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Evolutionary Painter Makes Mark on UT Campus

Published: March 09, 2007
By Robin Roger
Web writer

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.

Later, 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 29.

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.

Described 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 his paintings.

“Art is a great deal like farming,” he said. “You have to farm your own row.”

Gilliam paints on un-stretched, draped canvases and handmade, hand-painted paper. He uses photographs as backdrops and adds sculptural elements to the surface.

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.

“Art 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.”

At 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 “informed improvisation.”

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.”

Carl Cowden is making the prints in Gilliam’s third Studio-f session. Gilliam said he trusts him, because he has worked with him before.

“I’m 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’ questions.

“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.

Students from 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.”