Interview with Don Estes
DLG: Does your process begin with a title or do you create the work and decide on a title after you’ve completed it?
DE: There are times when I’m thinking about a specific event or place, like the western Arkansas treeline along the river, or watching thunderclouds from my rooftop. The Warning, one of the pieces in the show, is from being on the roof when the tornado sirens began from across the street at the fire station. Other times a work is titled after the fact from something in the work that reminds me of some event or place, or maybe even a conversation.
DLG: Your work is a powerful display of color and shape, as well as dimension and movement. Your previous show titles and the work in those shows allude to rhythmic movement and sound. I’m thinking specifically of “Tributary” and “Prosody,” two previous shows at DLG, as well as “Tide to the Vernacular.” How have you come to incorporate properties of sound into your visual work?
DE: I would say that the work alludes the idea of rhythmic movement more so than sound. Prosody refers to the cadence and rhythm in poetry, and of course tributary implies a movement of water. I also feel that the work invites the eye to move around, find areas of interest to pause on, and then continues around the entire work. I often have a place that I think pulls the eye toward it, but it doesn’t require the viewer to stay focused there.
DLG: In what ways has your relationship with Memphis changed over the years and how has that affected the work you produce?
DE: I feel very lucky to be able to enter my studio and be lost in my work. It’s a sanctuary where I can close a door on what is going on in the world, in Memphis, on South Main. I think the work has always tried to reflect a larger, more imploring appreciation of the simple things that everyone experiences no matter where they live. Attempting that using a visual language seems to be exactly what art is for.
DLG: Can you talk about your process? Are the variations in a color’s saturation made with intent or do you allow the paint to kind of act according to its own properties?
DE: The process of making the pieces is always at the forefront. “Drawing” with the compound coating and applying the colors is a constant back and forth, allowing time for drying and evaluation between coats. I often work on several pieces at a time to keep a rhythm going, especially while applying the spackle. After the initial ground is on, things begin to slow down with the applying of pigment in the form of light washes or, more often, pastel. The process is endlessly repeatable, with areas of colors partially covered again with the coating and vice versa. The hardest part comes with knowing when to stop, as can be said about all art, and much of life.
DLG: In your talk this past Saturday you mentioned that the spackling component you use is absorbent; it’s also a flexible material that can be moved around easily until it is dry and chalky. How does that freedom enhance your process? Or does this make it frustrating?
DE: The spackling I use as the base of the pieces is an Alkyd resin based compound that dries fairly quickly and can be manipulated somewhat with a damp sponge even after drying. It pigmented with Titanium Dioxide which gives it the absorbent quality that holds the pastels so well. I have been using this medium for many years and never tire of the way it handles and responds to the movement of the large knives I apply it with.
DLG: How does the work feel to you now that it is hanging rather than in your studio? In what ways do the settings change the work or how you view it?
DE: The first thing I noticed on entering the gallery after the show was hung is how well-lit is was. After seeing them this way, I think it’s time to get more lights in my studio. It really brought out the color. In my studio, only the painting close to the window get that much light. The Gallery itself is just an amazing space. The high ceilings give even the large paintings plenty of room, with ample wall space to allow the eye to rest between pieces. We are lucky to have such a place in Memphis.
DLG: Thank you, Don. Now that the show is in the gallery, what is next for you? You have an interest in printmaking and have worked with that in the past.
DE: After a long series of paintings, I always turn my attention to works on paper. Drawing and printmaking let me see things differently that large paintings. Right now I am focused on completing some rather complicated prints using a combination of etching, lithography, and silkscreen. I have always love the challenge of making prints and find their peculiarities and process, while often frustrating and invariably rewarding. And I love being able to handle beautiful handmade papers. I am currently working with all that remains of a Japanese paper I’ve had for years, and now is no longer available because the man who spent his entire life making it died. He was a Japanese National Treasure, a rare honor bestowed on Japanese artisans.
DLG: Wow, have fun with that. Thanks for your time, Don!