Today at Atmos we’re speaking with artist Scott Ingram in his studio in Atlanta, Georgia. Read along for a chance to hear about the process behind his poured nail polish paintings and his incredible advice for young artists.
*This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
Atmos: So have you always worked on paper?
Scott Ingram: Always on paper. I love working on paper. It’s such a perfect human medium for people. But I also work on a lot of found paper. My studio used to be in the old Nexus press building. Which was a press that made artist made books for [about] 25 years. When they closed they literally just locked the doors and walked out.
A: With everything inside?
S: Yeah and then ten years later I walked into the place to rent it as a studio space. Some of the things had been sold, but there were just stacks of random paper around and I just started collecting all of this crazy, weird paper from book making. So it was somewhere between art and graphic design [and] I started incorporating a lot of that material into collages and drawings and stuff like that.
A: That’s really cool. When you find source material like that do you typically save it for a while or do you use it immediately?
S: Sometimes it really sparks something, but a lot of these drawers are just paper, just waiting to be used. Waiting to kind of find that perfect use for them. But it’s fun. It’s kind of like the nail polish stuff. It has content already, just by being nail polish, it’s already this kind of feminine material, or sexually charged material right out of the gate. As a product, that’s what it’s intended for. And it was a surrogate material for me [instead of] automotive paint. I used to use a lot of a car paints. I was just in target one day and I saw a nail polish and I was like ‘that would be great to use for studies instead of car paint’.
A: Yes, it’s basically the opposite of [automotive paint].
S: Yeah, so what was interesting was that these materials had genders in my mind.
A: Absolutely they do.
S: I think it’s kind of cool… that paper that came out of a graphic design background has a different history and already has content based on its intention and its use. So therefor, you can place some of that stuff into a collage or drawing or whatever you want.
A: So you weren’t using nail polish to begin with for these studies?
S: I’ve been doing these for 17 years.
A: Wow. And have they changed much throughout those 17 years besides the fact they’re on canvas now?
S: I think the only thing that has really consistently changed is the quality of the enamel and the colors. When I first started, everything was really basic colors. There was no nuance to it at all.
A: When you’re starting out one do you lay out the colors before you do it or do you just grab and go?
S: The big ones, yes. The smaller ones, [no]. Part of it is…I start in the middle and each color is a decision based on the last color that was put down. So as you build from the middle, it has these moments where you have to stop and think about where it’s going. Do you want it to project inward? Do you want some kind of optical thing to happen? Really they’re about decision-making. I’ve always said that all the lines start the same and they end the same. It’s really the interesting things they do in between or whether they meet or they don’t meet or they touch….
A: That’s another aspect is if that [lines] going that way, it’s more likely to merge with that [line], so what color would look good with that?
S: Right. And sometimes it’s not even a matter of looking good with it, sometimes it’s a matter of what is the reaction you want? So many times it’s really about just a contrast. They all kind of have their own individual interest as lines, but how do you make that work together? And then of course I have absolutely no control over whether or not they run into each other. I mean sometimes there are three lines at a time that will run into each other and you’re like ‘how did that happen?’. Which also leaves weird spacing at the bottom in some cases.
S: And sometimes they’re just perfect. Sometimes they literally just flow perfectly. And I’ve gotten to the point now where I don’t like that as well. When you see them finish, they really read as these really lovely striped paintings. But when you really start looking at the little nuances of each color and line, they suddenly have a lot of character and movement to them.
S: They’re fun and I’ve done them as wall installations. I did one that was 12 x 30 feet. One I did over a fireplace that pooled down onto the mantle of the fireplace, which was really cool. It’s in a salon in Buckhead.
A: So if you’re doing something like that, an installation, you’re planning out the colors?
S: I didn’t actually plan that one out that much. But I had a good idea of what I wanted so when I went on site I basically had everything there and ready to go. When I went on site to pour it, it went pretty smoothly.
A: So if you do a line and you hate it on the mantle…
S: Nothing you can do about it.
A: It’s just there?
S: It’s just there. There’s not a thing I can do about it and in fact these are all pieces that have failed in some way but I like the color combinations so I keep them and I revisit them and potentially make something out of them at some point. Not out of those in particular, but I mean remake the piece. It could be they were too small. Like I loved the color combination but it needed to be vertical instead of horizontal. Or maybe they just get damaged or go crazy. Sometimes if they’re really just wrong, I just scrap them and start over. I had one a couple weeks ago and literally got to the last line and the last line destroyed the entire thing.
S: The line and the color have been this continuous thing for me, through all of the work. And I’ve been thinking about this in terms of Ellsworth Kelly. [He] used to make these really beautiful color field paintings, really simple, minimalist paintings, but then he would make plant drawings. And I’ve always loved that his whole life, his whole career, he would just draw a plant. And it wasn’t like a tulip sitting on his kitchen table or something, he would go out and find a plant and draw it on site. And I always thought that that, as an exercise, was so interesting. I feel like these for me is a meditative kind of thing that I do.
S: I’ll pour one of these things and it might take the whole day to do it if it’s just straight through, but when it gets stuck, and you really have to think about, where is it going or what is it doing you realize that…and people don’t seem to know this, but they don’t know if it took me a day to make it or a month to make it or two months to make it so its a really funny thing.
A: Typically does it take you longer than shorter to make it?
S: Typically, yeah. Well part of it is also after 17 years of making them I have this kind of idea in the back of my mind of what I’ve done before and how do I change that. How do you not remake the same piece over and over again?
A: So the difference between the ones now vs. the ones when you first started would be the change in varnish?
S: Yeah it’s funny. You can see, that one [work from 2005] just how muted everything is and dark. You wouldn’t see that kind of daffodil yellow color or this fluorescent color in 2005. They just didn’t…they may have made it but they didn’t produce a line of it. And every company wasn’t making it. It’s really interesting. The funny thing is that a lot of those colors from 2000-2005 have people that want them now. Designers want them now. It’s really strange. I’m losing all of my old inventory because they now want those colors. It’s strange. I guess they just feel like they’re coming back.
S: There’s a funny relationship between the nail polish stuff and the architectural stuff….I got interested in architecture, but I was really really interested in the lines of the architecture. I think that’s where the line and color from the nail polish stuff really plays back into…
A: Have you always been interested in architecture?
S: Yeah, I’m originally from Iowa and the Midwest is riddled with really great architecture. The thing you find in the Midwest is that there is great architecture and there’s great art. No one wants to believe that, but there are all of these huge companies and collectors and stuff out there. Some of the best museums in the country are out there.
S: From Chicago over, you end up with the Walker in Minneapolis, which is unbelievable. All of these big companies in the Midwest were funding museums and building collections. Anyway I grew up around architecture, but I went to work for the Des Moines Art Center. Soon after high school…I went to work for the museum installing art. Eliel Saarinen had created the original wing in the 40’s and then I. M. Pei had built the second wing in the 70’s. Maybe around the time he was working on the pyramid at the Louvre? And then Richard Meier built the third wing at the same time the High Museum was being built. So there’s a miniature version of the High, attached to these other two great architects. So you work your way through this building and you go from a very traditional building, into this concrete sculpture wing, into this white box that Meier built.
A: That’s awesome. You don’t see that a lot these days because people really want things to be just homogenous. People don’t want to mix materials, styles or designs.
S: Yeah and it was very interesting to me because I worked in there for about three or four years and then later I went to work for the High as they were building their Renzo Piano building. And they were trying to find ways to make them [Piano and Meier] visually cohesive as the design process was happening and I was like ‘why?’. Why not have contrast? What’s wrong with contrast? Why not have that unique voice as an architect? They did it in different ways but I still feel like they’re too similar.
A: I think that’s a very southern thing to do…
S: …to blend, yeah.
A: They really love that here.
S: And it’s fine, but it creates limitations immediately for the architect. I see that as a problem when you’re creating limitations for the creative side of things right out of the gate.
A: I agree. Things are interesting when they’re different.
S: Yeah or when they’re having to speak to one another from different vantage points.
A: So have you always been interested in art? Was it something as a kid you enjoyed?
S: Yes, it’s funny because my son is six and he draws and makes things constantly and I remember that. I constantly go back to watching him; it’s like I’m having this out of body experience. Sitting down and drawing cartoons on a Saturday morning. It’s just what I would do. I think I got away from that; I got away from the figure and the animation stuff pretty quickly.
A: Do you name the works?
S: I don’t title the works on paper, but I have started titling the works on canvas. Typically the canvases are titled based on one of the (nail polish) colors in the work because they have such crazy names for these nail polishes. There’s always these funny little slips and plays in language that come up in the colors. I like to use those, but sometimes I kind of make hybrids out of them. I’ll marry a couple of them together.
A: Nail polish names too are so gendered. There was some online quiz recently where you had to guess whether it was a nail polish name or the title of a porno.
S: Oh, absolutely. It’s hilarious; which is what makes it really fun. I had one I finished a couple of weeks ago that was called ‘Latex Dreams’.
A: It’s wild.
S: Again, it’s a charged material. By design, that’s what it’s supposed to do. I think it’s kind of great and for me, I get to the end of the painting and I….go back through and inventory the names to title the paintings. It’s hilarious. You get through and part of it is based on the composition, part of it is based on your mood that day, part of its based on where it’s going. You can flip through those [names] and sometimes it’s laugh out loud funny and other times you’re like ‘ooh that’s kinda wrong’ and then you’re like, ‘ok this works’. Typically you find the one that works.
S: It’s a fun series and it’s funny to watch people [see them]. Men really like them. In the same reason that I use the nail polish or used to use car paint, I have a lot of men that are like, ‘my first car was this color’ or ‘I had a bike that was this color when I was a kid’ or some strange visual-color relationship that they make. It’s got their attention at that point. It suddenly takes the scariness of artwork out of it. I think a lot of people don’t know how to engage in a conversation about art and they don’t understand the work, but this is a great icebreaker.
A: People connect to it on their own personal level and it’s easier to approach and think about and talk to. When you’re working, how do you like your studio environment to be? Do you like to have music on?
S: Sometimes. My studio time is really weird. I listen to music a lot at home. I have another studio at home that’s really just a small two-car garage. I work at night and I usually work on architectural stuff there, small drawings. I never take the nail polish there. I tend to listen to music there more. But here, I do listen to music, but it’s usually to get me going and then when it gets to the end of the album [I turn it off]. I like listening to albums, I don’t like doing playlists. I like to know what’s coming and then you just get into it and go. Usually once an albums over that’s just it and I’m moving and that’s where it stops. It’s really weird. I think it influences my thinking too much.
A: These are really musical to me.
A: So I could see how it influences your choices more.
S: Yeah, when I’m doing the big ones I do listen to music because I just have to keep moving. Typically, when I’m working on the big ones, I just need something to help me power through because it’s just…it took four days to pour the paint out on those.
A: It’s probably physically exhausting. You’re reaching, you’re moving a lot.
S: Oddly enough, I have to go to a chiropractor because climbing up and down ladders and stretching and reaching on the bigger ones, I pull my back out.
A: Oh no! Any emerging artists you have an eye on currently?
S: You know… I can dive deeper into people, like Ellsworth Kelly, who have had 50+ year careers, 60+ year careers, maybe even 70. They had emerging moments too and you can find value in that. As I’m trying to move forward, I do a lot of research with older artists I’m interested in. I just noticed that Gordon Matta Clark is doing an exhibit with the Bronx Museum this November and I absolutely love him. He has nothing to do with this series of work, but the architectural work is a different place for me. He’s really just now getting the credit he was due years ago. I’m interested in that. I would rather look back historically than submerge myself in the current, because I think there is a lot more to learn from the past than there is the current. A lot of these artists we’re not going to hear about in a few years.
S: I do a lot of art fairs and I go through and I realize that 95+% of it was not for me. But I can look at material and I can look at the way things are installed and there are things that I can take from those opportunities.
A: Fairs especially, they’re so overwhelming, but it’s cool trend-wise to see what something spoke to so many people in that year. The biennale this year, so many people were using mold as a material, which I had never seen before. All of a sudden five pavilions had it, which is really interesting to me.
S: It’s funny because you mentioned Ian Davenport earlier and he’s been making his poured paintings for about as long as I have been making mine.
A: Exactly. So what spoke to you both in that year?
S: Well mine was a drawing that Ellsworth Kelly made. He did a drawing in 1954 in Paris where he had put drops of ink on a piece of paper and tipped it up. It was one of his automatic drawings. When I talked to him about it, I had asked him if he had made more of them and he said no.
S: We had a conversation about how I thought there was so much potential in this drawing and he was like, ‘Go do it. You go do it. I’m not going to’. I thought it was very liberating to hear him say that and very generous at the same time. But when I got the idea back to the studio six months later I came up with a much more formal idea for them than he had.
S: So for me, they are about this formality. And they’re almost about reading. They have margins and they have a header. But there’s this really interesting formal, almost text quality. And you mentioned sheet music, and I can totally agree with that too.
S: I think that I started these in 1999 and the first ones were just acrylic on paper and then the nail polish kind of came into it on a late night in the studio, quirky thought. Like this is a great color, maybe I should use this. And it just happened. It was a really kind of aha moment and that’s where they started.
A: Do you collect other artists work?
S: Yeah, I started collecting when I worked for galleries and museums for almost 20 years and when I left, I didn’t want to stop collecting. It was great meeting artists and working with them directly and it’s almost like I collect the art like I’m collecting the experience with the artist. I’m trying to think of an artist whose work I collected who I never really met and I can’t think of one. All of them at the end of the day, the only reason I own them now, there’s a relationship or a story or something in their work that I really like.
A: That’s really special and I think a lot of collectors don’t have that chance.
S: Right and I think a lot of collectors don’t want that chance. They don’t want to meet the artist. Artists can be difficult. I’ve talked to collectors before who have met artists and wish they had never met them. They say, ‘I loved his work before, I hate it now’. I meet a lot of artists, and even if I like them, it doesn’t necessarily mean I need their work. There are check and balances in it.
A: Last question, any advice to young artists?
S: I’ve been making work for 28 years now. And if you would have asked me 28 years ago, I would have wanted to be much further along than I am now. For me, I think that this idea of the overnight success is silly. I think that this is a long-term plan and in this get rich quick environment that we’re in, art is not the place to be. If that’s your plan, it’s a bad plan because one in 50,000 artists might blow up that quickly, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they can stay up. To me it’s a long-term trajectory to get a lifelong career of making work and to sustain myself: my whole life and not just parts of it.
S: For me it’s about building the relationships, life-long relations with collectors. A lot of collectors once they start buying will continue to buy or they’ll buy from every series that you do. But it’s about developing relationships, long-term relationships. And for me that’s what I’ve tried to do. I just don’t think there’s a shortcut. I’ve had a great time with this slow climb and I’ve learned about what I make. I’ve learned a lot about the business and I’ve met a lot of people that I like and it’s still going.
S: I think as long as you still have the energy to keep it going, it can be very satisfying. You might not make $100 million a year, but that’s ok too. I’m much more interested in the evolution of the work and where the work goes when I’m not here anymore than I am in making [money]. It’s almost more for my son at this point. To show him some kind of longevity and some kind of value system that’s set in time and not money. And I’m really interested in that right now.
A: Thank you so much for talking to me today!
S: No problem!
Images Courtesy of: Fernando Decillis