Collagist GJ Gillespie: Aiming for a “What the Hell” Response
Welter webmaster Rachel McGowan talks to artist GJ Gillespie—whose mixed media masterpiece, “Not Dark Yet,” graces our Spring 2023 cover—about inspiration, literature, box design, and, well, kitty cats. Gillespie lives just north of Seattle. Find his fantastic work here.
Who and what are your artistic influences?
I enjoy the works of the “Northwest Mystic” artists Mark Tobey. Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, Emily Carr and Paul Horiuchi — as well as Italian artist Afro Basidia. I am probably most influenced by Hans Hoffmann and Arshile Gorky.
How did you begin making art?
My wife has always made a lot of art and she inspired me. I started making art seriously in 2014 after reading a book by Camille Paglia called Glittering Images, an overview of Western art.
Are you self-trained or professionally trained?
I took two weekend classes in how to become a serious artist hosted by the Artist Trust, a Seattle organization that promotes the arts. Over the years I’ve taken dozens of art classes at the Kirkland Art Center, as well as some online classes.
What’s your go-to medium or favorite array of media to use?
Mixed-media collage is my signature medium. Tissue paper and cloth help me create imagery that is translucent.
How is this type of collage you submitted (and we selected) done? Is it intuitive? Do you map it out?
Most of my work references art history. Uniqueness is achieved through use of collage material such as colored tissue, dissembled newspaper clippings, or Fred Myer grocery ads. My goal is to create individuations of universal imagery that seem mysterious in new contexts. I like to use layers on top of paper or canvases with a richly textured or marked undercoat. Rather than venturing into a world of totally original designs, I try to stand on the shoulders of giants and riff on cultural icons… My best work usually begins with inspiration from historic imagery.
What is your favorite piece of yours right now?
Right now, I am making portraits of pop stars using layers of tissue and acrylic paint. The tissue creates a skin-like look and feel on surfaces. I started to experiment by covering the portraits in shellac, which is a honey like furniture varnish (something an art teacher of mine uses a lot). It turned out great. Looks old fashioned, antique like.
How long does it take to make a piece typically?
Like other abstract expressionist artists, I tend to work fast. From a few hours or days.
Do you love literature? How did you become a cover artist for so many journals?
Of course, I love literature and all culture. I taught “Interpretive Reading” when I was a college professor—which is reading literature out loud. I am also active as an actor at the Whidbey Playhouse here in my home town.
I have friends who spend a lot of time writing poetry and stories hoping to get in to the journals, so knowing that my art has appeared in more than 90 journals is quite an honor. Eleven of my art images have appeared on covers.
I try to put myself into the mind set of an editor and imagine if my work would look good on a page from his or her perspective. I also try to send the maximum images permitted.
Does literature ever inspire your art?
Usually, art history inspires my art. I often choose titles from iconic songs after I’ve finished a piece, but the meaning is meant to be obscure.
I am aiming for a “what the hell” response from the viewer. Engaging and a bit weird. There are just too many pretty images in the world, millions of them. Art should give us something more. Also, there is an undercurrent of humor in my art. That is why I often include collaged ads or puzzles.
What are your professional goals?
I would like to open my studio for community art walks and studio visits. I would like to get my art in professional galleries. (With a couple exceptions most of my shows are in community venues like libraries, community centers, hospitals or hotels.)
Do you have a day job?
I am “retired” but also own two Amazon businesses with a former student—Leda Art Supply selling a sketchbook that I designed in North America and Europe—and Oldboy Longboards, a skateboard accessories company selling wheel bearings in a pyramid box that I designed (and got a design patent for).
This year’s Welter staff loves cats. Can we ask: Do you have any?
We like kitties a lot but in our retirement years we decided that a pet complicates travel. Neighbor cats love our garden and we welcome them.
What draws you to portray figures, especially in groups?
Figures have an iconic or symbolic presence in my mind. Translucent abstract figures evoke philosophical or existential meaning. Ruined statues from ancient Greece or the elongated Giacometti statues are mysterious and profound. Makes you feel like you are in the presence of a precious artifact. Viewers want to identify with the imagery before them and if a composition is completely abstract it can be confusing. So, a figure provides a focus that can be profound and sometimes ironic.
A single figure is hard to fill a canvas or page. If you only have one figure then you have to find other imagery for the background that looks right. If you have several figures, it provides interest. The eye goes back and forth between the figures in a group. And you wonder what is the relationship between the figures in the group. This movement of the eye is sort of like alliteration or repetition in literature or rhythm in music.