Artist Q&A with Gregory Thielker
Movement, territory, and memory shape the work of artist Gregory Thielker. He uses drawing and painting, as well as sound and installation, to unpack perceptions and narratives of specific places. Hyperrealistic representation serves as a tool for a slow, meticulous transcription of the physical sites, as well as documentation of the artist’s contact with each place. His images reveal a critical glance, give pause for contemplation, and allow memory to affect our impressions. He has exhibited throughout the United States and abroad. Gregory currently lives in Switzerland.
Who is your favorite artist of all time?
If I have to pick one who has continued to inspire me it would be Gerhard Richter.
How did you become a professional artist?
I have always loved art, but for most of my days in school, I tried hard to do other things. Eventually, the feeling that I needed to be an artist won out. And now I can’t imagine not making art.
What are the influences and inspirations in your work?
I am inspired and challenged by what I see around me. I think this started when I began to paint en plein air, and after I pulled out a canvas, that moment of paralysis when I had to decide how and why I was painting what I saw. For better or worse, I have moved around a lot too; living in New York and different cities in the US, to India, Bulgaria, and now Switzerland. It’s not easy to arrive in a new place, but I think that painting and drawing give me the means to understand how I see things. There is a saying I believe about India: that when you first arrive, you feel like you can write a novel about it, but after a year, you would be lucky to write a sentence. So when I arrive to paint I have a lot of big impressions, but only after time am I attuned to subtlety. I think I have felt under many circumstances whether painting mountain roads in Norway, an ancient city in Afghanistan, or the mountains that divide Switzerland and France. Painting makes me humble for how little I know, even while I try to understand more.
How is your work different than everything else out there?
I think what defines me is the rigor of my process; for going out to discover places in challenging ways, and then meticulously painting those places. Capturing the feel of a place is important for me to paint it, so when I did a project about the US Mexico border, I traveled across the entire border, from Tijuana to Brownsville, Texas, crossing back and forth from US to Mexico. I worked in Afghanistan, going out to find places to paint that were occupied by Alexander the Great and talking with people living there today. Even the paintings of rain on a windshield are developed from many hours of driving and photographing under all conditions, because a fraction of a second means a radically different view because of the changing water, road, or light. I love many kinds of representational paintings, but I see a tendency to use images taken from Google, and it can seem like a meaningful choice because of the sheer number of images out there, but those images were taken by someone else, and then sorted by the search engine or algorithm. Perhaps because painting is slow, I am used to the idea of needing to be in a place longer to develop a way to see and paint it.
When is a piece finished for you?
I both enjoy and struggle with the process for making a painting. Towards the end, I try to both hold onto the flash of inspiration that I felt at the beginning, and also to perform a kind of triage for shaping its final form. A piece is finished when I can look at without feeling an unspoken distraction that I need to resolve something.
What’s different about your current body of work?
At the moment, I am adjusting to life in Switzerland. I started making small drawings and writing every day. Then no matter what, I feel I have accomplished something in the first part of each day. Afterward, I can work on some longer projects where I have a few different things going on. I’ve been painting views of the natural settings around me, but doing them as black and white watercolors, first as a positive, and then as a negative image (with all the tonal values reversed). Each image then has two versions, and I enjoy the process of having to reimagine each image as its opposite. Strangely, some views of snowy mountain peaks or rippling waves look realistic and believable in both the positive and negative versions. The result is that I am forced to rethink the way I see nature around me.
I also have been going back to an older series of oil paintings of views through the car windshield. I have done these paintings for years, but each time I restart the series, I try to take on new challenges so each painting is different. While the perspective of being in the car feels familiar, I observe how the roads are also built around features in the land- having to zig-zag up a mountain, or snake tightly through a medieval city with narrow streets. I think that perspective will add new drama to these next paintings.
Tell us about a few of your career highlights or moments that have greatly affected your career?
In a lot of ways, the moments I am most proud of in my career came about unexpectedly. I think when I finished grad school, I thought that being a ‘successful’ artist would be marked by specific milestones I had seen other people achieve. But the special moments for me have been things I could not have imagined. I received a Fulbright fellowship after twice being rejected and then I was fortunate enough to use that grant to live and work in India for two years. The experience of living there as an artist and meeting many talented artists there changed my whole way of working. Likewise, I was fortunate enough to receive a teaching position while still living overseas and then spent time with many talented students. I had small moments of pure joy when working in El Salvador and doing dozens of live portraits for school children. And, just when I thought I was feeling far away from the art world, I suddenly had the chance to live in New York City. There I did solo exhibits, group shows, and several surprising public projects that each felt like a new challenge.
Just last year, I was heartbroken to leave New York, and that was in February, just before everything changed because of the pandemic and lockdown. I arrived just before everything changed, and being in a small town outside Geneva, my time these days is spent with family and going out to find new painting experiences in nature. It is entirely unexpected, but also deeply meaningful, and these days, I am more attuned to living moment to moment.
What’s coming up for you?
These past months I have been playing around with the idea of paintings installed outdoors as their final form. I would like to extend this idea even further, with small exhibits held in the forest or on the beach that only last a couple of hours and only be seen in person at this time or in documentation. I also want to start giving away small paintings in the sites that inspired them, revealing their locations through GPS coordinates like geocaching, but for artworks. This kind of personal interaction with art feels appropriate for the moment.
What advice would you give to an artist just starting out today?
My advice would be to think about what you can do well and find a way to reveal that with others. Today, I think that it is easier than ever before to be in charge of the way you share your work- and I greatly admire many young people on social media for bringing art and the process for making it more transparent and available. I think that finding your own voice is vital, and being careful not to listen to others who tell you to play it safe, but rather think about ways of responding to your own situation when opportunities manifest.
Who are some of your favorite under appreciated artists that you don’t think get enough attention?
At the moment, I find myself entranced by the idea of art in a specific place or time- I like dancer/choreographers Joy Isabella Brown and Mike Tyus. I still also find myself deeply emotional about painting and these days that includes Lars Lerin, Kathe Kollwitz, Franz Gertsch, Jungjin Lee, Zane Tuca, and Dike Blair.
To learn more about Greg and his work, please visit www.GregoryThielker.com.