Thomas Chimes, The Per Contra Interview with Miriam N. Kotzin, Part 2
MK: That’s something to hold on to.
Your series of boxes are amazing. Where did you learn metal work?
TC: The Palmetto School of Aeronautics, in Columbia, South Carolina, as part of the Civil Air Patrol before I was drafted. Of course, when I was in high school, boys took both wood shop and metal shop. I studied metal work with a Mr. Reinhardt whose son Richard became a jeweler in Philadelphia.
I did pretty well at the Palmetto School. In fact, I was the first of my group to learn to do an aluminum weld, which was more difficult than an iron weld. And I worked with drill presses and other machine tools.
One instructor, named Winchester, had me make a small radio cabinet in wood. The other work we had to do was to construct a wing for an airplane, a Piper Cub, out of wood, and cover it with fabric and so on.
MK: How did it happen that you went to The Palmetto School?
TC: When Pearl Harbor was bombed, I decided I’d get defense work with the Civil Air Patrol. Both my brothers had enlisted. Later, after my brothers took off for the war, it was embarrassing when I was asked why I wasn’t in the service. But fairly soon I got drafted, and was sent to Greensboro, North Carolina as part of the Army Air Force. It was there that I met my future mentor, Michael Lekakis, who was teaching a short course in camouflage. At the time I didn’t know that he would become my mentor—which happened when we met again after the war at the Art Students League.
MK: When you were learning how to do metal work at the Palmetto School, did you think that you might one day put those skills to use in your art?
TC: A lot of people ask me that. I certainly did not.
My work in metal got started when I painted a mural while I had a studio in the Middle City Building in Philadelphia (1960-1968), which has since been torn down. [The mural was in the show at the Art Museum.]
I was concentrating on color, shape and design to get the impact of a symbol, working with thin paint, so the colors would be intense and the contours clear, what was called hard-edge by the Abstract Expressionists. I looked at the mural and thought that something was missing in the painting. It was the loss of substance. The word “presence” came to me, that, as it was, the painting was too insubstantial. So I glued a piece of aluminum foil on the next painting. And that led to the metal boxes.
A painting I identify as a transitional piece to the metal boxes was done on wood, and I put a metal frame on it [Yes, l965].
The word “metal” comes from the Greek, metallon, to mine for ore, to probe and search for. Probably everyone who uses metal has this in the back of his mind, some subtle association with searching in the earth for gold, which brings me to alchemy again.
When I made the boxes, I oriented them to the wall, to retain the feeling of two dimensions. Distinguishing between two and three dimensions is one of the most profound issues in art. Form determined by two dimensions has subtle associations with the spiritual.
MK: How’s that?
TC: The gods and spirit don’t need the third dimension. For example, in Egyptian wall paintings, the figures are in profile. On Greek vases, the figures are flat and in profile. Gods don’t need two eyes. One eye is the spiritual dimension.
I wanted to suggest another dimension, through the Pataphysical. As for the boxes, there’s a secret, something hidden inside them, meaning is lurking. In alchemy, “the secret is hidden in matter.” The secret is IN the matter, but it isn’t the matter itself.
At no point did I try to deal with three dimensions in my own work—except with that piece that I did with [the poet Stephen] Berg on the river.
MK: How does your studio space affect your work? Would you give our readers some examples?
TC: When I moved into l722 Spruce, which I’ve mentioned before, I had a studio that had formerly been used by the artist Tom Palmore. I was immersed in brilliant light, because of a huge skylight. I had the sense of a landscape, an external expansive world, that allows you to open up and take a deep breath of fresh air. That’s where the white paintings began.
Tom Palmore had left behind a large canvas, 7’ X 9’ nicely primed, which I looked at for some time, and which I then used to make Waterfall. I remembered I had a postcard of Niagara Falls in the box of things that I brought with me, and I used that image as a source. I went to Niagara Falls, the time of day when the sun is exactly at the correct angle to make the rainbow.
From there I was reductive. I started with the six primary colors arranged in a certain way. I got the Brittanica and looked up the rainbow and the science behind it. Then I kept the three primary colors and got rid of orange, green and purple. I kept the black edge, which you see in the small paintings. The reduction eventually led to my three-inch by three-inch paintings.
The dark portraits were done in a small space. They’re intimate. I chose a small room with a small window, and I drew the curtain. I set up a small easel with two lamps (the sort that attach to a table and aim the light). I fixed a photograph to my left on a small support, and I placed the panel on the easel. I did the wooden frames afterwards. I used one lamp to illuminate the photo and the other for the panel. I’d stare at the photo. After staring for a while I saw countless curving lines that made up the image—like in DaVinci’s drawing. It wasn’t just a flat shape on the photograph.
The feeling I had of using the photo image to paint the portrait was that the photograph was a legitimate image in terms of factual reality. It was more than just a photo: It conveyed something authentic to me.
Then there’s the wood panel with its grain. If you look in Webster’s 7th Collegiate Dictionary you find “hyla, tree toad, from the late Latin. In Greek, “hyle,” means wood. The Greek word for matter is “hyle.” In Latin the word for “matter” is related to “mater,” the word for mother. The Greek, hyle, has the connotation of something malleable, more fluid, softer, grainy, growing, forming.
MK: Although some of the portraits are the full-length figure, many are just the head….
TC: Although the first portrait of Jarry was with a dark shape, the next figures were largely not just the head but the torso; gradually the emphasis shifted to the head—just the head—because the head is a skull. The skull is the location of consciousness in the brain. (When Jung talks about dreams, he says a hat refers to the head.)
In the painting of Jarry with the sword, that’s a reference to the Pataphysical physic stick. Michael Taylor pointed out to me that I’d written the poem “Lilystick” before I knew about that. [Link to poem in Fall Per Contra.]
MK: Some artists have a strong interest in politics, and you’ve said emphatically that you don’t. Would you expand on that somewhat?
TC: Why not politics? I didn’t want to deal with politics because, philosophically speaking, I lost interest in it early on. FDR was the only president who meant anything to me.
Plato meant a great deal to me in the 40’s when I was studying philosophy at Columbia University. When I was talking about philosophy with Michael Lekakis, I said that Plato appealed to me more than Aristotle. Why? His world of ideas, and the real world, which is a representation of ideas. The idea is superior because it’s unchanging, while the real world is constantly changing. Ideas are eternal and complete.
As for the world of time and space, we’ll never fully know what it is.
Pre-Socratics, like Heraclitis, had a profound effect on me, the notion of opposites. The tension between opposites holds everything together.
What makes the real world is the tension between good and evil. Jarry’s is a humorous and profound restatement of Heraclitis. The equivalence of opposites is Pataphysics.
So, in politics, we have Democracy and Fascism…. What can I do about it?
The role for Chimes is in his studio.
MK: How would you describe your current view of your work in the context of alchemy?
TC: It has to do with the goal in alchemy.
MK: What are you reading now?
TC: The Conscious Universe, by Menas Kafatos and Robert Nadeau.
MK: How would you describe your current work?