Interview with Rachel Clark

 

Rachel Clark is an artist from Stafford Springs, CT. She received her BFA from the University of Connecticut in ’08, where she studied painting and printmaking. You can find more of her work at her website, as well as the work we’ve published at The Slag.

 

CARLETON WHALEY:       So, let’s start with your series “Same Time, Same Place.” How long have you been working on it, and what inspired it?

RACHEL CLARK:       That started when I was getting ready for a show at Sabor 44. I knew I wanted to work on larger paintings than what I had been doing, and I wanted to have something that tied them all together. I didn’t think of it in advance, but as I was working on them I thought “what do these make me think of, and why am I doing this?” I liked that idea of familiarity, that there are things like this happening all the time around us, and I guess it ended up being an open-ended theme, or investigation, because I never really stopped. It was like “Oooh this is interesting, let me keep looking at it.” There are different things I do that are to the side, side projects that don’t really go with it. So, the series has been going from 2015 to now, so I guess 2 years. I guess that’s pretty normal for an investigation of the topic: people, buildings, places. I like the idea that you can see someone on the street and think “hey that person looks really familiar” and you don’t know if it’s because you’re in the same place all the time and you just see each other, if you actually do know each other, or if it’s just that something about them is familiar. I like that, and I feel like you can get that from buildings and places as much as you can from people. Like “I feel like I’ve been there before” and sometimes that’s just enough to get me interested, and then I have a little idea and I want to start painting from it. I start thinking about the lines, and—sometimes just making arches and I’m like “Ooh I recognize that” and that’s kinda cool.

C:       A lot of the people I’ve shown your work to, that’s the first thing they’ll say: “Oh, I know where that is,” or “I know that gas station!” Which one is it, actually?

R:       I mean, a gas station is a gas station, but the one I shared with you guys is up in Portland Maine, and I think it’s by a restaurant with a goofy name that we went to a few times. I take a lot of pictures just because I like something, and sometimes I recompose them later. Actually, I’ve been taking a lot of pictures of gas stations at night lately. I like the way the colors change, the way the color temperature of the lights around the filling stations is juxtaposed with the ones in the windows, along with the streetlights—the way streetlights can have that warm, orange light.

C:       A lot of people have been arguing about that painting in particular, actually. They’re each convinced that it’s somewhere specific, like in Vernon.

R:       Yeah, well, a lot of the places that I’ve painted are sometimes local, like in Stafford, but most of them are just New England small towns. And New England small towns are, well, New England small towns.

C:      What makes you excited to start a new project?

R:      I get an idea stuck in my head, like how you get a little bit of a song stuck in your head. I just have this thing that I want to make, based on one of the pictures that I took, or that idea I’ve been pursuing. For instance, last summer, when I was at an event in orange county, California, I just saw something cool really far away and took a couple pictures. Because of the distance, they were terrible quality pictures, so then I put them on my computer and I cropped them—and there was really only so much I could do with Photoshop at that point, because it was so busted and grainy. But it still got stuck in my head, and to deal with it while I was in school that semester, I made a small version of it in clay to fill one of my assignments. I had a ceramics project, but I made it about painting, and made a small miniature and I was like “There, I knew I was right about that, I knew it was something I was interested in,” and then just like that, last weekend I finished it up in my studio. It’s not huge, just like two and a half feet square, but it was stuck in my head.

C:       Do you have a usual process, or is what you just described sort of how things normally go?

R:       That’s usually my process. I wander around and make the people I’m walking with stop while I take pictures of things, or I’ll make them move so that I get their reflection in windows. Sometimes it takes a while to get from the parking lot to the restaurant. And I’m constantly figuring how to store all these pictures that look like terrible photos in my computer. They’re all huge files, because I try to take them as large as I can. That’s something I’d like to be better at, actually, the photography aspect of my art. I probably could learn to just take pictures, but I really just love painting. I get excited while I’m painting, even though people in my studio will be like, “oh, you’re doing that again” and I’m like “ooh, I just made a marker!” It’s still exciting to me. The picture taking is just a buildup to that, gathering a big pile of material to work from.

C:       Along that same line, some of the newer additions to your series are digital. What are your feelings about moving into another medium?

R:       I really like learning, and problem solving, figuring it out, which is what the digital stuff has let me do. It wasn’t something that I sought out—I just had to do it for a class. But then I got into it, and finding ways to engage with it like I do with painting. What I like about it is that it’s different, and the results that I get from it are different than what I would normally get out of paintings. What I like is being able to experiment, so with photography I’m not wasting paint or canvasses or trying to sell something. I’m just playing with layers. But they’re the same type of photos that I use to start my paintings. They’re taken for the same reasons, but where I go with them ends up a little bit different because of that process of experimentation. It’s the same with clay; you can squish clay if you don’t like it.

C:      So how is it working up in the studio? What’s it like having that community?

R:      It’s great to have that space, that studio, those people. It’s such a great resource that I don’t think that I’d be able to paint the way I do if I didn’t have it. And we do a pretty good job of sharing it. We love being right above the coffee shop, where we can come down and get coffee and refreshments as needed, and in the summer it’s really cool because they play concerts in the park across the street, so we like to open the windows. It’s great painting while those concerts are going on. It’s good light, good space, good people. Trying to keep it organized can be a challenge. I couldn’t do this in my house—there’s just too many materials, and I need too much space to do it in my house. And I’d probably have to go do laundry. Or dishes. And I wouldn’t focus on painting. So, if I’m up there I have to paint, it’s the rule.

C:       Who or what are your greatest influences as an artist—from beginning to now?

R:       Well, I really like John Singer Sargent. He was an American portrait artist, but then he went into these paintings that were more impressionistic. He had the art that paid the bills, and the art he was curious about. There’s one that’s like a Venetian street scene with somebody looking out, and another person looking another way, and that’s something I was looking at when I painted the New York scene you used for the cover. I really like the connection he had with the viewer. He manages to convey expressions while still experimenting around the edges. So that’s like, my old guy. Then, more recent ones? I’ve got a file on my computer of pictures from artists that I like, there’s some really great people working right now, like Kim Cogan’s street scenes are so cool, you should definitely check them out. It’s just like buildings and buildings and buildings. You can tell he loves it. There’s some really good figure painters—I can’t remember his name, I remember the picture, I could sketch it out but I can’t remember his name. There’s like, figures that are all angular with striped clothing. Don’t worry about that. Jenny Saville is fantastic, she does portraits with big brushstrokes—she gets these giant canvasses and they’re incredibly fleshy and expressive portraits.

C:       Do you have any dreams like that? Like, “If I could just [insert something here]?”…

R:       I’d like to be able to paint even bigger than what I do. I thought when I made some of the paintings in this issue, that those felt really big to me, but they’re really not. They’re like 8×4, and, yeah, it couldn’t fit in my living room, but it’s really not that big in the world of painting. It’s cool what some people do with giant canvasses. But then you need to store them, and sell them, and hope that you don’t have the heat and humidity problems that make canvasses warp. I did a six-foot-tall canvass that warped. So, I’d like to be able to go bigger. But then it’s also more of a commitment. With small ones, you get to make them really quickly, so they’re not as precious, and you’re not as invested in them as with bigger pieces.

C:       So, making them in separate pieces helps them with warping?

R:       It makes them easier to transport and to install, as well as with warping. The wooden panels that I made for some of the paintings helped with that. But still, I could have done that differently, or better. But there’s always things about your art that later, you want to re-do or critique?

C:        Can you go on about that?

R:        The things that I’d want to critique?

C:        Yeah, sure!

R:        Sure, let’s point out all the flaws in the pieces you published!

C:        Well, not necessarily, more like in general, what are things that looking back on them, you would have done differently, or need to work on?

R:        Well, I’m always working on my use of color, and painting quickly. Getting the ideas down in fewer brush strokes, I guess. Also, not being so tied down to the image in my head: more experimentation.

C:        What have been some of your struggles as an artist?

R:         Definitely balancing my home life with my art life. That’s the hardest thing, setting aside time for it as well as prioritizing things like getting the laundry done, or going to the grocery store. I could write a paper, but I could also paint a picture. Just balancing that is the hardest thing, and not making excuses for not painting. Cause there’s a lot of good TV series on right now. Actually, sometimes what I’ll do is play them in the background and just listen to them, so there’s all kinds of movies and shows where I’ve heard the entire thing, but I don’t recognize it if I walk in and see someone watching it. I listen to a lot of television while I’m painting, as well audio books.

C:         Does it ever invade your work?

R:         No, but what’s weird is sometimes I can look at a corner of a painting, or part of somebody’s face, a line maybe, and remember what I was listening to at that point. It doesn’t connect at all, but sometimes it’s like “this headphone cord here is from the chapter in that audiobook where the character’s looking for his wife.” I can remember weird parts of TV shows from parts of my paintings. It’s not very useful. I’m not gonna write a thesis statement about it or anything, but it’s in the background sometimes.

C:         What’s some advice you’d give to an artist just starting out?

R:         I think it’s just what everyone says: just keep making lots of art and work, and don’t think too much about what it’s going to look like in the end, just that you’re making it. And also, you can actually learn. Your brain is totally squishable and learnable—you can totally learn. Even if you’re not going to be the next Michelangelo, you’re gonna get better, and find your own style.

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Blacksmith Spotlight: Charles Anderson

This interview was conducted August 6, between our first and second quarterly releases.

So there we were, in a small, southern Connecticut town, thoroughly confused as to where we were and what we needed to do. Let me explain. Leading up to our literary debut, we received a submission from a Charles Anderson, which     included dozens of pictures of hand forged knives and hooks. Once we got in contact with him, we only had more questions. We found out he not only was interested in having his work shown in The Slag Review, and had made all these pieces himself, but he was only sixteen. Rather than just publishing some pictures, we decided that we   needed to show him to our readers. We couldn’t believe it—we had so many questions about who Charles was, and what he was doing, that we couldn’t wait to interview him. Luckily, a town fair was coming up in August that allowed us to witness Charles at his forge firsthand, which is how we found ourselves here.

So, when the date came, we wandered around the town’s fair, which was put on by the local Historical Society. We passed a one-room schoolhouse, several barns, sheep being shorn, until we saw an old man dressed in colonial attire. We thought he might know where Charles was, and so we waited behind the group listening to him explain the ancient farming equipment. We still hadn’t gone over what we were going to ask him.

Of course, when we heard the clang of metal on metal ringing from up the hill, we knew where we needed to go.

 

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The “Blacksmith” sign was a nice tip, as well.

 

Soon we were face to face with the blacksmith and his forge. It was brick and mortar, and roared while Charles held the metal under piles of ash and char. The forge’s mouth opened wide, just above waist-height, and soot blasted away from the fan, up and out the chimney.

It was the most impressive forge we had seen, mostly because the one we had built out of fire brick had crumbled after our first use. Here was something real, I thought. Of course, we still had no idea what to do.

“So,” I said, “We’re gonna check it out real quick, let him know who we are, and ask him…things, I guess? I don’t know, should we just…jump in?”

“Yeah, the forge looks cozy-I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Tom laughed.

“Ok, but really.” We stood there for a bit longer. It seemed like Charles’ father was explaining things as tourists walked up, and his son focused on his work.

“It seems like you’d lose a lot of heat in this forge,” I noticed, trying to say something that sounded like a witty observation. Charles had pulled the rod out of the fire, and was hammering it out on the anvil again. As there were tourists, and people at work, it seemed like we could barely talk above a whisper. Especially since we didn’t know how to introduce ourselves.

“Well,” Tom said, “you don’t need to bring it to as hot a temperature as we’ve been doing, because he’s forging, not doing melting or casting.”

Therese had disappeared while we were waiting, and as she came back she said, “I want to point out that the old guy we met down there—his name is Jerry.”

“Thanks for finding that out for us,” Tom said.

“That’ll end up being important.”

“This is the kind of investigative reporting we’re looking for.”

She laughed and said, “Apparently he runs this whole thing.”

“Yeah, I mean, he seems like the kind of person who’d have a shady past and be in charge of things you wouldn’t expect,” Tom said. Therese and I had been holding in our laughter, still aware of the quiet that the forge seemed to demand.

“Well,” I said, “I think bringing that part—the whole shady past thing.”

“Oh, I’m not bringing it, I’m just bringing it up. Jerry brought it.”

“Everyone’s afraid to talk about it, but we’re not,” Therese said.

“You can’t hide anymore, Jerry, we’re onto you.”

 

And then we kept waiting, watching Charles at work. Tom explained more about the forge. In truth, you don’t lose as much heat as I thought. Yes, some is being lost because it’s open to the air, but with the enormous pile of ash and charcoal glowing in the center, almost all the heat was held in. Charles was working on a leaf at the tip of the rod, and he would bury it deep in the ash, where the embers still glowed and thrived. A young man stood beside Charles, turning a crank-powered blower to keep the flames hot.

“A little bit better than an air mattress pump?” I asked Tom.

“Oh God,” Therese said, “That air mattress pump.”

Tom shrugged. He’s fond of the air mattress pump that he uses in our forge.

 

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Charles at the forge.

 

 

After waiting longer, and having a short discussion about sleeping bags, trash, and New York subways as a part of investigative journalism into where not to sleep (we’ll try it for our first anniversary, folks) we finally introduced ourselves. We still had no idea what to do, so I took the lead. I’m no more qualified than anyone else, I’m just more used to embarrassment, it seems. While Charles was busy, we spent time talking with his father, Mr. Anderson.

After small talk, where we were from and how we got there, I mentioned that all three of us had driven separately, and each of us had missed the small green the fair was held in.

“I got to the intersection and thought, ‘They’re shearing sheep there. Wait, that’s probably where we need to be.’”

Mr. Anderson laughed and said, “Yeah, the folks that were here before you

guys said they’d been living in town for two years now, and never noticed the park before.”

When I asked how often this event happened, Mr. Anderson paused, and said, “Well, they do this once a year, but Charles comes up here as often as he can. We have to be up here with him because of his age, so our schedules can make it kind of tough, but he’s usually up here once a week, maybe once every two weeks. Sometimes he’ll get a couple days in a row. And of course, we have forges in our backyard.”

It turned out that Charles Anderson, this sixteen-year-old who reached out to us, started forging when he was only thirteen, the same year he earned his fist eagle scout palm (he is working on his third). The forges his father mentioned have all been cobbled together over the years-brake drums, propane forges, a European style forge that Mr. Anderson described as a coffee can with fire bricks, and of course, the coffee can forge itself.

It was strangely surreal, seeing both how similar our tracks were, especially with the coffee can forge, and how far Charles had pushed himself in what most consider an unusual hobby. As Charles continued to work on the leaf, hammering and quenching alternatively, I explained more about us to his father.

“Most of our experience has been in smelting and casting, because we’ll only get a few good heats out of a forge before it falls apart. It’s only been in the past year or so that we’ve been actually putting time and money into this stuff. The coffee can has sufficed for years, to be honest.”

“Cool! Have you done aluminum casts?”

“That’s most of what we’ve been doing, actually,” Tom said. “I’ve mostly been doing ingots, nothing super complex yet. I did a pretty simple, crude ring, actually.”

“And half of a cup,” I reminded him.

What I wanted to know, though, was how Charles got started with all of this. The blacksmith shop, the forge, forging in general, even.

“Well,” his father said, “Charles got set up with this sort of by chance. The old guy I think you ran into is the past president of the historical society, and once a month we do this thing where we all meet for coffee, and we were chatting and he says, ‘You know, I’d like you guys to get involved with the Historical Society,’ and casually went from that to transitioning and talking about Charles making knives in our garage, then the blacksmith shop, when he says to Charles ‘I want you to be the town blacksmith.’”

We all just stared, then laughed. The idea of it all was insane—that there was a town blacksmith at all, that he was so young, and that so many people wanted to support him. And now we were supporting him, too.

We all stood there, watching as Charles continued his work. Mr. Anderson talked about the show Forged in Fire, which none of us had seen. We immediately felt silly: we’re starting a magazine devoted partly to blacksmithing, and we haven’t seen possibly the only show on TV that turns blacksmithing into a competition. That wasn’t the first time I’d wondered how ill-prepared we seemed. It won’t be the last, I’m sure.

“You know,” I said, “It’s funny, but when we see people trying to get better at smithing, they almost always make leaves, knives, and hooks. Maybe there’s a lot to learn from those, or maybe they’re just more approachable. We’re going to be working on railroad spike knives soon, actually. Has Charles done any of those?”

“Yeah, kinda the first thing he did was the railroad spike knives. That and a rebar knife – they’re more difficult, but you can do it. Actually, here’s one of his first ones over here.”

 

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The rebar knife in question-photo submitted by Charles Anderson.

 

Mr. Anderson walked away and returned with a blackened strip of iron, roughly pounded into the shape of a knife. You could see where the single edge would have been, curving back gently.

“When he first learned how to use this particular forge, he tried a railroad spike just to see what it was like. Cause you know, using a forge at your house is   completely different than when you’re using something like this. You have to do a lot of work to keep the forge hot that you don’t on a smaller scale one. This might be the second one he ever did, up at the forge here, just to see what he could do. You’ll see pictures of his other knives too, he takes pictures, did he send you any? You won’t believe what he’s made. He started this one as a custom chef’s knife, and he stopped – he came up and worked on it for one day, maybe five hours to get it to this point, then stopped. Someone else bought a similar knife from him online, and he’s been working on a new one, with a screwdriver built into it, a bottle opener as well.”

Charles’ other activities are as varied and impressive as this knife sounds. In his spare time, Charles fences, plays trombone in the high school band, is active in boy scouts, and has a part-time job as a dishwasher. We’d been getting answers and input from him from time to time as he worked, and as his father told us about the forge set up, his history, and of course the mystery that is Charles’ interest in forging, which his father had never known the catalyst to.

We had decided to wait until he was done with his leaf, but I chose to interrupt instead. You know, how professionals do.

“Charles, how long does it take you to finish a leaf, usually?”

“A leaf? It depends. Where’s the one I did earlier?” he asked his friend, Graham, who stepped away from the crank and handed it to him. “Here, this one took about 15 minutes. The one I’m doing now, I’m really focusing on the stem, because I want to make it into a keychain.”

“Your dad was saying he can’t remember anything being a trigger to get you into this. So I guess – Why blacksmithing?”

“It was mainly YouTube. I saw blacksmiths, and I thought it was cool.”

“That’s fair,” Therese said.

“Yeah, that was us too. So, you said you were 13 when you started?” Tom asked, likely wondering when he got started forging.

“Yeah, I got into it when I was 12, but the first knife I made was when I was 13.”

“So you started right away on knives?”

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t exactly call it forging,” Charles said, laughing as he looked at the railroad spike knife his father had already shown us. “I kinda had some charcoal, and just put my steel into the charcoal, and got it up to a temper color, and then hit it. But it worked.”

“Hey, if it works, it works.”

“We’ve got two big rocks in our backyard that he used as anvils,” Mr. Anderson said as Charles went back to his work on the leaf.

“Yeah, I mean, we’re probably just gonna get a section of I-Beam” I said, then explained, “My stepdad’s an ironworker. The horn on an anvil is important, but we probably won’t have one for a while.”

Soon, other people began to crowd around us again, and Tom, Therese, and I backed off, wandering around the workshop rather than getting in the way of the viewers. As we did, Charles began to open up in a way I hadn’t seen before, speaking to the crowd gathered in front of him. Maybe it was just him working at the anvil, closer to them, that prompted it, or maybe talking to us loosened him up, but either way, he began to explain the process as he brought a chisel down on the fresh iron leaf.

Some of Charles’ work that he submitted to us.

“So now I’m adding the veins to the leaf. You can pass around this one that I already made. And that right there’s the wax I’ll add later, but right now I’m just doing the lines.”

“So are you just making the lines based on where you see it looking best?”

“Basically,” he said. “I don’t always add lines. I usually use this hammer and just kinda tap around to make a nice texture, but I generally do veins on leaves.”

I added my own question, “So, you’ve done work with knives and hooks before, but leaves are a little different, right? They don’t really have a function, so what are these going to be used for?”

“Well, a lot of times it’s simply decorative. People aren’t very attracted to just a simple little hook—they want something that they can talk about.”

“What do you find yourself learning from this process of leaf making?” Therese asked.

“Heat control, mostly, just because they’re so thin. Like, I find myself hitting cold metal a lot, and that’s really bad because it’s more prone to cracking. And it really teaches patience, because it’s so thin so you just have to keep running back and forth.”

Tom asked, “Do you find that heat control is more of a problem with this forge than your ones at home?”

Charles laughed and said, “No, the ones at my house have worse heat control, simply because my blower’s just a hair drier.”

“I was gonna ask if you guys used that,” Therese said as we all laughed, “My favorite moment was when we were making that ring, and the fan stopped working, and Tom’s just like ‘Oh, I guess an air mattress fan isn’t the best thing to use.’”

“So, of course, to replace it I went out and got another air mattress fan.”

Mr. Anderson was laughing hardest of all, and took the moment to tell us a bit more about the hair drier in question. Charles had grabbed it at first, just to test out his new forge, see if everything worked. It was meant to be able to be used in both capacities, really. Except that the heat from Charles’ forge melted the drier to the forge lining, burning it out and making it impossible to use for its original purpose. The best part? It was his sister’s hair drier.

“I mean, she never used it before I did,” Charles said, defending himself.

“That doesn’t matter, and you know it.”

“So, how long did it take you to figure your way around this forge?” Therese asked.

“The hardest part about this one is keeping it hot enough. Because the pot is so deep, it basically needs constant air to keep it up.”

“Can you do this by yourself?”

“I definitely can, but—”

“I’m the help,” his friend Graham said.

“I was gonna say, you look like you’re taking a lot of stress off. You’re killing it right now.”

She was right. Graham not only cranked the air supply, but when it came time to separate the final piece, Charles held it down while Graham struck it with the chisel. We waited patiently, listening as Charles ad Graham worked. Charles would rotate the piece of iron, saying “Hit” or “Light” and then readjusting as Graham came down with the hammer.

“So what are some plans you have in the future?” I asked.

“I’d really like to make some tongs, just so I can have my own tools, and they’re easy to make. Tongs and hammers. Top tools, bottom tools. Eventually, I’d like to become a master bladesmith from ABANA, but that’s a long way down the road.”

“Well, it seems like you’re on the right path. You definitely started earlier than us.”

Charles finished the leaf by pressing it into a ball of wax, which left its well-known black coating, typical of wrought-iron, on the leaf keychain. We were thrilled to be there with him, and we’re just as excited now as we were then to see him grow into a talented smith.

Talking to him reminded us of why we started the magazine: to create a home not just for art and literature, but to bring the crafts, especially blacksmithing, into conversation with them. Charles, and us, are learning key steps in the forging process, just as writers and artists do when they begin, and at the inception of our careers there is no telling what we will accomplish, but there is all the hope in the world.

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To see more of Charles’ work, follow his website Paracorder Survival and Knives.