The Process is the Art
An Interview with Douglas Pexa
Douglas Pexa is a prolific artist
with a mix of figurative and abstract styles. In this interview
he talks about art as a process, not just a finished product. He
gives us an insider's perspective on how an artist views art, giving
us the means to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the artwork
and artists we admire. — Editor
would you define great art?
Great art is art that looks like it has a life of
its own, meaning that the final work had some say of how it wanted to
look. I also like to see the struggle that the artist had during its creation:
the push and pull of medium over surface. I also love the layering of
paint on the canvas. I like to think about the changes and the thoughts
that resulted in those layers. It is really the process that intrigues
me. Remember, art is not just about the finished work. It is the process
and the concepts that make art great!
Yeah, I think I can relate to that. In addition to admiring
the work itself, sometimes I find myself in awe of the craftsmanship and
decisions that led to that finished work. It's kind of like the saying,
"life is a journey, not a destination."
How did you learn to draw?
My love of art started as early as I can remember,
always coloring and drawing, and building things in the dirt. These early
days I had to teach myself a lot of things through experimentation. My
father saw my love of art and taught me some of my first real art lessons
with oil paints. After searching for many years, and getting an associates
degree in architectural drafting and design, I decided to go to Minneapolis
College of Art and Design where I received my BFA.
you have a mentor?
I have had two main mentors to date. The first
one is Yvonne Klocek. She was my first art teacher outside of high school
and truly gave me all the foundation that I use and depend on now. I took
two drawing classes and a two-dimensional design class from her at a local
My other mentor is Gary Butzer, a painter, muralist,
and video artist who was based out of Morton, Minnesota. I interned with
him and had the opportunity to work with him on 20 or so large-scale murals
with him from 1995 to 2000. Besides the murals, we worked on video art,
painting in the studio, creative writing, scripting, and even music making.
He fed my desire to learn more about art, life, and gave me a great work
When did you start your art career?
I sold my first work in my late teens, it was
a landscape if memory serves me right, and from there I started selling
a few fantasy pieces at sci-fi conventions. (Yes, I was a sci-fi geek
at one point in my life.) I guess this is where I started.
How has your work evolved over the years?
I think that evolution and change in an artist’s
work is inevitable and necessary. My work can change weekly sometimes,
but there are always themes and feelings that I keep even over long periods
of time. When I left school, I was doing a ton of abstract facile paintings,
these works had lots of dripping, and splattering, and multiple layers
of paint. These paintings were often 36 to 48 inches tall or larger, this
might have been in response to the large scale murals I was helping on.
then went to a more painterly small format in which I started to do more
figurative works. My colors started to becoming more brilliant at this
time too. I was trying to make quaint, precious paintings that invite
a viewer to walk closer to the work and explore it more closely.
Most recently I have moved back to a more surreal-abstract
mind set. These images have objects and abstractions juxtaposed to the
main subject of the painting. Colors have become even more brilliant and
Tell me about your abstract art. It’s easy for
me to admire the skill of representational artists. But to be honest,
when it comes to dripping and splattering paint, I just don’t think
I get it.
Abstraction is a way to move away from every day
life. It goes to the emotive and the conceptual. Don’t get me wrong.
I love and admire the technical skill of turning what you see into a painting
or a drawing, but I like taking what I see and transforming it into something
more. What I am trying to say is that I can take a photo of what I am
seeing, but I want to challenge the viewer to find alternative meanings
and layers of complexity or conceptual interpretation.
An artist should never start in the abstract. They should
start with the fundamentals and real life. From obtaining these skills
the abstraction becomes more fully developed.
I do not get into the full non-representational
abstraction. I use abstraction as a tool to draw out forms and add surreal
elements to the image. For me it is to draw both the left and right brains
together for a moment.
How would you describe your style as an artist?
This is hard for me to say for sure, I feel
it is somewhere between post-modernism, expressionism and surrealism,
with a little influence coming out of my love for all art.
noticed some recurring symbols in your artwork: the human heart, hands,
and Russian letters. Can you explain the meaning of these symbols and
why you use them frequently?
The heart is a powerful symbol. It is the life force
of all of us—our health as well as our well being. It also is a
symbol of love and caring. It really is the symbol of our humanity.
Hands can mean so many things also. In propaganda art
it often has a connotation of power, such as in socialist art. We touch
and explore with our hands discovering the world around us. The expression
of love can be obtained in how we lay our hands on another or by holding
hands with someone. Violence and hard work... and I could go on and on.
Now for the Russian words, I started adding them
when I wanted to add words to my art. As I started to do this I found
people relating more to the words and not the art so I found that by adding
words from in less common languages (for the States anyway) that the view
related to the art and found the words a symbol instead.
What themes do you pursue in your artwork?
I try to evoke emotion into my work. I like to get
a reaction that stems from a gut impulse. This ties all of my different
styles of art into a larger body of work. As for sub-themes, I tend to
dabble into politics and life around me. I love to draw when I am out
at a variety of venues, doing small quick drawings of what is there.
What sort of message do you wish to communicate
through your art?
The message is not always important to me. I have
my interpretation; however, I am interested in how the individual viewer
will react to the work and what meanings they find when they are looking
at the piece.
What reaction from a viewer makes you happiest?
When someone walks up to a work and intently stares
at it! I don’t even mind if it is for good or for bad.
What are your
influences that have the biggest impact on your art?
Life, love, and politics. Can I be anymore broad?
Okay, I will try to be more specific. I have done art based on poetry;
this is how my friend David Pomije and I started an art/lit ‘zine
back in ’96. Also, I love the movement of music while I am painting
or drawing; that’s why I got involved in some live performance action
painting with another artist this winter at the Speakeasy Bar.
Who are your favorite artists?
Oh, I like so many. I could list tons, but here
are a few I am fond of: Max Beckmann, Damian Hirst, Pollock, Chuck Close,
Caravagio, Basquait, and most of the usual suspects!
What's you favorite art book?
War. It is an interesting read about Picasso's process with his famed
painting Guernica and the history of the rise of Fransisco Franko in Spain.
I would say it is a must read for artist and historians alike.
Where do you find inspiration?
Everywhere, mostly from the little things that are
never noticed by anyone. The little things are sometimes the most important.
How do you come up with ideas for artwork?
I spend a lot of time thinking. I think about
all sorts of stuff, such as the conversation I had with a stranger, the
state of current events, the street art I see while walking, what I read
at night. Finding connections between these seemingly unrelated things
and events is how I react to my world around me. It is a process. This
thinking process is not unlike the creative process of how my artwork
comes into being. I do not usually start a painting with it planned out.
I first like to get some “meat” onto the canvas. As I do that,
the canvas starts to suggest what and where to go next, but I always confine
it to the general concept and framework set by the process.
paint a lot of nude figures. Why do you find figures to be interesting
The figure is an all-time classic in art. I love
the challenge, and there is an emotive complexity to the subject. Everyone
is a figure, so to speak, so there is an immediate connection with model,
artist, and viewer. I find this intriguing and compelling on a dynamic
What constitutes a captivating pose?
There is so much that can make a captivating pose,
such as energy, mood, dynamics, and lighting, but what I think makes a
great pose is a model who is confident and comfortable while modeling.
What I also look for in a figure model is a real and everyday person,
flaws and all.
What is your favorite medium?
I will work with any and everything if need be,
however I am a big fan of oil on canvas and charcoal (or conte) on paper.
Those are very different media. How do you decide which
medium to use? Do you just feel like painting sometimes, and drawing other
times, or do you select a medium that suits the mood of a composition
you have in mind?
It depends. I sometimes pick medium first then the
theme will be dictated by the media I had chosen. Other times I have something
I want to do and I will pick what medium fits best. It is such a flow
most of the time that I don’t even have to question what I am going
When you’re doing an oil painting, how you decide
which colors to use? Do the colors express any meaning beyond simply an
aesthetically pleasing combination?
It is all about feel for me now. I grab colors and
go at it strong. It wasn’t like that at first. It really came down
to practice and learning on the fly. Often I do not like the outcome,
but that's part of the process of creating the painting. I love to progress
and change as the color and the image calls for it.
Tell me about one of your recent
Well, my last one was done for a musician from the
band Jack Buzzards here in Minneapolis. He wanted me to a portrait of
Lester Young playing his sax in his distinctive way. I ended up listening
to a lot of Lester while painting it. It was quite interesting when it
was done, with thick globs of what look like lights and sound above Lester’s
How long does it typically take you to complete
a finished work?
I have finished a painting in as little as one
hour, but sometimes paintings need to live for months or years before
I can finish them. Drawings I usually do not take more than three or four
hours, unless it is really big.
of your specialties is hand-bound books. What sort of materials and process
do you use for book binding?
The basic materials for book binding starts with
paper, thread and a cover of some type. I use heavy specialty paper, leather
or found objects for my covers mainly. A medium weight paper is used for
the pages and waxed linen thread to bind. The process is straight forward
and simple, you start with the cover open and face down, add a section
of paper and sew it to the cover, then add another section, sew and continue.
Even though the binding of books is as simple as sewing
sections of paper into a cover, there is much more to it. The binding
of books feels like a ceremony to me, a zen-like state is achieved with
me as the needle goes through the paper and the cover, wraps around and
There is also the historical significance to the written
word and the evolution of books and book binding. The advent of words
in written form from clay to scrolls to book form became the catalyst
for transformation of culture and social structure.
Hand binding in modern day brings back the preciseness
of the book and has transformed it into an art form onto itself.
What sort of books do you bind?
I have done journals, a historic music score book,
a few art books and a sketch book.
Are these commissioned projects?
The music score book and a journal are the only
commissions to date. I have created many books for gifts though.
What do you think has been you biggest achievement so far during your career as an artist?
Achievement is such a strange word to me,
so I will talk in personal terms for a bit. I measured my achievement
in personal growth, and that personal growth happens whenever I pick up
a drawing medium or a brush. My achievement is really based on my process
A more tangible achievement though is having my work hanging
at several public venues.
What advice would you give to an aspiring
Work hard and follow your passion. Don’t make
art for other people; make if for yourself and someone will love it!
How can one acquire your work?
My work can be seen and bought through my website.
Thanks, Douglas. I enjoyed chatting with you today.
at a Glance
|Minneapolis, Minnesota USA