I had the pleasure of staying at the Wythe Hotel while I was in NYC last month. I learned that many of the hotel staff were artists and it was evident. They were incredibly kind, exuded a personal style and had this super approachability about them, but Austin was different. What drew me to him was his indefatigable smile. Between his fiery red hair and jolly laugh it was an honor to step into his creative space, and even more so to understand a bit about what motivates him and fuels his art.
Tell us a little bit about you.
I’m an artist living and working in Brooklyn, New York. I grew up in Vermont, got my BFA from Green Mountain College and MFA from Stony Brook University. The majority of my work takes the form of painting where I tend to work with abstraction and figuration.
In a recent article I read about you, in the Brooklyn Mag you mentioned that you grew up in a loving, creative family. What did your parents do that you feel might have instilled creativity in you?
Both my parents were creative individuals. My mom was a visual artist, and my dad was a musician, but beyond that I feel like they were both creative in daily life. My mom really took things to the next level when it came to her domestic skills as a parent. She always cooked amazing food and baked special treats depending on the holiday. She once baked me a birthday cake in the shape of a guitar that had uncooked spaghetti for strings.
My dad told us these funny elaborate stories that he would either make up or were autobiographical. He used to get me excited about “the man on the moon” coming to visit. One day my dad wrapped a basketball in a white sheet and drew a face on it. He climbed to the roof and lowered it with a fishing rod in front of the windows of our apartment. I screamed “The man on the moon! The man on the moon!” as this ghost figure swung by our windows.
I think that in general humans are naturally creative, it’s just a matter of us allowing ourselves, and/or having the support to act on those impulses. In my upbringing creativity was kind of imbedded into the everyday, it was something that was okay, we had permission and were encouraged to be that way. I’m pretty grateful for that.
What's your earliest memory of being affected by paintings?
There were two pieces in my house that my mother had done. One was a needlepoint copy of an August Macke painting, who was a German expressionist. The piece was of the view of a street or town with a couple of figures – I remember getting lost in its shapes and colors, and how, at some point, the figures popped out for me – like they were only shapes at first and one day I realized that they were figures. The other piece was a pencil drawing of a burly tree that my mom had drawn from life. I thought it was beautifully drawn, but I also remember getting pulled into the shapes in the bark and burls of the tree.
Also when I was young, maybe around 6 years old, my mother put me in painting classes that I feel had a big influence on me. We often painted from life in the class, and I recall feeling the challenge of trying to represent something from real life in paint – something about that engaged me.
How long ago/how recently did you decide that you want to be known as a painter? What motivates you daily to step into the studio?
Painting has almost always been a part of my life, but I think I struggled for a long time with accepting myself as an artist. I didn’t know what one does with art, or I was looking for it to fit into my life in some practical way, or for it to have inherent meaning. After college I turned to ceramics – it felt like throwing pots had utilitarian purpose and I didn’t have to think as much about the meaning of those objects. But eventually I lost interest or got bored through the repetition, and the act of getting good at a craft. During that time I was also painting and I was always trying to figure out how a painting holds meaning. It wasn’t until graduate school that I accepted myself as an artist or painter. Part of that also seemed to come out of gaining more self-confidence through the process of going through graduate school.
What largely motivates me to paint is that I love painting; it’s what I want to do. I remember things in a very visual way, and I love observing and having experiences. Painting allows me to meld all the thoughts, ideas and experiences I have in a visually playful way that excites me. I think it also acts as a way for me to process life and find meaning.
What has painting taught you about life that you might not have learned anywhere else?
I think mostly it’s taught me to be patient and to observe and look closer at things; that there are things of interest everywhere if you take the time to notice. I think it’s also allowed me to accept that not everything has a definitive answer- that it’s okay to embrace mystery or the unknown – to not know exactly how things are.
How long have you been in Brooklyn, had your studio? What inspired that move?
I’ve been in Brooklyn for two years now and I’ve had my studio for the majority of that time. I moved from Johnson, Vermont where I was working at the Vermont Studio Center, which is an artist residency where approximately 60 artists and writers come every month to have dedicated time to focus on their work. It was a great experience, I met some of my closest friends there and it opened me up in many ways, but it’s a socially intense environment to be a part of, you’re constantly meeting new people and having to say goodbye a month later. Eventually, after working there for two and a half years I needed a change, but over that time I had developed this large network – a lot of which lived in New York.
I also think I needed to be in a place that gave me access to contemporary art. My work needed a jolt. Experiencing the city and having access to new art gave me permission to do what I wanted and it helped me open my painting practice.
What role does music have in your paintings, if any?
Music has always been very important to me in my life. Specifically in my painting practice it acts as a way to get me started –when I put on music it allows me to get up and begin moving around the studio. A lot of my practice gets caught up in procrastination and self-doubt, but I feel like music can kind of break that when I need it to. I also like singing and dancing and enjoy using the studio as a performance space for myself while I’m painting. It’s partially a way of entertaining myself and can lighten the seriousness and heaviness that I can get wrapped up in while painting. I also like listening to whole albums. This is something I became accustomed to when I was younger listening to my fathers record collection – and I like thinking about how an artist or producer chose the songs to be in a particular order and what kind of effect that creates. This also is a way for me to measure time while I’m in the studio, instead of looking at a clock I’ll think “I’m three albums in” – this makes time a less strictly measured thing and frees me up in a certain way.
I go through phases but lately I’ve been listening to a lot of pop music - Taylor Swift, Justin Beiber, and Carley Rae Jepsen have been on the top of the list. I like the extreme energy they can exude and like to think of them as a barometer of mainstream culture in some way. In addition to the pop stars, I like finding new music and have been listening to the latest albums by Grimes, Beach House, Josh Ritter, Angel Olsen, Perfume Genius and Lana Del Rey.
Your work has been shown across the continent (even Canada!). You earned a 6 week fellowship from Vermont. You have a beautiful studio in NYC to call your own to paint your heart out. Do you feel like you've "arrived" as a painter? What does "I've arrived" look like for Austin Furtak-Cole?
I think Bob Dylan had a quote that goes something like “To be an artist is to be in a constant state of arrival.” I think of painting as a life long pursuit. Ultimately, I’d like to spend more time painting than I currently do, and not feel so burdened by the constraints of money… That might be the obvious wish of any artist.
In perusing your work over the years you include a lot of hands/fingers and just recently, nudes. What's inspired the subject matter?
I like how hands are expressive forms. They can speak without adhering to a specific language. I think painting kind of does that too – the language can be ambiguous but still has the potential to express something. I also like how hands are related to touch. I’m interested in the sensuality of touch and how paint is related to sensuality as well.
The hands really came into the work after I spent a summer in Rome, Italy and was looking at a lot of figurative old master painting. After that I wanted to move my work more towards figuration – it had always felt to me that the abstract forms I was painting had figures inside them, the hands were the beginning of those obfuscated figures starting to emerge from the abstraction.
The male nudes as of right now have been versions of me, but I’ve been starting to think about how to include other bodies in the paintings too. I think I’m interested in a re-writing of masculinity, I think a lot about my role in society as a straight male and how one assimilates feminism into that roll. Painting myself nude was a way to try and embrace my vulnerability and expose myself in a way that I felt fearful of. I think it’s also an act of acceptance to paint myself in this way – to examine myself and put it out into the world and be comfortable with saying “this is what I am.”
What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn how to paint but doesn't have the courage to pick up the brush?
Give yourself permission. I’ve found that if you have the want or desire to do something you should try it, if you don’t it will probably haunt you. And, when trying don’t judge yourself too much, have a little faith that whatever you’re doing will inevitably lead you to the next thing. I think it can be helpful to find tricks that simplify a process too. If picking up a brush is too daunting, pick up a pencil, if the pencil is too hard to overcome, maybe just look at a book of paintings or go to a show, and so on and so on. I think these things all contribute to us getting where we’re going and are equally important to arriving at something.
on Instagram: @austinfurtakcole
on Instagram: @austinfurtakcole