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A conversation with the artist

Q: I remember the first time I saw one of your paintings. I said to a friend of mine: Look at this work -- it looks like John Singer Sargent.

Paul Oxborough's modern paintings have Old Master's grace

A: I've heard that before -- I get that a lot. At first I wasn't sure whether I liked that, but now I take it as a badge of honor, a compliment -- he's one of the greatest painters of all time.

Q: What leads people to make the connection?

A: There's an obvious brushwork quality. There's a certain philosophy: I paint in a life-like way, and I paint the way I think people see -- not photo-realism, not with photographic accuracy, but with impressions. Which is something Sargent did, and Velazquez before him -- people were always saying Sargent was like Velazquez.

Almost all my work comes from real life. So there aren't -- I hope not, anyway -- a lot of contrived moments. I paint my wife Jenny on a train, my daughter waking up, a guy in a museum -- things I actually see.

Q: How do you record the things you see, so you can get them onto a canvas? Do you work from sketches? From memory? From photographs you take on the scene?

A: Yes, all those -- sketching, color studies, photographs. I would like to do it all on-scene, from nature, but things move too fast. So for a painting of bartenders, I won't be in the bar with a canvas, painting right there -- I'll work in the studio, from drawings, or sometimes from models.

Q: How did you become an artist? When did you first realize you were one, or wanted to become one?

A: When I was little, I was just another kid, drawing on the walls. (laughs) I remember being in 4th or 5th grade, and there was a mini-show where they put our work up on the walls - and I remember mine was the best. That isn't to be prideful -- I just could see that mine was the best.

In high school, I was really serious about my art -- it was a public high school, St. Louis Park High School in Minneapolis. My mentor was my art teacher, Robert Anderson -- we called him "Doc." He was my first mentor. He loves, really loves painting. He taught me so much - he told me that you had to look at an artist's life, not just their work.

And my folks were very open to the idea. Well, my dad -- a businessman, a numbers guy - liked the idea of me being an illustrator better, because maybe that would be steadier work. Fine arts was more elusive, but that's what I wanted to do.

I went to Minneapolis College of Art and Design, for a year. Then I went to an atelier, in the French academic tradition, for four years straight. That's another connection to Sargent -- that's the way he studied: working from nature, working from the model. I could now, technically, open a school -- Atelier Oxborough -- if I wanted, because I went through the program.

Q: Any plans to open such an atelier?

A: No, I don't think so. I don't feel ready to teach. Maybe someday.

Q: And after you'd finished your atelier training?

A: We -- my wife Jenny and I -- went with our kids to France for a year. And that's where I made my first one-man show, in '96. I thought of that as a sort of graduate program.

Q: Where do you live and work now?

A: We're in Minneapolis, and I work at home -- I have a studio. There are two homes on the property, and I work in one and we live in the other. It's not a very glamorous studio, I should tell you!

Q: You mentioned children - how old are your children?

A: 8, 13, 14, and 17. The two youngest are girls and the two oldest are boys.

Q: How often do you use them as subjects or models in your work?

A: A fair amount -- maybe one out of every ten pieces. They'll show up in autobigraphical work, as well as just posing for me. They help make my work my own. You can't say about my painting "First One Up" that Sargent painted that, because he didn't; he didn't paint my daughter lying in a hotel in 1999.

Q: Many of your paintings are of children.

A: I like to paint them, but I always think that nobody will be interested in those paintings -- I always worry that they'll will be somewhat sugary because they have children in them.

Q: Sugary?

A: Saccharine, cutesy -- that's not something I go for in my work. You put a little girl in a scene, you're sort of right there already. I see other artists' work that have children, and they always seem a bit "Little House on the Prairie"-ish, with the girls in the dresses.

Q: Your wife Jenny appears often in your paintings. Is she one of your muses?

A: Oh, yes. I've painted her hundreds of times. Part of it is, she's always willing to sit for me. She loves napping poses! (laughs). She's also my best editor. And she's open-minded about art, which is good for me. When I first came out of the atelier, for example, I thought it was a sin to use a photograph, to paint from a photograph. Jenny was able to help me realize that, hey, whatever means you have to get to your end is good. She's a big part of this, and doesn't get enough credit for it.

Q: How did you meet?

A: I was friends with her brother in high school. When I met her, I was 15 and she was 20, so that was a huge age difference at the time. We hooked up years later, after she'd been married and had children -- which explains why I'm 35 and have a 17-year-old. She's also in the arts -- she's a great pianist, a talented musician.

Q: You said your high school art teacher taught you to look at an artist's life, not just his work. What can someone tell about your work from looking at your life?

A: Ah, the 'artist's life' ... You think when you're starting out that being an artist means wearing lots of ripped-up clothes, living a funky life with paint all over the place. The Bohemian life: a lot of parties, a lot of drinking. I mean, Picasso was as famous for his lifestyle and his love affairs as his art, in some ways.

I remember being 18 and having a conflict about that: I respected my father, my parents and Jenny's parents -- people who'd been married for 40 years. People who worked and wanted their kids to go to college. I wanted that for myself. My teacher, Doc Anderson, said, 'Well, look at Monet -- he had four stepchildren and three children; he was a nice man; he paid his bills on time. He did all the things that Mr. Cleaver did -- and was still a great painter.'

And I loved that. I thought, I can do this. And I think that's why I paint how I paint, and what I paint -- it's an extension of who I am as a person. I don't have a lot of angst, or drunken moments -- I care that my kids go to college.

I remember when I was much younger, and used my being an 'artist' as an excuse for some rude behavior, my dad said to me, 'Being an artist is an excuse to make art.'

Q: Do you know, at a glance, if something you see is something you want to paint?

A. It's a bit hit-and-miss, but my odds keep getting better as I get more practice. But now, for every painting I want to do, there's another painting that I think I can paint, and I end up not being able to -- I haven't unlocked the mystery of it. I can give you an example: Jenny was laying a brick patio at our house, and the light was really nice on her. And I tried that -- this is about the third time I'd tried to do brick layers; I'd tried it in Portugal - and I can't paint it. I don't know why. I think I should be able to ...

Maybe I need to have more figures, because I'm not making it enough like a dance -- not giving it enough movement. I like the idea of people working, moving, and that's hard to do -- it's hard to capture people in motion; to imply movement. Sometimes, things just don't click -- and I think that's true of all artists. You just don't see those pieces.

I won't give up -- I'll go back and revisit it again, to see if I can find the clue to the mystery of a piece. That's my hardest thing, to revisit pieces. I wish every time I tried to do a painting, I'd make a fresh new statement that's never been seen before -- but that doesn't happen very often.

Q: How many incomplete or unsatisfactory "unsolved mysteries" do you have on canvas?

A: Oh, man! Many of them don't survive. For example, the one of Jenny laying the patio -- that piece is in the garbage. A lot of those pieces, I've got too much paint on the canvas and I can't add any more.

And I have many more paintings in my head than I have ever finished -- things I'd like to paint, but it was all too fast, or we were on a trip and I wasn't able to get a sketch, or not even a photograph, or I couldn't set it up in my studio and create it.

Q: You mentioned the difficulty of capturing people in motion. How often in your work do you show figures in action, as opposed to at rest?

A: I have a lot of people at rest, for the obvious reasons: because they sit still. But I also like that. Like "The Bartenders" piece -- my impression of it anyway is that it's the end of the night, and they're done. They're not moving, but we know that they were, and will again.

Q: Are you a prolific painter?

A: I have to make a living -- and now we have kids going into college, so... (laughs) It's hard to come up with 40 new concepts every year, and that's how many pieces I'd like to do. And you can only be in a gallery if you're doing a certain amount of work.

Q: Do you ever have problems motivating yourself to work?

A: No. I set my goals according to upcoming shows - shows are good for me; I finish things. I wanted to do eight pieces for this show ("The Figure in American Art" at the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery, New York City; January 11- February 11). And they said, how about ten? And I did nine; I compromised. And if I'm doing a one-man show, I need about 30 pieces - depending on sizes, of course. You have to fill the gallery space, or it looks silly.

Q: What size are most of your works?

A: I do a variety of sizes. There is a little bit of a businessman in me, who thinks a little about giving a variety of sizes, because not everybody can buy a $20,000 painting, or has the wall space -- I don't have the wall space for some of the size works that I do.

Q: Does size always determine cost?

A: No it doesn't. But there's a rule of thumb that's determines price, often according to size. And if a piece is obviously more complicated -- multi-figure generally is higher-priced. And so are pieces that just seem to be stronger paintings. It's very abstract...

Q: What materials do you use in your paintings?

A: Oil paints, linen canvas. Panels sometimes, as well, but not very often - I don't like the quality as well. I can finally afford the best canvas, and that's what I paint on -- a Belgian linen canvas. I think they've been making it for 600 years or something. I buy it by the 6-yard roll. A cotton canvas is $5 or $6 a yard, maybe -- compared to $55, $60 a yard for what I use. But it's such a difference in quality -- the difference between nice clothes and cheap clothes.

Q: Do you remember the first time you painted with oils?

A: I painted once with oils in high school, but I didn't even finish the painting. In the atelier, we had to do a year of black-and-white drawing -- no painting. And in the second year, I painted only black and white oils. I was 20, 21. I had painted in acrylic, painted in color, before then, and a fair amount of watercolors, which I don't do anymore.

Q: Why not?

A: I don't think I've been good enough - they all look terrible. To do watercolor, you really have to know what you're doing. The reason Sargent's watercolors are so beautiful is that they're so quick and to the point -- and it's very hard to capture those values.

With oil painting, you can paint over and over. Like with "The Bartenders" -- there's 20 layers of changes under there, and what you see on the canvas might have taken me, after 100 hours total of painting, only 12 hours to paint. With watercolors, you don't have that luxury.

Q: Are you a speedy painter? A slow painter?

A: Compared to Vermeer, I'm crazy-speedy -- he only did, what, 30 paintings in his lifetime

Q: What's your work day like?

A: When I'm going on a show, I work 12-hour days, stopping to eat. (Jenny, Oxborough's wife breaks in: "He stands there with the palette and brushes for 12 hours, and rolls it around in his brain for a few more hours after that. He's in what I call a bubble.")

Q: Do you work in silence? Or do you listen to music or the radio?

A: It's a solitary thing, to be alone in a room for 12 hours. I listen to talk radio -- NPR. I have this huge headful of useless knowledge now, because I listen to it all the time. When I get frustrated, I'll put music on -- jazz, be- bop jazz usually -- because it gets me into a different part of my brain, if I can't mix a color, or I'm having a drawing problem or compositional problem.

Q: Is it hard for you to sell, to let go of works you like?

A: There's one piece in the last show, "First One Up," with my daughter, that I would have liked to have kept. But generally, no. I come to a show like this and see my works, and it's all a bunch of mistakes to me -- things that I couldn't resolve. Some artist said, you never like a painting -- you just give up on it.

Q: Are you a perfectionist?

A: Staying awake for the past few nights with horror over one of my paintings that I think is wrong, that has a drawing error in it? A perfectionist? (laughs) I would say yes.

Q: Do you ever consciously make paintings on the basis of what you think buyers will like? Have you noticed what subjects, or what color schemes, or what sizes, sell best?

A: Obviously, the bigger they are, the harder they are to sell, because they're higher-priced. As far as colors, red is a big seller. And subjects - I do like to do paintings in bars, because of the light. But I try to always do something new, because that can be a dangerous trap, you know. You can be typecast -- "oh, he's the guy who does the women on the beach with white dresses."

Q: Are you ever asked to duplicate works that prove to be well-liked, desirable?

A: This gallery is good about that - they don't say to me, 'Oh, we'd like another one of those green paintings.' I will do something - such as a portrait of a subject I've painted before - that is maybe proven. Not as a copy, but because I feel it will be a good painting.

Q: Who are your favorite painters?

A: Sargent, obviously. I do love Degas. Velazquez - he was the first painter in history to describe perspective with light, and atmosphere. My most favorite would be Manet.. The first painter I admired, when I was in high school, was Norman Rockwell: I remember thinking, 'Look -- this guy makes people look so real. How'd he do that?' And (Edward) Hopper.

Q: Any living painters?

A: I love Odd Nerdrum.

Q: He's often called the "new Rembrandt"...

A: Definitely -- he gets that all the time. Odd Nerdrum is one of the few alive on the whole earth who can begin to paint like Rembrandt -- the skin quality. Although Nerdrum has done things Rembrandt never did -- Rembrandt never painted himself nude.

Q: You travel frequently to Europe - France, Spain, Portugal -- to collect ideas and sketches and do paintings. What do you like about Europe - the architecture? the faces of the people? the light?

A: All those things. We do tend to go for sun-drenched places - probably because we have enough of the other in Minnesota. (laughs)

Q: Do you have a sense of the kinds of paintings you hope to make in the next ten years, the next twenty years? Do you think your style will change, evolve - or is it set?

A: There are rules of painting that I know, and trust -- drawing rules, compositional rules. But it's like a musician learning scales -- we don't want to hear them play their scales in concert, but what they perform is better because they know their scales. But it's the old 'know the rules so you can break them.'

Painting rules change - they changed when the camera came, for example. The camera is part of why realism (in painting) died for a while -- although it's coming back. Portrait painting has died as a record-keeping craft -- there used to be a portrait painter on every corner.

Now we know that a camera doesn't make a painting - it makes a photo. We can make paintings again.

Q: Do you put any particular label on yourself as an artist?

A: No, but They do; others do -- 'an American figure painter.' I'm good with that. I like to paint people -- I'm not a big landscape painter. I think of myself as an Impressionist -- although Monet would curse me and say 'no, you're not anywhere near that.' I don't work with pastel-colored dabs of paint -- but I'm painting the impression of light hitting your eyes; how to throw your eyes out of focus to see the color; the impression of color you see at a glance.

Q: A great deal of modern painting has been criticized as literally 'artless' - you know, 'My kid could do that with fingerpaints' or 'a money could do that, and do it better.' Do you see yourself as a new classicist - in style, in training?

A: Well, my work does look a lot more like Sargent's than Jackson Pollack's... I would like to think that I could become able to work more like Van Gogh, and the post-Impressionists. And I'm only 35. Thirty-five years from now? I could get a lot better. I hope I'll know more as a person, have feelings that are more mature, and have those feelings come out on the canvas.


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