“You need to practice, practice and practice some more”
Frederick Wilcott knows the importance of having a good art teacher. Having benefited from excellent guidance himself, he is now passing his knowledge to the next generation of artists. After all, the world can always use more art!
Please tell us about yourself, who you are as an individual and what you are currently doing:
Well, first and foremost I am a professional artist. I work in many different mediums and genres from drawing and painting to sculpture. But my real love is abstract expressionist painting in mixed media. I am also a fine arts educator from early childhood level through to adults. I have been an arts educator since 2000. I feel it is vitally important that artists like myself find a way to educate students in some way, be it through formal schooling, workshops or as a mentor. If artists do not pass on what they know then arts will stagnate.
Currently I work daily in my studio here in Kuwait with works on paper and canvas. I have been exhibited locally here at the Den Gallery, along with other great local artists. I am also a full time arts teacher at a local private school teaching grades 4-12 in all genres from drawing to sculpture to ceramics.
Tell us about your education:
My education in arts really began as a young boy. I loved to draw and paint and when we had art class in elementary and middle school it was always my favourite subject. I graduated from the American School of Kuwait in 1988. During my four years there I was very fortunate to have an excellent art teacher who made sure in our curriculum that we worked in as many mediums and genres as possible. She recognized that I had a level of skill and creativity that, with a little help, could be pushed and fostered so that it could be a career path in itself. In my final year she found many art colleges for me to choose from and helped me to find one that was suitable for my needs. I am a graduate with distinction from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco/Oakland in my home state of California. Studying there was a great experience. I had instructors who were giants in their respective styles from urban/graffiti, photo realism, abstract expressionism and post-modern figural. I learned a lot from them and that has helped me in my own work as well as how I instruct others. Some of the things they said did not affect me at the time, but I mentally held on to their words. Now, almost 20 years later those ideas are finding their way into my work and in the advice I give to students young and old.
Was there any particular instance in your life that brought on your love of art from such a young age?
Well, my family was a big help. My parents and sisters are very creative people and I was never dissuaded from making art. There was always an atmosphere of creativity in our home. My father encouraged me to go to museums to see work of all styles and as a child I absorbed this into my being. I had an early understanding that art is a part of the human condition. We have to make it. It’s part of every culture on earth reaching back more than 10,000 years. I was never told that I should choose an occupation in more lucrative fields like medicine or business. I was told that if art is where I want my interest to go, then that’s fine and to pursue it wholeheartedly.
How and when did you come to Kuwait?
I came to Kuwait in 1984 at the age of 14. My father, like most Westerners, was transferred here with his company. When I arrived, I had never been abroad before so Kuwait and its culture was the first time I encountered a completely different way of life. I never felt intimidated or afraid. I met neighbourhood kids where we first lived in Yarmouk. We all loved football so we had a common ground for friendship. Then at the American School I quickly made friends that I still have to this day. The experiences I had growing up here stayed with me even when I returned to the US. I always wanted to come back here even after university. Finally, fate made that a reality in 2014 and here I am again.
For those who have a hard time understanding abstract art, what is it?
This is simultaneously a simple yet complex question to answer. Arshile Gorky, the Armenian-American painter, I feel summed it up best when he said ‘Abstract art is the emancipation of the mind. It is an explosion into unknown areas’. Abstract art is a way of painting that is limitless. There is no one style because there really aren’t the academic rules of the past in art today. It is for me the only way to work. All the elements of art put together in very complex or equally simple ways make for great abstraction. This is why artists like Picasso, Kandinsky, Miro and so many others are all still considered incredible and valid. They all worked in realism, but eventually they wanted to say something else. Just merely painting something to make it look real wasn’t satisfying enough. They and abstract painters today, want to show you what is going on inside our minds. We want you to look at how materials are used, the marks we make, feelings we evoke by our colour choices or shape choices, our line qualities. Sometimes very bold and sometimes very subtle abstraction requires the viewer to forget reality and come with us on a visual journey.
Why did you choose abstract as your creative style of choice?
Well in essence I became bored working realistically. It wasn’t satisfying for me anymore to just make something representational. Viewers liked the work, but for me, on the inside I felt as if I were just making pretty post card pictures that didn’t express any feelings or possibilities other than what they showed on the surface level. As one of my instructors said, you must give viewers a lot to look at, a lot to consider. Something representational is fine in and of itself but it cannot be something more, whereas abstraction gives the artist the freedom of going in limitless directions. As artists, we can only hope that the audience can make that mental leap with us; to come with us on this journey of seeing differently. It is a struggle, to be sure. Many viewers feel as if there must be a hidden message or perhaps they’re being fooled. Letting go of the need to know exactly what you are seeing is difficult for many people and I understand that. But it’s like Magritte’s painting of the pipe, which of course is not abstract in form but in idea. He literally says in French, ‘This Is Not A Pipe’. Of course it’s not! He wants you to get that it’s colours and lines merely shaped into a form. Similarly of Jasper Johns’ paintings of the American flag. Yes, in just seeing it, it is a flag. But conceptually it’s just a colour/line pattern of design and that is what he wants you to get.
How has your style changed over the years? Did the Kuwait influence make any major changes to your style?
Well, as I said I wanted to make a style shift from realism to abstraction. Like most artists I wanted to grow and being in Kuwait affected that shift. I was visiting Kuwait in 2011 and I was talking with an old friend about my dissatisfaction of my work. He simply advised for me to change completely, make a blank slate and go in a different direction. I suppose because I was inside a bubble of my own making that I did not think to do this. On one level I was afraid that I would lose the audience that admired my realistic style but life is about taking risks and chances so I returned to my studio in the US and completely changed. No sketches, no careful renderings, no looking back. I just jumped in, feet first and went for something new.
How and where do you find your inspiration?
That’s a good question. Many times it feels like any other business or job you are into for yourself. It’s an internal feeling of ‘I should get something good done today’. That sounds rather mundane but once I begin my thoughts start to flow and it becomes the usual exciting, risk taking adventure it always is. Sometimes it’s actually competitive like athletics. I see another artist make something really fantastic and my ego kicks in and I say to myself ‘I can do something better’. Other times, it is literally like a lightning bolt; an idea, a rush to get to the studio, get the materials prepared, lay down the initial drawing. It’s a very mad rush kind of thing!
What is your creative process like?
Well it goes along with how I am inspired really. If it’s just beginning a piece of work for a job I take my time preparing the surface, be it paper or canvas, and laying out the tools and materials I plan to use, all the while listening to music to get a feeling or a groove for when I finally jump into the work. But more often it begins with picking up a thread from a previous idea or a photograph I took. I love photography, particularly close ups of textures, patterns and discarded things but put in a non-representational composition. I don’t necessarily attempt a recreation of that thing but I try to pick up on why it interested me. Once I am in the flow of the piece or series I am working on it is the genuine joy of art making. Working from instinct and intuition; rapid fire of what colours, marks, textures, types of edges, inclusion of text or numbers, everything! I know when it’s going the way my gut tells me is right and that is what I listen to. I don’t answer any phones or messages. I can’t stand interruptions during my work time because I might lose the pulse of what I’m feeling. This is why I’ll work for 8-10 hours without food or a break of any kind. It really is the joy and passion of working that is the art. The finished piece is a by-product of that effort. If a viewer likes it that’s great, but I always wish they could have seen the piece come to life.
Who have been some of your biggest influences?
Well when I was a younger artist I suppose the big names like Van Gogh, Turner, Whistler, Picasso, Magritte, Miro, Braque, just to name a few. But I never really wanted my work to look like theirs at all. However, I admired their works and their lives making it through to be accepted as working artists. During art school years I really began to love the works of Jasper Johns, Sam Francis, Philip Guston and Giorgio Morandi. I also really began to love the lore of how Americans in post World War II really took the nexus of the art world and repositioned it firmly in New York City. It had been in Paris for too long and was stagnating there. I guess maybe it’s an American thing; we like to see ourselves as creators and innovators. When you read about it, it was an exciting time to be working. I still find that influential, although art really has no capital anymore. You don’t have to be in New York or London to be informed of what’s going on.
What is the most challenging part about creating abstract art?
For me it’s knowing when to stop. I have a regular job teaching, a new born baby and a fabulous and supportive wife. All of those things need my attention so carving out work time has become a little more difficult. With regard to the creating of work the most challenging thing is the creeping in of other artists ideas. I like to see the work of others but the subliminal intrusion of someone else’s work is tough to avoid. I never want to steal or mimic somebody else but in many ways it is inevitable to a certain degree. For example, I like to incorporate numbers and words with multiple meanings but I’m definitely not the first artist to do that. It’s how you incorporate those things that makes it truly your own.
What is art to you?
That’s a tough one. I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it! Art works on so many different levels. I can see Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ which I feel is a masterpiece and tell you it is art but I can just as easily be in love with the children’s illustrator Eric Carles’ work. It is so full of spontaneity and love for pattern work and textures but it’s also art. However, I do struggle with a lot of conceptual art. Maybe I am just old school in that way and that’s my failing. I want to be open minded and avant garde enough to get it and accept it as art, but sometimes I just shake my head and walk away. I kind of liken myself to an old blues musician. You need to practice, practice and practice some more. Live through hard times in rough places. Those experiences will make you a better artist.
What is your favourite genre of music to listen to while painting?
In general, classic rock musicians – I’m very American that way! Bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Doors and Hendrix just take me to another place mentally and my mind can work well along with those sounds and ideas. Having said that, classical music can do it for me as well, particularly the deep, moodiness of Beethoven. He was such a deep thinker and great writer of music; often I will have him on my headphones while working. Also, I’d have to say that the jazz giants of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ahmad Jamal and Dave Brubeck are all coming through in my artwork. Jazz of that type is the aural equal to abstract expressionist painting. Motifs, rhythms and tempos that are just fantastic to hear.
What do you want others to take away from your work?
I’d love it if people could sense the care of the marks; the complexity of the edgework; the feeling of seeing a great composition and knowing it. It’s easy to spot poorly made art but to see something that has been made by mustering all the emotion one can in basically pushing pigments around a piece of paper or canvas is something we as humans should still be doing. More should be going to museums and galleries; really taking the time to look closely and see more. Did you know that the average person looks at a work of art for a mere 3 seconds before moving on? That’s a shame. Our world, of course, is based on quick sound bytes and moving visual clips but we as humans should slow down, be quiet and look more deeply.
What are your conditions for painting?
In the daytime I’m fortunate to have great natural light that illuminates everything very well and true to life. In our previous home it was more difficult. We had this amazing view overlooking the sea but it was a real distraction! But late at night is my favourite time. I am a night owl by nature. The world is asleep but I’ve got headphones on as loud as I like. No-one is going to need me while I am in my zone and a lot of my best pieces were made between 11pm and 6am.
How significant are the titles of your works?
Well, quite significant to me. It’s ridiculous because most of my titles are so obscure that no-one but me would make the connection so I don’t get offended if viewers don’t understand the titles. But many are just simply untitled. I take a lot of titles from the music I hear. A turn of phrase or the way it was said can deeply influence my work.
What single action is fundamental to every single work?
The initial charcoal drawing is essential to each piece I create. It is the skeleton or the armature upon which the painting develops. Some are simple line drawing. Others are much more complex with a lot of shading, blending, subtraction through erasing and action with blending tools.
What has your experience of teaching art to children and adults been like?
Teaching is a wonderful experience for all ages I work with. Children are fun because they aren’t limited; they are game to try any material, as long as they’re having fun and feel in a safe environment they enjoy it. It’s great to show them things they have never seen before. In many ways it’s like being a magician because no-one else they know can do what I do. I have influenced kids who are now grown and are still in contact with me. Some went on to careers in the arts and some took art courses in university because of my influence on them as children. I’m very proud of that.
Adults are fun to teach as well, but often require more coaxing and reassurances. Somewhere in their life insecurity affected them. Maybe a teacher, friend, parent or classmate told them their art was not good and that stays with a person. The beauty of abstraction is that it isn’t necessary to be able to draw or paint. The only requirement is the willingness to try. The most difficult thing is knowing that I can really only teach students how to use the materials. I can show you my examples along with examples from art history and I can tell you how to create but in the end, I can’t teach creativity and intuition on what will make good art. That must come from within the student and unfortunately, not everyone possesses that. Just like not everyone can be good at math or science. I suppose as close to teaching creativity I can get is to establish an atmosphere of the feeling of safety to try anything. Knowing you are in a place where there is freedom to try new things is very liberating for the student.
How would you describe the art scene in Kuwait?
Well I suppose I have to say that I’m happy there is an emerging art scene happening here now. It’s encouraging. I’ve seen some really interesting work at Den Gallery, The Hub and Dar Al Funoon. I remember in the 1980s there really wasn’t anything happening here. If you weren’t painting dhows, camels, falcons and portraits you had little chance. But that makes sense, it’s what people know and part of the culture. I remember living in Nevada in the US and every gallery was wall to wall horse and cowboy art. It drove me mad because it wasn’t even very good and people were paying thousands for it. Nonetheless, it is great that there are galleries here now in which people can see a really mixed variety of styles. But I do feel there is a major problem. There is a trend in the Gulf as a whole of repetition in art. I see lots of artworks that are not quite copy/paste but fairly close to it. I don’t know why that is. I’ve talked with other artists about this and they see it too. There is plenty of talent here and quite enough money to get trained by the best. Maybe it’s just because the Gulf countries are still in the growth phase of arts culture but I feel that as more and more people go beyond the Gulf and see what’s out there, they can return with good ideas and create new and better art. It’s an exchange of ideas. Not simply buying and bringing it back but influencing younger artists here to think beyond what they see here. They must find their own voice and push it to the limits and further.
Another thing that the arts culture here in Kuwait needs is a culture of critique and review. Major newspapers, journals and magazines in the West have art critics that go to exhibitions and review them for an audience to read. Just as theatre, films, music, literature and restaurants are reviewed and critiqued so should art. No artist wants to have their work written about poorly, but on the other hand just saying that work is ‘good’ or ‘nice’ is not helping the artist nor the audience they are trying to reach. If an artist is not constructively critiqued he/she is living in a fantasy bubble and perhaps won’t grow to achieve new and better ideas. In the real art world not everyone is going to like you and be polite and kind with their interpretations of what you do. It can be a rough business. I can remember in art school we had an instructor who was just savage in his critique of student work. We lived in fear of this man and the humiliation he would rain on student work. However, over time we realized that his comments were made to actually help us; to make us go back into our studios and challenge our skills and intellect. That is when artistic growth occurs. For some artists it was paralyzing. For others it was a shock to the system and spurred new and better ideas.
What is your favourite museum or art gallery and why?
That’s a difficult question because I’ve been very lucky to go to most of the major museums in places I’ve travelled. I have been to some really stellar galleries around the world, particularly the Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco. I think I’d have to say the Prado Museum in Madrid is my current favourite. My wife and I toured its collection recently. It was a truly amazing experience to see so many of the great works that I’d only seen in textbooks or slides my whole life. I really enjoyed seeing up close the way Goya painted. I stood in front of his work ‘The Third of May’ for at least an hour. It was so moving, such an example of brilliant painting. The colours, tones, line work, expressions on the faces were just brilliant.
If you could give an aspiring painter (who wants to be a professional artist) any piece of advice, what would it be?
Never, ever, ever focus or get into art for making money and fame. It is not and should never be the focus of what you do. The making of art is why you do it. You focus on the practice. Like a professional athlete, the more you practice, the more you do, the better you will be. And be prepared for hard times. Be prepared for rejection. Be prepared that someone with less creativity and talent will get noticed before you. Galleries are a business and they promote who they think they can sell. It seldom has anything to do with how talented, creative or innovative you are.
Your message for us at CP magazine:
I want to say thank you for the opportunity to present myself and my work to an audience that may not know who I am and what I am doing in my studio. I hope to exhibit more of my work here in the near future as more and more galleries get to know me. It has been a great experience to answer these questions and I hope I encourage someone yet to try abstraction to give it a go. Find a workshop, take a course in Europe or just try on your own. You never know, you may find you love it and want to do it more and more. Our world can always use more art to look at. Thank you very much.