Q&A with Thomas Gleaner
For those who don’t know your work, can you describe your artistic approach and creative process?
As long as I can remember I’ve been drawn to visual art that incorporates some form of text. This can be anything from ancient Chinese calligraphy to Barbara Kruger to Nina Chanel Abney. During my years in undergraduate art school, I felt self-conscious about incorporating so much text in my work because it felt like I was relying on it too much to carry the composition. I finally cut myself some slack and just let it happen –– fretting about it was just burning precious time. Everything I do is derived from my artist’s books. To date I have completed 63 handmade volumes that contain over 8,000 pages –– much of which consists of narrative collage and painting. Often times there is just a whisper of an entry that sparks an independent body of paintings, sculptures, or performance.
Have you been able to find inspiration and think creatively during this time? If so, where and how?
“Inspiration” is a tricky concept. My father instilled in me a strong work ethic. While I remain grateful that, I realized early on that work is the essential ingredient in any creative endeavor. The only difference is that regardless of how creative I get in building a chair, it still has to function as a chair. Art (in all its manifestations) remains unencumbered by such expectations. Art only has to be itself. So, to answer your question, I just keep working and remain grateful in the process.
What are you working on right now? How has the pandemic affected your work?
I continue to work in my books at home. At the studio, I’m developing a series of 8-by-4-foot paintings that incorporate lyrics from popular songs that over time have morphed into common aphorisms. First two will be “Everything is everything . . . ” (Ms. Lauryn Hill) and “You can’t always get what you want . . .” (Rolling Stones). What attracts me to this idea is that millions of people know these songs and I still have my own individual connection any time I hear them. In the spring I was about to go into production on a text-based sculpture that was to be fabricated in mirrored stainless steel. The company I was working with cancelled any projects that were not affiliated with essential industries. I moved on to other things over the summer and am now circling back around to this work. I’ve long been intrigued with the idea of viewers seeing themselves reflected in the tangled words, so I’m looking forward to realizing this piece soon as I’m sure it will lead to more.
Walk us through your daily routine when working.
I generally get up pretty early and walk our dog, Bear. We live near the Mississippi River, so I make sure it’s part of our route. Now that my sons are distance learning, I stay home to help with that and by early afternoon, I’m in the studio where I try to get in 5-7 hours on average.
What’s on your reading list?
I’m hooked on Audible and one of my best investments has been in noise-cancelling headphones. It’s so easy to get lost in stories and the things I’m working on in the studio. Not every book is a winner, but I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed the memoirs “The Chiffon Trenches” by André Leon Talley and Sally Mann’s “Hold Still.” I’ve read Shunyru Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” so many times that my copy is held together with a rubber band. Although if any of the Zen teachings had really taken hold, I would just accept its fate by letting it fall apart and blow away. Alas . . .
What’s on your watch list?
I just finished “The Queen’s Gambit” and found it just brilliant. I’ve been re-watching all of Wes Anderson’s movies. My sons tee up an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 about once a week and they are steadily working their way through all 639 (to date) episodes of The Simpsons on Disney+ . . . “Doh!”
What’s on your listen list?
Fatboy Slim has been making weekly “Lockdown Mixes” which have been fun, but generally my tastes run the gamut so I balance the old with the new. For the latter, Pitchfork.com is a pretty good starting point for generally keeping up to speed.
What role can artists play during a time like this?
Whether the resulting work is overt, subtle, or subversive, artists have been chroniclers of their times. What we know of the earliest civilizations is through fragments of decorated utilitarian objects and embellished cave walls. With the current pandemic, widening political divide, and the ongoing fight for social justice, artists of all disciplines are distilling the collective aspirations and tensions through their own personal lenses. When we look back on the art of this time, I feel it will be from a better place.
What have you changed your mind about recently?
I’m still deliberating with myself on this, but I’ve tempered my feelings about my sons’ online gaming with their friends. While I think they spend too much time on it, I empathize with the fact that they are deprived of being together right now. Many of the games they play involve teamwork (like Minecraft) and from what I can hear, they are all pretty civil and cooperative. I was pretty feral as a kid and would be out all day on bikes with my friends.
What is your greatest indulgence in life?
Doing what I do, but it would not be possible without the support of so many friends and family. So while I may consider pursuing my work an “indulgence,” I know now that it is my authentic self and I treat my attention to it with great responsibility.
What piece of your artwork would you like to be remembered for?
Hopefully that work is forthcoming.
What do you miss the most from pre-pandemic days?
Flying, concerts, and hugs.
Please share a link to something we should all see or know about:
Jack Whitten’s 2015 talk at the Walker Art Center. So much wisdom and everything one needs to know about what it takes to be an artist is in here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6ndpItObJU
Which artist of the past would you most like to meet? And why?
Since he passed away almost three years ago, I would like to meet Jack Whitten. I would ask him more about his feelings on “the southern sensibility,” quantum physics, and barbeque. As for anything pertaining to his process, he was always very generous in describing exactly how he made his work –– as if he was daring you to try and do it half as good as he did. He was a giant with swagger to boot.
Have you ever had a moment when you questioned your career entirely?
Actually, I did just before reading this question. (Self-doubt in any creative endeavor just comes with the territory.)
Why do you love what you do?
I have to believe it’s the never-ending search coupled with an unquenchable curiosity. As accomplished as he was, the late blues virtuoso B.B. King said toward the end of his life that he had yet to make the sounds that he had always heard in his head.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
If I had to choose one it would be when I was awarded the inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Art+Architecture at UNCCharlotte. It came totally out of the blue and right about the time I decided to re-dedicate my life to making art after 16 years as an arts administrator. I accepted the award in honor of my late father who left school in the seventh grade to help support his family. He was not exactly a man of letters, but he taught me some of the most important lessons in life.