Talking with Detroit-based artist Hamilton Poe is something of a circular… or perhaps spiral … process. He trails off, comes back around, picks up with something he’d said earlier… it’s conversation in three dimensions. Part of this non-linear style is due to his ADD, which he classifies as “pretty severe,” but another, and I think a bigger and more important part, is the fact that Hamilton’s brain is just busy. It’s thinking about art, or else thinking about thinking about art, or it has temporarily released its tether to the terrestrial altogether and is out exploring, waiting to see what it encounters that it can bring back down to earth as art. His brain is hard at work all the time, much in the same way Hamilton himself is at work most of the time. He spends hundreds–thousands, even–of hours in the studio “just blatantly messing around” — trying things out, following leads, experimenting. Like his conversation, his work practice is non-linear, concept-based, and free-flowing. It is also earnest. He takes my questions, and his answers to them, very seriously–thinking about them carefully. Sometimes he talks his way into his answers, in his spiral fashion, letting his words follow the thought process around and through until he comes to what he means to say. Poe has an attitude of open, matter-of-fact possibility and a willingness to take things as they come. He bicycles obsessively: making long-distance cross-country bike trips every two years or so, just letting the rhythm of the ride free his mind and lead him to a place of artistic and emotional release, a place he refers to as “the third space.” I spoke with him when he was at Crystal Bridges installing his artwork Stack.
How did you get to this particular work? I think the process of art is all about doing the things that people typically can’t…don’t have the time to spend in order to do them. A lot of the work is just being in the studio, and generally when it’s successful I’ve found that it seems to go away from whatever original intention you had. But that’s a process that comes because I just spend so much time working, I think. I’ll spend 1,000 hours or 5,000 hours on one piece and I’ll think “this is it, this is gonna be it.” And then I’ll trip and probably break the piece that I’m working on in the process and when I trip I notice my notice my, like, shoe is there and there’s this little two-inch beam sticking out of the ground and then that’s the work right there.
Okay, so what were the steps, then, to get you to this work? I don’t know if you’re going to get it out of me….No, I just told you. That’s it, right there.
Do you come at things with a concept in mind or are you letting the materials take the lead? You start out with an intention….I can draw it, you want to see it? Here’s is my process.
Let’s do triangle equals…byproduct. Circle is hypothesis. Square is result. So. It starts out, it will go like this: circle, arrow, square… and then out of that comes like, a byproduct, triangle, and it goes circle, then square, then triangle. Then circle, then square, just like that. So each time I complete something there’s this new byproduct that comes out of it, that totally dispels any of my previous thoughts. Then that becomes the next work that you go after, and the triangle eventually becomes more square-like, or maybe the square becomes more triangle-like. I have all of these little notebooks and I’ll just write down all of my ideas. I write down any idea that comes. Then after a few months when that’s filled up, or I’ll finally have the time to take these apart, I form these idea charts, and they’re detailed. I sort all those out and then they basically they lead me into whatever projects I want to go into.
Do you think about finding ways to get viewers into the work? Yes. Totally. I mean, that’s super-important, just as much as me wanting to do the piece is: how they’re going to enter into it. You know I think it does happen, that you would see a painting that’s so detailed that eventually you kind of enter into it because you were in awe of it. When there is that kind of awe, that’s the little place where you can wiggle in.
Why do you think is art important, even for non-artists? I don’t know if I even want to go there. It sounds loaded. It’s too much. I feel like the questioning of it becomes silly in a way because I don’t think that artists know what they’re doing, necessarily. I think it just happens. I think for the artists, if it’s a really genuine thing, then it’s just interest. I don’t think … the worse thing about this is the whole thought of explanations. Explanations are just the worst. If I’d answered your question, I might have given some BS answer and that’s cool, that’s what I said, but what does the work say? The scary part is that people tend to forget what’s actually in the work, then. I think if you follow what’s said on the little plaque beside the painting, you don’t really need to enter into the work. When an artist does something well, it has a communication and they frame it and you don’t even notice the frame itself, and then people can enter into it. I guess what I’m getting at is that a lot of art that I really enjoy is concerned with experiences. But for me as an artist to give you the explanation–to say “this is the answer,” is not conducive to thinking. And that’s a hard thing to accept, because it takes time… it’s like fly-fishing. It takes time to learn to fly-fish.