Nat Meade’s paintings depict subject matter that varies from the elevated or beatific, to the buffoonish or absurd and often explores male archetypes. He received his BFA from the University of Oregon, MFA from Pratt Institute and attended the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture. Meade grew up in Portland, Oregon and now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
I start with an image: a photograph, someone I notice during the day, a scene from movie, often a memory. I make several small studies on paper, basing each study on the previous one as in the game Telephone. I pin the successful studies to the wall and use them as references for the final painting. As with the works on paper, the painting goes through several iterations. I cover the canvas with color, scrape it down and work back into the phantom image. I do this over and over. I reduce and make the forms tangible to my eyes while zeroing in on the parts that sparked my initial curiosity. My subjects are meant to be elevated and beatific and at the same time buffoonish and absurd. In my childhood home was a woodcut of a bearded Walt Whitman. When I was a kid, this simple image with its triangle nose and series of dashes for a beard loomed large. It looked just like my dad, and in my head the image was both God and father, which at the time were probably the same thing. My work deals with this kind of elevated personage and its frailty. There is something in my pared-down heads that is aspirational and dumb, specific and general. The scale is small and unheroic, yet the statue like figures with their long beards and gaping mouths appear monumental. Eyeglasses, cigarettes or collars humanize the figures and attach them to our world.
Q&A with Nat Meade
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Nat! The edges and corners of your stretched canvases are very precise! Do you make your own stretchers? How do you prepare the linen?
I am a materials nerd and could talk all day about that stuff. I have my stretchers made. Recently I have been using stretchers that are one inch thick. It just feels right for the scale I am working on. Not too thin, not too thick, but also impossible to find on the shelves of an art store.
I like an inch and a quarter for bigger paintings, big for me. No so big, 30 to 34 inches. I size my linen with rabbit skin glue and add titanium pigment and paint directly on that.
The color scheme and overall texture of your work is uniquely your own—have you always worked in this way? How did you arrive at this process?
I look for coarsest surfaces I can find. A rough surface slows down the process and keeps things general. When you read the painting, there is a deliberate quality; you can see where the paint has been dragged or where it is built up. I have discovered this rough hemp fabric that is perfect. I build up paint and make lots of changes. I add and scrape and cover up. The surfaces are very matte, the color pretty high key, lots of pink and yellow.
I arrived at this process and these materials through trial and error. I want a surface where the decision-making and history of the work are apparent. We have certain associations with a worked-over surface and I like that this becomes a factor in the painting. Something to reaffirm or undermine.
Can you walk us through your overall process for making a painting?
I play around with loose ideas in a sketchbook. At this stage I am trying to get to something that is compositionally interesting and quirky with my characters and subject matter. I take these loose notions and work them out on paper. I use thick watercolor paper and have lately been working with casein. I do a lot of sanding and covering up. The drawing in the work is more or less set, but I want to discover possibilities within these basic parameters. When I paint on canvas I work off of wherever I left on paper and see where the painting ends up. The works on paper and the works on canvas are different steps in the process but feel equally important.
Can you tell us more about what interests you most about the exploration of male archetypes in your work?
Perceptions and expectations around being a guy are changing. I wonder what a male archetype is at this point. So much of the male image was, at one time, tied to occupation and region; that seems to be fading and now there is this element of self-invention and artifice. In one sense there is a real crisis and in another I think, “Get over it.” Whatever the case, we are all dealing with it.
What does the cigarette represent as a prop in your paintings?
My paintings have a shallow, dioramic space. I like that a cigarette juts out, almost like a knife in a still life painting. It serves as an entry point and aspires to break the picture plane. There is the potential for an orange circle and a semi-transparent scrim of smoke.
It is something familiar, and of this world, but pretty open ended. Like a character in a movie, cigarettes allow my figures to be doing something. In that sense the cigarettes really do act as props.
Scale seems to be consistent in your paintings as well as works on paper—what draws you most to this smaller scale? Has this always been the case for you?
For the most part, I work small. I have made a few big paintings but not for a while. I am currently working on some bigger canvases- around 30 to 34 inches. It feels pretty foreign to me but it is probably good.
I am interested in the physical qualities of a painting. I like the type of engagement that a smaller painting invites. Texture, edges, material, they all becomes vital to the experience of the work. A small painting invites you to look closely and consider the whole thing. A small painting eludes the heroic, there is no room for bravado and big gestures.
I am a big guy hunched over a little painting on an easel; there is something funny about that.
You were awarded a studio as part of the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program in DUMBO last year. What was the experience like?
It was great. It was reaffirming to be named by a program that has honored so many amazing artists.
I had a huge studio with great light and a year to crank out work. It was all very motivating and productive.
There is a consistent color scheme across many of your recent paintings—what do these colors and their relationships evoke for you?
My work has strong directional lighting. I choose colors that uphold a luminous quality even in the shadows. So yellow becomes orange and green in the shadows and pink becomes violet. That is the main motivation.
There is also the challenge of creating an image that uses bright colors and is also hazy and set back. I want a sense of hazy luminosity.
Your most recent series seems to toy with a somber but almost-humorous tension—is that in the ballpark of what you’re after?
Yes. It relates to working with this false notion of masculinity and male archetypes. I am interested in the crisis, the groping for identity, the anger, the fear, the vulnerability. It is in one sense real and heroic and in another self-defeating and pathetic. It’s funny and it’s sad.
Can you tell us a bit about your materials? It seems like you favor casein and oils—what keeps you coming back to these two?
I like for a painting go in unexpected directions and both casein and oil can work against you and provide nice surprises.
Casein has this matte, crusty, opaque quality that I like. It also dries quickly and is somewhat unforgiving, it allows me to work quickly and think through the process. Casein mimics oil in some ways.
Oil is versatile and at the same time full of surprises. I often cover a painting with a transparent layer of orange or green and work into it. I get murky or pull out and resolve area—I like the back and forth. The transparency, the opacity, the different qualities that are specific to a pigment, there is always something to discover.
What is a typical day like for you?
My days are varied. I work as an administrator and teach and have a family so my schedule is full but I have been very fortunate in that I am able to dedicate a good amount of time to my studio practice.
A typical day in the studio—I get there as early as I can, usually around 8 but earlier if possible. I make coffee and get to work. I usually have 4 to 5 hours in the studio. If I am lucky I can put in 6 or 7 hours.
Who are some of the artists that have influenced your work the most?
Forest Bess, James Ensor, Edward Hopper, Domenico Gnoli, Ben Shahn, Charles Burchfield, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Jacob Lawrence. I recently discovered Co Westerik.
What are a few of the stimuli or experiences that get you really excited to get back into the studio, particularly if you have been experiencing a spell of tepid inspiration?
I get a lot of inspiration from movies, music and looking at paintings. Inspiration from a movie can come from a compositional moment, the ways a shadow strikes a face. I’ll keep it in my head, or make a quick sketch. It serves more as a motif than something I am trying to emulate-one face casting a shadow onto another or a shadow splitting a face in half.
Music and movies might simply bring up a mood that I would like to convey through painting.
Just getting a way from the studio can be motivating. Ideas come to me and I think about the form they would take as a painting.
Is there anything that significantly supports or destroys your groove or energy in the studio?
I hate arriving late in the day and don’t work at night unless I absolutely have to. In the past, I would arrive at the studio at 5:30 or 6 AM and would still, if I could. My head is clear in the morning, I have focus and the world is quiet.
I have limited studio time so there isn’t much procrastination once I arrive. I think about making paintings all the time and rehearse things in my head so I am anxious to get started.
Sometimes something will come up with one of my kids. My older son has a neuro-genetic disorder called Angelman Syndrome and he needs advocacy from me and my wife. That can kill a morning in the studio, but it is more important.
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc. that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
One of the great things about working at an art school is there always is that I am surrounded by interesting, creative people. I’ll find a reading on the copy machine or someone will hand something to me or tell me about a book or movie. So I have this wonderful source of inspiration.
I watch a lot of movies. Hal Ashby’s ‘The Landlord,’ John Huston’s ‘Fat City’ and Charles Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’ are three of my favorites. All three had a profound impact on me.
Right now I am reading Pugilist at Rest, a collection of short stories by Thom Jones.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
As an educator I am often reflecting on advice I encountered as a student that actually stuck with me. Three things come to mind.
My undergraduate professor, Ron Graff, told me to stop taking figure drawing classes. He said if I get any better at drawing the figure all I will be able to do is teach figure drawing. That sparked a young me to think that there are more important things than facility and technique.
During a studio visit in graduate school, Alexi Worth talked about painting my weakness or making my weakness my thing. I took this to mean my perceived weakness, or that thing that you are embarrassed about that might also most closely represent who you are. Rather than hiding it, run with it but with open eyes.
The last thing came from discussions with the artist couple Miki Carmi and Tami Bentor during a residency. They brought to light certain insidious expectations for artists. Expectations in the art world that are seemly benign but are actually oppressive and in a way quite conservative. It is something I think a lot about.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of your career as an artist so far?
I have spent a lot of time trying to get to a place where the work felt personal, unique, ambitious and my own. I made a lot of bad paintings and have tried to fit into shoes that were not my own. At the very least I learned from these experiences. Becoming a good painter takes time. I am glad I allowed myself the time to develop. I am now in my early 40’s which in one sense feels old but in terms of being a painter feels young, like I am just hitting my “mature phase.”
How does your environment, whether it be geographic location, community, surroundings, etc. affect you and your work?
Access to art, museums and a stable of contemporary painters is important. I don’t get out as much as I would like, but it is a nice option to have. I have amazing friends in New York. They challenge me in different ways. I still love the diversity of the city, the types of people, the newness and the traditions. I can’t say what the direct impact is but there is a lot to this place that motivates me.
I wonder how my work would change in a rural environment. I think I would like it.
How do you navigate distraction in the studio and in life?
One of the reasons I like mornings so much is if you get in early enough you can beat the distractions. And if things go wrong there is the rest of the day to fix them.
I schedule my studio time each week and do everything I can to keep this time open. Once I am there distraction really isn’t an issue. I get to work and the hours fly by.
Favorite studio snack?
Black coffee. Peanuts from the bodega. I can pour them into my mouth so I don’t have to touch them with my painty hands.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
I am currently in a group show with a great group of painters at the Galerie Eigenheim in Berlin. I also have two upcoming solo shows, both in Oregon. One at the Froelick Gallery in Portland and another at the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland.
Thank you so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Nat and his work, check out his latest show at Froelick Gallery here.