Just To Be Asking: Bill WhorrallApril 21, 2021
By CHRISTINE STEPHENSON
Bill Whorrall is an artist from Martin County who is interested in art involving all mediums. He also taught art at Precious Blood School and Holy Family School in Jasper for years before he retired from full-time teaching. Throughout April and most of May, he has an exhibit at the Thyen-Clark Cultural Center. More of his work can be seen at www.billwhorrallart.com.
You work with a lot of different mediums — even in this art gallery alone, there’s acrylic paintings, construction sculptures, collages. Do you have a favorite medium, or how do you decide which one to use?
I think I’ve tried most mediums in my life. What I try to think of is working with the elements of art, like color, symmetry, texture, things like that. So whenever I have a concern, or a problem, or an "area of investigation" is what I like to call it, I try to think, "What’s the material most appropriate for this area of investigation?" So I don't consider myself a painter, because not all problems or things to explore are best expressed with paint. So for instance, if I’m working with cloud shapes, then paint would be a natural thing for me. But then later on, I think about the concept of flight, and I might end up doing something aerodynamic with sticks and handmade paper.
How do you decide on an "area of investigation" then?
I try to stay open, but having said that, once I latch onto something, I try to explore it and turn it in many different ways. I don’t think I have ideas, I think I have areas of interest. I don’t believe in inspiration. I don’t have a muse. What I believe is in artwork — last word "work," first word "art." Because that’s what it is, it’s work.
Designs in nature are interesting to me. There’s about 10 very basic designs, things like a spiral, concentric shapes, geometric shapes, and those echo throughout everything living. For instance, the veins in your hand are like the veins in a tree. Every living thing has similar patterns. I like to look at things that are more realistic because they’re more natural.
I don’t like to work with the concept that I’m making a picture of something. I think art doesn’t get the respect it deserves sometimes, because people don’t even know what it is. It’s not a picture of a thing, it’s a way to express ideas or explore some avenues of investigation. Most people don’t think about art deeply enough to go beyond, "How much is that money going to make at the auction?" Or, "Gee, that looks like a real watermelon with the moisture drops on it and everything," or all these things that have nothing to do with making art and never have. It’s not just about making pretty pictures. And it’s not necessarily for everybody else to enjoy, it’s for me.
A lot of these paintings (in the gallery) go back to reminiscing to when I was a kid and my dad took us on tons of road trips before there were four-lane highways. These back roads are kind of an Indiana icon. I like painting realistic things that we actually see and recognize, like for example you’ll see things like propane tanks and traffic cones in some of my paintings here.
You mentioned how your artwork is for you and not everybody else. How do you handle that feeling when your work is on display in a gallery like this for everyone to see and make their own assumptions about?
Artists want to have it two ways. They want to do things that they find interesting, and then they want to put them on a wall and have people be interested in them and maybe even buy them. It’s a tight rope that everybody who’s really into art agrees to walk on. Now, the alternate thing would be to paint a bunch of pictures that you know people will like and that will sell. But the problem with that is that you’re not making art anymore, you’re just making stuff with art materials.
To me, art is something that you put your brain in first and your eyes in next. A lot of people think art is something you put your eyes in first and then your heart, but I don’t believe that. The way to get your heart into something is to put your brain into it first. Everybody who takes an eye test has to see the same thing, but not everybody who looks at other things sees the same thing, because it’s how you interpret what you look at. You may not appreciate when somebody interprets something differently than you. But something I think a lot of artists appreciate is the value that everybody can look at something a little differently, and that’s OK.
Do you think your experience as a teacher influenced the way you think about art?
Art teaching is a great thing because you get to be around other people and share your art with them and encourage them to get into art, too. And you get to show them what art means to you. This might sound a little elitist or pie in the sky, but it’s really just about respecting what art is. I respect what I’m doing too much to do something that’s not interesting for myself. I don’t want to spend my life doing what I care about most and doing it in a way just to please other people. But the irony of that sometimes is that you’ll find people, such as students, over the years who say, "Yeah I get it. I like that. I connect to what you see." And to me, that’s more important than selling thousands of dollars worth of stuff.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
You don’t have to go to art school. You can do your own stuff without training. When I was starting out, I got these books about how to draw trees and clouds and stuff. And that helped a little, but not much. If I go to look at a real tree and a real cloud, that’s a lot more helpful. If you want to go to art school then that’s fine, but I think it’s important to maintain your own voice. A lot of people I know who have come out of art school stopped making art after five or six years because they didn’t have anybody to give them an assignment. But if you’ve got it, then it’s in you, and you can’t stop doing it. No matter what you have or have not, you’re going to be making, because it’s just a part of you.
My advice would be to keep faith in yourself. You may have to work at some other job to support it. There have been plenty of artists who also drive taxis or build houses or whatever, and sometimes those out-of-the-art-world experiences feed into the art and make it even richer. My overarching advice is don’t give up. Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s not practical. There’s a lot of things that are worthwhile that are not practical. My personal feeling is if we are created in God’s image, then we are, by definition, creative people.
Are you pretty much always working on something whenever you get the time?
Typically, I’ll be working on two or three things at the same time. One time, I did eight collages at the same time. It’s kind of like a dance, moving back and forth, working on this and that. There’s very few days that go by that I don’t have something going on. Consequently, there’s probably about 100 pieces in the gallery here, but I’ve got about 800 sitting at home. I’m not somebody that sells a lot of artwork, but that’s never discouraged me one bit. I would love to have someone come in and buy everything, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not going to stop me if I don’t.
I think making art is therapy. I want to keep using my brain. I’m 77, and I don’t want to be sitting on a rocking chair in a nursing home one day, thinking, "If I’d only tried that, if I only had time." Every time I think of something, I’m going to do it now or tomorrow. I will not put it off, because you don’t know how much time you’ve got left. I think I was put on earth to make images, so that’s what I’m going to do. And there’s not much that can stop me from doing that.
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