By Anita Malhotra
Portland, Oregon artist and musician Eric Stotik has been exhibiting his strikingly imaginative and technically accomplished paintings for more than three decades.
A graduate of the Pacific Northwest College of Arts, his works can be found in museums and private collections in Portland, Seattle, Washington, Utah, New York and Berlin. In 2011, he was awarded the Regional Arts & Culture Council Fellowship Award in Visual Arts, which enabled him to create a 45-foot-long circular painting that was featured at a solo show at Portland’s Laura Russo Gallery in September 2013.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Eric Stotik on Saturday, December 7, 2013 at the Laura Russo Gallery, where his works were being featured in a group show that ended on December 21.
AM: I understand that you grew up in Papua New Guinea. What was it like growing up there?
ES: My parents were missionaries so we were in a privileged position vis-à-vis the rest of the society and we had a lot of freedom from their social strictures and from American social strictures. It was ideal – it was rural, very little electricity, no heated water, and just wild. We could leave the house and walk up a river all day and play. It was like the movie Swiss Family Robinson – where this family lives in the jungle and the kids are free to play.
AM: Were you interested in art or visual images as a child?
ES: Yes. The way my parents had their work set up is they would stay overseas for five years and then they would go back to the United States for a year. They would put a map on the table and we would all decide where we wanted to go. And on that transition we would go to Hong Kong or Hawaii or Mexico City or wherever, and they would always take us to museums and factories. So we were exposed to a wide variety of cultural and industrial stuff. All children draw, and some just abandon it, but this helped me to keep drawing.
AM: When you were creating art in your early years, where did you get your inspiration?
ES: I would say it was probably European Renaissance drawing and maybe painters like Goya. For instance, my parents live in St. Louis and they have a huge Max Beckmann collection in St. Louis, so as a young child I saw all those. It was that kind of humanist suffering – that was where I always was.
I remember in high school I did all these paintings that had dismembered bodies pulled apart with ropes – really goopy oil painting with bugs stuck on them and everything. My parents would put them in their living room and their guests were appalled. I was so amazed that they accepted them, so it was license for me to not shy away because they didn’t shy away from the subject matter.
AM: What is it on an aesthetic or emotional level that appeals to you about that style of art?
ES: It might be in part growing up in boarding houses – there’s a memoir that Somerset Maugham wrote about growing up in a boarding school. It’s cruel. So there’s this dynamic of kids becoming crazy and wild to each other. There was a pecking order, like chickens. It’s like Lord of the Flies. These kids are just left to their own devices and it goes awry.
AM: What brought you to Portland?
ES: When I graduated from high school in Australia, I had offers to go to universities there, but I was not a citizen so I had to pay. And then I had a U.S. passport, so I had to come back here. My sister had come back a year before me and all my family would end up moving back here. I applied to the art school because I didn’t have to take the SAT to get in. So I just did their portfolio, their application and sent it. I got accepted, so I moved here.
AM: What was your experience of studying art at college?
ES: It was sort of an era of discovery and finding different artists, so there was a lot of discovery of imagery early on. I remember the first show of the German neo-expressionists in the United States in St. Louis. It was figurative art that sort of had reappeared. And so we thought, “This is a good sign for us, you know – some affirmation of being a figurative artist.” The instructors at the time had cut their teeth on Jackson Pollock and the kind of ascendancy of American art after the war. They were pursuing that agenda of the modernist trend.
AM: Where have you exhibited over the years?
ES: I exhibited here in three galleries – the Jamison Thomas Gallery and then PDX Contemporary Art, and then here at the Laura Russo Gallery. And meanwhile, these galleries had shows that scattered around the west in L.A., Utah, Idaho, Washington, and some museums there. I think PDX sent some to a figuration show in England. And some of them were peddled to art dealers, who then resold them in various places like Germany. The other gallery is the Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago – I’ve been showing there for five years or so.
AM: I understand that books are your main inspiration.
ES: It seems like books are my primary source for pictures and information. I read a lot of non-fiction and my family reads a lot, and we share books, and it’s been a huge part of the churning of the ideas. For instance, a book I read last weekend was about Negro cowboys in the West. They talk about this man who invented “bulldogging,” where you take down a steer. He would jump on a steer, twist its head up in the air and grab its lip with his teeth, and then let go and drag the cow down. He invented this art and he became extremely famous – travelled the world doing this. So things like that spark my imagination for imagery.
AM: How did you develop your drawing technique?
ES: I worked as a security guard at the Portland Art Museum for many years and I did mountains of drawings then. But then I stopped – I just drew from my imagination. Lately I’ve been trying to do Celtic knots. They’re really elaborate interlaced knots and often have one line. It’s pictorial art – like Islamic design, in a way. I’ve also done scrimshaw, which is etching on bones. That requires an immense concentration and pressure to dig through there, yet hold a fluid line.
AM: You have also painted on saw blades. How did that come about?
ES: I was doing construction once and I was using a saw and almost cut off my hand, and after that I was nervous about the sawblade so I took it off, took it home and painted all these skulls over it – it was like some child’s attempt to sort of tame the foolish thing. And then I thought, “This is a local, regional form, so maybe I’ll just do this but I won’t do the traditional nature scenes.” So I did a few of those, and then people started giving me sawblades, and I ended up with a mountain of sawblades. I worked through a few of the ideas I had and then left that behind.
AM: What other materials have you used?
ES: I’ve been painting on every possible surface – paper, wood, veneer. Kind of opportunistic, depending on what comes across – what people give me. Paper, mostly. After I got out of school I mostly stayed with acrylic paint because of the chemical aspect of thinners, and for a while I started getting rusty tin cans out of the gutter, and I thought, “I bet I could make this garbage saleable to some high-toned person.” So for a while I did that as a lark.
AM: A lot of your paintings are untitled. Is there a reason for that?
ES: I think it might be the same reason I don’t have any tattoos, because I don’t think in five years that I will appreciate the title. The naming of something is so powerful that I just can’t tend to it exactly. I do name maybe 10 percent of them because the genesis of them is so particular that it’s important for me to have people know.
AM: Many of your paintings are small. Is that just because of resources or the size of your workshop?
ES: It was really a practical decision because it’s economical – there are storage issues. When I started making a bit of living on it I could leave and go live in another town and mail a show in an envelope. And then there were periods where I got connected with a larger space and then I would do large work for a while, and if something happened, then I would just work at my kitchen table. And so I haven’t had a studio proper ever.
AM: A few years ago you won a fairly substantial award that enabled you to make the large-scale work that was exhibited at the Laura Russo Gallery. How did that come about?
ES: There is a regional arts council in Portland that does a fellowship for all the different disciplines, and they’ll do literary one year, film, visual art, and they stagger them. It’s not a project grant – it’s a pat on the back for all the years that you’ve worked and the work you’ve built up. When I got the money I felt like I needed to be the steward of this public money. I couldn’t just go take a vacation, get a new car and maybe buy a whole bunch of canvas. I had to actually make something and present it back. So that’s what I did. I rented a space that was large enough to do this and started working on it. And I did three separate large paintings that could be the anchor for the whole thing, picked one, and then kind of improvised the whole painting. I never did see it together until it was exhibited because I didn’t even have enough space.
AM: How much time did you spend on it?
ES: I did it like a job. I went there from 8 to 5 every day.
AM: Where did you get your inspiration for that work?
ES: That was a complete improvisation for me, so I had no idea where it was going to go. And then when the time was coming to exhibit it, I just wrapped it up. The whole intent was for it to be circular, so I forced the two ends together by painting a pile of debris in between the two ends that kind of interlock and weave the two ends together.
AM: Were you using any illustrations as a basis?
ES: I used lots of photographs from books. My wife was in the book trade. We know a lot of book scouts and they give me a lot of books of pictures and photograph books. I’ll pore through medical books and pick out various medical instruments, or I’ll pick out faces or poses or partial scenery from books and then use some of that and make up parts.
AM: One of the works you made around the same time and actually has a title is Quetzalcoatl. Tell me a bit about that painting.
ES: Quetzalcoatl is the Aztec name for God. We were in the anthropological museum of Mexico and the form of God coming to earth has these arms coming down and the feet up. So this is a collage of all medical tools, and the tension is that it seems like they’re for torture but they’re all for health and healing.
AM: Your paintings remind me of photo collages.
ES: I think that the work is constructed in the same way. I find a photo of somebody and use part of it but I’ll translate it through drawing and painting, and then put them together. And then rather than cutting it all out I can just paint them together. The composition is somewhat similar as if you’re making a collage like that.
AM: You’re also known for your CD cover art. Tell me a bit about that.
ES: Some of the cover art was music that we made that was being released and needed artwork. There were a bunch of obscure bands. And then people – peers that I played with – asked me to do stuff. There was one time when Warner Bros. came and said they wanted to do something and I said, “I would have to hear the music.” I did, and I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t like the music very much. My dealer was livid.
AM: Are you working on something now?
ES: I’ve been working doing commercial construction for the last 20 weeks or so and it’s just too exhausting to me, so I’ve been doing other things. For instance, I’m trying to grow some rootballs. I have these really small little trees that I found in our yard. They’re now seven to 10 years old and I’ve been growing them in pots. Not really art, per se. I would never bring it into the gallery and say, “Here is this rootball that I’ve made.” And in our yard, we have a cherry tree that has suckers that have come up, and so I’ve been getting a couple and trying to weave a spiral. So after three years I’ll have this spiral stick that I can cut off. So that’s what I’ve been doing, and then playing guitar and writing songs. That’s also a big part of my creative life.