Published: Mar 9, 2007
By Robin Roger
Just like the monoprints Sam Gilliam is creating at Studio-f this week, the artist is one-of-a-kind.
“I have my own way,” he said as he watched his work being hung in the Scarfone/Hartley Gallery the first week in March.
at work in UT’s studio, he mixed paint with cement, creating a clumpy
texture. Assistants then photographed the swaths of paint and cement for
use in the silk-screening process. The prints Gilliam is making in his
third visit to UT are more singular in color, he said, much more
experimental, than those that came before.
Gilliam is working as
a visiting artist for Studio-f from March 5-16, creating original
monoprints. Unlike a limited edition print, a monoprint is an
individual, original work of art created in a series. The
Scarfone/Hartley Gallery is holding an open house on Friday, March 16,
and the artist’s new prints remained on exhibit through Thursday, March
Gilliam, whose work recently appeared in a retrospective at
the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is well-known for his
innovations in the world of abstract art. His work has appeared in the
Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, The Tate in
London and the Museé de’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. His
commissioned works hang in LaGuardia Airport in New York, the Bank of
America in Charlotte, NC, and the Washington Convention Center.
as the most prominent black American abstract painter, Gilliam has
always had his own way. Associated with the Washington Color School, he
developed a distinctive method of painting on draped canvases in the
late 1960s. In the 1980s, he began incorporating structural elements in
“Art is a great deal like farming,” he said. “You have to farm your own row.”
paints on un-stretched, draped canvases and handmade, hand-painted
paper. He uses photographs as backdrops and adds sculptural elements to
He once had a Tampa family sew together segments of
his prints with heavy-duty stitching, like that found on military body
bags. Gilliam recently started using brightly stained polypropylene,
metallic and iridescent acrylics, plastic and steel.
changes every five or 10 years,” he said. “There are only tears for not
having made it, not knowing who you are. Art has to be about the new to
lead and transcend this time.”
Gilliam attributes his inspiration to masters like Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Barnett Newman and Tony Smith.
“Maybe you don’t make your own work,” Gilliam said. “Maybe many artists collaborate to create it.”
the University of Wisconsin, where Gilliam received an honorary
doctorate in 1997, he said they printed like ice cream. They used so
much ink, it would drip as if it were melting. They often printed in the
dark, and when they tired, they listened to music.
Just as he
paints, Gilliam does not make drawings or sketches before beginning work
on a print. He said he just starts. His process has been called
Like jazz artists jam—experimenting
with rhythm and tone—he experiments with materials, color and form.
Despite his years of experimenting, Gilliam said there is still an
element of not knowing.
“At night you worry, and in the morning you come back and hit it again,” he said. “By now I should know what I’m doing.”
Cowden is making the prints in Gilliam’s third Studio-f session.
Gilliam said he trusts him, because he has worked with him before.
really excited because of his spontaneity,” Cowden said. “I’m letting
go of my printer side, because I’m more of an artist. I can let go of
the controlled situation.”
Cowden teaches art at UT. He works
with young students who don’t yet know the process, so they do whatever
they want with a screen and a squeegee, he said. By working with
Gilliam, Cowden said, he learned to appreciate abstract art. It’s just
as natural as looking at the sky, he added. It’s just another landscape.
“I finally got it,” he said.
Gilliam holds eight
honorary doctorates, including one from UT. He has taught in Washington,
DC, public schools, as well as at Carnegie Mellon University and the
University of Maryland. While working at UT, he answered students’
“Don’t concern yourself with whatever’s good,” he
tells his students. “It’s something that’s been building inside you, and
if you can let that out, that’s pretty good.”
Gilliam looks and
acts like someone’s favorite grandfather with his subtle humor, quiet
voice and graying hair. He hasn’t lost touch with modern culture,
however, and he recommends Hustle & Flow, the hip-hop crime drama
starring Terence Howard as a pimp-turned-rapper.
Tampa have visited him in Washington. He takes them out to dinner and
talks to them about art. He tells them someday he wants to see their
work hanging in one of the galleries there.
“Being an artist is to train someone to go into a very tough area,” he said. “You need to have a good sense of self.”