Recorded on November 27, 2017, at Floyd D. Tunson’s studio in Manitou Springs, Colorado. Published by the University of Colorado Colorado Springs Galleries of Contemporary Art, in conjunction with Floyd D. Tunson: Janus, February 1 – April 15, 2018
Copyright © 2018 University of Colorado Colorado Springs
Floyd D. Tunson is one of Colorado’s most important contemporary artists. Over the past 50 years he has prodigiously, fearlessly and innovatively created art from his keen cultural perspective, taking on identity, race, and history in a number of series and across a range of art media.
Idris Goodwin is an award winning playwright, poet, performer and essayist. Currently an assistant professor in The Department of Theatre and Dance at Colorado College, Goodwin moved to Colorado in 2010.
Goodwin and Tunson sat down for a conversation at the invitation of UCCS Galleries of Contemporary Art Director and exhibition curator Daisy McGowan - an excerpt of which is printed in the publication accompanying Floyd D. Tunson: Janus, the inaugural exhibition at the new Marie Walsh Sharpe Gallery of Contemporary Art space, at the Ent Center for the Arts in Colorado Springs.
The following is an excerpted version of their conversation.
Idris Goodwin: So I was wondering if we could start by just talking about space. I think this is something similar for both of us – for me in the performing arts and for you in the visual arts - the need for space to present but also to work. And as somebody who is from here - what’s your relationship to having space, needing space and moving around the Pikes Peak region?
Floyd Tunson: Space is hard to come by because they just don’t have the buildings here …that’s why I came to Manitou because I could afford this space and I have the space. In August, it will be 41 years…
Idris: And what kept here for so long? I’m sure I’m not the first one to ask you that.
Floyd: Probably because I can work. If you can’t get any work done here I don’t know where you’re going to get any work done, because there are no distractions. And I’m kind of a nocturnal person, and so when everything dies down I’m working.
I thought when I first moved here I was going to be here about five years and I was going to move to New York and do my thing. It just didn’t work out like that. Being a teacher you just didn’t make that much money. But I had enough materials to keep me going and I had this space and basically some compelling work. That’s my passion and so that’s why I’m still here.
Idris: And where did you grow up originally?
Floyd: I was born and raised in Denver.
Idris: And so you came to the Springs to teach art?
Floyd: Yeah, I came to the Springs after I was in the Army. I mean, that was the most despondent period of my life being in the military thinking that I’m going to Vietnam and die. I’ve seen a lot of my buddies come back from Vietnam when I was in Denver all banged and wounded. And some didn’t return. It was a terrible time.
But then I came here. I got a leave of absence and came for an interview at Palmer High School.
Idris: And what did teaching do for you? You know, I teach as well… [T]alk a little bit about that about being an artist, a teacher of art and the places and times where it collides.
Floyd: I had a friend of mine that’s kind of like my father. He gave me my first studio in his garage and helped me through everything. He … conveyed to me, “Floyd, you might be the greatest artist in the world, but you might want to get something to fall back on.” And that’s why I got my teaching degree. Most artists that I knew or most people that were doing art were artists and teachers from college…so I did get my teaching degree and I was glad I got that because that allowed me to do this.
I think I was probably just as prolific when I was teaching as I am now because of that time element. You know I would [keep] on a schedule. I’d get out of school about 2:30, get home about 3:00, take a nap until about 7:00, wake up and work until about 2:00 a.m. and do that cycle. I did that cycle for years.
Idris: I mean, what were you bringing in when you were teaching art?
Floyd: I turned them on to Basquiat - I showed [the film] Basquiat many times and they loved it, I loved it. Everything I would try to bring in, I would always try to bring in somebody on that level that was of color or something doing the same things. I was not taking the white canon and throwing down their throat. I'm not delivering that. I'm bringing in the message of what I know as art - my influences.
My oldest brother was an artist. They say who's your biggest influence? Him, first. He was my mentor. I mean, I watched him - he's the one that gave me the idea that I could do all these things. I said when I was five I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but do you think I really knew what I was talking about? You think I really knew what an artist was? There were some people making art in the community … there was a black sign painter, there were other people carving wood.
Then there's my brother. He's painting, he's doing architectural renderings, he's doing sculpture. He did everything. That's what I wanted to do because he was my idol. So I was already exposed very early on that there's a lot of things you can do as an artist. And so by the time I hit high school and then got hip to Andy Warhol, [Robert] Rauschenberg and all those people, pop art… I think it was my senior year when I was first introduced to acrylics and then from there things started opening up.
Idris: And so you’re pretty disciplined…
Floyd: Yeah. I mean this is my legacy … This is my reputation and what I do. This is all I have and I want to leave with a mark. New York is still that art capital of the world. [When] we’d go to New York we’d go to galleries, they’d look at my portfolio and say that’s wonderful work but where are you located? That ain’t going to work. You’ve got to be in this area for people to come out to your studio. I understand that.
Idris: Isn’t it interesting and kind of a paradox because I go through the similar thing as a playwright because New York is also the theater capital where LA is employing lots of playwrights now. But in order to make the work consistently and at the level that I’ve been creating, where I live allows [me] to do that.
Floyd: That allows you to be difficult.
Idris: Right. Exactly. And so there is this question of the reach of the work and how far will the work reach. I find that to be a paradox that I come back to all the time, because I do go to New York and kind of miss here when I go other places. I have fun for a couple of days but then I kind of want my space back. I like the quiet at night. And the older I get the harder it gets for me to think about [living in New York].
Floyd: I think those first five years I was here I was thinking about how was I going to leave here… Eventually I didn’t care because I just wanted to work. So like you say, the older you get the harder it gets because you’re more critical and it doesn’t get easier. But – it’s my passion to be an artist and work.
Idris: Speaking of that … I remember the first time I [saw your work]. I had been living here maybe two years when I took my class [at Colorado College] to see “Son of Pop” when it was at the [Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center]. I brought my writing class over there to do some ekphrastic type work - writing based on images. And so I had read about the show and the image [used to advertise the show] was really striking to me, and so I was like we need to go check this out and see what it is. And the thing I was really curious about was the journey between styles which is to say like –
Floyd: Why am I so eclectic?
Idris: Not so much that but more like, the journey where you get an idea and you get a spark and you go on this journey that determines how you’re going to execute that concept …
Floyd: I don’t want to get stuck doing the same things over and over because that’s not of interest to me. It’s been hard though – it took me a long time to [get] represent[ation] by Robischon Gallery and later Sandy Carson [Gallery] in Denver, because [most other galleries] thought I was too eclectic. [The other galleries] couldn’t pinpoint “that’s a Floyd Tunson”, and next it might be something else. That doesn’t work for business.
Floyd: That works for me and I have been true to myself for doing that. Whatever I think that best executes that concept is what I’m going to use. It might be painting. It might be sculpture. It might be photography. It might be mixed media, but whatever I think works best for executing that concept at that particular time [is what I will choose]. And a lot of my work is difficult because I come back to it at another time I’m a different person with different experiences and dealing with the same problem with the painting.
Idris: So talk to me about the [exhibit coming up at GOCA].
Floyd: That's going to be nothing but painting--large abstracts. [There’s] one painting that's going to cover one of those [50’] walls. It's just going to be abstract paintings … and mixed media, but the mixed media is abstract too.
I said it wasn't going to be political, it's not true because I just did a piece...it's called "Gentrification". Now I want to do two more pieces that deal with gentrification. They’ll be abstract, but still dealing with gentrification. That's a subject right now that is really touchy.
Idris: Do you think that there’s any truth to this idea that if you as an artist, or any kind of artist that is from a marginalized community, that if you are creating truthfully – if you are expressing truthfully from all of the corners of yourself - that inevitably the work, whether it’s figurative or it’s abstract, is going to have some social political level to it?
Floyd: Can't help it. That's why I say that's not my intent but subconsciously when you [create art], you've done that anyway. You're drawing from all your experiences and exposure and what you've seen visually and heard and read and you can't shake that. That's you, that's part of you, everything you see is part of you as an artist, you know. If you're a visual artist you can't shake that. So that's going to come out. I think abstracts can be political just as well as figurative work or anything else, but you don't think so when you're in the process of doing it.
Idris: You’re just telling your story, right?
Floyd: Right. I’m just conveying something, you know. I’m drawing from something and trying to convey something. And when I know I’m finished with that, that’s what I end up with.
Idris: So what are the key elements that must be there, you know, for you to work in a space? Like, what … are the essentials?
Floyd: For me to work in a space? Every apartment I ever had, I’d get a two-bedroom apartment. One bedroom is going to be a studio. I would put down paper all over the room … that would be my studio and I would do the painting as big as I could in that space.
Idris: So your space would determine the size [of the work]..
Idris: But what else, you know, do you need to have music?
Floyd: My daughter calls me and she'll hear Miles Davis [in the background] and say “you're in the studio”, because mostly Miles is my favorite to get started …
Idris: He's kind of perfection. I mean, his music is kind of … close to perfect.
Floyd: I can't pretend like I understood everything that he was doing initially, but I have an affinity for him that for some reason has stuck with me. It's like art. Your initial response is one thing, but if you sit there and contemplate the work over and over it's very different because you're going to discover other things visually or something … is going to come to heads and then you'll just say, wow, I didn't notice that or I didn't think about that or, you know, it's something that has to be absorbed over a period of time.
[In the process of painting] the painting is sometimes painting you, you know? I mean, you're just a conduit and once you start and put those marks down and start working it takes you places that you couldn't contemplate, but you have to deal. You run into visual problems that you have to solve. That's what keeps you up until 3:30 in the morning and then you go to bed and wake up the next day and know that you got to go in there and eradicate something else and change something because it ain't working, you know, and I like that whole challenge of visually something is not working for me and I got to figure out how to make this work. That's the process for me …
If you're not receptive nothing comes to you. When you have already decided, narrowed things down to where you think you know what you're doing nothing else comes to you.
Idris: So, I keep going back to “Son of Pop” [at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center], but it just had such an impact on me -
Floyd: I'm glad that it did!
Idris: - it really did, man. It was exactly what - I'll be honest with you. I'll say it, I'll tweet it, I'll put it on the record - it was a moment where I was, like, I can live here. I was, like, if this guy lives here, and if this is the work and the conversation that can exist here, I can stay here.
Floyd: Excellent. Thank you!
Read the full transcript of this conversation at www.tinyurl.com/idris-floyd-convo