by Erin Dunn, Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
My recent virtual studio visit was with Randy Akers, a visual artist who works from his studio located on Skidaway Island. His large-scale paintings are gestural depictions of locations that he responds to―places with inherent history and narrative.
Randy and I had a studio visit planned in February, which we postponed until late March and well here we are making the best of things! I still plan to visit his studio when it is possible because photographs and the digital reproductions of his work limit my ability to see the thick textural surface of his paintings. Randy has been using this time as an opportunity to be in his studio at all hours of the day, creating constantly. He admitted to me that he has been creating so much that he needs to make himself stop and take a step back to examine what he has been working on.
In addition to myriad other topics, Randy and I discussed his motivation for painting certain sites which he believes stems from his background as the son of a family that lived in poverty during the Dust Bowl. His dad was train hopping at the age of 12 after
losing most of his family to the 1925 Tri-state Tornado. He said that he adopted the American “can do” attitude of seeing something and attempting to fix it. He added that his drive to paint is also in opposition to the rigidity of technology, which he dealt with often in his past career in film production. For many years, Randy worked in the film industry and then as a professor in the Digital Media department at SCAD and has now come to call painting his full-time career.
In addition to our video conversations, Randy answered several questions that I submitted to him via email a few days prior.
Erin Dunn (ED): Can you speak broadly to your artistic process of identifying a location to paint and how it goes from a place you are drawn to and eventually becomes a large-scale mixed media work?
Randy Akers (RA): In identifying a location I am interested in, I ask:
“What are people doing for a living here? How many people exist in one house? How do they relate to the land? How much money does a household live on? What about education and healthcare? Did they stay there all their lives”?
The possible answers have led to sites composed of simple houses, farms, or neighborhoods usually in disrepair. Of course there is rust, peeling paint, broken windows, and rotting wood. These sites have been discarded for better economic growth and less conflict somewhere else. You see, I know something about these kinds of fading places. My parents and grandparents came from poverty and lived blue-collar, ramshackle lives…survivors of the Great Depression. I mean dirt floors and baths once a week on Saturday nights. I have visited hundreds of these sorts of places and all hold a continuing fascination. The commonality is that all the shelters are simple shapes usually made with mostly hand tools. Rooflines and front porches remain important and nearby towns always have a main street.
These locations were visited, then sketched, photographed, remembered, or discovered in some kind of archive. The structures become the focus of paintings and represent lives passed over…dreams extinct. Usually halfway through the concocted art, the paint process takes over. Color has its own direction and new variations suddenly appear. Chisels, electric sanders, grinders, drywall knives are brought out to redefine the image. Marks disturb the surface. Redos are evident, occurring over and over again. Construction lines show scars of false beginnings. Buildings stretch or shrink, windows and doorways are added or subtracted, darkened or lightened. Shapes are reduced. Skies are bigger, smaller, grayer or brighter. Color and composition is the new boss. I am only the interpreter and assembling all the responses of these disparate buildings from Oregon, Illinois, New York, Florida, Morocco, Mexico, Portugal, Germany, Italy, New Mexico, Wyoming, Georgia, the Carolinas, etc.
ED: In some of your writing you speak about the painting process as if it has a mind of its own- “The applied paint refuses to stay in the line.” Can you speak more to this push and pull between yourself as the painter trying to record a specific place and the painting process itself?
RA: Unlike most painters, I paint flat not vertical and mostly on my own constructed panels. The paint follows contours and crevices and gravity (with a little help from shims) informs the flow. I start with a small 2 x 3 inch thumbnail sketch of the idea or location. Really it is a “chicken scratch” that takes only a few minutes to do. I may do several and pick the best. Sometimes the sketches are based on photos I have taken of chosen locations or were done on site. I then try to reference only the sketches going forward and refer to the photos only for general information. Most times I think those little small sketches are better than the final product because of the loose interpretation and spontaneity. Those sketches serve as my bible going forward.
I chisel lines into the paint describing construction lines, measurements, and shapes. Those marks purposefully disturb the paint surface and create imperfections. At various points throughout the process other tools are used to alter the paint. The above mentioned, belt sanders, grinders, or drywall knives. Sometimes combs and homemade trowels. About halfway through the process, the original image has started to disappear, and the paint begins to take over “and refuses to stay in the lines”. Gravity and the force of water alters the reality. The remaining visual scars are important to me and reflect our own personal scars, imagined and real. Color and shapes begin to change as does the composition.
ED: In addition to the layers of paint, are you building up the texture on the surface of your canvas using additional tools and methods?
RA: I start with a ground of acrylic tile adhesive or grout. This is followed by a couple coats of gesso and then water-based bitumen, which is really asphalt. This will leak and bleed into layers further applied over it. I work Chiaroscuro from dark to light and thin to thick.
ED: From my perspective, your work seems to convey both a softness and hardness that maybe stems from an impressionistic application of paint juxtaposed with the more geometric adherence to lines. Do you view your work as working with these contradictory elements?
RA: Most times there is a contradiction in terms. The paint application processes gives the paint a softness and decay, but yet the subject matter is usually geometric. For me it’s a nice juxtaposition. The impressionist quality you refer to keeps the imagery much more personal, painterly, and gestural. The rough and the smooth.
ED: How much does your studio location on Skidaway Island influence your work?
RA: I am very fortunate to have commandeered our garage for my studio. I just installed a water source and now have HVAC system. This has changed my work life dramatically so that I can work year round in this space and at any time of the day. Skidaway Island is a wonderful place to work and sometimes, I will have the large garage doors open. However, the places I paint are from other countries, or sites that I have visited. Most recently I have been working on a Morocco series from a trip there last summer. I have a residency coming up in a. stone pre-famine house at Cill Rialaig, on the coast of SW Ireland, Fall 2020 that will certainly influence next year’s work.
Thank you, Randy, for answering all my questions and I look forward to an in-person studio visit in the future!
This studio visit is affiliated with Telfair Museums’ #art912 program, an initiative dedicated to raising the visibility and promoting the vitality of artists living and working in Savannah through exhibition opportunities, public programs, and outreach.