Interview with the Painter and Printmaker Jack Boul by Dr. Eric Denker, Senior Lecturer, National Gallery of Art and Consulting Curator of the exhibition Jack Boul: Then and Now at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, November 11- December 27, 2008
Q. Could you talk a little bit about when you were growing up?
A. I was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and grew up in the South Bronx on 138th Street. My father had a grocery store in the South Bronx, and my parents both worked in the store. I wouldnít say they were grocers, since thatís really not a very good description of them. The grocery store was a way of earning a living. My father was interested in many things, he spoke a number of languages, he was very interested in math, he was very interested in electricity, radios, carpentry -- in fact the back of the store was always full of tools. I worked in the store until I went into the Army in 1946.
Q. Were either of your parents interested in art, did you talk to them about art when you were young?
A. No, actually we had a cousin who was a sculptor and I remember visiting him as a kid when I was young. My parents were very supportive of anything I was interested in and so I went to the American Artists School in New York as a young person. Iím not sure if it was more to encourage me in my art or to keep me off the street.
Q. When you went to the American Artists School, was there anyone who was especially important or had a real influence on you?
A. Frankly, no. I think that most of the people were much older and I donít remember anything particularly positive about it. I do remember that I would rather have been playing stickball at the time.
Q. Do you remember when you first started going to MOMA and other art museums, did you have favorite artists when you were young?
A. Yes, I still remember the painting of the Sleeping Gypsy by Rousseau, and I still am very fond of it. There was also Picassoís Demoiselles díAvignon. I remember that I was also interested in Hopper, as well as Jose Orozco, the Mexican muralist.
Q. Can you talk about your feelings when you were young? Did you want to be an artist?
A. No, when I was young I thought I wanted to be a truck driver, and see the country and drive around. This made my father very nervous. I think the thing that stayed in my mind very early was that there was a lot of uncertainty. In the 1930s, I remember, there was a fear that the country could go fascist. There was the anti-Semitic Father Coughlin, with his newspaper, Social Justice, (which used to be sold every Sunday at St. Jeromeís Church on 138th Street), and there was the Nazi German Bund. Someone once asked me why I worked so small -- my reasons at that time are different from my reasons now. I really thought I might have to leave this country rather suddenly, and small paintings are easy to move, they all fit in a little box. There was a lot of anti-Semitism in the Bronx. I did paint a mural at Brooklyn College before I went into the service, and the theme was anti-Semitism, and I thought at that time that I really wanted to do something political.
Q. When you came back from the Army you made the decision to go to Seattle. Why?
A. I was looking for a job, my father had died, and I had gotten married, and my brother was living on the West coast, so we moved to Seattle. I enrolled at the Cornish School of Art, on the GI bill. I didnít think of it necessarily as a career, but I was interested in painting and wondered where that would take me. I never thought I could earn a living from painting.
Q. What did you gain from attending the Cornish art school in Seattle?
A. It was a good experience for me. The museums were very exciting, there was a great emphasis on American Indian art and oriental art which I like very, very much. I had a good relationship with Mitchell Jamison, one of the teachers out there. It was he who suggested that I go to Washington, DC and study at American University.
Q. When you came to American University, who were the people who you worked with?
A. Sarah Baker, Bill Caffee, Bob Gates. Mitchell Jamison came back to Washington later to teach at Maryland. If you were to ask me, aside from the well known European artists, who most influenced me, I would have to say that the artist and teacher Robert díArista had a very strong influence on my work. I admired his work, I found that he liked the same things that I did. In fact, it was one of the reasons I think my time at AU was a very positive experience , I learned a lot there, certainly more than anywhere else up to that time.
Q. Were there other artists in the area with whom you shared influences?
A. Ben Summerford was an artist and teacher when I was there. Also, the New York painters, Bob Kulik and Earl Kerkam, were influential as well.
Q. When you left American University as a student, what came next?
A. After American I had a number of jobs. I worked at the Smithsonian as an exhibits person. I worked at Chestnut Lodge as an occupational therapist and I worked for the Hecht Company in their design department. I also worked for Franz Bader as a picture framer. I taught some classes at Montgomery College. Eventually, I went back to American University and taught as an adjunct professor for 15 years. When I left American University, I became one of the early teachers at the Washington Studio School in DC. It was just getting started then, around 1984.
Q. Can you mention something about your early painting?
A. I was interested in doing paintings of the Baltimore alleys, I liked the alleys and there was something about the shapes that attracted me. I once sent an announcement card for a show to a friend of my motherís from the old country and it featured a painting of an alley. She wrote and said that although I had never been there, there was something about the alleys in those paintings that captured the feeling of the little shtetls in the old country. I found that very moving.
Q. I recall that when we were together teaching in Venice, as we walked around I suddenly realized that we were seeing in entirely different ways, that I was looking at the buildings and the architecture in front of me, not thinking about how they interacting with the voids around them, but that as an artist you were seeing the fabric of the buildings and the negative spaces.
A. The negative space, of course, is so important; it is similar to the pauses and the quiet spaces between notes in music. The negative space is as important as the objects -- and so becoming aware of negative space is essential.
Q. Were there major exhibitions that you saw that affected you?
A. The one group that stays in my mind was a show of the Italian Macchiaioli painters that I saw at the Fortezza in Florence. The museum itself had been a fortress, and had small openings in the wall that were originally used for rifles. You could walk around and see these small Macchaioli paintings, and then suddenly you could look out of these openings and you would see Florence in terms of rooftops, trees, skies, and they were like little paintings. It struck me that the views looking out the windows were as exciting as the paintings on the walls of the exhibit, and it seemed to clearly indicate that there was something quite beautiful about recording what you saw in a certain way, by reacting to it.
Q. Youíve mentioned artworks in Europe, but what about local museums?
A. One of the best things about living in Washington has been the ready access to first class collections, particularly at the National Gallery. For example, I have often admired the Corot and Chardin paintings in the NGA and many of the works in the ongoing Small French Paintings exhibition are favorites. The Freer and The Phillips Collection, too, are favorite places to go. The small Ryder painting of a dead bird at the Phillips is a gem. The small Whistlers at the Freer also are wonderful.
Q. Can you mention a little about the exhibitions that you have had over the years? Was your first show in Baltimore?
A. No, I was showing here first. I had a number of exhibitions, perhaps eight or nine one-person shows at the Watkins Gallery at American University. I showed at the Franz Bader Gallery. The first large show that I had was at the Baltimore Museum. I also was very pleased that early on I showed at the Jefferson Place Gallery in DC, which was predominantly a gallery showing abstract expressionism and avant-garde paintings. Initially, I felt uncomfortable, but I was pleased that they included me, since I was interested in colors and shapes. The fact that I had subject matter was not a problem for them. After 1985 I began to show regularly at the gallery of the Washington Studio School. I also had a rather large show about that time at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC. Afterwards, there was the large retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2000 with 150 paintings, monotypes and sculptures. I was very happy with that show. I always wanted to be a good local painter, and I remember looking around and thinking that I had really achieved that goal, to be a good artist with a solid body of work.
Q. Many of the shows that you mention were predominantly painting shows, but in many ways your greatest influence has been in monotype. When did you start to think in terms of printmaking, both monotypes and dry points?
A. I was already doing etchings and dry points even while I was at American University, but I really was not doing monotypes. I am not sure what triggered my interest in monotypes, but it seemed to be perfect for me. I was not interested necessarily in making multiples and most printing processes take a lot of time and a lot of steps and here I could avoid all of that and just get one copy, which is all I wanted. I also realized that although you could probably force it into being a tight medium, I found it was a very loose medium for me. It probably helped my painting loosen up a bit. Rather than trying to get precise detail, as I did when I used to paint with a tiny little brush at times, the monotypes were wonderful in terms of not only loose brushwork but in terms of wiping and smudging, etc, and I think it helped the painting a great deal.
Q. Letís turn to the influence of travel on your work.
A. Vivian and I have been to Greece, Italy, France, Spain, and Ireland, and weíve been to England a number of times. It was enjoyable to visit Constable Country. We went to Venice in 2006 where I was artist in residence at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica. I was very pleased with the work that came out of that trip. I often return with ideas in mind, and sometimes with drawings and photographs that are inspired by the places we visit. However, I am always interested in color and form, and less in the identification of a particular site. I give the works simple, generic titles. Actually I prefer no titles, but I need some way to identify works in a show. I really would prefer people respond directly to the work without reference to a place they recognize.
Q. When you first begin to conceive of a work, how do you start?
A. This goes back to something Iíve mentioned before about Camille Corot Ė he once said: ďI am never in a hurry to get into details, I am first and foremost interested in the large shapes and general movement of things.Ē Thatís what happens when I look at something, if I look at it, it is almost as if I am squinting at it, if you squint you donít see any detail, all you see is the large simple shapes. If you have been doing this for a number of years, you donít even have to squint; all you see is the large simple shapes. Then, once the large shapes are organized, in some way, other things follow from that. Sometimes there is something just about the shapes and forms that are exciting, other times the color is terribly important. I very rarely make any color monotypes, so if color is important I would lean toward painting. Other works I conceive of in black and white, so I would lean toward monotype.
Q. What are your hopes for this show?
A. One of the nice things about painting is that you do it all by yourself. It is one of the few things that I can think of that you have complete control over. You do it, you make it, itís over. You donít need anything else. A composer needs a musician. An architect needs a builder. For me, the painting is over when I finish it. What happens after that is nice, but itís another world. It gets shown: is it accepted? Is it reviewed? Is it reviewed positively, and do I sell it, thatís all another world that has nothing to do with painting, it has to do with living. And so, I would hope that itíll look well in the space that Iím given, and I would hope that people would like it. I would much rather that they like it than they donít like it, but that isnít the most important thing. The important part of it is over when I finish painting.
4 x 5 ĺ
Collection of the Artist
Oil on Canvas
6 x 8
Collection of the Artist
Oil on Board
9 x 12
Collection of the Artist
Oil on Wood
9 x 11 Ĺ
Collection of the Artist