Interview: Tim Strouss (Part I)

dsc_0045I was very pleased to interview Tim Strouss as a start to the blog, because he was a direct inspiration on me even starting this thing.

Tim is an artist living in Santa Cruz, who paints in the abstract-expressionist style. Perception, experience, psychology and emotion are very important aspects of art and art criticism, and Tim’s story is a fascinating look at each.

So Tim, can you give us the story of your life, briefly…?

Where to begin… Well, I wont give my entire life story, as it were, but at age 29 I had a couple of brain surgeries, that the second one put me in a wheel chair. Effectively, it, not completely, but partially paralyzed my left hand side. My leg, my arm and what not.

Formerly I was pretty active, I had done construction pretty much my entire life and, you know, I’d get home from work and I would go to the gym. And I pretty much did this every day. I knew that I was capable of… if I wanted something I just walked away and got it. I could walk around, obviously, I was perfectly able bodied. That lent itself to a sense of doing what I want. I’d wake up in the morning and say ‘Oh, I want to do this today’, and I’d go do it, within reason of course.

After my surgeries, when I had become more or less paralyzed, I would wake up in the morning and say, “Okay, all I can do is get into my wheel chair, go eat some breakfast do some therapy”, so on and so forth, my options had become significantly limited. The repercussions of which were many, not just physically of course or even what you choose to do with your day, but mentally they were huge. I don’t really know, I mean there’s a lot beyond that, I could go into that for a long time. But you can imagine that the effect that losing part of your body has on your psyche as a result of not being able to do what you’ve built your entire identity on is major.

I remember, I think it was shortly after the surgery, you needed to recover your eye-sight to some degree as well…

Yeah, the surgery was on the brain stem, the brain stem controls pretty much everything in the body. One of the things that was greatly affected was my eyes. So the eyes were never lost, just very compromised. Vision was double and I experienced something called Nystagmus which is basically just a shaking of the eyes. A constant shaking, everything you see shakes. There has been recovery in that it was definitely a lot worse right after the surgeries, being as it’s 3 1/2 – 4 years away, it’s definitely recovered to a large extent. Nothing is back to what it was, but I have made a significant recovery I think.

So it’s a much more manageable thing now?

Exactly. You know it’s a lot more manageable and I’ve also just gotten used to it. The handicap (whatever you want to call it) becomes a part of your life at some point and you learn to live well. That’s kind of where art comes into it. Art is part of that living well thing.

So were you involved in art at all before the surgery?

I never identified myself as an artist, but if I look back I can see that I was involved in certain artistic things a lot more than I would have realized. But no, I didn’t, you know, go out buy canvas and make that a part of my life as a hobby, or even a career choice. I didn’t consider myself an artist, no. I was a carpenter.

So what changed? What was your motivation to start pursuing that afterwards?

…when I look back at stuff that I’ve done even six months ago, until now even, I see a lot of emotion in the work.

I didn’t have a conscious thought that, ‘Oh I want to express myself on canvas or by other means’, necessarily. It was really just a friend coming to me seeing some doodles that I had done, literally some scribbles, came to me and said Blaise Rosenthal had seen them and said that he wanted to incorporate them into some art that he was doing and called it a collaborative thing.

I actually had a show with those pieces. We made about 20 of them. Found that, well I actually found Blaise to be very encouraging in that he could see potential if nothing more. I wasn’t producing anything great, but what Blaise saw was that if I hadn’t learned a lot, that maybe I had a certain knack for it I suppose.

He was a very good encourager. I think a majority of his words, if they were critical, they were constructive, or they were encouraging. And I don’t know that he knew he was doing this necessarily, I think I sensed what those words were, it’s not that that was his agenda. He was very sincere, what came out of his mouth was encouraging or constructively criticizing, but both were very encouraging and they caused me to step out of my comfort zone a little bit and do stuff. And the more I learned the more he would say, ‘Oh, this is… this is really good’, he encouraged me, basically, to just explore and I had the freedom of ignorance in a sense. I didn’t know what materials didn’t do, so I used things like oil and I mixed them with acrylic and I really liked the way those things turned out. At times he would say, ‘Okay, you’re not supposed to do this necessarily”, or ‘Keep doing this’, you know? So it was very much a guiding type relationship; which it still is. He’s got a lot more experience than… it’s not even… he’s been doing it for years and I’ve only been doing it for months. I think where it’s at now, I don’t know if you were asking this necessarily…

Yeah, so are you still collaborating with Blaise on your current pieces, or are you expanding out and more self motivated at this point as well?

It’s definitely both. I’m doing a lot of my own stuff, and as well I’m doing some things in a collaborative manner. Blaise likes, you know he embraces the, like I said, the kind of ignorance coupled with an emotion that results from my past brain surgery experience. I wouldn’t have recognized it necessarily, but when I look back at stuff that I’ve done even six months ago, until now even, I see a lot of emotion in the work. And Blaise having a much more experienced eye was able to see stuff right away, and said to himself ‘I would love to see this become a little bit more intentional or a little bit more refined’, at the same time wanting to embrace that freedom of doing whatever.

At this point, we’ll have a blank canvas, I’ll do stuff to it, I’ll be done or whatever I’m doing, he’ll come over and say ‘Umm, I think it go further’ or ‘I think it’s finished’ or ‘It’s not finished’. And 90% of the time he’ll even do stuff to it and so its collaborative in that both our hands have touched it, but he is generally the one that says ‘Okay, it’s finished’ or ‘it’s not’.

What’s been interesting is that there have been pieces in the past where I go ‘Oh, wait no, this is definitely finished’, and he said, ‘No, it’s really not’, or he says, ‘This is totally finished, let’s not touch this’, and I’m like, ‘Oh, but it looks really unfinished to me; unresolved.’ And I find that if I just kind of let that piece into my life somewhere periphery, leave it in my house, you know I glance at it every now and then… I start to realize what he already sees. And so that’s been kind of some fun experiences, it’s learning to see things a little bit differently. Yeah, I don’t know, that was just an observation I had recently.

I enjoy doing the collaborative stuff. I actually learn a lot, my learning curve, I think, hasn’t been as sharp as a result of the collaborative stuff. Because Blaise comes over with personal, vested interest, and says ‘This is or is not done’, and for some reason when I have to understand why that is, it forces me to look at it with a little more intention. And I can kind of learn a little bit about why a certain thing is or is not done. I’ve developed an eye for seeing art, I think, more quickly because of that. Does that make sense?

Yeah definitely. And you answered one of the questions I had which was, with a lot of abstract-expressionist painting, how do you know when it’s done? A lot of times I suppose it’s just a feeling.

How do you feel Blaise has done as far as communicating when a piece needs to go further, when to show a little more restraint, have you learned any principles in that respect?

It wasn’t so much about the emotion; I don’t know that my emotion was represented through my hand with pencil and paper.

I find that’s not really… I think Blaise has communicated that that’s not something that he can do all the time. You know, a lot of it is developing my own eye and he would say its kind of like learning a language. I mean, not to be cheesy, but when you look at images they do, they kind of have a certain language that you have to learn to understand after a while. And he said, I think he’s given me good advice in that he said the best way to learn how to recognize whether your stuff is done or not done or whatever is simply by looking at art; look at a lot of art.

Some of the first artists he introduced me to were Cy Twombly, random artists, John Beech, stuff like that. What I saw was stuff that was very, was just that, abstract. No rhyme or reason to it, but it was just perfect. It was like, so well balanced, and the colors played on each other so well. It wasn’t something… it’s almost non-verbal. Blaise is… he’s a pretty articulate person, but he wasn’t able to communicated what I was seeing in these paintings. What I did think he verbalized quite well was to say, ‘Hey, the only way you’re going to understand this is to look at work, look at art.’ And the more I looked at art, the more I started seeing stuff. Certainly not mimicking the stuff I was seeing, but coming closer to even attempting to mimic that.

There’s a lot of emotion in your work. I remember seeing the show that you did with Blaise, that was last summer, was it?

Yeah, I’m so bad with time, but yeah about then, like a year ago, something like that.

I’ll look it up and “link here”.

There’s a lot of emotion in that work where everything Blaise did was blocks of color, everything masked off. Whereas your work was all line work, and some of it was quite, sort of serene or playful, and some of it was jagged and frustrated. How much emotion do you feel your work communicates, or do you put into your work?

Close-up of work from "Contrast" You know, I’ll look at those every now and then… I have a hard time seeing that the emotion I was experiencing is directly represented by an image, but I feel like the title of that show, “Contrast”, was poignant, in that I don’t shy away from the fact that my faith is one of the greatest factors in my art and in everything else. But it was kind of interesting, I’ll just explain what it was about.

The squiggly lines and what not was my perception of what this divine figure was doing in my life. I had had so many crazy experiences that didn’t fit with the God that I learned about in church. Cause the God that I had learned about in church was bigger than I had known, and life would be kind of hard sometimes, but he was still very consistent, very blocked off, very understandable. You could read your Bible and find out what he looked like in a sense, with the names and everything like that. He was understandable in a way.

So it was kind of interesting to see the contrast, which is what the show was called, between a perception of the divine, of God, before my surgery, and then after that straight and narrow path it’s like the hairpin turns, which is a series of scribbles. Yet I was experiencing God more profoundly when my life, I don’t know how to explain it, when it looked like that. It’s kind of hard for me to explain, basically there was a contrast between the God that I knew and the God that I know now.

And that’s very sincerely what the art mean to me. It wasn’t so much about the emotion; I don’t know that my emotion was represented through my hand with pencil and paper. It was kind of a visual way of saying this is how I perceive God, who is perfect and consistent and never changed. Whereas now I’m experiencing God as being this crazy, sporadic thing that I couldn’t understand. And there was a real contrast there from before and after my surgery. That’s the only way I’ve been able to explain it right now.

Do you see that continuing with the additional pieces? Because my exposure to your work is purely from that show, and that was a very consistent show. The work was very, all of the pieces were definitely following the same pattern and process. Whereas the newer pieces that I’ve seen, the 50 you had put on your blog, show a much wider ranger of exploration and experimentation. Different color schemes… do you see that as a continuation, or do you see that as more experimentation into new areas?

Yeah, you know I really think that’s all it is at this point. I’m just learning and experimenting with different materials and colors and mediums; paper and that kind of stuff. So there are a number of pieces that are very significant, I use a lot of water. I like the way that water reacts with paint and that its very unpredictable, and I feel like so much of my life was just unpredicted. There’s a lot of that.

I’d say if you to look at all of the art I’ve done, even though some of it is very different, the similarities between all of it is that there’s a sense of unpredictability everywhere. And that, subconsciously, is kind of what’s in my mind. Okay, how do I do this now; how do I live my life? I don’t have a car, so how do I go to the grocery store? So I’m not going to predict the friends I’d have in 10 years that I’ll need to take me to the store. So its kind of an interesting thing… I didn’t even see this, its not like I have the conscious, that in my mind consciously to do, I started seeing that after my life. ‘Oh wow, there must be some part of me that is definitely expressing something.’ I don’t know. But yeah, I think in a lot of the work, the lines, everything is very sporadic, the paint’s very… there is no system to it necessarily, and the water, of course, you can’t predict where the water’s going to go. It’s an open system; it’s unpredictable, and I like that. I like that sense of not being able to control things.

And that’s ultimately what it is; I couldn’t control what was going on with me. I think I’ve always had that creative sense, and that’s the idea like I was involved in some artistic things, but it was necessary to experience. It’s like this was a catalyst to give me a context for expressing stuff. And you’re seeing that, and at this point it takes on various forms and shapes and what not, because I’m learning. I don’t know what reacts with what, what paint goes with what. I’m using carpenters chalk in some of the paintings, you know, that’s obviously a carryover from my last life.

That’s what I thought I saw.

Yeah, it’s chalk. It’s outline.

I think it was #23 in particular… (ED: #24, pictured)

#24 by Tim Strouss Yeah, I’ve done a number of them since. I think, man, some of the ones I can’t wait to post them on my blog, because I really like some of the ones I’ve done. But yeah, a number of them have lines, and snapped lines. That’s just it, I’m learning about stuff. I haven’t been trained to think of what to use and what not to use. In some ways that’s definitely not a good thing, and in some ways that’s a good thing.

You can view more of Tim’s recent work at his website:

Read Part II

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