Untitled: An Interview with Gillian Tobin

“Had any bad customers lately?” I teasingly ask Gillian Tobin, as I arrive in her studio in downtown, Kansas City. Tobin works as a server at an unpretentious restaurant in an artistic neighborhood called The West Bottoms. She likes her job. It provides her with a flexible schedule that gives her enough time to make her artwork. Though the artist holds two graduate degrees (an MA from Eastern Illinois University and an MFA from Washington University) and a BFA (from the Kansas City Art Institute) she has chosen restaurant work over teaching. The fact that her job and her studio practice are entirely separate allows her expansive creative freedom. She doesn’t have to use artistic achievement as a tool towards the attainment of tenure, promotions or status within the academic community. Instead, she can make the uncanny, irreverent and emotion-saturated painted objects that intrigue her, and resonate with sensitivity and awkward honesty. By separating herself from traditional expectations of career advancement, she advocates for a life in which creativity and its enigmatic expression in painted form is its own reward.

Tanya Hartman: What is your version of success in the studio?

Gillian Tobin: When I was a freshman in college, on the very first day of class, my teacher said to us, “Half of you will never make art.” Aside from the fact that his words were demoralizing, I knew that they were not true for me. I want to keep making work for the rest of my life. I want to be a lifelong student—whether it is making art, writing or producing objects. Making art is always what I have done. When I was small, I loved to sit at the kitchen counter and draw while my mother made dinner. Later, as a teenager, as my family watched television, I would draw. So the act of making art is associated with comfort, with being turned inwards in a safe and generative way. The act of drawing calmed my mind and was a form of meditation. I define success in the studio as continuing to create, pushing into an arena where an “ah-ha” moment can happen. Establishing a feeling of security in the studio, and the immersive concentration that results from feeling at ease, leads the artist into the unexpected. And surprising yourself creatively is a very important form of success.

TH: What is your studio routine?

GT: What I have been trying to do is to leave little surprises for myself so that I have something to discover when I get back. I have been trying to write a small paragraph about what I was thinking each day – what I did in the studio. I also try to write thoughts that will inspire me the following day such as what the strengths were in the work that day. So, first I look to my writing. Then, I mix acrylic paint, rubber, latex, different adhesives, charcoal dust, Quik-Crete, and pour the mixture out onto plastic sheeting. It becomes these very flexible paint skins. In recent ‘pillow forms,’ I have filled the paint skins with Great Stuff (a commercial spray foam insulation) so they dimpled and expanded. They reference the body. There is almost an equal dividing line between how much I control and how much I don’t control in the studio. By reacting to what I can’t control, I navigate new terrain.

TH: What do you want to give to the viewer through making your work?

GT: A combining of unusual materials speaks to my feeling of being made from disparate parts. Each of us is unique, contradictory and it is difficult to reconcile all the aspects of any personality. I think a lot about “parts to a whole,” and the illusion of “wholeness.” No one is whole, but we each try to find some sense of comprehensiveness in our lives, whether through family, travel, creativity, whatever. Even that we live until we die is a form of completeness, a cycle accomplished. But we don’t see that. We see death as loss, rather than as a natural cycle completed. So there is perfection in the awkwardness of life that I try to reiterate in my studio. I want my forms to be uncooperative and truthful and to carry emotion. So they are like human beings.

Posture is also something that I think a lot about—how to give an inanimate object a “posture” that is self-aware. I like the stances that my objects take to be precarious. That something might fall apart or lose its bearings brings emotional vulnerabilities and qualities out of the form. The foam that I use to fill the forms spills out sometimes, or is tightly contained, also like the inner life. And I try to reference certain colors that you would find in the domestic sphere such as cream, beige, pink and then I intrude on those colors with black, or blue because it just seems natural to do the opposite. It is always a natural rhythm to pair oppositions: hunting vs. hibernating, sleep vs. wakefulness, empty vs. full etc. I try to make all the contradictions of life into tangible, visual metaphor.

TH: Can you share an example of the written notes that you leave yourself in the studio?

GT: (reading) “Be poetic! Poetics are far more seductive than theories and facts.  Sadness can only exist with its opposite…joy, happiness, contentment. The trick is to leave surprises for yourself. There will inevitably be a failure or success, but you’ll learn something from both. “



Images courtesy of the artist.
This interview is published in partnership with PLUG Projects. 

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