This week we have the pleasure of welcoming Lawrence Wells back to Oxford for the first time in twenty years. First, Off-Square Books will host a book signing by him on Thursday, April 30, at 5 p.m. The occasion is the publication by Yoknapatawpha Press of his first monograph collection, “Lawrence Wells – Bohemian,” replete with a great introduction by our own Lisa Howorth. Then on Friday May 1st, you can soak in Lawrence’s wonderful, color-drenched and eye-blistering paintings at his solo exhibition at Yalo Studio in Water Valley.
Lawrence Wells is a 1992 MFA graduate of the University of Mississippi. He is the only son of author and publisher Larry Wells and the stepson of the late Dean Faulkner Wells. After studying with Jere Allen, Lawrence pursued his career in New Orleans and New York City before settling in Prague, Czech Republic where he has lived for the last fourteen years. Married to the renowned translator Magda Wells and the father of a young son named Dominik, Lawrence also works as a teacher in Prague.
Q:.You lived and studied and painted in Oxford during a period of time that a number of people insist was the town’s “golden age”. How many years did you spend working and creating here? And, would you agree that the late-1980’s and early-1990’s was a particularly vibrant era in the town’s history?
A: I first moved to Oxford in 1969 when I was 4 .. went to kindergarten at Ole Miss, wherever it was. The whole thing is a bit hazy for me now. My folks got divorced a year later and I was whisked away with my mom. I returned after I got my BFA in Indiana in 1988, to spend time with my dad. I also worked for Ron Shapiro at the Hoka and found a community of friends there. I was in Oxford until 1992 when I graduated with my MFA from Ole Miss and went to Prague the first time. I was there for a year and a half and came back to Oxford for a year, when I worked at Proud Larry’s (Did they name that place after me or my dad? :)) Then I moved to New Orleans in 1995.
I think in the late 80s/ early 90s Oxford was still undiscovered and undeveloped in a way which we feel nostalgic for today. But back then people probably spoke about the mid-70s as some golden age .. in another 20 years people will be talking about today as some great time. So let’s enjoy it. Like Carly Simon sang in the early 70s, “These are the good old days.” It was true then, let’s pray it’s true now.
Q: You studied with Jere Allen while you were completing your MFA at Ole Miss. Was there anything in that formal environment that has proved to be of long-lasting import or influence in your life as a professional artist over the last thirty years?
A: Jere taught by doing and early on he provided an example of a professional artist for the students. At that time, Jere had a big show in Germany and he was busy building crates to ship the work. It was exciting to see him preparing for a major show. I also admire Jere Allen’s work for his handling of paint and his vibrant use of color. This still informs my work today.
Q: From Oxford you moved to Prague, New York City, and New Orleans before deciding to finally embrace the life of an ex-pat artist and settle in the Czech Republic. How many years have you lived in Prague? Do you still feel like an ex-pat, an outsider? On a lighter note, when you’re battling the unrelenting, brutal whipcrack of a consuming Czech winter do you ever long for a Yes-Sir-Cheese-My-Baby sandwich and a piece of hot fudge pie from The Hoka?
A: I sort of fell into moving abroad almost arbitrarily, to be honest. I made the decision somewhat rashly. Prague is a beautiful city with a special magic and the Czech Republic is a comfortable place to live. I’ve been here for 14 years now and I’ve made a few friends. But Europe is not the same as America in terms of embracing its immigrants, it doesn’t have that same history of immigration. Furthermore, the Czech Republic was isolated from the West for 42 years of communist rule, so there is both an opening out to the outside world combined with a reticence and fear of difference among some people. I can’t quite “go native” as it were. I’m an American overseas. That’s just a basic aspect of my identity. So I’m a sort of perpetual outsider. Sometimes I envy people who stayed in their hometown and know the place to the core of their identity. Although I have a family and have put down roots here, my situation feels somewhat precarious if I examine it too closely.
The winters are not so rough here in Prague, despite the fact that we are on the same latitude as Toronto. The last few have been exceedingly mild, in fact. The USA is getting these polar vortexes now while Europe is warmer in winter .. too warm really.
I think we all miss the Hoka, I have a re-occurring dream almost every year that I’m at the Hoka or going there to work. It was a special place. The Love at First Bite turkey sandwich was fantastic, although I made hundreds of them I’m sure.
Q: Your father, novelist and publisher Larry Wells, and your step-mother, writer Dean Faulkner Wells, both used tropes of ‘southernness’ as points of departure in their respective works. How much do you think that your own negotiated relationship with Mississippi and the South informs your work, if at all? Is there something you can identify in your work that you can point to as a kind of recurrent lingering ‘southernness’?
A: There are Southerners who leave and Southerners who stay, but I don’t think we can ever truly lose who we are, lose our Southernness. I was born in Alabama, raised in Kentucky and spent some important years in Mississippi and New Orleans and that made me who I am. It’s complicated to define Southern regional art today, but if there are some common themes that I share in my work as well, I’d say it’s a focus on representational art, on a kind of “funky” figuration as well as an affinity for bright colors which comes from the bright sun and dark shadows in the South. My themes have grown up out of my circumstance as a foreigner and immigrant, but I think the way that I paint, my rough-hewn touch, has a relationship with Outsider Art and Southern aesthetics, in an alternative, bohemian sense. I’m playing with the word bohemian, I tried for ten years to find my place among Czech artists, but ultimately I will never be “one of them.” But having that community of Czech artists to play off of and respond to continues to be highly enriching for me. It’s a unique experience.
Q: Do you always organize your paintings as parts of a series? The works in each series presented in your new book “Lawrence Wells – Bohemian” as well as those selected for your upcoming show at Yalo Studio [May 1] in Water Valley are plump with archetypal imagery and a deeply satisfying playfulness. Are these qualities that are more cogently expressed within the series format? Or, is a kind of mapping of your unconscious world happening here, a cartography that is only revealed over repeated riffs on an initial idea/image?
A: I don’t plan the series very rigidly, I just let them develop over time. Having a show of a group of work often encapsulates it and allows me to move on to other themes. The book and the show in Water Valley represents an overview of 6 exhibits I had in the Czech Republic during the years 2011-2014 and the works are arranged chronologically. In a sense, all the works become a kind of self-portrait. The same can be said for any artist. Perhaps the imagery stems from my unconsciousness but I try to reach for universal symbols: astronauts, Native Americans, ships, computers, etc. These are all images we recognize, but the painting needs to maintain a particular mystery in order to be compelling. Painting is a particularly slow media in the sense that it doesn’t move like the filmic image. Viewers today, for the most part, are spoiled by film and TV – it’s necessary to slow down and even return to a painting again and again so that over time it reveals itself. A painting is a record of the process of its own creation, a collection of gestures and brush strokes, of decisions made by the artist about color relationships and compositional choices, of layering and the sequence in which the marks are made. There’s something fragile about it, like a poem – you have to meet it halfway, to tune into what its insistently trying to tell you.
Q: How much advance planning do you do, if any?
A: I work in a series in the sense that I focus my attention on a certain set of parameters in a work, ie limiting myself to a group of colors, figures and way of working. For the second half of 2012, for example, I painted and drew monkeys and still lifes in various settings. Then I had a show of those works in early 2013 in the AM180 space and I switched to imaginary portraits. I wanted to draw people in the same way I had been drawing monkeys. The seasons also influence how I work. The dark winters in CZ are like entering a tunnel. The candle flame is more evocative in those dark days. Spring comes like a savior here, Easter is more resonant. And my mood always improves when the sunlight returns. The work is usually more cheerful then.
Q: There’s also a playful, almost giddy, relationship with pop cultural effluvia and detritus in your paintings — astronauts and space-men, anthropomorphized monkeys, British horror movie candelabras, rock bands, pop mathematics, etc. I know you’re also a pretty passionate consumer of pop culture. What is the relation between your consumption of and serious thinking about pop and your work?
A: Pop culture is fascinating but its also culturally specific. Its hard to share references across borders. For example you see a kind of Pop Neo-gothic in the candlesticks, Hammer horror films, whereas for me it’s more of a Baroque image. In Europe we are surrounded by really old stuff, the sense of history extends deeper. You can commune with the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, even the time of the Celts here if you try. This is the landscape they inhabited.
I love Pop Art, especially British Pop, but for nostalgic reasons relating to my romantic feelings for the 1960s. Those artists were responding to advertising. Today’s artists respond to the internet and technological change. Pop imagery is evocative but it can also feel superficial. For example I did a brief series about rock bands from the 80s: Def Leppard, Motley Crue – the sort of absurdity of Hair Metal and the excess of the Reagan years seems outlandish today. If I lived in America I might have developed it further, but in CZ without any history of MTV or the same level of media-saturation, the images began to seem trite to me. I realized that the images of youthful rock bands and my nostalgia for the 80s, which I think is rampant (in the West) today, was ultimately about my own feelings of getting older, my youth slowly receding in the rear-view mirror. Those were the analogue pre-Internet days. For those of us who are old enough to remember them, we feel a kind of longing for that atmosphere, which is being swept away by the digital.
Q: Setting aside the double-entendre of Bohemia being a very real region in the Czech Republic, do you think you or your work conform in any way to the traditional, well-worn notion of the bohemian artist, the untethered vagabond wanderer busy sussing out some kind of truth through his art and his inquiry?
A: All artists are bohemians in the sense that they focus on their own vision, their own calling. For some people it can be seen as “unproductive labor”. But compared to some of the young artists who share my studio building, who are living in these little garrets and former office spaces, cooking on hot plates, etc – most of them are Czech as well – they are the true bohemians. I’m more like a middle-class Van Gogh – hopefully my ears will remain intact. I dont plan to lose my mind quite like he did. I stay away from the absinthe.
Q: Do you consider your work political in any sense? If so, how?
A: I think everything is political. The choice to be an artist is political by its very nature. How we decide to live our lives is political. But it is also much more than that. America is caught today in a Red State/ Blue State cultural struggle, but this struggle has deep roots. If we look at the Vietnam era with Kent State or Martin Luther King, Jr, or even earlier with the McCarthy era, and before that the KKK marches in the 1920s etc etc we can see that America is deeply divided and ever-changing. America is the place for social experiments, although today we are all inside the experiment of Neoliberalism. As for my work I dont consider it to be so stridently political in itself. When I was younger, in the 80s/90s I thought it was the role of art to take up these political/ social issues. Now I feel its the personal reflection that reflects the universal which is the purview of art, its terrain as it were. We can argue endlessly until we are blue (or red) in the face, at the end of the day we all wake up each day and live on the same planet. Most of us. 🙂
Q: Oxford has changed pretty dramatically since you were last here. Are you nervous about coming home and bearing witness to our ever advancing tumult and development?
A: I’ll see when I get there. It just comes down to impermanence. We can grasp at landmarks to try to find meaning, but everything fades eventually. When they bulldozed the Hoka, it was over for me. But seriously I love Oxford and always will. Across America there are so many beautiful small towns and beautiful old houses. They will endure, not the Hardees or strip malls. Those are already disappearing. The crazy mess of life just keeps rolling along .. Do the Locomotion with me.
Q: Finally, what are you most looking forward to on your visit here to the town that happily claims you, your funky and best home?
A: Sitting under a magnolia tree with my dear friends, watching their kids playing around me. That’s what it’s all about.
Pat Cochran is a writer who lives in Oxford with his wonderful wife and erstwhile editor Mary Elizabeth along with their two exceptional children, 6-year old Jack and 2-year old Catherine. He is currently finishing work on a memoir about his close friendship with the late author and journalist Joe Wood. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.