• 10 Questions for Artist Tm Gratkowski

    1.) Tm Gratkowski-Profiling Suspicion_2011_paper on paper_44inx60in_$6,500 framed.AF: Tm it’s a pleasure chatting to you about your art. First of all, what made you become an artist?

    Tm: Thank you. Well, I know it sounds like a cliché, but when looking back on my life I feel we are born with that sense of wonder and the challenge to express ourselves as we discover the worlds we are exposed to. Fortunately for me this sense of wonder and invention was not lost on me. I had a very creative and intelligent family who supported me and encourage me in whatever I chose to do. This allowed me to develop an intense passion to appreciate and develop my creative skills. I may have not followed through with this path if my family did not encourage me through. I was surrounded by music and art my whole life. My mom played the piano and made art, my dad played the drums (polka). The rest of my extended family was also involved in other creative interests and professions. All this definitely influences your choices, especially when you are encouraged to do what interests you and makes you happy.

    I think I consciously was aware of the meaning of appreciating and making art while looking at my mom’s drawings. She could really draw! I started by copying her drawings. They were amazing and I guess I wanted to make other people feel the same way my mom’s art made me feel at that age; I think I was 8.

    I tell this story now; because that is the time I became aware of art on a personal and emotional level. It wasn’t until much later, in my adult life, that I realized this is all I wanted or could do. Then the serious choices became very real- how to make art as a career and survive. Not an easy choice. It’s something I think most artist question, but again I don’t think what I do now is an individual pursuit. I do it with the continued support and encouragement of my family, girlfriend Tiel, and friends.

    In a sense I became an artist because I wanted to make other people feel what I was feeling and I knew it was more than just about me, it was about sharing and expressing my ideas, and a community sharing in that experience with you. I wanted everyone to experience that sense of wow I got from my mom’s drawings.

    AF: What’s the first artwork you ever sold? 

    Tm: I’m not sure… I think it was when I was still in undergrad… a large mixed media painting I did from my first group show. I had 7 pieces in that show and it was one of two large pieces called “Blue Dot” 48″x60″.

    At the time I was doing mixed media pieces which I would later transition out of until all I was left with is paper, but that wouldn’t happen for another 12 years. Even then I was starting to develop a language that I would develop further throughout my career- the expanded definition of ideas through recontextualization. At the time I was focusing on how images and materials could change our initial impressions depending on the adjacent context they were held in comparison to.

    Thinking about this now, in reference to your question, I think the sale was the start of thinking that I could really cultivate an audience that liked what I was doing. It also gave me the quixotic idea that maybe I could survive as an artist and make money doing it.

    5.) 678_2012_paper on 678 3inx3in wood blocks (created in 678 hours)_53inx255.5in_$20,000.AF: You mostly work with paper. Any reason why? 

    Tm: Paper is free. It’s everywhere, filled with color, images, text, etc… it’s an untapped pallet of resources.

    I started using paper in art school when I was doing a lot of mixed media works. Art supplies can be expensive and as a way to be resourceful paper was, of course, free. Over time and many years after graduate school I slowly used less and less other materials.

    At this time I was doing small mixed media pieces on paper lunch bags and I had a moment when one of the pieces had no other material but paper. I recognized that the layering of paper and the printed material/ graphics on the paper still had the look of my mixed media pieces- in essence I was painting with paper. It was at that moment I saw the potential to create works only using paper. I immediately knew that if these small 9″x 4-1/2″ paper bags could still hold the same interest and sophistication as larger pieces I could be on to something. I immediately set out to create a large 60″x42″ piece. It was a success and at that moment I’ve never looked back and only use paper in all of my work.

    AF: What is your inspiration for your new or current work?

    Tm: My work is process driven so it can develop in unexpected directions. Because of the many different papers I use, magazines, posters, etc… there is usually a lot of text buried within the composition. I reveal specific words and vignettes of images which puts more focus on the works subject. The text or words have usually been in the background in support of the images, but now I’m trying to make the work specifically about a single word and use that as the dominant compositional piece and subject matter.

    I’m currently doing research looking for words that are cautiously used in public be may be used more liberally in private. This word or words are charged and loaded with many interpretations. Right now I’m focusing on censored words or words that are typically not considered appropriate for most conversations. Language is still censored here in the US as well as other countries where the language used by its citizens is stifled. In extreme instances writers, poets, and journalists can be incarcerated, or worse, in some countries. I’m not focusing on censorship, but more about the language of meaning and understanding. I feel there’s really just a thin grey area between all the black and white of understanding. My work tries to look at and explore ideas in this grey area.

    At this point in my process I’m looking at various ways to have words in high contrast or high relief (my work can have hundreds of layers of paper) and at the same time blur them or rearrange them so the word itself isn’t immediate at first glance. I like to find ways to take a difficult or challenging subject matter -in this case words- and present it in a way that allows people to get close enough to a subject they would otherwise ignore or pay little attention to. By doing this I hope people will see challenging material with more sensitivity and begin their own thought process to consider things with an open mind. This I hope will facilitate a conversation and sharing of information so a bigger universal understanding may take place. Ultimately it’s about the image (the art), but my art is filled with a lot of content and meaning so I search for ways to blend the two.

    3.) Tm Gratkowski-Apathetic Empathy_2011_paper on paper_44inx60in_$6,500 framed.AF: What should be the ultimate purpose of Art?

    Tm: To communicate (ideas).

    I should just stop here, but…

    To avoid any myopic specificity to an ‘ism, I think Art should make you feel something; this is not to contradict myself and say that the purpose of art is to make you feel something.- It’s not. The experience of looking at art is both visceral and intellectual. This experience is, of course, different for different people. Art will always change; how we see it, how we make it, and what it means to us. Art takes on many different forms; visual, binaural, written, performance, conceptual, etc… I think the viewer/audience should walk away from art thinking, considering, and/or talking about some kind of change that took place because of what they just experienced. No matter how small the change, there should be a change. That change is facilitated by some idea being communicated.

    The critic Michael Brenson, in a recent roundtable discussion “Creativity and Commerce” (printed in Art in America, May 2013) asked, “If conversation rather than encounter is now the primary model for the museum experience, how do museums imagine conversation?” I think that question could easily be turned back on artists and they should be asking themselves how or what is my art trying to communicate? I personally have always believed that art being created for inclusion in (museum) exhibitions should consider how the work communicates to an audience. This is the responsibility of the critical introspection of the artist as well as curators for exhibitions. Very seldom is an artist always able to speak for or about their art. The art has to communicate enough of the artist’s intent/idea without the privilege of the artist’s narrative- even if we don’t speak the same language.

    It could easily have been said that the ultimate purpose of art is to start a dialogue, but in order for it to be able to start a dialogue it first needs to communicate something.

    AF: What was the last show you saw at a Museum? 

    Tm: Richard Jackson: “Ain’t Painting a Pain” at the Orange County Museum of Art (Feb 17- May 5, 2013) and Urs Fisher at MOCA (April 21 – Aug 19, 2013).

    Both shows, I felt, presented art as spectacle. The curatorial/ installation choices bordered on theater on a grand scale. I’m definitely a big fan of presenting big ideas (a spectacle) and leaving viewers with a feeling of seeing something they have never seen and will not forget. Both these shows did that.

    MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAF: Do you have any exhibitions or projects coming up?

    Tm: It’s been a busy year so far with ten exhibitions in six months. I currently have work at SCOPE Basel, exhibiting with Untitled Projects and I’m in two concurrent museum exhibitions: El Paso Biennial 2013 at The El Paso Museum of Art in Texas ( June 1-August 18) and the other is the III Biennial Ciudad Juarez at the Museo de Arte de Ciudad in Mexico (May 31- August 18).

    The only solo show I have scheduled next is in August 2014 at the LA Art Core/ Brewery Annex. It will be my largest solo show as I need to fill 2,000ft of gallery space. I’m always networking for other exhibition opportunities.

    Besides my exhibition schedule, I am always creating in the studio. As I mentioned earlier I’m developing a new series which uses a single word as the dominant compositional feature.  This, I am sure, will lead me in many different directions, so it’s always exciting to be working on new projects- you never know where it will take you.

    I’ve also been playing around with some new sculpture pieces I call “paper-crete”. Since my last solo show at Blythe Projects in LA I’ve been leaning toward ideas of collage as sculpture and various ways to explore this other dimension using paper. For that exhibition I made a 72″x72″x72″ paper chandelier- it became the center piece. I thought to really challenge this idea of pushing further I would try combining it with a resilient material like concrete. I guess it’s a collaboration of materials. So far the forms have been generating a lot of attention and I’m very excited about where it’s going.

    The last project I’m slowly developing as my new epic spectacle is a single/ continuous mile long collage. Actually, I’m developing two different versions which I’m hoping to have at least one of them completed in the next year. Stay tuned…

    That’s great that you’ve been very busy. Can you please tell me more about the mile long Collage you are currently working on?

    I’m always pushing myself to exceed expectations and I’ve done several pieces in the past few years that I felt pushed my art practice and the levels of making larger works.

    It really started with “One” (2006-2007) which is a collage a day I did, on that day, every day, for a full year. It sold before it was completed for my fist solo show in 2007. I then took a day off and started the next one. This was titled “Another One”(2007-2008). This piece also sold. It’s always hard to create and sell larger pieces, but something was working and I felt like I was cultivating an interested audience, so I did another one, but not another “Another One”, but the last one- the third and final year long piece. This one was appropriately titled “Last One” (2009-2010) and true to form it also found another buyer. Each of these yearlong pieces was 365 or 366 (leap year) individual collages on 3″x3″x5/8″ wood blocks and their overall installed dimension was 63″x91″. They were laid out in a grid pattern and in chronological order.

    This whole process got me thinking about how I make art and systems I could set up to achieve larger works without all the continuous/ uninterrupted effort typically used to achieve them.  It was about what you could accumulate over time to achieve something on a grand scale.

    After deciding to stop after “Last One” an opportunity came up at a residency I was accepted into last year at the Huntington Beach Art Center (2012). I was trying to push this idea further and maximize the levels of time and efficiency. I calculated from the very beginning of the residency, until the opening night at its completion was 678 hours. Using a similar format, this time on 678 3-1/2″x 3-1/2″x 5/8″ wood blocks, I set out to create 678 collages in 678 hours! I made it with 2 hours to spare and installed the last few pieces just at the time of the opening. That experience was like running a marathon; you have to pace yourself to get to the finish line in order to achieve your goal. It was an amazing feeling to get through and I learned so much about achieving the unimaginable and pushing myself beyond what I thought was possible- it was exhilarating and educational to say the least. This piece is simply titled 678 and is still looking for a collector.

    It wasn’t immediately apparent to me after this what I was going to do to top this…what was next? I was familiar with some works other artist had done where distance (size) was a major component of the process. These works either push a particular medium or required a committed amount of time to achieve. I was thinking about Robert Rauschenberg’s “Automobile Tire Print”, 1951, which he collaborated with John Cage on (Cage drove the car); it was 16″x264-1/2″. Another piece I was always interested in was Rauschenberg’s “1/4 Mile Piece” a.k.a. the “Furlong Piece”, 1981- 1987, (dimension vary). In 1987, when it was installed at the MET, Rauschenberg was overheard saying to TV reporters that “I may never finish it”… “It may turn out to be several miles long”). I really liked that idea of the endless piece.  Most recently I came across Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Untitled” Print (the map of the land of feeling), 2008-2011, 3’x84′. It is both a push of the print format and medium, but also outside of the artist’s usual oeuvre. There are many others, but these were the first three which came to mind. In a way, the Great Wall of China became another.

    I was interested in examples which pushed a particular material and stood out as an example which challenged expectations. There are certainly many very large works out here, but I was looking at what I could do with paper; in particular, collage. A mile could be achieved in many ways, but “continuous” did not come up as an example having been achieved before, or in particular, as a continuous uninterrupted collage. And so the planning began.

    I guess I knew that whatever or however I was going to do it had to be Epic. I don’t want to give it all away here, that’s why we go experience art in person, but I will say that I am developing two separate versions. I guess you could say I’m doing two miles. Each one will look and be presented differently. As with most of my work each one will communicate a different experience of how we look at and communicate a specific idea. In this case time, transportation, distance, material, space, and physics will all be factors to consider. We’ve all heard of “a ream if paper” or “a million of… one thing or another”, but to see it in its physical presence has additional potential that the idea alone could not communicate. I guess I want to show you what a mile of paper is in an art world primarily represented in increments if inches. In case you’re wondering, a mile is 5,280feet/ 63,36inches and that roughly breaks down to 14.465feet a day to make. Although I’m not trying to complete it in a year, it gives me a goal to work towards.

    2.)Tm Gratkowski-Belief Systems_2011_paper on paper_44inx60in_ $6,500(framed)AF: What are your other goals?

    Tm: Goals?… so many. A new Dealer to best represent my work. I guess, right now, my goals as an artist are focused on museum exhibitions and a wider audience/collector base. I think most artists are just trying to make art. I’ve always been focused on trying to establish a career as an artist and will still be around in ten more years, and that’s no easy task.

    The romantic idea of being an artist has changed. The paradigm shift in defining what it is to be an artist isn’t a single definition anymore; it’s multifaceted and complex at best. It’s more like being an entrepreneur. Artists now need to take on the responsibility of being an artist by sustaining their careers in other ways outside of just making art. More commonplace now are the necessary opportunities needed to sustain your studio practice by finding some other means of income… teaching, second careers, random jobs, starting another business, etc. This compounds the difficulty of being an artist when you have to sacrifice that time with career, family, et al. I try to do anything I can to afford myself as much time as possible to make art and all that is needed to run my studio practice. I guess, you could say, my short term goal is to find enough time to make art and my long term goal is to sustain a relevant career. If only art were just about making art.

    Outside of just financial responsibilities there are so many variables that need to fall into place and most of those are out of my control; i.e.: the global financial markets, the condition of the art market, dealers, collectors, critics, press, art-market trends, the popular-“ism”-of-the-day, etc… The choices I personally make are all based on constant exposure for my art, delivering consistent and relevant good work, and to be as reliable and professional as possible. Only time will tell, but I think I have a good work ethic to stay true to myself and my work.

    With that said, I just get as much exposure for my work as best I can manage and deliver interesting exhibitions which push what viewers are expecting. As long as I can keep that going, I’m meeting most of my goals.

     AF: What is the most important thing in your studio?

    Tm: Would it be too egotistical to say me?

    I can’t name just one.

    Top 10:

    1.) My dog Wiley- he keeps me company when my girlfriend (Tiel) is not here. When she’s here, she’s the most important thing in my studio.

    2.) My library

    3.) My completed art

    4.) My current/ new art

    5.) Paper

    6.) x-acto blade

    7.) Music

    8.) My computer

    9.) The BBQ

    10.) My grandfather’s last picture frame hook- still in the original paper package. He was an art framer in Chicago. I guess this is my most cherished item.

    AF: Any advice to other artists who are just starting out? 

    Tm: This just may be my shortest and most direct answer:

    The first thing they need to do is ask themselves what kind of artist they want to be. Then Work, Work Harder, Work Very Hard every single day and Network, Network, Network! Lastly, do not focus on what other artists have done or what your contemporaries are doing now- find your own art and create something better.

    AF: It was a pleasure interviewing you Tm and knowing more about your art. Thanks for your time and good luck with everything! 

    Tm: Thanks Jamie. I always appreciate the opportunity to share my work and the chance to get to talk about it.


    Interview by Jamie Martinez




    Jamie Martinez

    Jamie Martinez

    Jamie Martinez is the founder/publisher of ARTE FUSE contemporary art platform and the founder/director of The Border Project Space. He is an artist using the concept of triangulation throughout his work. His process involves constructing, deconstructing and fragmenting images, data, and information geometrically into triangulated segments. WWW.JAMIEMARTINEZ.NET


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