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Excerpts from an interview with Timothy C. Ely conducted by Steve Clay on July 21 and 22, 1994 at the artist's studio in Portland, Oregon.
"Access to a Book That Won't Open. The Flight Into Egypt: Binding the Book." Chronicle Books, 1995.
Steve Clay (SC): Timothy Ely, you were born in Snohomish, Washington, in 1949 and grew up in the Pacific Northwest. You have cited an interest in geological maps, science fiction, comic books, the lore of local UFO sightings, petroglyphs, and the geomantic oddities of the Puget Sound, among many other things. Can you describe how these influences might have informed your youthful imagination and how they exerted their presence in your early work?
Timothy C. Ely (TCE): Well, it's a strange world out there. As early as grade school, I remember being really intrigued by UFOs, and I began to see them around that time. I've never known why. Perhaps because I was interested in them, I could see them. It was a time when people were "seeing things." The Kenneth Arnold UFO sightings, in 1947 near Mount Rainier, were not even forty-five miles from where I grew up! There were sightings over an island just west of Tacoma. A whole fleet of the things were apparently flying around.
I've always been interested in mysteries and in finding strangeness in ordinary things—like bumblebees. By all regular reasoning they shouldn't work, but there they are! The whole space age was a big part of my growing up. And the possibility of other sources of influence affecting human beings has always been really intriguing to me.
I learned to read by reading comic books at a time when I was barely walking. The stories were intriguing and mysterious. I began drawing by copying comic books. In the area of the Northwest where I grew up, there was a lot of variation in the landscape—from high desert to ocean to mountains—and I wanted to draw it all. As a kid I was a pretty crude landscape artist. I'd had no formal training at the time.
What keeps occurring to me is something Claes Oldenburg said. I remember reading that everything he was doing as an adult artist he'd made up when he was a little kid. That strikes me as a very profound idea and certainly concurs with my own experience. Everything I'm interested in today I was just as interested in when I was in grade school. I could say that I'm just a little bit more sophisticated today, but the level of excitement now is just as high as it was forty years ago.
SC: You once said in a lecture that "words are designed to conceal—images to reveal," yet your visual work is often about veiling and concealing. How would you describe what is revealed in your work?
TCE: It's about "revelation" as opposed to "exposure." The classic notion of exposure is someone whipping open a raincoat. Revelation is about being in a higher place. It's like an assembly level convergence of parts of consciousness that are activated by visual symbolic logic. When certain symbols come together, even very simple symbols, they can evoke a sensation that has very little to do with written or spoken language. They can evoke a sense of illumination or enlightenment.
What I'm trying to do is assemble symbols in such a way that a shift occurs in the viewer. We can do the same thing by going out into an herb garden and stroking the Corsican mint. If we feel it and smell it, we will experience an subtle shift. I think that this may be one of the primal effects that drove the early alchemists to begin to understand materials in an intuitive sense. "Shift" is my favorite word for this process, because it doesn't imply a physical change. It's a heightened awareness, like getting a whiff of a strange smell and suddenly getting just a little bit of clarity.
SC: Your work has a very abstract, cool, obsessive, intellectual, sometimes even clinical character. How to you sense that it relates to the more visceral qualities of the emotions and the body.
TCE: I once read that maps are without emotions. Yet I've discovered that my maps can call forth very strong memories for people. They will tell me stories inspired by what they see a familiar territory, even though, as far as I know, the places I map don't exist. I'm very interested in the images of science, the diagrams of how things get built. I'm attracted to circuit diagrams from computers and flight maps, things that evoke both precision and the mystery of precision. I love things if I don't know how they were drawn. I'm interested in that quality in my work—as kind of methodical craftsmanship of layering method upon method upon method, so that the same sort of revelational occurrence gets channeled into vision.
There's also the emotional phenomenon of the elements, some of them as personal symbols, some as familiar universal symbols. They often are applied and arranged intuitively, driven by some unspoken force, but always seem "right" for the placement or the relationship to other elements on the page. I notice, when people look at my work, that they often evoke an emotional response.
SC: Which brings us to alchemy—perhaps you could explain how your studies in alchemy have influenced your work.
TCE: An awareness of materials was one of the first concerns of the alchemists. I've always been interested in materials—art materials, hardware materials, building materials—and in how these can be brought into the process. I love transforming materials: say, taking something from a geologic site and affecting it alchemically, affecting it symbolically, exposing it to the four elements, allowing them to reduce it to a more primal material. Alchemy has alerted me to what I think of as primal colors: the color of lead, the color of earth, the color of fire. The palette in some books has been rarefied. There's something freeing about that.
SC: I'm interested in how the internal alchemy works for you on a psychological level and in how you might see that playing out, not so much in the materials, but in the unconscious, unspoken ways in which the books take form and the images are created.
TCE: Often, the properties of the materials suggest a psychological or maybe even a psychic connection with things. Dan Kelm and I were very playful with copper for a long time because we felt that it had transformative properties, that it had a lot of connections to areas in the arts of the book that interested us. For me, copper is a material associated with engraving, with image making. Virtually all of the seventeenth-century illustrated alchemical texts had images made with copper plate engravings. Something about the technique of engraving on copper feels like a meditation.
As my life changes, I find that I'm much more interested in gold, using gold as an insulator, using gold as a reflective surface, seeing gold in my own life, and feeling really "golden," almost tanned. Gold has working properties and reflective properties and conductive properties and yet it's basically inert. It doesn't compound itself with things very easily. It resists corrosion. It's a very tough and yet a very giving metal. So I've observed changes that have occurred in my own thinking, maybe because I'm paying more attention. Alchemy seems to be about paying attention and being responsible.
SC: I'm interested in how you see the value of art in the context of life and how you might describe the transformative value of art, if it has one.
TCE: I've always been interested in "primitive" art and the art of other cultures, non-Western art. The art that interests me the most is art that I consider to be transformative. This relates back to notions of revelation. There are pieces that have been made by famous artists, anonymous artists, even non-artists, that have a quality about them that changes the way we see the external world. They can change us in ways that can be so profound as to leave us breathless, as to leave us in a state of wonderment or bafflement. In their most potent form, them make us feel like fools. In the Tarot, the fool is a very exalted figure. I think it's liberating to be foolish.
Visual, magical, and musical art operates on two levels for me. It either evokes or provokes. Provocative images stab and irritate, they make us think about and ponder issues. Evocative images conjure up and invite other deities, other energies. The UFO may be such an invited visitor brought to our vision by centuries of intense religious yearning.
It is through art's power to evoke that we're transformed or enlightened. Artists such as Ernst, Duchamp, and Miro managed to entwine the parallel dignities of art and magic. The Egyptian landscape is a mental construct, and what it evokes is all internal. It is a place where the art of measurement was perfected—a philosophical geometry of harmony between gods and landscape. The residue of my grandfather's personal mission resides in his tools, and now I posses the tools. The drawings here and in some of my other books became a refraction of the interference wave of the Egyptian landscape; the imaginative imagery of that which was Egypt is present in them.
SC: I was thinking about the experiments in transformation of lifestyle that perhaps is exemplified by some of the surrealist artists, who, through their investigations into automatic writing and so forth, were trying to evoke within themselves and presumably in their audiences experiences that aren't normally accessible during the waking state. How do you feel that art might evoke, if not an altered state, then an enlivened one?
TCE: I think the surrealists were trying to leave the world through their art. They began to recover and explore the dream world, the then recently revealed world of the unconscious mind. They were foreshadowing later experiments with psychedelic drugs and other tools for leaving the world. It occurs to me that surrealism may be the only art movement of the twentieth century to really try to escape this three- or four-dimensional world and get to a place with a higher or clearer vision. I have a soft spot for the surrealist theory of gravity. I like things not being bound to the Earth. One of the components of transformation is a release from pain and suffering, an opening outward into a field of light. I think the surrealists were probing that field of light. The paintings of Max Ernst come to mind. Ernst was a magician, a shaman if you will, and he was capable of contacting the Other Side.
SC: The use of language in your books is at once familiar yet alien and reminds me of the words of Heraclitus: "Man is estranged from that with which he is most familiar." William Burroughs, Terence McKenna, and others have suggested that the world is made of language, that we live inside a linguistic creature. Different languages appear in your books, unidentifiable languages most often. This notion of the world being made of language—does this describe the world you map?
TCE: The "language" in my books comes from a particular situation that feels like a hybrid of automatic writing, automatic drawing, automatic marking. I can't say that I'm transecstatic when it's happening. I do feel that when I am drawing it, making it, that the marks themselves correspondence to the ideas that I am currently dazzled with. Maybe the implication that these marks are symbols of language is part of their appeal. I vacillate between thinking that each mark is an increment of context on the one hand, to simply seeing them as drawings. I've encountered card-carrying members of the Lunatic Fringe who are convinced that I'm channeling something deep from another place.
I've been making these marks for more than twenty-five years. I started very innocently in a biology class, working with a pen that leaked. I was mainly left-handed at the time, so as I wrote, my hand would drag through this puddle of ink. So I began to draw backward, and the marks began to resemble Asian or Middle Eastern Alphabets. I immediately tried to depart from that. I liked the idea of drawing these tiny little things that resembled something that might be coded. It was mysterious, and I loved the idea of filling pages with a kind of metapoetry or metaphysics.
Language doesn't have to be verbal or visual. It can be a sensation, it can be in the form of signals. My marks depart from meaning but they're not meaningless. They just have a different internal matrix. They don't necessarily correspond to a sound or a picture. Sometimes the marks are assigned to an emotional color or to a musical note. They are navigational. There is certainly a lot of background noise in these marks—they're crucial to the books. I'm working on a book now about Saturn that has almost no illustrations in the classic sense. It's just page after page of these obscure alien scratchings. I don't really understand these drawings, but they feel right, they look right, they seem appropriately designed for their task.
SC: Why does your work so often find itself in the form of a book? What is it about books that fascinates you?
TCE: Philip Smith calls books "reading machines." Early on, I simply fell in love with books. Something about the intimacy of being able to take a book by or about an artist and curl up in a chair—it was like having them and make these little objects that were easily concealed and hidden. I could fill several books with drawings, and they didn't have to be out lying around. They were never hung on the wall. I don't remember framing anything as a visual artist until I was in my twenties. Only later did I realize "I'm building books here."
SC: There's something very seductive about your marking system that really draws me in. I feel that I'm verging on meaning, yet the closer I get the more slippery and oblique the environment becomes. It reminds me about how we keep coming back to the notion of concealment and revelation. And I'm puzzled by the surface quality of your drawings and the resistance created by the beauty of them. It distracts me from or distances me from the conceptual or philosophical underpinnings of the work and creates a very strong dynamic or tension. I was wondering how you see this tension, how it operates, and how it resolves—if it resolves.
TCE: It never resolves, it only revolves—that's one reason why I continue to draw. I love to draw with a stick in the sand at the beach and know that the tide's coming and that in no time at all the drawing will disappear into its original state. I can scratch various geometric formulae into the sand and, with miles and miles of space, momentarily geometricize the earth.
I want to put these same kinds of ideas into my books, where the surface is paper, not miles of sand. For example, I might express Euclid's ideas as a foundation for a map, which might most simply be delineated with pencil on paper. But I am teased and happily seduced by the materials: traditional bookmaking and contemporary painting materials and many other things that find their way in. So instead of just delineating the geometric philosophies in something as ordinary as pencil lines, I want to edge those lines with fields of color that make them shimmer and dissolve into other forms and meanings. I work with techniques as arcane and medieval as gliding over glare, occasionally drawing on goatskin vellum and working on handmade papers with homemade inks. At the far extreme, I'll draw with heated tools and holographic foils.
The materials themselves draw me in because of some beguiling connection they suggest. I'm interested in electromagnetic fields, so that I might draw a line in pencil, put a layer of pressure-sensitive acrylic over that same line, then power it with a pulverized magnet, pulverized magnet, powdered lodestone, so that the page itself has a magnetic field. That's a totally twisted thing to do but there's something wonderful about assigning a material to an unexpected place. Again, it's a kind of alchemical transformation of an equation. It's quite juicy.
I really love beautiful books, so I want my own books, above all, to be beautiful. I have my own sort of aesthetic code for what I think of as beautiful. It's difficult to explain, but I think my interest in making a beautiful object has to do with the fact that it is the first thing one is going to see. It draws one in, makes on curious. It's as if it is the presentation guise for the philosophical underpinnings.
As far as the deeper issues go, they are buried, they're veiled, they're deliberately obscured, and they are often detoured by a misleading sign or a sign that is used out of place or out of context. In the same way I sought to conceal my work as a child, my books and my drawings don't give away the game. I want to reveal enough to—let's see—it's almost like I'm providing hints, providing clues or fragments of maps to treasures. That's enough. That's enough to tantalize. And it's the mythic journey: from beauty, misled through dark trials, then into the light, victorious.
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