I'm often asked, "What's it like being married to another artist?" Usually I give a simplified happy answer: "It's great. We get each other. We understand the need for alone time. We support each other and get through the inevitable ruts together." And all this is true. We are each other's cheerleaders, crazy idea sounding boards, and weakness offsets (he stretches my canvas, I edit his writing, etc.).
But the answer is more complicated than that. There's a lot of give and take: Sometimes I want to go on a movie date, but he wants to paint or vice versa. There's the issue of mailing list fatigue if we have concurrent shows. And when the show we both enter specifies "name your jpgs exactly like LASTNAME_01" I get a little paranoid that the juror will think I'm trying to sneak in a second entry. Silly, but true. There's also the regret that I didn't keep my maiden name. If someone says, "that painter Boocks" who do they mean? Then again, some people don't even know the other Boocks is an artist too. Art-making casts its long shadow on almost everything we do: How we spend our free time, where our extra money goes, and what we talk about... times two. We talk about art a lot in our house.
Stephen is also my toughest critic -- you can thank him that many lackluster paintings of mine haven't seen the light of day -- however, it's hard sometimes to be on the receiving end of a brutal critique then sit down to dinner together a few minutes later. We're also very different types of artists. I'm in this for a sense of self and community. As you'll see below, that's definitely not his MO.
But I wouldn't trade him for anyone else. He is my muscle, my reality check, my rejection consolation, and my acceptance celebrator. I love it that we continue to grow and learn new things, but we do this together, going deeper and deeper on this journey combining commitments to our relationship and our art making. Yet I often fear the perception of nepotism, like a few years back when he wanted to curate me into a show and I declined. I really wanted to be in that show. Today, I'm setting that fear aside and sharing my interview of him because I respect him as an artist, and he's helped me grow as an artist more than anyone else in this world.
I met Stephen Boocks in my first semester of Old Dominion University's now defunct painting program. In that small studio building, you couldn't help but hear his loud laugh. He made his own stretchers for huge lush paintings, and I quickly fell in love with his craftsmanship. He reeked of oil paint and turpentine, drank beer before class, and said what he thought. I fell in love with his presence. We were good friends for a few years... then I fell in love with him.
Stephen studied at the Corcoran and earned a BFA from Old Dominion University in 1992. His paintings and works on paper are grounded in geometric abstraction and explore the dynamics of time, pattern, and the human touch. Musical concepts of minimalist composers are often reflected in his art. A recipient of a Virginia Museum Fellowship Grant, Stephen also serves as an independent curator.
Why do you make art?
I guess the short answer would be because I like to. When these types of conversations come up, some of my thoughts on being a painter run counter to most people I talk to and I probably sound like a jerk. I don't really like to use the term artist. I prefer painter. I have a theory that not everyone agrees with me on: I believe art is made through the connection of the work and the viewer. In other words, I make the work and the viewer makes the art. Of course, I am making art as I interact with my own work but this is irrelevant when it comes to someone else interacting with it. Sure this may just be semantics but it's one of the main reasons why I don't think I'm special because I paint. Everybody does things they like to do; I just happen to like painting.
Describe your studio practice. For example, do you keep set hours, listen to music, or have unique rituals?
Since studio time is limited, I try to be as efficient as I can with it. It's not uncommon for me to wake up early and spend a little time in the studio before going into work at the day job. In general, I can get significant things accomplished in a short amount of time. There are times when I can spend hours working but I still try to maintain a level of efficiency. My work is very closely related to music so it should be no surprise that I typically play music in the studio, but what I listen to while working rarely has anything to do with the musical concepts I may be working with in my painting. The paintings are rooted in the music of minimalist composers yet I tend to listen to indie rock while I work.
Who are your biggest influences and why?
This is a hard question to answer since I don't think my influences are readily apparent and are not necessarily visual artists. If I had to list just one, it would be musician (and artist) Brain Eno. Craft is extremely important to his work and though his work may seem so carefully constructed and thought out, he actually relies a great deal on chance and generally leaves in some rough edges. He also doesn't appear to want to explain what is behind his work, preferring to let it speak for itself. In the area of painting, Jasper Johns would probably be my biggest influence. He has had a long career that has seen some changes to his work, but I think his work is always about painting (or drawing or simply the craft of the materials he is working in). He has always been extremely reticent about explaining his work, and I truly consider him to be in the top ranks of all artists, not just contemporary, not just American. I put his work right up there with anyone's. There is a long list of painters whom I admire but I don't really consider influences, like Bryce Marden, Anselm Kiefer, Sean Scully, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, John Singer Sargent, and Philip Guston.
What's something people who aren't familiar with you/your work should know about you?
Regardless of what any of my paintings appear to be about, they are always primarily about painting. Even when I was working representationally, the imagery was just something that allowed me to paint. I tend to be very interested in small areas of my work more than the whole. Now that I am working with geometric abstraction, I think this interest in the act of painting differentiates my work from a lot of other geometric abstraction. For instance, I rarely tape off sections of my work, instead painting the lines, curves, and angles freehand. I joke that I make "soft-edge abstraction" or "rough-edge abstraction." Since viewers have become so accustomed to seeing ultra-crisp, clean lines, I believe they are a little confused when they see my work since it's not super clean and I allow mistakes to remain. I'm not a purist who has anything against using tape or other techniques, I just enjoy the act of putting a brush to canvas.
What is the best advice someone ever gave you about art, and who was this person?
For too long I downplayed art school since I don't think I ever learned much about technique from anyone, but there are some things I keep coming back to. My first real teacher, Robin Clair (Partin) was always pushing me to experiment. She would give me plaster casting gauze, casting stone, various acrylic mediums, chalk and dry pigments without telling me how to use them. As a junior in high school I was making 6-foot paintings with strips of casting gauze and casting stone as a base on which I would then apply the chalk or pigment. Then I would move that around and seal it with the mediums. Seems pretty cool when I look back on it. I think the only advice regarding technique that I remember would be Franklin White showing me how to "draw" with the eraser. Also at the Corcoran, Marie Ringwald told me to use the best materials I could afford in response to my continued use of the really crappy old "Utrecht Blue" and "Utrecht Red." All three of those bits are wrapped around Ron Snapp telling me to "Paint don't think. Think don't paint." I think he said that to everyone though, that and "put a little Naples Yellow in the corner."
What inspirational quote do you re-read when you need support for the creative process?
Not that I think I'm this total pro artist, but I'm not prone to "inspiration" and don't even like the term "creative" but this quote from Chuck Close mirrors my thinking about my studio practice:
"The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case.”
How do you pay it forward with other artists or people interested in art?
Now that we can, we have recently been purchasing work from artists we admire, many of them being friends. I am usually open to trading work, but I feel a little awkward asking the question, and it seems like good karma to actually buy art since I'm trying get people to buy my work.
How/where can people find some great affordable local artists to easily -- and confidently -- start collecting?
There are still a few galleries in the area such as Adah Rose and Plan B that continue to show reasonably priced work, but I think the wave of the future is more DIY as more galleries shutter their physical spaces. I think the open studio model is the best way for collectors, or anyone looking to purchase art, to find what they like at the right price. And I'm not implying that artists selling in studios undercut their gallery retail prices. While some artists may simply opt to have their own open studio events, more often a group such as Mid-City Artists will have multiple open studios in close proximity on the same day. Spaces like Artists & Markers Studios in Rockville houses a number of studios right in the same building.
Thanks, Stephen. For everything.