Timothy Callaghan discusses place, process, and his life as an artist
It’s autumn in Timothy Callaghan’s temporary studio at The Madison apartment building in Glenville. Afternoon sun illuminates a wall filled with walnut-ink streetscape studies. Around the apartment, Callaghan also has hung gouache paintings depicting scenes from the surrounding neighborhood. A large sketchbook contains the beginnings of future paintings; tubes of acrylic gouache hint at how they’ll be finished.
Callaghan grew up in Michigan near Toledo, Ohio, earned his BFA in painting at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1999 and his MFA in 2005 at Kent State University. He teaches art to high school students at Lake Ridge Academy in North Ridgeville and makes a point to paint daily.
Strong studio habits are part of what Callaghan preaches in his 2013 book One Painting A Day (Quarry Books); his mother, he said, “instilled in me a work ethic that made this book possible.”
Over the years, Callaghan’s work has been shown in galleries in New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Chicago and Cleveland. In April, his paintings of the neighborhood around his home in Collinwood were exhibited in Timothy Callaghan: A Lovely Tremble, a Maria Neil pop-up show at the LaSalle Arts and Media Center.
During a recent conversation, Callaghan spoke about his process, the importance of place, and the joy he finds in his life as an artist.
You started working here at The Madison by invitation of Fred Bidwell, FRONT International executive director. Was there an expectation about what kind of work you would do?
No, because I wasn’t a contributing artist to the FRONT Triennial. It was a case of right time, right place; Fred had an extra studio, and I wanted to take advantage of the unique opportunity to see if I could apply a similar process that I used in Collinwood, on East 185th Street, and generate a new body of work. I was interested in how the process of working on site would work in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
Can you explain how your process works?
I usually begin in a larger format sketchbook, just with ink.
You’re making those on site?
Yes, and they’re very quick, within an hour. Then from the sketchbooks, I would do a larger one that is much more detailed and deliberate, because I think what I’m after in this space, first, is a sense of light.
There is something magical that happens when you’re working on site that I can’t quite explain; it’s like you’re painting with all of your senses, which I find invaluable.
So then from that process, or from that study, I scale it up larger on paper to work in gouache. And for a lot of that, I might refer back to a quick photo I took. But the color is done from memory, because I spent enough time there.
How does photography fit into your process?
I love photography. I love photography as a fine art medium. I love it as a tool for painters. Especially the camera on your phone in your pocket. It’s so helpful. But it’s an unreliable narrator. And it can lead you in the wrong direction really quickly if you don’t use it at the right part in the process.
I kind of think of it like in thirds. The beginning, for me, needs to be done from direct observation. The second third can be a little of that observation where you’re using a mechanical tool like photography and then also using memory. But your memory is much better than you think sometimes, because you’ll look at a photo, and you look at it too long, and you’re like, hey, why am I looking at this? I remember. I know.
What are the essential qualities you’re trying to get to in your painting?
There is a sense of how little do you need to make an impact? How little paint? How few marks? That becomes a kind of strategy in thinking about depicting a space: What is the most efficient way to articulate the space?
As with your Collinwood series, you are currently working in an old Cleveland neighborhood. How important is the inherent character of a space? Could you be doing this in the suburbs?
I think about that a lot. I want to say yes, but I don’t know if I could. I mean, that would be a way to really challenge myself. Something that’s so new—I think, as artists, maybe we’re just a little leery of it. Like if it hasn’t been around that long, what can I learn from it? It would be tough. It would be interesting, but it would be really tough.
Who were your teachers at CIA?
Ken Dingwall, Julie Langsam, and Gerry Vandevier were the three professors I worked with primarily. All three definitely made very huge, lasting impression.
Art careers can bring with them a lot of anxiety. What advice would you give to your younger self?
I work with high school students, and I try to impress upon them that they don’t have to have it all figured out. One of the things that Ken [Dingwall] told me when I was bummed out once in the studio was, “You realize you’re going to probably make a thousand bad paintings before you make a great one, right? What is the rush? You’re twenty. Settle down.”
That would be the best advice. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. So relax and enjoy the failures and learn from them.
How do you balance your studio practice with teaching responsibilities?
It’s certainly one of the most challenging parts of being an artist. But I think teaching is a great career for a studio artist because even though the day-to-day responsibilities of teaching full time can sometimes be draining, you do receive a lot of energy from working with young artists who are also very excited about making pictures.
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