DOUGLAS WITMER

 

To begin, could you tell me a little about yourself and your background?

I was born in 1971 and spent my childhood in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  I went to Goshen College in Indiana and received my BA in Art. In 1995 I got married and moved to Philadelphia where I have lived ever since. I completed my MFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2001.

Describe your journey to becoming an artist. Has it been easy? Natural? What has been difficult?

I was involved in creative activities constantly as a kid, particularly in music and the visual arts. In grade school and in high school I was fortunate to have really dedicated music and art teachers.  They gave me a lot of encouragement and support. Even after I was in high school it was my grade school art teacher who took me to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where I saw the Franz Kline painting “Torches Mauve.” I remember that being the moment I knew I would have a lifelong engagement with abstract painting.

So I could say that, yes, becoming and being an artist has always been natural.  However, at every level, no, it is not easy. Early on, you’re just trying to learn (maybe prove yourself or get a grade) and you’re subject to constant critique. On top of that there’s likely competition. Later as one works on their own, the constant self-criticism (necessary for an artist), and much error in the “trial-and-error” element of art making often leads to discouragement. Trying to navigate the artworld is complicated and bewildering. Getting yourself to the studio amid all the other demands of life is exhausting. I could go on. Being present in the moments when you’re alone in the freedom of your studio and feeling the sensation of your work really coming together makes all of that worthwhile.

How would you describe your work to someone?

Over the years I’ve pursued a few different but parallel bodies of work and I would say it all falls within the genre of “geometric abstraction.”  But my main focus is making paintings with bands and shapes of thinly-painted transparent color interacting within or upon fields of grey wash.

What is important for viewers to note when viewing your work?

I want for people to know that I do not expect them to bring any prerequisite knowledge about what they think “art” is when they look at my work.  It’s actually kind of a big ask, I think. But they should really feel free to encounter it on their own terms. This may or may not mean they have an experience of art around the painted things I make.  I can only hope they do.

Nothing is clearly planned in my work.  Process leads everything. Because they are very water-based, many aspects about the painting processes I employ are only marginally within my control, or the result of a situation I consciously set up where I don’t have control.  I often set various processes into motion and then respond to the result. Even though I’ve spent my entire life as a painter developing and refining these processes, I still feel like much of what I do when I’m working is simply observing and learning.

What is your process like? How important is process in understanding your work?

I want for people to know that I do not expect them to bring any prerequisite knowledge about what they think “art” is when they look at my work.  It’s actually kind of a big ask, I think. But they should really feel free to encounter it on their own terms. This may or may not mean they have an experience of art around the painted things I make.  I can only hope they do. Nothing is clearly planned in my work.  Process leads everything. Because they are very water-based, many aspects about the painting processes I employ are only marginally within my control, or the result of a situation I consciously set up where I don’t have control.  I often set various processes into motion and then respond to the result. Even though I’ve spent my entire life as a painter developing and refining these processes, I still feel like much of what I do when I’m working is simply observing and learning. .  

What does your work aim to say?

I hope that my work embodies and communicates certain values. As I answer this question on this day I’m thinking of some of these values as a list of dualities:

Solid/open

Clear/seeking

Lightness/groundedness

Balanced/precarious

Still/Activated

 

Can you highlight some of your influences and discuss how they have impacted your work?

Influences change a lot over the course of one’s life I think. For me as I noted above it started with seeing abstract expressionism, but I’ve been influenced by so many artists across history. Just for starters I love Matisse, the pre-Renaissance painting from Siena, and the anonymous Tantric art that has come into Western awareness in the past number of years. But for a lifelong influence I would say it is Warren Rohrer. Rohrer’s work is in major collections, but he is still lesser known. I was fortunate to be able to relate with him in the years before he died. He came from the same Lancaster County Mennonite community that I grew up in, and went on to make incredibly beautiful abstract paintings that incorporated reductive strategies. His work and the model of his life deeply resonated with me and continue to do so.

 

Where do you find inspiration?

I always gravitate to that quote “inspiration finds you working.” (I forget to whom it’s attributed.)  I typically have lots of things going on at the same time and when I’m focused and working hard, so many ideas come up and bounce between works.  In fact sometimes I purposely bump wet paintings against another, or place a painting-in-progress in a place where I know it might get spattered or dripped on from another painting I’m working on.

Ideas and feelings about color often come from observation of the sky and water, and being in nature. My annual visits to the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Michigan are important. Lately I’ve been going running on more regular schedule than ever before in my life and it’s usually early in the morning.  That fresh light, even if it’s a grey day, is pretty great.

 

What piece of advice would you give to a young artist?

I’ll pass forward something I once heard the artist Chris Martin say in a lecture: “Do what you love as precisely as possible.” And to it I’ll add: but first you need to find out what you love. “Love” is a complicated word in this context. Our culture has really cheapened it. I don’t think Chris Martin’s suggestion was “find a job that you absolutely LOVE!”...like the way people brag about their activities on social media. The way I’d say it is: as an artist, constantly remain sensitive to whether there is a compelling feeling within you...try to align your work to that compulsion.

 
Adam Reid Fox