“Alight,” a buoyant and engaging show by internationally acclaimed artist Paul Villinski, opens at Tayloe Piggott Gallery August 30th. It remains on display through October 16th, and an opening reception takes place Friday, September 7th, 5-8:00 pm, during the Fall Arts Festival Palates & Palettes Gallery Walk. This is Villinski’s Jackson début. The artist “lovingly guides mundane materials into flight–such items as flattened beer cans become butterflies or birds, soaring on their own, or in and around other objects. He often explores flight–as a glider pilot, he sails the skies.” I had to talk to this guy!
Tammy Christel: Your work has been described as a manifestation of a “child inside who tinkers.” When did the young child grow up, and realize his dreams and toys were art?
Paul Villinski: This took a very long time, and involved a circuitous path away from, and then back to the things that fascinated me as a child. I went to study art and immediately disregarded my natural inclination toward object-making and settled on painting – that’s what “real” artists do, right? Two decades later, I began to build furniture objects that stood in front of my large paintings and extended the imagery of the painting out into the viewer’s space. With some help from my friends, I realized that the objects were way more compelling than the paintings, and decided to focus on the objects and lose the painting. That decision was instantly followed by the realization that anything could be a sculpture material, and I found myself drawn to debris littering the streets of New York. I was interested in the pathos of lost gloves and crushed beer cans and discarded shipping pallets, and the possibility of transforming these “worthless” things into objects of meaning and hope. That search for transformation somehow led me back to my childhood passion for flight and things that fly, and lead to much of my imagery, as well as to actually learning to fly. Now my “hobby” of flying sailplanes and paragliders and airplanes converses freely with my work in the studio. As a 13-year-old, I built a hang glider from plans ordered from Popular Mechanics, (which, once complete, was too heavy for me to carry). Last year, I built a sailplane with a 33’ wingspan, made from wood salvaged from the streets of New York, with 1000 butterflies, each made from a discarded aluminum can, alighting on it. As I grow older, my work seems increasingly rooted in my childhood.
TC: Some of the objects emitting butterflies are large, like collectibles rather than found objects. Your cello, guitars and vintage record players and records, your flight controls….they look to be valuable antiques or usable, beautifully crafted instruments.
PV:These things have arrived in the studio in different ways. The LP records were my collection, spanning the first records I bought as a teenager until the demise of vinyl. It was difficult to start “destroying” them as I tried to make artwork from them; I listened to each one before walking it over to the scroll saw…it took me several days to get up the nerve to start cutting up “Derek and the Dominos” or “Horses.” But the intent was to actually extend their lives as objects by transforming them from an obsolete technology into an artwork. So far, so good. The instrument panel you allude to came from a wrecked glider that an elderly pilot had died in, and, as such, was a very potent object to me. The challenge here was to create a work that was worthy of the object’s history.
TC: Do you see an object first, and the idea for surrounding it with butterflies or birds follows? Or, do you first dream of something like a musical instrument and experience a vision of butterflies or birds interacting with the object?
PV: Almost without exception, my work originates with an image/idea floating into my head. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as “receiving my mission,” meaning that I know I’m supposed to make this thing, to bring it into being. I think this is what I’m meant to be doing because no one else is doing it – no one else is helping these particular images enter the world. I have a sizable “to-do list:” pages of sketches or one-line descriptions of pieces that I hope to be able to get to in the next decade.
TC: I see a personal wish to be transformed in your work. And I see that you found your first work glove at the Wyoming internment camp. You seem full of bliss, but do you also think you are finding ways to re-invent yourself?
PV: Now this is a big question! Indeed, I’m privileged to have many moments of quiet bliss run through my days, from awaking next to my partner, Amy, to having my 22-month-old son, Lark, walk over and give me a kiss, to getting something right in the studio after a long day, to soaring a mile over the ground in the dreamy silence of my sailplane cockpit. And the truth is that all of the bliss in my life is the direct result of personal transformation.
Throughout my twenties I was hobbled by addiction issues, and in my early thirties I was very, very fortunate to fall over backwards into a very different life. With the help of many friends, my world has opened-up and transformed in ways I never dreamt possible. Much of my work really has this at its core. The beauty that interests me comes through the struggle to bring things from a place of loss, of poverty or despair, into the light; to insist on the possibility of transformation. I want to take the forlorn, the discarded, the “worthless” and find out what they are capable of. I try to get my humble materials, my labor-intensive process, and the resulting imagery to hold hands: the patient metamorphosis of crushed cans into flocks of butterflies mirrors the transformation and re-birth that butterflies symbolize everywhere.
TC: Your colors are bright, simple, child-like. Tell me about that choice.
PV: I don’t really think of them that way. I use a very deep, saturated blue quite a bit, and I’ve always been drawn to it. It’s kind of the color of the sky just before twilight. I spent years trying to figure out how to create this blue in paintings. Now, it feels like a “spiritual” color to me, almost like it emanates peace, and when that blue arrives in a sculpture it’s like it’s some kind of benediction. I’m also drawn to other colors that have a Pop resonance, oranges and greens. In the show at Tayloe Piggot, there are works that are fairly somber and have a kind of pathos. Others are serene. Some are quite optimistic. Finally, there are a few that are downright cheerful.