A few nights ago I went to visit Thomas Witte‘s studio at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We had a nice hour long chat about his life as an artist, showing me the progression of his technique as well as his inspirations. Although his work is very 2 dimensional, there is a world of depth in each piece. I didn’t want this to be a proper interview of specific questions, but more of a conversation about how he got to where he is today and his ideas for the future. Hope you enjoy.
Studio Visit with Thomas Witte
Thomas’s style started brewing during a visit to Argentina 7 years ago. As a sculptor and painter, argentinian street art really inspired him to try something new and completely different. Witte fell in love with the rawness and the impact of a stencil, yet he had the urge to treat it more like fine art. Interestingly, his painting technique at the time was trying to achieve this specific look, but while exploring the streets of Buenos Aires, Thomas had the urge to try and create this process himself. Although he had no knowledge of the actual technique of creating stencils back then, Thomas tried to figure it out and make it his own by using a Dremel tool to draw with. As you can see below, his first piece does show a rough and speedy look-n-feel most associated with the streets. Its nice seeing how his first attempts are closest to his inspiration.
Coincidentally, Witte found his grandfather’s collection of slides about 7 years ago in his parent’s attic. Which he mainly has been using as the ‘subject matter’ of his work. This collection of photographs is quite impressive. Once Thomas opened the closet in his studio to show me, I gasped. There must be thousands of slides. These photos all come from his grandfather’s travels in his retirement. What makes them different than your regular photo, is how his grandfather would rather photograph people taking pictures of the landmarks, rather than the landmarks themselves. This gave Thomas a great perspective of that specific moment and it gives the viewer a chance to create their own story of this snapshot.
Above Thomas are his grandfather’s slides… part of them.
As well as his g-pa’s photos, he uses his own, his father’s, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard collection. Witte had a chat with the Navy Yard’s archivist, which led to his discovery of an existing 5k+ scanned high-res images from the history of the navy yards (all public domain). Thomas decided to use this specific imagery on wired-glass pieces he had collected from the dilapidated Navy Yard buildings, which is probably one of my favorites.
Thomas hand draws his compositions and does not use computers. He believes drawing the lines is more natural and an extension of himself, which gives it a more organic feel as well as a more personal experience. Stenciling gives him the chance to have a huge array of canvases, which makes it enjoyable for him to explore and expand his ideas.
His color stencils range from 6 to 10 layers and are spray painted mainly on glass, but has been experimenting with old wooden table tops, tin cuts and fabric. His B&W stencils generally have about 5 layers. Thomas’s stencils will only go through a few prints (up to 3), but he rather keep them to a single pass, making each piece one of a kind.
His studio is filled with all shapes and sizes of glass, doors, windows, metal and anything else you can imagine. The glass and most of his materials come from the navy yards and the streets in neighborhood. While exploring his studio, you see big broken pieces, which give the artwork a rough-n-tough personality. But then you also see clean-cut glass with a equally perfect stencil.
I did ask Thomas is he missed the act of painting and brushwork and his reply was, no. After his ‘mexico’ painting series 7 years ago, Thomas doesn’t feel he has it in him anymore. For him, the act of drawing the stencil, projecting and cutting (which takes him about 40 hours), is his process of creating his ‘paint brush’. When making decisions on how to interpret the layers, he is creating the ‘brushwork’.
When asked if he had thought about doing shadowboxes or more 3-dimensional, sculptural pieces, Thomas responded with some thoughts and ideas about light-play, which seem like a natural progression due to his nature of working with glass. But right now he is focused on a new idea. It includes collages, new materials, and collaborating with his sister. Recently, Witte learned that the building which houses his studio use to be the flag-making factory in the early 1900’s. This new found knowledge of the buildings’ history, combined with imagery from that era, plus the street art element of stenciling will definitely bring some very original and interesting work into the collaboration. Thomas went in depth about his plan and is extremely excited about it, but I don’t want to give too much away. I can’t wait to see the outcome.
Now & Tomorrow
Early this year, Witte found a 1950’s table top which will be used alongside his new body of work. At his upcoming exhibit in New jersey (details below), he will be showcasing a new series made with an opaque glass found on the streets where you can see his new experimentation with stenciling both the front AND back of the glass to create more depth.
In between this latest exhibit and the collaboration project with his sister, Thomas is making probably one of the coolest dollhouses for is 2 year old daughter’s birthday. Taking inspiration from Calder’s dollhouses (which actually has electricity and pulleys!), the house will be a miniature model of their current home with the same streets, cars, trees, and other neighborhood landmarks.
Thomas is committed to being a full-time artist for life and is ready for the challenges ahead. Luckily, he seems to have a solid family who shares a passion for the arts, an equally talented brother and sister, plus a huge support from his parents and in-laws.
Witte is also part of a really talented group called Gut Box. Gut Box has given him the opportunity to meet amazing people in the art scene. By collaborating with equally talented artists, he has learned how to approach a panel in different ways and finds inspiration from the 9 member group.
Where to find Thomas Witte
Thomas is looking for galleries to open their doors to show his (super awesome ;)) work.
His website with contact info: thomaswitte.com
Friday, May 20 2011 – Exhibiting “At Home and Abroad” at the B Beamesderfer Gallery in Highland Park, NJ.
June 2011 – Hibbleton Gallery in Los Angeles, Ca. More info here.
Thanks to Thomas Witte for letting me pick his brain and welcoming me with open arms to his studio in the Navy Yards.