Flex Gallery and the Work of Christopher Sutton
In response to a lack of public art opportunities during winter, on January 11th, I launched Flex Gallery, a mobile public art space located on my left arm. For the project, I sent canvas armbands to six artists, requesting they turn them into artworks. Each artist works in a wide variety of media, and I provided them with no themes or limitations other than the dimensions of the band. Over the next four months, I will wear each artist’s work for periods of two weeks.
For the past week and a half, I have been wearing the work of Christopher Sutton, an Austin-based artist and alumnus of the Savannah College of Art and Design. I spoke with him over the phone last week to learn more about his work and his creative process,
Zachary Johnson (ZJ): We’re both graduates of art history programs who became artists as well. How did you start to make work?
CS (Chris Sutton): Ever since I was young I’ve always drawn and been creative in that way. And then when I got into comics in high school, I drew a little bit more, but I never really connected to any art teachers. I had an art class freshman year of high school, and I didn’t like the teacher, so I never took art again. So it was something that I knew I liked, but I didn’t really have a direction.
Once I started going to SCAD [the Savannah College of Art and Design], and I had people that I knew who were going to be professionals, it was something for me to do while I was hanging out with them. And then it just morphed into its own thing where now I can’t not make something. I go crazy if I’m not creating something in a day.
ZJ: Do you usually make something every day then?
CS: Yeah. I always have five plus projects in the works, so I get motivated about one thing and work on it and then get stuck and work on another piece. But then I get an idea for the first one and stop and go back to it. It’s that kind of process.
I think [SCAD] really drove me in the direction I’m in now where I like doing collages, acrylic paintings, and paper sculptures as well sometimes. It really all stemmed from being in college and not having a lot of resources, so I was just trying to make something out of whatever I had in my room. I had a lot of friends that smoked cigarettes, so I made tiny little matchbooks for them and it kind of just evolved from stuff like that. It was never my intention to make something that would go on a wall, maybe just something that someone would have on a knicknack shelf in their apartment.
ZJ: Is that still your intention or are you interested in exhibiting work at this point?
CS: Now I’m trying to focus more on showing. I feel the difficulty with that is [the question] what would people actually want to hang up? The biggest thing with me is every time I make something, it just looks like something I make, and I have an issue with that. It just makes me want to start on the next thing.
ZJ: Are you not completely satisfied with some pieces then?
CS: Yeah. I wish I could step back and look at them from not my own perspective to see what it would look like. But I also feel like that [lack of satisfaction] kind of helps me be more critical of myself.
ZJ: That’s something that Ira Glass talked about once. It’s a quote of his that circulates a lot. It’s about how when you’re starting to make things, there’s a period where you have really good taste and a really good eye, but for a while you’re continuously unsatisfied with your own work because you know what’s good, and you apply that to yourself. And he says it’s just a process to get where you like what you’re making and feel that it’s worthy.
CS: Yeah, I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what I’m able to do, and with that mindset, if I were to say what my biggest skill is, I’d say composition. So whenever I create something, composition is the first thing I’m thinking about, especially when it’s a larger piece. I think about what I’m able to do and the materials I have and then it evolves from there; I can already see where I’m going.
ZJ: Have you been playing around with materials, expanding as you’ve gone along?
CS: Yeah, totally. When I first started it was just mostly collage. And then it wasn’t until about two years ago that I decided to start painting; I did a painting on a back of a kid’s book that I gave to my sister. And it made me less scared about trying to do a painting.
At the same time I was just really nervous about trying abstract art because I always thought that was maybe something that was too easy, and I didn’t want to necessarily do that, but those were the images that kept on coming to me. So, I think once I finally embraced that and did some abstract [work] to see what it looked like, it really opened up what I felt comfortable with.
ZJ: I do like how your work looks like it’s grown out of doodling, but then it’s gotten more and more complex.
CS: Absolutely. And that’s a composition thing. When I take photographs, they’re a lot emptier, and there’s a lot of negative space, but when I do a collage or a painting, I’m constantly trying to fill up space. When I look at an art piece, I definitely like a lot of detail. I don’t really think my work has a lot of detail per se, but I definitely think it has a lot going on [within it]. I like to try to create scenes where they’re constantly pulling the viewer’s eye all over the place.
ZJ: So you’re not going for a center point.
CS: Generally not. Recently I did a piece for my sister’s wedding. So I wanted to do a sillhouette of her and her husband and the other elements started from there. The piece ended up having four focal points, but I started with two and went from there.
Whenever I create stuff, I always have the idea that I’m sending stuff to family members, so I don’t feel as nervous about making something.
ZJ: How do you acquire the materials for your collages?
CS: I’m always looking. In college it was easier; I would literally pick up everything that was at a coffee house. Now I’m in spaces that don’t have flyers so readily available like in Savannah. I have this shop that’s connected to the public library, and when books are no longer fit to be in the Austin Public Library, they send it to this store and it’s fifty cents for a paperback, a dollar for a hardback. And because they’re mostly damaged in the first place, I don’t feel bad cutting them up. So, whenever I’m running low, I’ll just go and fill up a box and pull from there. I like materials where I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but then I can create from it once I come up with an idea. I’ll still pick up flyers and stuff, but I’ll usually go to used bookstores for materials.
ZJ: Have you shown at this point?
CS: I’ve only gotten into one show, but I’ve only applied to one show, so it’s worked out so far. So, I have a piece hanging up at the tax office at the town text to mine
ZJ: The tax office had an art show?
CS: Yeah, it’s kind of too bad because the hours are something like 8 to 4:30, but I think a lot of people must see it. Definitely my plan for 2016 is to create some kind of solo show. I just need to find a space I can afford or a company I can link up with.
The other thing I’m trying to work on is having more pieces because whenever I create something it’s always with the idea that I’m already giving it to somebody or for a specific reason. I create it, and all of a sudden I don’t have it anymore. So I’m trying to work on a lot that I just have on hand for myself so I can create some kind of show.
ZJ: You mail out a lot of pieces. I’ve gotten some postcards and small pieces from you, as has my brother, but I don’t know who else has. How many pieces would you say you send out a year?
CS: Well, if we’re thinking postcards, a year would be hard to say, but I’d say at least twenty-something a month.
ZJ: Wow That’s pretty impressive that you’re creating so much.
CS: Well, whenever it’s a smaller canvas, it’s a place for me to think about ideas. Recently I did a bunch of tiny Spurs basketball paintings for some people and it helped me think of how I’m dong a certain process. For instance, I hope to try and get into oils soon, so for that I’ll get a bunch of inch by inch canvases and do a few paintings with that to kind of see how that goes, which will help me get into larger oil painting. And whenever I do postcards I’m generally thinking about a project I’m working on and it helps me think some ideas through while actually getting content on paper.
And honestly the whole idea – so much of creating art for me is I like the idea that I was alive that day and I made that and the idea of one day having thousands of postcards and just thinking about where those might be. Even if someone gets my postcard and just throws it away, it’s still out there, and I like that about it.
ZJ: Where do you see yourself moving as an artist?
CS: The biggest thing right now is that I’m much more focused on bigger projects. So much of what I would do in college would be postcard-sized collage work. I think now that I’m having more patience working with canvases and working on bigger cardboard to do collages, I think the direction I’m really headed is showing my work instead of just doing it because I feel like I have to. And don’t get me wrong, I love the way my brain works that I really want to create something everyday that I wake up.
ZJ: Is there something that you want your audience to receive from your work?
CS: The biggest thing is…if someone were to look at it, I would want them to be engaged more than just a quick glance. I like the idea that my pieces don’t just have one big thing going on, but a lot of smaller details. I try to include clues along with the general idea in those works, so that people are constantly thinking about what they’re looking at. It’s not always there [those clues, that detail], but when I do a piece that I work on for a while that’s generally what I tend to think about.
ZJ: Do you feel like you’re influenced by any other artists, either in big ways or in small ways?
CS: I’ve always been a big fan of Kandinsky. I wouldn’t say necessarily the composition or flow I would get from him, but certainly the colors. I still remember learning about him at SCAD and just being blown away by what he was able to create – and wishing I could be in a room and talk to him for a bit – that’d be incredible.
He is who I would go for in terms of fine artists, but the biggest thing I would draw my inspiration from would be film and television because that’s definitely my biggest hobby and something that I’m constantly consuming in my free time.
ZJ: So what have you drawn from that that’s been important to you?
CS: I think that’s a big place where my composition comes from. Thinking about cinematography is something that I really got into when I was attempting film school at SCAD before I switched to art history.
I think that comes off the most in photographs I take. Also…I’ve been doing a lot of colorful abstracts and in a lot of ways I view them as concept art for a movie. Cause you had mentioned about a lot of my stuff stemming from doodles, and it really does. So I approach my work in different stages. If I really like something that comes to my mind I might draw it on a pad of paper with a pen, then I might try a watercolor with it and then if I really like it, I might pull elements from that or just expand it onto a canvas. So in my mind, I think of it as different media and stages in how complete it is, so it’s kind of related to film in that way.