m.f.a. thesis

an interview of sorts

a thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the master of fine arts degree in art in the graduate college of the university of iowa

may 1999

thesis supervisor: professor david dunlap

a forward by norman pink

the following is a transcript of an interview charlie rose did with hamlett dobbins in the early winter of 1998. i remember seeing this particular episode when it aired the following spring. charlie was wearing a well-worn navy blazer, an understated red tie with white dots, and a horrible, horrible blue shirt with white pinstripes and a white collar. hamlett was wearing a suit made from a combination of things obviously bought for him by several different people. the poor boy, he didn’t think for one second that the navy blazer (a dead ringer for the one charlie was wearing) looked even more silly over his white flannel shirt and his rust colored knit tie (the kind with the squared-off end). twenty-eight years old and he still doesn’t buy his own clothes. every once in a while they would cut to a camera that would show the whole set, a rust carpeted rectangular floor, with hamlett and charlie sitting across from each other at the round, wooden table. they sat there in the black void, talking. hamlett drinking his hot honey with tea and charlie with his coffee. they were quite a pair. charlie made hamlett appear even shorter, and hamlett made charlie look even more gaunt. backlit, they both looked like they had cut their own hair with a butter knife. the show aired at twelve thirty in the morning in iowa city. frankly, i doubt if anyone but joe and genie patrick saw it at all.

norman pink is a conceptual artist and writer working in memphis.

an interview of sorts

charlie rose: welcome to the broadcast. tonight on the show a conversation with the painter hamlett dobbins about art, the world and just about everything that comes to mind. he is finishing his final year in the university of iowa’s graduate painting program. he’s a young painter whom i’ve had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions, but tonight is his first time on the show. hamlett, welcome.

hamlett dobbins: charlie, thank you. it’s great to finally be on the show.

cr: mr. dobbins, you have been called a painter.

hd: on the good days.

cr: was there a moment when you realized you wanted to do this and why?

hd: [after a pause] yeah, i remember pretty clearly going to talk with an instructor for one of my early drawing courses after i’d missed his class. at the time i was a sophomore biology major. i went into his office and there was his desk all covered with art books and old copies of art in america and artforum, a pile of stubbed out camel non-filters. there was one of his paintings on the wall, and a table with all sorts of paint laid out. the room reeked of smoke and solvents. richard knowles, good painter, good teacher. it was the next semester, while i was enrolled in a beginning sculpture class with greely myatt and a beginning painting class with dick, that i started to think there was something there for me. there is something about dick’s office, the piles of books and paint, that stays in my mind when folks ask me what i do. the things greely and dick talked to me about when i was in there classes, about a way of life, a life of making things, that sticks with me.

cr: in a photo of your studio i’ve seen: “art is a verb—greely myatt” written on the wall in large letters.

hd: that was one of the things that stuck with me. a friend and i had gone to new york for a show greely and terri jones had at p.s. 122. after the opening, over beers at some pizza joint, greely said that to me. and then years later i remember going to dick’s house to drop off letter of recommendation forms for grad school applications and seeing huge bookshelves full of his sketchbooks. i remember thinking how great it was that this man had thirty or forty years’ worth of his life documented there on those shelves.

cr: that’s something that stays fresh in your mind?

hd: oh, for sure. this idea of a person’s work, serving as a document or a record of their life. like that great part in that documentary on philip guston, “a life lived.” there’s a moment where he’s walking around the san francisco museum of modern art, touching his paintings. it’s like those things were old friends he hadn’t seen since he was young. in the documentary he talked about how he could look at one of the paintings and remember what he had eaten for dinner that night. through them he could remember conversations with old friends. then there’s that great voice-over part at the end where he’s looking at all these paintings and he says: “these aren’t just paintings, they’re like a life lived.”

cr: what was it all about then?

hd: what, like nine years ago when i started painting as an undergrad? c’mon charlie, i’m only twenty-eight. i haven’t been painting that long.

cr: indulge me.

hd: [pause] normal stuff you would see coming out of undergraduate art classes—i took things way too seriously then, still do. i’m always writing myself notes: “hamlett have more fun.” back then i could listen to some horrible song or see something in the newspaper, and do drawing after drawing about it. i was doing lots of paintings and sculptures based on the holocaust, anne sexton and t.s. eliot poems. really down, heady stuff. i still read those poems and think about similar things, i just address them in more indirect ways.

cr: do you wish you hadn’t done them?

hd: no, not at all. i’m excited about where i am now in my studio. i think the things i did in the past somehow were paths that led me to where i am now. i’m excited about where i am and for the most part how i got here. it’s like that line, everything that’s happened in my life has led me to this point. i just wish i’d thought about things more then. considered things more.

cr: you mentioned the holocaust?

hd: at that point, with all that i was reading, seeing, and where my head was, i kept thinking about how it was a prime example of god turning his back on millions of people. i was making all this angry work about it, and now it sounds silly: a white, southern man, born in 1970, making work about something so far removed from himself. but some great things came from a trip my sister and i made to the anne frank house. before the trip i’d had a few moments of clarity here i was allowing myself to see aspects other than the evil. i was starting to see the strength, the challenge met by the will to survive. for me the anne frank house, as an object, is not only about that will to survive, but how to preserve that strength in physical form in order to bear witness. it was about remembering.

cr: some of your earlier work dealt with similar subjects: god, communication, your father’s battle with bone cancer. are there parallels?

hd: i feel like i wasn’t as removed as i was doing the work i did in undergrad. i felt better about the work i did last year with the microphones, clouds, god, because i had a direct connection to the experience. the recent paintings were a way to document the struggle and the questioning. and i think through the work i was able to come to understand things better.

cr: was the trip to amsterdam a pivotal journey for other reasons?

hd: i started to think about a bunch of things over there. my sister and i went the winter after our father’s death; we wanted to go on a trip, together, mostly to celebrate life, to think about dad and the things we learned through his illness. just before i went to amsterdam with heather, i went to new york, and i started thinking about what paintings where, not just the history of paintings with a capital h but the objects themselves. i thought about the power they can hold. it occurred to me in the van gogh room at the met and then again a few weeks later, in vincent’s museum in amsterdam. i found myself and others around me from all over the world, not settling for the reproductions in the books, but going all that way to see the objects themselves. we all wanted to be in the same room with them—to see all the paintings themselves. they weren’t just painting but documents of vincent’s life. just like anne’s diary was not just a diary, but it served to document, to put into human terms the story of this little girl. the anne frank house itself was more than just a place for people to buy postcards, it was a way for people to connect themselves to the girl, the place, that point in history. to build a solid relationship between themselves and what was before just a book they read in the eighth grade. i think the same thing can happen in a way, between the viewers, the artist, and their art objects. i see the art object as a potentially great way to link the viewer and the artist, and in creating that link something beyond them in established.

cr: art gives you hope?

hd: in a way-

cr: [interrupting, as is his wont.] let’s get back to the document.

hd: well, my point is that the work of the artist can serve as a document or a record of a life and a link to the artist himself… last year i got to see elie weisel speak there in iowa. again i’m talking about the holocaust; i feel like i keep bringing it up, but i think it really fits into the conversation. he talked about how he was a witness to history, and that to forget history is to betray it. you know seeing all those people packed in the auditorium to see elie weisel was almost as moving as seeing all those people crowd around vincent’s paintings. elie weisel covered a lot of ground that night, and he solidified some of the things i was thinking about. he talked about memory, not memory as a link between people now and abstract thoughts of the past, but memory as a solid connection between people now and people’s experiences in the past. the metaphor he used was a gate. memory can function as a gate through which people can enter. a gate they enter better by realizing a commonality, being connected through human experiences.

cr: [pause] in a moment we will return to our conversation with this young painter.

[pause. camera goes to the scenes of the city at night.]

cr: welcome back to the broadcast, tonight my guest is the young painter hamlett dobbins. we’ve been talking about life lessons, art, and other things as well. why would a big guy like yourself wear plaids and horizontally striped shirts like you do?

hd: now charlie, i told you i don’t shop for my clothes. aside from the suit for my father’s funeral i haven’t been clothes shopping since i was thirteen.

cr: pteradactyl or pteranodon?

hd: the pteradactyl is the one with the thing coming out the back of its head and the pteranodon doesn’t.

cr: would you ever take on a sponsor?

hd: a sponsor?

cr: like mark martin in the #6 valvoline ford thunderbird.

hd: oh sure, i’d have either tang or lego as a sponsor. that goes without saying.

cr: (looking down at his notes) the series “from the story of the rose” is about…what?

hd: charlie, in a way it’s an extension of most of the paintings i’ve done in the past five or six years. it’s about me as a painter, building a connection between myself and these things i’m thinking about, coming to an understanding of an idea through the process of painting. how’s that for something that sounds like it’s straight out of an artist’s statement?

cr: break it down for us. where do the images come from?

hd: my father used to tell a story called “the story of the rose” to school children. he was, among other things, a professional tree hugger, and part of his work involved teaching the children of memphis how to protect the environment. after he died in the summer 1997, i began listening to a recording of him telling this story. i wanted to find some way of connecting myself more with my father and his story. at the same time, i was thinking about joan mitchell’s grand valley paintings, which she made after several of her friends had died. she said she wanted to create a place in her paintings for these people to go. the images come from mixing these ideas and the actual process of painting.

cr: what is it all about? your painting.

hd: well, a big motivation in my paintings is gardening and how gardening practice, for me, parallels the practice of painting. i get the same whole body pleasure gooshing, pushing, covering, revealing, with both. i paint these not on an easel but rather with the paintings level to the ground, on the tops of gallon paint cans. i sit on a bench similar to a gardener’s bench as i work on the paintings. for these paintings, it’s the way of working that makes the most sense to me. the early paintings in this series were started on old pallets. this continues the gardening metaphor. when you move into a new house and there’s a big privet hedge or forsythia in the front, you can dig it up, prune it back, let it go, or plant things around it. it’s the same with these paintings. when you work in a garden you add to its history. with these pieces, i feel like i am adding to the history of my father’s story.

cr: can you give us a sense of what it’s like for you to paint? to finish a painting?

hd: like i said before, i try to have fun, maybe not “fun” like jelly bellys are fun but more like a game of chess is fun. there’s a challenge, a struggle, but there’s also a “whole body pleasure” in just pushing paint around. also, during the painting process i’m figuring this out. i’m coming to an understanding formally and personally between myself and the things we’ve talked about. by building something with my own hands i come to understand the subject more, i become a part of it.

cr: when is it done?

hd: it’s done when it stops bugging me. [hamlett with an aside to the camera.] i stole that line from joan mitchell. [looking back to charlie rose.] it’s a moment of realization, when i look down at the surface and say “oh that’s it, there it is.” but sometimes it’s more like ”uh, is that right?” and then days later it feels right.

cr: what happened between you and sue williams?

hd: c’mon charlie, rumors. i have no idea who started that one. i’ve never met sue williams, although i have heard she has a crush on me.

cr: what were the turning points in the last few years?

hd: i think the whole iowa experience has been very important. i think any time you put thirty or so painters in a building together with nothing to do but eat, drink and think painting, great things are going to happen. that’s a given. then when you factor in the history of the experience of teaching two great groups of drawing students, i couldn’t have helped but have a life changing experience. but i have to say, in my time there some pretty amazing things happened. i felt a connection to the folks who were in the program with me. we’re all away from our homes and families; we’re sort of forced to get to know one another. even the folks i didn’t get to know well, it was great being around them, seeing them really find what they care about, to watch them grow. i feel like the people there helped me, and i hope in some way i’ve helped them. i know through them i feel a strong connection to a place and to a critical time in my life as a person and a painter.

cr: you mentioned teaching. [pause] are you a teacher?

hd: when i teach i try to keep in mind the instructors from my undergraduate and graduate studies, critiques with visiting artists, things fellow students have said, and things that i have discovered in my own work. i’m a person who is always learning, i don’t think i could ever call myself a “teacher” [making quote marks with fingers in the air]. i just consider myself a student with more seniority. i am a person who enjoys sharing with others the things i’ve learned, using my limited experience to help others better communicate their ideas.

cr: are you a potter?

hd: good gosh no, i’m a ceramics dilettante at best.

cr: what is it that you do best?

hd: uh, geesh charlie that’s a toughy. hug. i’m a big guy and i can give a good hug.

cr: if you could shape the future… [pause] what would it hold for you?

hd: wow, charlie another great question. i like that thing hopper said about how he would be perfectly happy if he could spend the rest of his days painting the way light fell on buildings. in a way that holds true for me as well. i mean not the light on the buildings part but—

cr: the playwright, arthur miller, was on the show last week. he said writers are always trying to catch the lightning. they’re people who are always walking around with metal poles pointed towards heaven. waiting for the light for inspiration to strike.

hd: wow, what a great line.

cr: is it like that for painters? for you as a painter?

hd: if i understand it right, yeah, it is in a way. well maybe a bit different. i think for me almost everything can be a lightning strike, an egg salad sandwich at pearson’s, one of robin braun’s paintings, my dad’s story about the rose, a good conversation with nathaniel at george’s over a pint of guinness. they’re all magic moments, all lightning strikes. you just have to look for them, for the love of god, don’t wait for them. i think they (the experiences) all add up. everything in your life leads you to this moment. we, as people who experience these moments, become a sum of these experiences. it’s up to us as painters or playwrights or whoever to share them with others.

epilogue: norman pink isn’t a real person. charlie rose is, but this is, obviously, a completely fictitious interview. the questions were, however, for the most part, really asked by rose in interviews with among others: cate blanchett, brian dennehy, kathy bates, david bowie, and arthur miller.