Paul Mullins is an artist living in San Francisco, CA. He grew up in the rural town of Hurricane, West Virginia. He received his Bachelors Degree in Fine Art from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia and his Masters Degree in Fine Art from Ohio University.
Razan Dennawi (RD): When you started creating your work, what was your subject matter?
Paul Mullins (PM): The same as it is now without any sort of understanding of what I was doing at all. Well, let me clarify, because I have actually, consciously in recent years, been trying to reinsert myself, it’s almost a sort of make-believe because you are who you are and I don’t mean that I’ve tried to pretend I’m 19 again but I do try to reconnect to the original experience of when I first started making art.
Sometimes I’ll listen to the same music that I was listening to when I was painting in West Virginia and then Huntington, and things like that because there’s an incredible impulse, an excitement that comes with it. A few years ago, it became really important to connect to that beginners spirit, because that seemed to be the thing-that if you get this experience, if you refine your technical abilities, if you look at a lot of the contemporary art, if you wrestle with problems, all the stuff that goes into it, what if I take all of that now and the benefits of it, but then also create something?
You get that feeling of excitement yourself like you do when you’re a beginner. It’s kind of funny because when you’re naïve, things are super exciting but you’re actually making terrible results. You trade off a lot of that excitement for experience. To get good at something is to reduce that naivety. So, rather than constantly talking myself out of doing something or being frustrated, I found an answer a few years ago in the studio by reconnecting to that place I was in as a beginner. I would always think that whatever I had done, I would really like it if someone else did it, but since I did it, I didn’t like it. But I would like it if I were in my first year or two of making things.
RD: Do you feel like when you tried to reconnect with that beginner’s spirit with the knowledge and experience that you have now, do you think it was easier for you to create what you wanted?
PM: It could be making the studio fun. But I don’t think it’s that simple, I do think it does make it easier. I think it’s to please ones self. I’m not talking about reducing any of your critical thinking – keeping everything that you built up. But just imagining: What if you had that when this was all brand spanking new? I’ve reflected my interests and I reflected who I was and it was really simple.
I’ve had ideas with drawings and paintings and I changed up imagery but they’re all coming from the same thing, which is rural American kid and that particular place. So the popular culture references were all circa late 80’s sort of stuff that intrigued a guy like me and so I literally started painting some of the same iconography. Hands and tongues, stuff like that and seeing how they come out now as opposed to early one, when I hadn’t even been doing it for a year. In a lot of ways it’s like you can make the thing you wanted to make when you started… so make it.
RD: How do you feel your approach is now when you’re approaching the same subject matter?
PM: It’s informed; it’s smarter. One of the biggest things everyone would see is a change in the handling of the material and just becoming more facile and understanding color. There was none of my appreciation for abstraction in the things I made first. I had no idea; it was more sort of comic. I can now sort of, eh, I still work representationally but there’s an acknowledgement of all that abstraction that I look at.
I think I wanted to be an abstract painter at some point when I first started. I probably wouldn’t have told you that before. I had to make a decision to start working in a totally different way or make it really straight forward and direct, the way I used to run into the studio when I was a kid and paint a god awful horrible thing and be incredibly enthusiastic about it because I was having trouble getting that enthusiastic about it. And that was a big part of what was missing, it wasn’t just refining technique, it was acknowledging abstraction and getting it in there somehow. That can be how the page is set up, marks that don’t contribute to describing anything, things happening on a flat surface, it can be any number of things that have to do with important art. Just as the imagery I use is not important. It’s junk. It’s taken from magazines, rock and roll and wrestling, country people and so on; vulgar populist stuff.
RD: When you were in college, did you have any idea that you would eventually become a teacher?
PM: Yes, but I would say that it was more generalized sort of art ambitions when I was in college. I think it was junior year when I began to think about what I might do. And the only thing that was, really, what do you do with that degree? Getting the idea that I was going to grad school somewhere. But I think I was primarily seeking a way out, because I knew that the situation I was in, going to that school was temporary, and so I went to the library and got a reference book of graduate and professional programs because that’s what you did back then before the internet. You sent postcards and then they would send you promotional materials and applications. I did that for like, a radius of a few hours from there. Places in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, not that many of them, actually. I went to Ohio University for graduate school because that’s where I was accepted with a scholarship and a teaching assistantship, which is what I was looking for. I never took out any loans.
RD: Where do you find inspiration?
PM: Memory. And I look at the world more than I ever did, every year. And that just… you got this massive sort of bombardment of how much I think about the world. But you know, I can keep representation but I can’t make political art. Other then the fact that I’m referring to a certain social class or a geographic region or things like that, but I can’t directly talk about what’s the matter. But I don’t want to just pure emote either.
I think when I was younger I was taking this kind of expressionist angle and I was making graphic representations and thinking I was doing something that was emotional but really I was just feeling emotional while I was painting pictures. I would have worked in a different way if I understood how to really emote through materials instead of images. When you’re young you just imitate things you’re enamored of, which I might still be doing.
RD: How do you get over feeling a creative block? Do you feel like you have experienced a lot of creative blocks?
PM: Yeah, like all of my thirties. I’m serious. I moved here and I took this job and I made work. I changed my imagery after moving out to San Francisco but I was frustrated for a decade. I was not feeling grounded because you’re looking for a breakthrough. You have the painter’s equivalence of a writer’s block. I was looking for a breakthrough. I hadn’t had a breakthrough for a long time. It came through acting like my young self but allowing myself to employ the tools that I have gotten since. It also came through a method of drawing, painting with colored pencils and making those cutout things that you have seen. That sort of opened something up.
I definitely know block. I’ve known more block than not. But there are techniques when someone is having those kinds of troubles that, as a teacher, you tell people to make a lot of things small, don’t spend a lot of time on one thing, get yourself something modest going and work things out that way. Thinking is making, which I wasn’t following in my thirties and some of that might have been trying to prepare for galleries and feeling that it had to be really good. Thinking that large scale was necessary when maybe it wasn’t, or being interested in tackling the most difficult problematic things; or time, things that needed a lot more time than I had. Patience has probably been my single biggest—impulsiveness and patience. Lots of things small is the one thing that I tell someone when they are stuck.
There are others; different people have different techniques. I have heard great things from other teachers; “Don’t worry about liking it. Make something that you don’t understand” …because you have to do what you want to do. If you’re not hot to get to the studio and get to work, or at least feel that once you do get to the studio and then you will feel that way. If it’s not one of those two, then you need a breakthrough.
RD: When do you feel the most creative?
PM: Now this is one I should keep to myself but since you’re graduating: when I’m in my classroom, my desire to go work on art is greatest. There’s something that is going on, ideas come to me or the urge to work with materials when I’m teaching. And of course, I can’t just leave and go do it. I have to wait. But I feel urges to “make” the most and that probably has a lot to do with my history with college or something in the past where you were supposed to be working on something but you were doing that instead. There were probably experiences of working on drawings when I should have been doing something else. And it really etched into my brain. When I’m in that environment I feel great envy for the students and the situation that they are in and it makes me want to work.
RD: How often do you draw?
PM: Well, I used to say 90’s, it was in print that “Paul Mullins draws everyday and paints when he finds time.” Like, that was in print somewhere and that was kind of the truth. I switched that around in recent years. I think I had stopped drawing regularly, like everyday anyway, and I would try to paint and get frustrated. But I think one thing that helped my paintings was to stop drawing. There was a period when I just painted and I had to sort of forbid myself [to draw] because I could have these years with a whole bunch of drawings—and that was good— but I couldn’t get these paintings to work.
I had to sort of forbid myself to do this for a while; this little thing that happened really quickly and seemed to work, I denied myself that. Later, after only painting for a few years, I found a way to make a painting out of drawings because the drawings were like little paintings made with dry media. They were in color and I was putting them together to make a painting. I don’t draw that much nowadays. I have drawn so much its absurd; it’s not even funny, it’s ridiculous how much of that I have done. I realized I do not think about how much drawing and painting I have actually done. Then it will strike me when I think about how many brushes I’ve bought and how many canvases I’ve bought. I have so much in storage. I drew all the time in my teens and twenties; I drew all the time. I needed to learn how to paint. I was a college professor teaching painting and people were giving me praise for certain paintings that I had done but I was not painting up to my own satisfaction at that time. So I stopped drawing for a while.
RD: Before you went to college, was there anything else that you liked to draw in your teenage years?
PM: Oh yeah, that’s what I mean. You don’t think about this at the time. You know how I always joke in class about how I used to draw Mr. T? Later when you’re thinking consciously you realize “Oh my god, I was attracted to such imagery.” …so I would draw this sort of hyper-masculine figure that was in the media. That’s what Mr. T was, he was sort of all about muscles and had a Mohawk. That’s typical where teenage boys are drawing boy stuff maybe, at least then and there. Finding a kid drawing Mr. T. That was probably going on in bedrooms all over the country; representations of the male animal, representations of ideas of an ideal.
I was really into rock stars after that, which again is what teenagers do. I drew all these music people because that’s what I was really interested in. Once, I moved on from my Star Wars figures or little Dungeons and Dragons things, or something like that I could get periodically.
I mostly spent all my time with magazines. I would look over and over and over at these magazines that had Billy Idol or Duran Duran or something like that, or the Smiths. They were sort of half-cool. Some of what was in there was cool and some of it was ridiculous 80’s pop. There was an attraction to interesting music, all of these British musicians with makeup and mousse in their hair.
Like, I would be drawing them in pen and ink and then I would put other things on my drawings that I was emulating from. There was a girl who was two years older than me who was into art and would do these kinds of things that would amaze me, and so of course I would then go and do it too because that’s what teenagers do. And much of the kind of imagery at that point that I would be drawn to …[is] very similar to now. These things that I cut out of magazines I reproduce and put into my work. [The work] was the most different when I was in graduate school. That figures.
PM: Well, they make you think about everything when you are in graduate school. They make you edit out all the stuff that’s problematic and you don’t know how to work with. You’ve heard everything I have to say about the figure and figurative work. It’s big trouble. And this was before the revival of figurative painting that came in the 90’s. This was when it was the worst thing to do. So I stopped depicting figures and I did anamorphic forms. I did really simple things, really reduced images that could be any number of things. Could be eggs, could be internal organs. I see a lot of people go through something similar. It reflected my other heroes—Antoni Tapies, Eva Hesse. And people lay off of you because you’re not messing around with such problematic stuff. And you feel better because you are doing something that seems to be stronger, more sophisticated, smarter. But then you get out of grad school and start having an aching suspicion, like tempted. I think people do really interesting things after graduate school when no one is looking. And that’s when I brought back the figure; a few years after.
RD: Do you have a ritual that helps you prepare for the studio?
PM: Well I do a lot of yoga. (Laughs) No, opposite of that. It changes. It used to be diners because in Chicago there used to be old greasy spoon diners everywhere that I used to go to, I knew all of them, they were awesome. But there’s less of that here.
Going somewhere and getting something cheap to eat and sitting there with my notebook is my pre studio ritual, and I don’t tell anybody that. And I go places where I’m not going to run into anybody I know. But I’ll get some junk, some food that you guys would scoff at probably, and I’ll sit with a book or a magazine. In Chicago my idea of a good time was to get a boxing magazine and go to the diner; that’s what I did. That can be switched up with a different type of magazine or a book, and my notebook.
RD: What do you enjoy more, process or content?
PM: I used to always talk about how I was content oriented and I had no desire to make beautiful things. I completely agree with that now because if I did I probably wouldn’t engage something so time consuming as I embarked on recently. Because I do think I want something that will make me keep me busy and make me lose track of time because I am so impatient. And most of my life has been characterized by banging things out. I wanted a way of working that I could busy myself for a long time. I must have gotten interested more in process along the way. Handling the work in a way that somehow includes the service to abstraction necessitates that a little bit.
RD: Is there anything else that you see yourself doing in the future?
PM: Well I have these fantasies of retiring when I’m still able to do things because I have a degree of perpetual homesickness I’m sure you’ve noticed, and such an awareness of other places; places that have seasons or places that are inexpensive. I think about that a lot. But I just want to make art.