It’s 7:30 on a Wednesday night and I find myself on the square in downtown Murfreesboro. It’s chilly and the rain is misting slightly. I’m waiting outside of a restaurant, noticing the stillness and utter lack of college students that usually fill the square’s bars. As I ponder the empty streets, the man I’m meeting arrives.
Charles Clary looks like the quintessential college professor - complete with beard, glasses and newsboy cap - and he greets me enthusiastically. Clary is, in fact, a professor in the art department at the nearby Middle Tennessee State University, but we aren’t here to talk about academics or the work of his students. We’re here to discuss his personal artistic endeavors.
If you pay any attention to the Nashville art scene, you’ve probably had the pleasure of seeing his intricate paper installations in a gallery or in print or in the new Music City Center. We’re seated near the bar and we begin our candid conversation.
VBB | You’ve been working with your hand cut layered paper for several years, how do you feel your work has evolved and what are you working on now?
CC | Oh man. That’s a big question. I moved to paper in grad school, more out of necessity than anything. I was doing these very flat, kind of street art paintings on the wall and they were begging to kind of live a little bit more and not just be wall, pictorial representation of fictitious space.
I actually wanted to make that space physical. So I had an internship in Brooklyn and then I was coming home one night and I stopped at a paper store. And it all started with Martha Stewart scrapbook paper. I’m a little ashamed to admit, but she had great colors at the time, the paper was big. And then I started noticing that the knife moved like a paintbrush. And it was still focusing on this idea that music was this viral entity that we get over a period of time and then we as the viewers move it to another place and it contaminates or infests that space and so on and so forth, but it’s this really playful, bright fun kind of disease.
So I worked in that for a long time. And it stayed with that type of work right up until 2012, so I have two bodies of work going on: one was the installation work and one was the boxed pieces that were almost petri dish explorations of the bigger work and then both my mother and father got diagnosed with cancer in 2011. And then they both passed away in February of 2012, two weeks apart. So I didn’t make work hardly at all through that time period.
She died on February 15th and he died 2 weeks later. So it was really kind of traumatic experience but then I started coming back to my work just to kind of deal with it, it was the only thing that got my mind off of the trauma of it all. And then I started thinking about nostalgia and my childhood and how it wasn’t like most people’s childhood, like it was a really rough childhood.
My father was a pretty raging alcoholic and my mother was a functioning one. So a lot of those childhood memories didn’t exist for me, like I had to grow up way too quick. So I started thinking about nostalgia and what that means and how it fades over time and it’s not quite what we remember, so I started working in drywall and painted the drywall and beat the crap out of it with a hammer to expose holes so it looks like it’s violent kind of experience which is what my parents’ deaths were.
And then filling that void with my paper sculpture from the back so it becomes this kind of beautiful scar that eventually heals itself. Everybody carries around those kind of scars from life.
Then I started digging deeper into it and started using wallpaper on the surface of the drywall, still doing the violent openings and tearing those openings open and I just remember my childhood home being covered in kitchsy wallpaper, so I bought out a lot of stores of wallpaper - every Goodwill and thrift store that I could think of.
Again, it was kind of speaking to the environment that I grew up in and how my house was probably could’ve been condemned if somebody had come in and looked around.
Recently, I’ve moved to game board boxes and what those kind of memories are and how childish and playful they are, but for me I didn’t play those games or we didn’t have enough money to buy those games and then recently I’ve started on probably a 6 month long project where I’m going out and buying every VHS tape from my childhood that I can remember - horror films, sci-fi films, cartoons, buddy comedies all those kind of things and then each VHS box is becoming a piece, so eventually I’m going to recreate the illusion of a movie store and all of these things will be on the wooden runners along the wall and you have to take the little metal clip off the nail to say, 'Hey I want this piece." So it will be like you’re renting it, but really you’re buying it. So I'm only on 24 right now, but I have 500+ sitting in my apartment.
VBB | And you remember all those movies? All 500?
CC | I remember every single one. I mean, I used it kind of how people use books as an escapism, so for that hour and a half or 2 hours, I was somewhere else. I wasn’t living the life that I had to live everyday. So they were like my, I don’t want to say saviors that makes it sound weird, but they were my saving grace.
Just to have those moments where I could escape was priceless for me. And it just so happens that 15 layers of paper plus 14 layers of matboard equals the exact same size as a VHS tape, so I can just slide them into the box.
VBB | Between making art and teaching, you don’t really have time for much else, but do you have any other creative outlets or is this pretty all consuming?
CC | It’s pretty all consuming but my fiancé and I make time to go hiking and camping. We love to be outdoors, so as much as we can be outdoors we will. I like going to see music shows when I can, we’ve started going to the theater.
VBB | How do you feel about artists' collaborations with major brands? Would you ever consider doing that sort of collaboration?
CC | I would. I would. I think nowadays fine art’s a scary thing. A lot of people don’t go into the galleries because they feel like they’re not smart enough or they just don’t get it or they don’t have the fine arts background to understand the work and somebody’s going to look down upon them. And I think artist’s collaborating with some kind of marketing campaign or to produce some type of utilitarian object or to brand a company or something like that, I think it’s a smart move.
VBB | What role do you think art galleries play in today’s modern society? You mentioned that maybe people are a little intimidated by them. Has the role of the art gallery changed in the past 50 years?
CC | I think they’re a little more accepting now. I think they’re a necessary thing, especially if you’re a fine artist and you want to advance your career. I think there are ways to do it without getting gallery representation, but it’s a heck of a lot easier if you have the representation because they have an extensive client lists that only they have or people that they work with, they can promote your work on your behalf to clients or public projects, or collections or museum exhibitions.
You always get the question, "Why do they take 50% of your commission?" Well, they pay the rent, they pay the utilities, they make the flyers, they mail out all the flyers and all you have to do is show up and hang your work and be able to talk somewhat intelligently about it. They provide the opportunity and the staff to make that stuff happen, so it’s kind of a symbiotic relationship,
I don’t want to say it’s a necessary evil because I don’t think it’s an evil thing. I think a lot of galleries have a stigma behind them that make them sound pretentious or elitist but they’re not. A lot of them are just super friendly. You've got to kind of think of it like a manager almost. If you’re a movie star [you] have agents, if you’re a musician you have a manager that has your schedule set up and all that kind of stuff and gets you the gig. All you have to do is play the music and give them a cut and that’s kind of what a gallery is. I think they’re a great place for experimentation and they’re a great place to expose new talent. It can set artists on a really great path.
VBB | You’re an established artist, you’re work has been acquired by private collections and shown in many galleries. What advice do you have for artists that are just starting out?
CC | Always keep it as professional as possible. Don’t make it personal and you know I hate to sound cliche, but work your ass off. And be somewhat smart with digital technology. I hate every minute of it, but I have a tumblr, I have a twitter, I have facebook, I have my professional email, I’m on all kind of art sites just for that possibility of an opportunity. I have an Instagram now. I didn’t have one until 2 months ago and it’s awesome. I didn’t realize how awesome it was. So you’ve got to be as business savvy as you are creative savvy. The difference between a good artist and a great artist is how well you can promote yourself and how much risk you’re willing to take. One thing I struggled with a lot was not being afraid of success when it happens, take advantage of it.
VBB | What do you mean?
I was always fearful of success because it would put me in the limelight and I was always a really shy kid growing up and even in grad school I was still super shy. It took me teaching to become less shy. Be ok with the success because the more confidence you have with it, the better you are going to be able to market yourself and to be able to sell your work to a gallery and say, "Hey - you should really take a chance at me and here’s why." And it’s not a bunch of umm and maybes or self-deprecation it’s, "I’ve done some really great things, I feel like I’m going to do some really great things in the next few years, I think this is going to be the start of it and I don’t care what kind of deadline you give me i’ll meet it."
It’s also work ethic, I hate saying that but it is. During the summer I’m on 8-10 hour days in the studio every day but the weekends. The best piece of advice I ever got was once you become that kind of emerging or established artist always have 2 exhibitions ready to go at any point in time. It’s not like you only have 12 pieces and [when someone approaches you] you say, "Oh well, I only have this." You’ve just shut down an opportunity immediately without even getting your foot in the door.
So I usually have 2 or 3 exhibitions on stand by, ready to go because there have been times where I’ve been in 5-6 shows all at one time and one might be a solo show and 4 or 5 might be a group show and another one will be a two person show and you have to have the work to be able to be in all those shows or you just shot yourself in the foot.
VBB | When you’re reaching out to galleries, what are you sending them?
CC | In the beginning, when I was reaching out to galleries, it was very straight to the point, like you don’t need to know about my dead parents, you don’t need to know about this, you don’t need to know about that, "Hi my name is blank, I’ve enjoyed your artists that you represent in your gallery for many years, here’s a link to my online portfolio, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to my newest body of work all the information is on my website, if you have any additional questions" and then send it. They don’t want to know your whole personal story.
VBB | That’s interesting because I feel like that would really influence your work and makes your work more interesting, so you wouldn’t tell them that up front?
CC | No, not up front because they don’t know you from Adam. It would be like walking up to a complete stranger and saying, "Hi my name is Charles, did you know my parents died two years ago?" They’d be like, “Whoa this is too much."
It could be in your artist statement. All my information is in my statement or it’s on my website, but you don’t want to come on too strong. I look at it kind of like a date, you don’t want to come on too strong in the beginning because you don’t want to scare them away, but you also want to entice them so you want to put your best foot forward.
You also want to look at their submission policy, if they’re not taking blind submissions, don’t submit. Follow their protocol because that shows that you’ve researched that site and you’re not just blanket emailing everybody. You’re going to know the work that they show so if you're an abstract painter and you just submitted work to a figure painting gallery, well of course you’re not going to get in. And then that’s going to put a damper on your confidence level and then you're going to think, “Oh god i’m terrible." No, you just submitted to the wrong gallery. You didn’t do your research.
VBB | Do most galleries categorize themselves that way?
CC | No, but the staple artists can give it away on what type of work they show. A lot of west coast galleries show a lot of street artists or pop surrealism or some kind of reference to pop culture or graffiti or something like that. A lot of east coast galleries are a little bit more into abstraction, modernism to some extent. It just depends on the gallery. And you have to click through all the artists to find that common thread.
So it’s all about the research. You’ve really got to do your research just like with anything else to prepare yourself for success. I haven’t submitted to a gallery in a little while only because I’ve been lucky enough to have representation, but even that can be very tumultuous at times. You still have to keep as professional as possible.
VBB | How do you maintain those relationships with galleries?
CC | You make sure you go to their openings if you’re in a location that’s close to them, you stay in close contact with them and you let them know if your work is changing. You always email them to say, “Hey, here’s some new work." Just a nice cordial professional relationship. You don’t want to overexpose yourself and show at the same place 5 times in one year, but generally with most galleries every two years you’ll have a solo show and then there will be intermittent group shows just so that they don’t saturate the market with your work because then the interest in your work can go straight down. It’s an interesting dance. It can be stressful sometimes.
VBB | How do feel about your collectors? Have you ever met with any of them at the galleries?
CC | I’ve met with some at the galleries. I’ve thanked some in person for purchasing a work that was in a solo show or a group show. I have a couple of really great collectors in North Carolina that have a ton of my work and I keep a constant relationship with them that’s a very friendly, cordial kind of relationship. I think I’ve only had one sour collector relationship and it happened really early on when I was in grad school. I can’t even remember his name, but it was almost like, “I’ve discovered you” kind of thing.
VBB | Like you owed him something?
CC | Yea a little bit. I ended that one pretty quick.
VBB | How do you do that? Just say, "No, you can’t buy anymore"?
CC | Or “Unfortunately, I’m going a different direction" or "I’m going to go ahead and end this relationship." You do it in a very polite, non confrontational, non bridge burning way. It’s only hapened once and it was really young in my career. I didn’t know how to deal with it either. But again, I knew to stay professional because you never know where someone is going to end up or whose ear they’re going to have later on in life. Don’t take any of it personally, no matter how much you want to, never take it personally.
VBB | It seems like you’ve created a lot of work that’s very personal. Have you ever created any work that’s too personal to sell?
CC | No. I use it mostly as a process. It’s the thing that drives the work and whether the viewer gets that or not, it’s not a big deal. I can talk about it on 50 different levels. If you want to know the back story, if you want to know the personal stuff, we can talk about it all day long, but if you just want to talk about how pretty it is, that’s fine too. For me, it’s the thing that drives the work. It’s the impetus behind the work and it’s not super important that you get it just from the visual. I’m such a workaholic that once a piece is done, I’m just moving on to the next thing. It’s a compulsion now. I get down if I’m not working.
VBB | I feel like a lot of artists or creative people feel that way like, “I don’t know why I have to make this thing, but I do.”
CC | Yea, it’s just a weird thing, but I enjoy every minute of it and it never really feels like work.
VBB | What have been the most pivotal moments in your career?
CC | I think there are three or four. There was the moment that I decided to take the leap into grad school. I didn't care how much I was going to go into debt. That opened up a lot of doors when I was in grad school and then because I worked so hard in grad school, I got my New York residency for 3 months. Through that residency I got to work for Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn. Then I got to be an assistant to Joe Amrhein who owns Pierogi and he’s an artist as well so I got to be his assistant helping him paint his paintings, so that opened up all kinds of doors.
Then I got to work Miami basel for several years and it’s forged a really good friendship and relationship with that gallery and I'm not represented by them, it’s not anything like that, it’s just a really great place and a good example of how a gallery should be run.
Then, my solo show that I had at the Rymer in 2010 was a really pivotal moment for me as a Nashville artist because I had some really large scale installations, some of the biggest I've done. And the biggest installation in that got modified and is now in the Music City Center in Nashville as a permanent piece.
And when my parents passed, that took the work in a completely different direction. It took the work in a direction I don’t think it would have gone had that not happened and it was a terrible time, but the work that I’m making now which I’m really excited about would not have happened without that and it caused me to do a revaluation of my life, of who I was, who was important to me.
And then you know when I met my fiancé I think that was another pivotal moment because I think she’s a good balance of me. She’s super organized, she’s very very professional and business-like and she helps me a lot with that stuff. She’s super super supportive and is a good driving force to keep me going when I get down about stuff.
And teaching! My students keep pushing me forward. Because the better I am, the better they’ll be, so it’s this kind of nice push and pull between the two of us.
VBB | You mentioned in your last answer, an important moment in your Nashville artist career. You’ve been an artist in Savannah, NYC and other places. What do you think is uniquely special about being an artist in Nashville. Is there anything special about being a Nashville artist?
CC | I think there is. I think we’re at this precipice of exploding as a great kind of art hub and there are really great galleries, there are fantastic artists. I would put Nashville artists up there with NY artists any day of the week. I think we have a good collector base here, they just need to realize how great Nashville artists are. I think that the artist community in Nashville is growing, especially out near Zeitgeist and David Lusk and some of the pop up galleries that are in that area. I think that’s going to be a really great place for galleries to be.
The Avenue of the Arts on 5th is pretty fantastic and has some great innovative shows. Not just pretty things, but pretty great installations, sculptural things, immersive exhibitions and a lot of people are starting to notice that. At art crawl you’ll have 1k or more people come out just cramming the streets and it becomes an event as it should be. The arts have been big in Nashville for a while, but I think people are starting to recognize it now and I think there’s going to be a pretty great explosion of it and people are starting to notice what Nashville artists have to offer.
*All images used in this post were used with permission from the artist