Eric Wert Interview — full transcript

Below is the full transcript from my interview with artist Eric Wert.

Dan: Everyone this is Dan Blank from and today I’m real excited to be speaking with artist Eric Wert. Welcome. Thank you for taking the time to chat.

Eric: Well thanks for having me Dan.

Dan: So you were introduced via mutual friend Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. And she described that she grew up with you and she described you in this really great way of like, “Well Eric was the punk kid who drew cartoons.” And that’s how she knew you back then. And then the other thing she said is that you’re a professional artist and you, at times, sell paintings for what I think would generally be considered a lot of money by a normal person. Tens of thousands of dollars, is that kind of correct?

Eric: Yeah.

Dan: So let’s talk about the path to how you get from one place to the next because I think everyone remembers either being or knowing that artsy kid in high school. The guy who knew how to draw or the punk kid who had that flare for creativity. What were you like as a kid, maybe as a teenager? What were your kind of creative outlets?

Eric: I think I always drew naturally. I just remember being in school and instead of taking notes in class it was easier for me to draw pictures. And I even have old sketchbooks and stuff. And when I look back at those drawing I’ll remember what we were talking about in chemistry class at the time. So for some reason there was some kind of mnemonic connection there and, you know, images were always much easier for to communicate with than language. Beyond that, yeah, I just loved drawing and it seemed reasonable to go to art school, that was my one skill that I thought I might have to offer to the world.

Dan: Before art school when you were a kid, let’s say, from grade school to high school, was there any kind of formal training, art classes? Were you building sets for theater? Anything like that?

Eric: Yeah, I always enjoyed art class. I don’t remember it being any kind of rigorous, technical instruction. I got a lot more from, you know, in my free time I would copy images of scientific illustrations. I was really into reptiles and fish and things like that. And so I had all kinds of field guides and I would just sit around and copy images of the animals. And it was never a conscious decision to do that, it just seemed like a way to learn about something I was interested in.

Dan: So were these things that other people knew about? Were they shared or was it just something that you did?

Eric: No, I never showed that to anybody. It wasn’t anything I considered art or anything special. It was just an interest.

Dan: So in that time, and this is a big swath of probably the first 18 years of your life, did you receive any kind of validation or support or positive feedback? Or the opposite, which could be negative feedback?

Eric: No, I got plenty of positive feedback, you know, I think that happens with a lot of folks. I was like the kid who could draw so people appreciated that. And I think I got a fair amount of my self esteem from having a skill and having an ability. But, it’s funny, I actually think of that as almost a detrimental thing. Having taught for years and having students who were the kid that could draw in their high school, they often come assuming that they already know how to do everything. And I remember having that attitude like, “Oh, I’m already really good at this.” When going to school at The Art Institute in Chicago and seeing the great masters, I realize, “Oh, I don’t actually know anything.” So it was kind of a rude awakening.

Dan: How was that decision of going to The Art Institute? You were 17 or 18. You grew up on a farm, is that correct?

Eric: My folks have a tree farm outside of Portland. And it’s not really a productive farm, but it’s occasionally harvested for timber.

Dan: So when you broached this topic of The Art Institute halfway across the country, was it met with like, “That’s not a career? How much will that cost?” Or was it like, “No, they were just generally supportive.”

Eric: No, my folks were very, very supportive, they’ve always been very supportive. So I was extremely lucky in that respect. I remember looking at art schools and we went to a couple of different schools around the country, and they seemed okay. But then we went to The Art Institute, and we went to the museum attached to the School of the Art Institute and it was unbelievable. It was clearly the best choice. And so I was lucky enough to get in there and be able to study there.

Dan: So at what point did you have this sort of . . . because I’ve talked to a lot of people and they say they didn’t realize it could be a career or they felt like, “Well yeah, this is my hobby.” There was so much in culture. there was never pointing of like you should pursue that. How did you even fathom that everyone’s going to college now? I get to go to college. I’m going to go to art school.

Eric: Well you know that was my mom entirely. I was considering going to the nice liberal arts school that everybody else was going to. And I think I even applied to a few of them. And I just wasn’t excited about it. I had no idea what I would do there and the thought of going, it just felt like a nebulous thing that you did because you had to. She said, “I think you probably really want to go to art school.” And I said, “Well yeah, but I don’t think that’s a reality.” And she said, “Well, we’ll make it a reality.” So that was incredible support.

Dan: That’s awesome. So then you describe the experience of getting in and of kind of seeing, not even the next level but just all the levels, all of the different places you could go. So what was the experience like going from someone who had an innate interest, an innate talent, then having to treat it like a craft?

Eric: Well, it was actually, and I don’t want to speak negatively of anything, but it was a little bit disappointing. I was drawn because I saw great work at the museum, but then when I went to my first classes at The Art Institute they were very open ended sort of experimental classes and there was less emphasis on the kind of rigorous, technical information that I kind of thought that I would be getting. And so, my first couple of years were very frustrating. And I was very lucky to find a particular teacher who was extraordinarily rigorous, and that really made the difference for me. I latched onto him and that really got me started with everything.

Dan: So what does that mean to latch on? Because this is another theme I see a lot, is the idea of having a formal or informal mentor. And I think when you have one, it just seems obvious but before you have one it doesn’t. What was that process like of finding that person and then again latching on? Was it just taking all their classes? Was it something more?

Eric: Well it was a lot more. It was kind of a funny story and kind of sad too, but I was dissatisfied with the classes that I was taking. And there were a few students who had taken a scientific illustration class and they would complain bitterly about how brutally difficult this teacher was. And it just seemed to me that maybe that’s what I needed. I needed some kind of structure and some kind of discipline. So I took this class with a professor named Zbigniew Jastrzebski, this old Polish guy who was the senior scientific illustrator at The Field Museum, which is the natural history museum kind of down the street from the Art Institute. He was educated in the very rigorous Eastern European system. He was a truly mean teacher. He wasn’t a kind man by any means. He was famous for ripping students’ drawings in half and insulting them verbally. Have you seen the movie Whiplash?

Dan: Not yet, no.

Eric: Well there’s this super cruel drumming instructor who through his cruelty allows students to reach a new level and Zbigniew was like that for me. He wasn’t nice. He wasn’t supportive. He was just extremely demanding. And for some reason at the time I just really needed that kind of structure and so I took all his classes. I did twice as much work as it was expected in the class. And through that he brought me in as an intern to do work at The Field Museum. And so I got the chance to start working at the museum and drawing artifacts for the anthropology department. And so throughout the second part of my college experience I spent most of my time at The Field Museum working with anthropologists and drawing artifacts. And that’s where my real education happened. So The Art Institute was sort of secondary, I took the classes I had to there. And I spent every possible second I could in a dark room drawing pottery shards. It was incredible.

Dan: Do you describe it as a real education because it had an effect, because it was being shared with other professionals, because it was going into literature perhaps?

Eric: It was a professional experience. I was getting paid to do my drawings. I was working on deadline. I was working with serious professionals who had a incredibly exacting standard of quality. Scientific illustration is not art. It has to be a replacement for the actual artifact so that you could send this drawing to a researcher in China and they could understand the important qualities of that artifact as well as anybody who had the artifact in front of them. And so there was no margin for error, everything had to be perfect. It had to be done quickly and that’s where I really learned how to draw. It’s also where I learned how to work very hard. The curators at The Field Museum, you know, they were there when I got there at 8 o’clock in the morning and they were there when I left at 6 o’clock at night. So they put their money where their mouths were.

Dan: So how long were you there? Because later you got your master’s degree. Was there a big gap of time between those two things?

Eric: I worked as a freelancer at the museum for a couple of years while I was in school and then I, through sort of sad series of events, I actually replaced this instructor who had taught me. He was unfortunately let go and there was a gap so I took over his job at The Field Museum. For about a year, and then I went to graduate school. That year of working full time at the museum was invaluable.

Dan: So then why the impetus to get the master’s degree? Was this just to get better at that craft, or was it moving more into what, I guess, we could term artistic expression?

Eric: Yeah, well like I said, scientific illustration is not art and I wasn’t an anthropologist, I wasn’t a scientist. And so, I think to keep going with that kind of career you would have really had to have a certain education and a certain interest in that material. Once you’ve drawn a couple thousand pottery shards, you’ve kind of gotten everything you’re going to get from that experience. And so the idea of doing that for the next 30 years was a little bit less exciting. And, you know, I felt like I had kind of gotten what I needed from that experience and that I could take those skills and push them further. So that’s what led me to go to graduate school. I went to Northwestern specifically to study with a great realist painter named James Valerio, who isn’t that well known, but he’s a Chicago guy. He’s known for doing these eight foot paintings. You know, a painting of a forest with every leaf on every tree rendered. They’re just unbelievable pieces.

Dan: So what did you get out of that experience? How did that take things to a different place for you?

Eric: Well it was interesting because the first year I was there he was on sabbatical so I didn’t even meet him. The first year I just kind of sat around and I worked with people from very different disciplines, which I think was really good. I think it was very good to be exposed to very different ways of thinking about art. Very different attitudes about what quality in art is and what’s expected from artwork. And so it was quite a growing experience.

Dan: So you graduate from that. Do you go directly into being, I am now a professional artist?

Eric: Yeah, I started working on a series of drawings. I’ve always been lucky because I’ve been able to find venues to show my work and I was able to start exhibiting pretty much right away, I wasn’t making money off of it. I started teaching right away at community colleges and various schools around Chicago and so that was really how I supported myself for the first seven or eight years.

Dan: And what were you teaching?

Eric: Beginning drawing. Beginning painting. Basic design. Pretty much every school that has an art department has foundation courses that need to be taught. And so in a place like Chicago there are a lot of places to teach, and if you have a good introduction to design curriculum, you can kind of work your way around as a journeyman, adjunct instructor. So I taught evenings and weekends and that was how I made my living.

Dan: So then you say you always had this ability to get your work shown. Talk about some of those early ways of doing that. Because I feel like that’s another one of those things that people, they feel like there’s an ocean between them and actually doing it, of getting a gallery show, getting a one work put in somewhere. What was that trick for you? How were you able to do that?

Eric: You know, I put together a body of work, a series of drawings and I just sent them to every gallery I could think of that would show that kind of work. At the beginning of my career that was really how I got all of my opportunities is every time I would see a gallery anywhere in the country that looked like it would exhibit the kind of work that I do, I would just send them a packet of slides and material. So it was sort of the shotgun method. And I got in the habit of maybe every six months or so just sending out material to 25 or 30 galleries and if you were lucky you got a rejection letter, but maybe once a year or so I’d get a group show out of that or occasionally a gallery would pick me up. And it was just a matter of timing. They would say, “Oh, we’re having an exhibit of drawings right now and this would be perfect for it.” And so it was a matter of being seen at the right moment. Now this was back before everything was digital so it was a matter of sending a sheet of slides. So it was kind of an expense to do that much promotion.

Dan: Yeah, I was thinking. Because to get the slides printed, to get the package printed, to physically mail it, for someone who is just teaching I imagine that is a significant expense that you don’t have just lying around.

Eric: But, you know, the one piece of advice that I always give to young artists is take yourself seriously from the very beginning. Hire a professional photographer, make sure you have a well designed website. Even if you’re not that confident about your work, present it in the most confident way possible. And having that experience of presenting yourself as a competent professional, that’s what people will take seriously.

Dan: Can you talk a little bit more about that? Because the example I often gave was that first time that Mick Jagger stepped on stage. The reality is he’s kind of a funny looking guy doing weird things in this weird voice, but he took himself as Mick Jagger, and eventually the rest of the world accepted him as Mick Jagger. What are the barriers to people doing that, of either presenting themselves seriously or hiring people in that process? Why do young artists not do that? What’s the challenge for them?

Eric: I think it’s a confidence thing. I think it’s easy to think that you’re not ready yet, but the truth is you’ll never be ready. You always have another level to get to, right? So even now I think, “Oh, I’m not at the place I want to be.” So when you’re a young artist you think, “Well, maybe in a year I’ll have a more developed portfolio. Or maybe two years from now I’ll be ready to show with that gallery that I love.” But the people who get the opportunities are the ones who put themselves out there.

You know, probably throughout this entire interview I’m gonna go back to my parents because they are the ones who’ve really given me the support that I needed. My folks were both self-employed and they both ran their own businesses, and that’s the example that I follow. So while other artists that I knew were kind of directionless and didn’t know how to treat themselves as a professional, the advice I was getting from my folks was, “You just go for it and don’t be disappointed by rejection. If you’re rejected 90% of the time, that means you’re getting 10% of the things you apply for and you’re actually incredibly successful.”

Dan: I love that perspective. So how did you start charging for work? When did that kind of first sale come in and how did that evolve? Because that’s another big milestone. You know, so many people get exposure and nowadays, I guess, it would be, “Hey, people are retweeting me.” But then no one is buying their work. So what was that like for you?

Eric: Well at the very beginning it was difficult. My work is extremely time consuming and so at the very beginning my prices were so low. It was just heartbreaking. I was lucky to be able to sell well, but when you get $600 for a drawing that you spent a month and a half on, 60 hours a week, it’s painful.

Dan: So you were pricing it that low because that seemed to be what the market would bear.

Eric: Yeah, well you’re a young artist and generally your gallery is going to set your prices for you. They know what the market is and it’s always best to defer to their advice. Sometimes younger artists will say, “Yeah, I spent hundreds of hours on this so it’s worth this much in terms of the time I spent on it.” That’s not actually true. You need to price it based on what the market value of the piece is based on your own experience. And so you’re gonna take some hits at the beginning, it’s gonna be painful. But once you build up that collector base then you can start to raise your prices.

Dan: What was the timeframe between doing that where you’re teaching part time, you’re getting in shows little by little, you’re selling work and feeling like, “Okay, this is now my main thing. This is a viable career where I’m earning respectable money for that.” How long was that period of time?

Eric: Well it depends on what you mean by respectable, but I taught all the way through living in Chicago. And then about eight years ago, we moved here to Portland and I taught for the first few years here, and it was a couple of things. My sales were doing fairly well. My work was becoming more time consuming. And so teaching was becoming too much of a distraction. You know, with this kind of work you can’t just go to it for two hours and then go do something else, and then come back for two hours. You really need the time to concentrate and get into the zone. And so even if I only taught for half a day, it would kind of ruin the rest of my studio day. And so I got to a point where it just kind of felt like the time being invested in the teaching wasn’t really paying off as much as the time invested in the artwork. And that was probably five or six years ago.

Dan: So you just quit?

Eric: Well also, Portland is a much smaller town and so the teaching opportunities are much more limited. And so I didn’t necessarily quit as much as nothing else came up. When nothing else came up I just thought, “Well I’ll just see if I can make this work.”

Dan: So your wife is also an artist and an editor, is that correct?

Eric: Yes, she’s an editor for a textile arts magazine.

Dan: So when you’re making that jump, you say you grew up in an entrepreneurial family, are there fears around losing health insurance, losing a steady income, losing anything like that?

Eric: Well, I’m glad you mentioned that because managing anxiety is the main issue in our lives, that’s the biggest challenge. We both can do our work no problem. And we’re both doing good work, we’re both proud of the work that we do. But the uncertainty around the income and around what the future is going to be, that’s the biggest distraction and that can sometimes be the hardest thing to overcome when you’re working in the studio.

Dan: So does that play itself out both individually in each of your careers and then together as kind of a family unit?

Eric: I don’t know. How do you mean?

Dan: Like, so clearly, we’ll talk about kind of the anxiety you have of moving through the ups and downs, but then I feel like there’s this other one who’s saying well between the two of you are supporting the family. The income coming in, of knowing where the other one is. Is there that additional layer of complexity over the other one being uncertain or being afraid because if you have a drought that then that affects her?

Eric: The reason we’ve both been able to be successful is because we’re so supportive of one another. We sort of act as each other’s personal therapists. We both go through the same peaks and valleys. And luckily they don’t always line up so when I’m feeling low, sometimes she’s doing just fine and she can talk me out of it. And when she’s feeling low I can do the same thing for her.

Dan: So what are sort of the, I guess I’ll call them triggers, for that? But what kind of creates that anxiety as you see it? Because in some ways an outsider such as myself, you know, could look at the career and saying, “Well, very skilled, they’re doing sales, all of that.” What triggers that anxiety? What the reality of managing that career?

Eric: Well I know with my career it’s feast or famine. And so I never just had steady sales where I just finish a painting and it sells and I get a regular paycheck. Often I’ll have a show every two years and those will do very well and I’ll get a large amount of money from that commission. But then that might have to last me for another year before there’s another sale or another . . . who knows how long? So there’s that uncertainty in terms of planning how you’re going to manage your life. You get a big check and you think, “Well I’m going to buy all the stuff that I need for the house, new furniture and what not.” Then you have to think, “Well yeah, but who knows how long this is going to last?” So even when you’re flush you have to live like you’re not.

Dan: Does that ever put pressure on you for the type of work or how much time you spend to put yourself out there or market your work?

Eric: I think it should. I think I should be more entrepreneurial about it, but I put so much energy into getting my skills to where they are now that I really feel like what I need to do is just make the best work I possibly can. It’s taken care of itself for the last 15 years. And it’s gotten very close to the bone. There’s been plenty of times where I think, “Well, I think I’m gonna have to figure something else out.” And then some miraculous sale comes through and I get to keep going for a little bit longer. I wish I could make it sound more like it’s all part of some grand plan, but I’ve really just been kind of limping along and it’s been working so far.

Dan: I think that’s the reality I see with a lot of different creators is it’s not just you reach a milestone and then you’re at this new level. Is that there is that roller-coaster where the second you attain a level, almost the very next thought is, “What if I lose this?”

Eric: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And I still . . . I’ve sold a lot of work but every time I sell a painting part of me says, “That’s the last painting you’re ever going to sell.” That’s maybe a depressing way to think about it, but it also keeps me motivated in the studio. That the next thing I do has got to be really good because I’ve got to prove myself again.

Dan: So talk to me. You keep hinting at sort of the amount of time and the way that you work. What does your sort of daily or weekly studio life look like? From waking up to going to bed, what is your work process?

Eric: Well I’m lucky that my studio is attached to my house, so it’s a converted garage. And so I have real easy access to the studio. I get up probably 8 o’clock, I go right to the studio by 8:30 or 9 and I work pretty much straight through until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. Then I exercise and make dinner, and then I get back into the studio probably around 7 or 8 and work until midnight.

Dan: This is five days a week?

Eric: Well, yeah, I do that five days a week and then I work a little bit on the weekends, too.

Dan: So these paintings take, it sounds like a minimum of a month each?

Eric: It depends on the size and the complexity. But they do take . . . The one I’m working on right now is probably a month and a half of work and it’s maybe 24 inches by 30 inches.

Dan: So I was reading through a lot of other interviews of your work and there was the one about the, I think there was a second painting of a jade plant. It had 1,383 visible leaves that each had to be crafted in and of themselves because of the way the light reflects. And I think it was in that when you said you spent six months.

Eric: That’s the longest I’ve ever spent on a painting. That was more of an issue of I took on a challenge and I wasn’t really prepared for how difficult it would be and really had to force myself through that project.

Dan: Do you have to contend with those decisions over life and commerce, and decisions around the art and the craft of saying, you know what? I’m putting that one aside. I wanna do something else because that changes life too much. It’s too much of your time in this rabbit hole.

Eric: That would probably be the healthy approach. I just take on challenges and I think the way my work has progressed is that, I think maybe I’m a masochist or something, but I’m not really happy doing a painting unless it feels like I’m trying to overcome something or really deal with some kind of a challenge in seeing. If it’s too easy, then you become aware of the amount of labor you’re putting into it and then it’s just tedious labor. So I find that the challenge is what keeps me engaged, what makes me keep coming back to it day in and day out.

Dan: So this is a schedule that you’re saying it’s a very long schedule, and it’s one like you were talking about how teaching took you away from it, where it’s a process to get into to it. So how does that translate to family life, of dealing with. I don’t know a lot about your personal family, but what is that negotiation like with those who you live with?

Eric: Well Marcy is also self-employed and so we both work similar hours. Our son is in college now and so once he left the house we just went off the deep end. We don’t have any reason not to just keep going. When he was around we were a little bit more contained because we were spending time with Eli and spending time with the family. Moving to Portland made a big difference for us. When we were in Chicago there was a lot more involved in just day to day maintenance. Driving Eli to school, dealing with the challenges of just living in the city. That took up a lot of time. But where we are in Portland we can pretty much walk everywhere. Eli was able to walk to school and back. And so that really freed us up quite a bit to put our energy into our work.

Dan: Are there challenges with both of you working from home and having a child of kind of where those boundaries are, or how you even communicate who’s doing what where, who’s responsible in this moment?

Eric: Like I said, that’s probably the responsible way to deal with it. I think we just dealt with it as it came up. I don’t think there was ever a plan in my memories of living in Chicago. There really wasn’t much of a plan, we just were scrambling from event to event. We were both working as hard as we could and taking care of Eli and there was no negotiation, it was just scrambling.

Dan: So I’ve seen you mention as well, this is very much like a solitary kind of endeavor in many ways. So how are you at being public? I guess social media is a part of this. How do you view that? Is it something that you just don’t enjoy or is it an opportunity to express a different part of your career?

Eric: Well the nice thing about social media is, especially for an artist because it is so solitary, you can see what other people are working on. But it’s also nicely anonymous, you don’t have to say anything. I feel like my relationship with other artists I know is very anonymous. I share my work, they share their work and that’s how we communicate. There’s nothing I can say that’s going to connect us more than just being able to look at one another’s images.

Dan: So you’ve mentioned this before and I feel like it was sort of like, and this might be the most mundane question, but I feel like it’s something important because a lot of people don’t say this. You said, “Oh I work this long day and then I work out.” So what is your kind of health regimen, anything from emotional health to physical health to eating, what is that process like for you?

Eric: Well anxiety was a big issue for me. Especially a few years ago around the recession. I was just terrified and I found that it wasn’t just the realistic anxiety, it was the having anxiety attacks and the distraction involved with that was cutting into my work. I couldn’t concentrate the way I needed to so I started running and went on from there. Now I exercise about an hour a day and I’m religious about that because it really has changed my ability to focus and concentrate on the issue at hand. When you have anxiety, even if there’s nothing you can do about it, you still just sit there and worry about things. And I find that if I just exercise, whatever that does, whatever change that makes in your brain, I can put my concerns aside while I’m working and just do what needs to be done. You know, exercise evangelists are always annoying but I think I’ve become one.

Dan: So you started out running, and what is your regimen like now?

Eric: I run a couple times a week, lift weights a couple times a week, do calisthenic body weight stuff. I get really into it. I like challenges and so the nice thing about lifting or running is there’s always a new plateau that you can try to get to. And so I treat it the same way as I treat my work and I’m always kind of working towards a goal.

Dan: It’s great to hear. I think it’s one aspect I often don’t hear from creative people is taking the time to kind of figure that out.

Eric: Well it’s very easy to just work all the time, but it has diminishing returns if you’re not taking care of yourself. So, yeah, I’m very serious about eating well, eating a regular, balanced diet. Making sure that I eat three times a day. When you’re at home, it’s very easy to skip lunch. Eat three times a day, exercise, and I make sure I get enough sleep. But all those things are easy to do when your studio is at home because once you cut out commuting, and once you cut out all the other extraneous stuff, there’s a lot of hours in the day.

Dan: That’s an excellent point. From someone who works from home as well I would have to agree with that. So we talked about a lot of topics around risk, which is always an essential topic. Is there anything that we haven’t delved into that you think we should, or any stories you can share that I didn’t kind of ask about?

Eric: I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to think about that. I don’t know if I have any particular examples of dealing with risk. Like I said, I’ve just been extremely fortunate. I’m always hesitant to give much advice to other artists because it just seems like through good fortune I’ve been able to keep going. There have been plenty of times when I feel like the career is falling apart and then some opportunity happens. And I guess all of those opportunities come from having put myself out there and having been visible. Social media is a part of that and, you know, just trying to be in contact with as many galleries and artists as possible.

Dan: Thank you so much for taking the time to kind of take us through your career, and kind of what I call the reality of what it means to be living as a professional artist. I really do appreciate it.

Eric: Well, Dan thank you so much for contacting me.