that bleed into everything I make, of course: I’m in love; I’m Southern; I was raised Catholic; I have three beautiful kids.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
The most significant inspiration for me is the materials themselves. A lot of paper is very beautiful, and the way that it carries its history with it is really moving. Paper is almost like a body, the way that it ages, gets scarred, bears the marks of what has happened to it, who has owned it and how they used it.
You have to love the materials you work with. There’s no point in trying to be a potter if you don’t love clay, and I just love paper. I have a studio full of it – sheet music, prayer cards, maps of the Crimean war, seed packet labels, 19th-century French wallpaper, diagrams for building a kayak, reports from the national botanist to Congress, health textbooks, weaving patterns, Uyghur manuscripts from Mongolia, old snapshots. Hunting down the paper artifacts I’ll use is a significant part of my studio work, though it doesn’t take place in the studio.
I like to think of myself as cooperating with the images I use, the way an elementary school might make use of retired volunteers. Each image has already had a full life, with a very specific job to do. The collage elements bring those previous lives with them into the studio. Sometimes I collaborate with that previous life, sometimes I push against it, but I am always conscious of it.
Sometimes I have an idea for a piece first, and often that comes from something I’m reading. I then start hunting through my studio for the right fragments to give it form. Often, though, I’m struck by how lovely or strange or moving a particular scrap of paper is, and it will suggest a direction for a new piece of work.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I didn’t intend to be a teacher. Graduate school gave me the chance to try teaching, and it turned out to be a good fit. I love talking about art almost as much as making it, and teaching gives me a chance to talk about art ALL DAY LONG. And I can do it, too, hardly taking a breath.
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
I don’t make much work during the school year; mostly I focus on gathering collage materials. In the summer I have the chance for uninterrupted work in the studio. Morning is best, after I walk the dog.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
My most recent project centered on the text to Henry David Thoreau’s journals. I’ve been working on the same set of ideas for most of my life, and Thoreau was a natural vehicle for them. I think a lot about how we (as a self-conscious species) manage to be both in nature and apart from it, and how we bridge those sensibilities. I also look a lot at the history of gardens, and at the ways that plant motifs migrate from careful observation to fully contrived abstraction – especially, lately, in textile design and wallpaper patterns throughout history. The home is comprised of artifice, all right angles and HVAC ductwork; the natural world is endlessly varied and riotously disorganized. I think the story of Eden is a powerful assertion of how much we need to reconcile the two. Much of my new work circles around those ideas.
Collage is naturally often intimate in scale. In the last few years I’ve been trying to figure out how to make effective large collages. The jury is still out on those big works.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
Please don’t think of this as a cavalier answer – but where couldn’t I look for inspiration? The world is breathtakingly handsome, brilliant poems continue to be written, my youngest son grows more beautiful by the day and my wife more lovely, there is always new music to discover, my heart beats relentlessly, cellular respiration is a miracle. My ideas often come in the form of language – reading Rilke, or Jerome Groopman in The New Yorker, or Thoreau, or my own inarticulate attempts to tell myself what I’m feeling.
My recent works are inspired by the language Thoreau used when talking to himself. The journal is unpolished – it is clumsy and repetitive and disorganized – but it is nevertheless astonishing. It is the unmediated, often ecstatic witness to his embrace of the natural world. These works are inspired by the vital and fierce interest with which he approached something as simple as a walk in the woods on a snowy afternoon. The language is piercing and beautiful, and gave me so much to think about – and I think best in the studio.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
I was an English major once, for an afternoon. I submitted the paperwork to change, and then resubmitted it to change back, all after lunch one day.
If I was starting over, I might be a landscape architect – it would be nice to know what I was doing in the garden. And I’d like to study pre-Columbian textiles. (And I wish I could sing, but that would amount to wishing to be a different person.)
Billy Renkl (b. 1963) grew up in Birmingham, AL. He attended Auburn University and the University of South Carolina, where he received an MFA in Drawing. He currently teaches drawing and illustration at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN. Billy’s collage work often features fragments of old texts and diagrams, exploring the relationship that fine art has to information graphics, as well as the nostalgia inherent in paper ephemera.
Billy’s work has been featured in many solo and group exhibitions, including solo shows at The Cumberland Gallery in Nashville, Taylor Bercier Fine Arts in New Orleans, The University of Alabama, The Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University, The University of Kentucky, The Tennessee Arts Commission, and the Galerie Neue Raume, Berlin, Germany.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.