Celebrating 20 years of painting

December 26th, 2014 | 1 Comment »

Well you’re in your little room, and you’re working on something good.
But if it’s really good, you’re gonna need a bigger room.
And when you’re in the bigger room, you might not know what to do.
You might have to think of how you got started, sitting in your little room.

— The White Stripes, “Little Room”

Twenty years ago this week, I painted my first painting. The experience of making that first work is something that I shall vividly remember. While I have made hundreds of paintings in the decades since, no other artistic experience I’ve had can quite match the feeling of adventure and freedom I felt when I was first starting out.

scramp king by grant wiggins
Scramp King, my first painting, which I painted in late December 1994.

Back then, I was a senior-year English major who wrote poetry and considering a career as an English teacher. Despite my stated ambitions, I found myself spending countless hours in the art section of my school’s library, transfixed by one art history book after another.

One title stood out: Andy Warhol: A Retrospective. I couldn’t put that book down! I had fallen in love with Warhol’s early advertising paintings — of household appliances of vacuums, drills, and refrigerators depicted in newspaper ads. In these seemingly unfinished portraits on canvas, everyday products were exalted.

Before returning home for Christmas break, I took out a loan for the Warhol retrospective catalog. I consulted that book continuously throughout vacation, each time feeling emboldened to start my own journey as a painter.

One night following Christmas, I took the plunge into making art. With images of Warhol’s paintings and a painting idea of my own glowing in my brain, I wandered into my mom’s art studio, tore the shrinkwrap from a pre-stretched canvas, grabbed some tubes of acrylic paint and a brush, and embarked upon realizing an idea for a painting that I had carried with me for more than a year: the wrapper of a 3M Scotch Brite sponge. Thing is, this new painting wouldn’t say Scotch Brite. I wanted it to say Scramp King! This was to be a portrait of a product that could exist only in a parallel universe!

scotch brite scouring pad by 3m
In the mid-1990s, Scotch Brite scouring sponges looked something like this. A wrapper that looked similar to this provided the source of inspiration for Scramp King.

Where did Scramp King come from? In the summer of 1993, I worked as a groundskeeper at an apartment complex. One project was to wash tenants’ front doors with Scotch Brite scouring sponges. (Man, were they abrasive! I scratched the heck out of quite a few doors!) In the process of removing dirt (and paint), the word “scramp king” jumped from a sponge’s wrapper into my brain, after I misread the packaging out of the corner of my eye.

That first painting seemed like such a transgressive act. It wasn’t the subject matter that was transgressive. It’s that I was a literature major who had never taken a studio art class — just a few art history classes. To me, painting is what studio art majors did! I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be painting. And yet, there I was, painting (straight out of tubes!) and working my way through a painting. I was taking a step toward becoming who I am.

Back at school, my friends told me they actually thought my painting was cool, and encouraged me to keep painting. Slowly, over time, I did just that. My confidence grew. But I never did take a studio art class. (Perhaps it shows!)

Reflecting upon what I have learned over the past two decades, a few lessons stand out. If I could go back in time and give myself advice, I’d probably tell myself the following five things:

1. If you want to make art, then make art! It’s that simple! You don’t need anyone’s permission or approval. Just make.

2. Never allow anyone talk you out of giving yourself to your art. I can’t tell you how important learning this lesson has been. People very close to me tried to convince me that devoting myself to my art was a kind of a selfish waste of time, that I’d struggle financially if I were to devote my life to making art. I was told I’d never make a living at it, and I’d be better off focusing on a career that made money. Unfortunately, at pivotal times, I listened to these people. But guess what? They were all wrong! The naysayers could never understand the bliss of having a great idea for a new painting, then finding a path to realizing it.

3. Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Creative successes may come along — especially when you least expect them — and your visual agenda might be validated by a curator, gallery owner, or collector now and then. It’s nice to be recognized. But whatever happens, don’t believe your own hype! Stay humble. You’re only as good as your next painting.

4. Make art for yourself. For me, the true test of a work is whether I’m able to live with it on a daily basis. That said, making art with other people in mind doesn’t work for me. The applause or indifference of others is irrelevant. And don’t hope for others to like your work. If comrades or critics don’t like something you make, so be it. When you make art for yourself, the conversation surrounding the finished work is a separate matter. If something good happens, it’s bonus-round material.

5. Don’t compare yourself to other artists. And don’t compare your situation to that of other artists. As Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” We sometimes read about artists who have ascended to international fame and fortune, or sell their work for ridiculous sums. Don’t let their success discount your self-opinion. Just because another artist seems to be “successful,” that doesn’t mean you can’t be, too. Keep believing in your gift. When in doubt, revisit point #4 above.

But ultimately, when I look back on 20 years of painting, I feel gratitude. I am grateful for having had the time, space, and gift of health to be able to make what I’ve made. I am grateful to my mom for allowing me to “borrow” her art supplies during Christmas break 1994, and to my sister who taught me how to mix paint. I am grateful to all of the fellow artists, friends, loved ones, collectors, and curators who have believed in my talent, and have supported me over time.

Being an artist can be a crazy calling to have. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Here’s to 20 more years!

— Grant Wiggins

Julian Stanczak interview on

November 4th, 2011 | 2 Comments

I remember the first time I ever saw a painting by Julian Stanczak in person. It was at the Toledo Museum of Art, several years ago. Standing before And Then There Were Three, in all of its 4-foot-by-12-foot vastness, I literally felt myself being engulfed by the colors and forms before me. Green and red were banging against each other, forming a warm brown, vibrating against several rhythmic progressions of purples.

julian stanczak interview - and then there were three
And Then There Were Three by Julian Stanczak. 48 x 144 inches (122 cm x 3.7 m). 1971. Collection of Toledo Museum of Art. Photo by Faasdant via flickr.

I remember trying to focus on just one color — training my eyes to carefully scan the canvas from bottom to top edge, in a vertical line — and noted how my perception of that singular color changed, based on its proximity to other colors.

The more I gazed at And Then There Were Three, the more I fell into it, as if a gravitational pull had lured me into a radically different (and far more interesting) reality. I couldn’t pull myself away. I was in bliss.

That moment at Toledo Museum of Art changed my thinking about art and how I saw my own art. Julian Stanczak had joined my personal constellation of art superstars.

Ever since, I have followed the arc of Stanczak’s career with great interest. I have enjoyed the resurgence in interest in his work — as evidenced by his inclusion in the Optic Nerve, presented by Columbus Museum of Art in 2009, as well as CLE OP: Cleveland Op Art Pioneers, on view through February 26, 2012 at Cleveland Museum of Art.

The fact that Stanczak is a Clevelander — he resides in Seven Hills, one suburb east of where I grew up (Hint: It rhymes with “pharma.”) — who attended Cleveland Institute of Art around the time my mother did (ca. 1950), makes him even cooler.

Naturally, when Julie Karabenick, editor and curator of, contacted me last week to let me know that she had just posted an interview with Stanczak, I virtually flipped out. At first, I tried to read the interview on my phone, but quickly stopped once I realized how comprehensive it is.

Clocking in at more than 15,000 words (23 pages of 10-point type, without images, expertly led and transcribed by Karabenick), this interview is a definitive, tour de force window into how Stanczak sees his work, his influences, and his creative process. Read the complete interview on here.

“Color Meltdowns”

Several themes continually resurface throughout the interview. Stanczak’s love of color emerges early; he views color as “abstract, universal — yet personal and private in experience. It affects us emotionally, not logically as do tangible things.”

As the interview progresses, Stanczak’s insights take on a gravity not unlike Paul Klee’s near-mystical observations in The Thinking Eye, but with a playfulness and optimism shared by Verner Panton. You intimately sense Stanczak’s love for color, and his deep interest in creating a visual sensation for the viewer, through interactions between colors.

“I want to fuse many colorants and their gradations into a single color experience — a ‘color meltdown,'” he says. “I am interested in the glow of colors as they interact and intermix, as they give to each other. And there are many factors I must consider to achieve the desired meltdown.”

He speaks of his paintings as an “interactive fusion” of colors, where “visual elements lose their individuality for the sake of totality.” Stanczak’s canvases are surfaces upon which colors invite our eyes to mix them into entirely new colors, forming a “haze” or “glow” as they interact.

Nature as the greatest teacher

Unlike anything else, the natural world has challenged and inspired Stanczak to experiment with colors, forms, and its many sensations. The artist expresses an instinctual fascination with the geometry and visual rhythms that permeate life.

“More than any of my teachers, Nature directed me, and I gained more conviction through, for example, observing water reflections, river currents, wood grain or grasses swaying,” Stanczak says. “In many of my studies the rhythmic use of line or shape refers to weather and light.”

During his early teaching career in Cincinnati and Cleveland, in the late 1950s and early 1960s — a time of great isolation for the artist — nature was Stanczak’s one constant.

“With no one to promote my clean geometry, whom could I turn to for some kind of confirmation? — to Nature, as always,” he observes. “I have always felt that Nature harbors the answers to all my questions.”

Josef Albers

Stanczak’s recollections of Josef Albers, one of his professors at Yale, form a particularly fascinating section of Karabenick’s interview. The artist remembers:

At Yale one of the first lessons I heard from Albers was, “I cannot teach you your art!” Albers used destruction as a method of construction in his teaching. Anything you thought you knew was taken away. The principle was not to get attached to anything too early, but to keep looking, searching, and thinking. Albers made endless demands for you to be better, to be a more observant participant in life. You experienced total emancipation from what to do, how to do it and what to think.

[Albers] gave me the courage to explore color beyond the classroom. He gave me the mindset to accept questions as part of life’s energy. My paintings and my search for understanding of color were based on a step-by-step process of observation. My observations might not match those of another person, but they became my foundation to build upon. I was gratified that Albers chose to include one of my pieces in his Interaction of Color portfolio.

Albers emerges later in the interview, when Stanczak drove to New Haven to invite Albers to the opening of his first solo show in a New York gallery — Julian Stanczak: Optical Paintings, at Martha Jackson Gallery in 1964. The exhibition’s title unnerved Stanczak, but particularly rankled Albers.

Stanczak remembers:

I found him aroused, pointing to the exhibition announcement in the paper. Without a greeting he said, ‘Your obligation is to correct that!’ I asked him what term he would use to describe the work, and he said ‘Perceptual painting.’ He was imperative about my responsibility to take action against something like this. I tried, but the term had already entered the public domain.

Stanczak viewed his paintings as an opportunity for “perceptual experience,” not purely optical experience. The latter was, in his opinion, a matter of merely “registering visual actions blindly.” Pattern and illusion — eye-attacking art-making tactics, on their own — never motivated Stanczak the way they did so many of his contemporaries.

Reading Karabenick’s interview is like a walk through time, spanning Stanczak’s life and the art currents surrounding and shaping him. The interview offers remarkable insights into one an artist’s lifelong approach toward color, form, and his highly individualistic art-making process — which undoubtedly has involved many miles of tape.

I consider this interview a gift that will continue to unfold new meanings as I re-read and reflect upon it, in a way very similar to seeing Stanczak’s paintings in person, up close. It is a master class that any artist can attend, and I am thankful for the opportunity to have experienced it.

Peter Halley: Artist Studio Visit

July 15th, 2011 | No Comments

When geometric artist Peter Halley opened the doors of his Chelsea studio to guests on July 10, 2011, James Kalm documented the event with a fascinating video.

Kalm’s video offers an first-hand look at Halley’s newest eye-popping paintings and studies, as well as his jaw-dropping inventory of fluorescent paints.

I’m beyond inspired! Nevermind this blog stuff … I’ve got to get back to painting!

Design Inspiration: The Fire Trucks of Flughafen Stuttgart

June 22nd, 2011 | 3 Comments

I admit it: I am inspired, in a very nerdy way, by the fire trucks that zoom around Stuttgart, Germany’s international airport, Flughafen Stuttgart.

Painted from bumper to bumper in eye-piercing fluorescent red, the mammoth machines of Flughafen Stuttgart Flughafenfeuerwehr easily catch the eyes of passengers who taxi down the runway of Germany’s Swabian metropolis. These trucks are so bright, I bet they’re visible from outer space!

flughafen stuttgart flughafenfeuerwehr
flughafen stuttgart flughafenfeuerwehr
Two views of engine 7. Source for top image: Source for bottom image:

Not only do I love the fluoro-and-white paint scheme, but I also love the minimal stripes that line the sides of these trucks. What’s more, the stripes collide on each truck’s back panel, forming an angular motif accented by the awesome Flughafen Stuttgart logo and a massive Helvetica number.

I’m envious of the talented person who developed the design for these trucks, which have me thinking I wish I would have thought of that!

Side note: The fluorescent limegreen fire trucks of the Berufsfeuerwehr Flughafen Zürich are worth checking out, too. They make me want to paint exclusively in fluorescent paint from now on.

Oliver Hibert in Java Magazine

March 12th, 2011 | No Comments

It’s not too often when a good friend of mine has a great profile in a respected local magazine. And it’s even more infrequent for someone to call me amazing.

On those grounds alone, I absolutely must share with you an article about my friend Oliver Hibert — a feature piece in this month’s edition of Java Magazine.

Oliver and I showed together considerably between 2002 and 2004, including highly memorable exhibitions at monorchid Gallery in downtown Phoenix and Phoenix Art Museum. As part of an art collective, we called ourselves the TRA25 Capsule. On this topic — found on page 10) — Oliver graciously mentions me and our past collaborations — to my pleasant surprise. (Thank you, Oliver.)

Spanning four pages, the article discusses Oliver’s impressive illustration portfolio (including shoes for Nike and snowboards for a well-known snowboard brand, for example), his artistic influences, and his uncanny style of “surreal contemporized pop psychedelia.”

Congratulations, Oliver! Awesome show! Great job!

Bridget Riley’s “Fragment 2” at Phoenix Art Museum

November 17th, 2010 | No Comments

I’ve been on a bit of a Bridget Riley kick lately. This happens every now and then. Something will start me thinking about Riley’s groundbreaking early op art work — how it completely dismantled the status quo in the early 60s — and how her work has steadily evolved over time. And so, I’ll check out books about Riley and read like a fiend, drawing inspiration with every turn of the page.

My most recent bout with Rileymania was sparked by my encounter with Fragment 2/10, part of Phoenix Art Museum’s permanent collection, shown below. (Yet another very good reason to visit Phoenix Art Museum!)

Bridget Riley’s Fragment 2/10, 1965, screenprint on Perspex.

In England, Riley’s work is back in focus in a big way. Next week (beginning November 24 and continuing through May 22, 2011), the National Gallery will showcase her newest paintings in Bridget Riley: Paintings and Related Work. For the past year, Bridget Riley: Flashback, a retrospective, has been touring England; the exhibition is on view at Southampton City Art Gallery through December 5. Her early fragment series showed at Karsten Schubert in London over the summer.

Likewise, a wealth of interviews with Riley are available online, thanks to BBC radio. A new Radio 4 production, Shimmer and Dazzle, Seeing What Bridget Riley Sees, previews the National Gallery exhibition (audio is online through November 23). Riley’s recollections in that piece overlap this interview with John Tusa. You can also catch these excerpts from a 1988 interview with Julian Spalding.

While I appreciate Riley’s work on many levels, I respect her art historical sensibility and uncompromising commitment to making work her own way. When early fame had unfortunate consequences, Riley regrouped and found a means to enable her work to evolve dynamically over time.

Douglas Nielsen, Art Collector

September 9th, 2010 | No Comments

I’d like you to meet Douglas Nielsen, a collector of my art who is the unifying force behind the 75 works of art on display in Thanks for Being with Us: Contemporary Art from the Douglas Nielsen Collection, at Tucson Museum of Art (TMA) through October 10, 2010.

The following video offers a glimpse into the life of a person who collects art with a passion — buying art that interests him, not promises a return on investment. His collection — which includes hundreds of works from legendary and lesser-known artists of our time alike — completely eclipses the walls of his Tucson loft.

A professor of dance at University of Arizona, Nielsen is one of the most genuine, tuned-into-the-moment persons you could meet. And I don’t say this because he owns two of my paintings: Hands (in the current TMA show) and Open System (in the 2009 Arizona Biennial at the TMA). I truly admire Nielsen for his open-mindedness, willingness to take creative risks as a choreographer, and enthusiasm for learning and changing as a person.

Despite his wealth of professional accomplishments in the field of dance (recipient of four fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, for starters), he is remarkably down-to-earth and approachable.

I’m proud to call Douglas Nielsen one of my collectors. But don’t take my word for it. Watch the video!

Dietmar Winkler: Posters for MIT

August 30th, 2010 | 3 Comments

Something really cool happened at work last week. Naturally, it had nothing to do with work! A designer I work with brought in a pair of Communication Arts magazines from 1970 and 1971. Being inspired by the art of that period, I was transfixed by what I found between the covers of those volumes.

What particularly caught my attention were Dietmar Winkler’s posters for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, dating to 1968 and 1969. His designs were so good, they had me thinking to myself, “I wish I had painted that!” The second orange poster below (the horizontal composition) especially blew my mind.

dietmar winkler posters for MIT

Detergent boxes: Graphic inspiration

January 8th, 2010 | No Comments

detergent boxes
Image via daniele_lavamat

Over the holidays, I rediscovered my love for detergent boxes — especially vintage detergent boxes. I love how their graphic swirls and shapes are designed to arrest the eye. Beyond that, there’s something ineffably cool about the way detergent boxes have “all-over” compositions — they use all available space. Throughout this genre of design, it is as if negative space is viewed contemptuously as a waste of space!

That said, thank goodness for Flickr. And thank goodness for people like daniele_lavamat, who photograph and upload their detergent box collections (shown at left). If you haven’t seen this collection, and you like packaging, daniele_lavamat’s photostream is worth a visit. You’ll find fascinating snaps of European brands like Ariel, Dixan, and Soflan.

And there’s also IvoryTide’s photos of classic American detergent and soap brands, such as Fab, Rinso and Dash. The Rinso box below is gorgeous.

Guess I should upload photos of my detergent box collection, which represents brands like Trend and Biz. Wonder why I haven’t already. Regardless, a small part of my vintage packaging collection can be found on Flickr here.

Vintage soccer jerseys

December 26th, 2009 | No Comments

From an art and design perspective, I find soccer jerseys are a tremendous source of inspiration. For new and recent jerseys, is a great place to scan the latest looks of the world’s clubs. And for vintage shirts, I fancy; you’ll find hours of eye-popping color combinations and patterns there.

I don’t know where else you’d find the wigged-out, op-art splendor of the 1995 Yokohama Flugels shirt and Manchester City’s 1998 away shirt. Brilliant stuff!