Hamlett Dobbins | Interview & Studio Visit
I know that you build your compositions on a computer before translating them to a canvas. Why does the computer work best for you?
HD: I started out using collages, pieces of found paper or photographs to build the images I wanted. The collages would usually get me about 90% there in the painting then I’d deviate a little and add this or that move to what was in the collage. But as my compositions got more complicated I found that I didn’t want the final paintings to deviate too much from their collage maquette. In part because the collage building is the real creative, improvisational period of my process. The digital format allows me to get to a point and save it. Then I can tear it up and mess with it without losing the progress I made in the earlier version of the file. It’s like I can move forward without the fear that sometimes debilitates artists after they’ve worked on a piece for X number of hours. The computer allows me to feel more free and loose in that stage of the process.
In the recent review of your show in Nashville Arts Magazine, Kathleen Boyle mentions your digital manipulation of “images of significance”. What are these original images and where do they come from?
HD: They come from everything. From a pattern in my ladyfriend’s scarf, to the way the light falls on my little boy’s Adventure Time shirt when we’re throwing the frisbee down by the river or the way I feel when I am filled with a kind of intense longing when I hear that one part of Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind” when she says “hmm” at the three minute five second mark.
When I look at your work I am struck by your fearless use of color. Can you talk a bit about your use of color and the role it plays in your process?
HD: No. Not to be funny or short, but the real truth of it is that color is one of the most intuitive parts of my process. In many ways it is a total mystery to me. I can nudge myself in one direction or another, my notebooks are full of notes like “make an orange painting” but I usually allow the particular colors of the magical moments that make me paint to dictate where the colors for a particular painting go or don’t go. I have to stay true to that moment, if I don’t I lose touch with why I started a painting in the first place and it all becomes surface. I do know that the paintings are more intense and vibrant since making the switch to acrylic paint. I am always trying to rein in the chroma on some of these to keep them from getting away from me.
You are based in Memphis, TN. What kind of impact does living in the South have on your work, if any?
HD: I have been active in the Memphis community since I was in college. I like my home here. I have been able to contribute to the community here without having to kill myself in the process for a long time. I like Memphis, there is a weird magnet under the ground that makes cool, gritty creatives to work and live here. Always has been. It is also where my children live and I don’t want to live without them. They are the wellspring. Always have been, always will be.
You recently began teaching full time at The University of Memphis again. Does teaching and regular interaction with young artists impact your work?
HD: I steal everything and I have a good friend and teacher, John Dilg, who said “teaching allows me to be the person I most want to be.” I usually quote him here. Teaching keeps me current. It keeps me verbal. It allows me to connect to the long river of time and art that I need to be connected to. I get more from my students than they ever get from me, but I am good at sharing that juice, the love of the challenge of making art and it makes me feel like a better, more whole person when I do it, whether it’s teaching at Flicker Street Studio or at a college. There’s that energy that happens when you’re really on to something that I can’t get anywhere else.
What are you working on now, what is next for you in the studio?
HD: Usually in the summer and in the winter I find myself making drawings. They tend to be lose and quick and improvisational and they maybe mess around with an idea in a physical way that I just don’t get when I work on the computer. There are more happy accidents, almost like the difference between playing speed chess and a long game. It exercises a different part of my brain. Sometimes these quick drawings make their way into or somehow inform the work that comes after. Now that the paintings for Nashville are taken care of I can play a little bit more and see where these new drawings might take me.