Artist in Focus: Ron Fortier
Hi Ron, what memorable responses have you had to your work?
My work has been called a marriage of chaos and order because it, contains scribbling that is controlled and contained. I’ve also been told that my work is reminiscent of textiles of tapestries and that I should consider printing my images on silk scarves.
Many people have also told me about their very emotional and personal experiences with my images. One individual described my work as subtlety evoking an intriguing sense of calmness.
Gallerists have related how visitors become very fixated, speak in hushed tones and sometimes come to tears in front of a particular piece because their breath is taken away by what they describe as the profound emotional depth of the work.
The musical quality of my compositions are also frequently mentioned and. most recently, described as a visual opera. This is all very interesting and heartening to me since I insist that I paint sang froid – completely devoid of or, not in any way conscious of any emotional intent; happy, sad or mad!
How would you describe your work to someone who hadn’t seen it?
I describe my work to artists a bit differently than to non-artists. Generally, I describe my work as abstract first because some people, non-artists as well as artists, have a prejudice towards the abstract.
This prejudice comes from individuals who have decided they don’t like abstract art because it’s non-sense or, because they feel they need to be specifically educated as to what abstract art is or, what it is supposed to represent. I tell them my work is not intellectual at all and has no basis on nature.
And, it is not executed while I’m in any emotional state; neither happy, sad or mad. The work, what they see, is simply what it is, a visual composition – an arrangement of shapes, lines, forms and colors. Some are intrigued by this and others not.
To artists, I explain that the work is not titled. Not in a traditional sense. The “titles” are just catalog numbers that indicate where and when I painted each piece and, whether they are individual works or, part of a series.
Why? Because, to me, a title traps the image. People try to match the painting to the title or vice versa. To both non-artists and artists I offer that my intention is to paint nothing. And, I believe that I am only truly successful when a painting states or represents nothing.
Even if I did attempt to convey something, there’s a good chance it might not be seen or received it as I envisioned it. The definition of abstract, after all is, subjective.
Obviously, trying to paint nothing in order to paint something is a challenge! When I describe my work, I offer that the definition of something is perfect for what I’m trying to achieve: a thing that is unspecified or unknown.
I begin working on every canvas without any pre-conceived notion or concept. Leaving the interpretation of my work entirely to the viewers and beholders is important to me.
Viewers simply look at the colors, forms and shapes. While, beholders, see beyond those elements. The difference between a viewer and a beholder is, in my opinion, the difference between looking and seeing.
Beholders, as I define them, are natural born or trained artists. They identify with the composition.
When looking at my work, many relate as having an experience or making a discovery or, have their memory jolted by something in the work. Viewers on the other hand are not artists. But, I also consider the experiences that they share with me or the gallerists to be just as valid.
Sometimes, more so, because they struggle to make sense of what they’re seeing and need their comments validated. Yet, they do seem to understand when I tell them that my work does not attempt to record a reality but rather to create one.
And, regardless of who the viewer or beholder is, does anyone really need to know how sunshine is made to appreciate a sunset?
What do you want the viewer to experience?
I hope that both viewers and beholders, experience something authentic; something quite personal and perhaps very private. In fact, I really appreciate it when they share their experiences with me.
So, I would like both viewers and beholders to experience something totally unexpected. If my painting can trigger something in their heads or hearts that makes them laugh or cry or continue to be fixated by the image they are seeing, then I am successful.
And, yes, of course, when I encounter ignorant remarks about abstract art being nothing more than what a three-year-old or a chimpanzee with a paint brush, it can do can be disturbing and hurtful. I want both viewer and beholder to be an active participant in my work.
It’s a three-legged stool; the artist, the marks on the canvas and the experience of the viewer/beholder combine to complete the work. Art critic Carl Einstein said in 1926 that abstract art put an end to, “the laziness or fatigue of vision.
He said, “Seeing again had become an active process.” I hope my work stimulates both the senses and the intellect. People purchase a work specifically for a private space to surround themselves with very positive emotions they can’t pinpoint.
I hope it’s because of the contemplative aura the work evokes and that it helps them to be as pensive, reflective and meditative as they wish to be. And, if it also matches the curtains, that’s also wonderful!
What are some of your favorite experiences as an artist?
As an artist, many of my favorite experiences have occurred in the classroom. I especially love the moment when a student, who is struggling because they are not following my instruction and are in conflict with their confidence, finally let go.
It’s at that moment that they decide to trust my guidance and suddenly, you can almost see, feel and hear that moment when it pops and understanding envelops them. Unbeknownst to me, I had an art major who somehow managed to get into a non-art major Art History class.
After telling the class that I always felt a bit handicapped as an artist. That I felt misunderstood. And, that I felt odd because I saw what others could not see.
She raised her hand and told me I was wrong. “We are not handicapped,” she said. Pointing to the others in the classroom, “they are!” she said emphatically.
That moment has stayed with me all these years. As a painter, working in my studio, my most memorable experiences are when I have entered a place that I didn’t know existed or, one that after fruitlessly banging on a specific conceptual door, finally swings open.
I’ve had experiences where my conscious state is two seconds ahead of my brush and I see the strokes before I make them. I’ve had several duende moments.
Duende is a term used primarily in flamenco. It means to be in a very heightened emotional state where every expression is authentic and connected to the soul of the art.
The freakiest experience was, after wondering about where the overpowering presence of the horizontal line and the calligraphy in my work came from, was what could be called genetic memory incidence.
My eighth-great-grandfather was featured on a Canadian Television genealogy series on founding families of Canada. He arrived in New France in 1654.
There was a reenactment of his accidental death that floored me. He drowned when his foot was fouled in the anchor line of his vessel and the scene of him being pulled beneath the (horizontal) the water’s surface entangled in the floating rope (calligraphy) was enlightening and very, very profound.
What’s the most important thing to know about you?
That’s a tricky question. For me, at least.
Or, perhaps it’s the answer that is difficult because, who I am is what I paint. However, not truly knowing who or what I am is actually where the difficulty is.
And, if what I paint is because of who I am, well, as Jung said, “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside awakens.”
I paint, perhaps, intuitively. The white noise or energy that I sometimes imagine I’m picking up on or channeling can perhaps be described as intuition. It is sometimes very present in the studio.
It speaks simply to me: stop, go back, this color… or, push back – fight! The good Art comes from this feeling of connectedness.
But, I don’t know what I’m actually plugged into; if it’s one source or many. Is it cosmic consciousness?
The way in which some of my images materialize often baffles me. That’s why I paint.
I am still trying to awaken. I am looking into my heart for truth.
The ancient Greeks believed that there was beauty in truth. And, when the awakening occurs, perhaps the truth, the answer to my question, “What is my purpose as a painter?”, will finally be revealed.
What are the irrational, creative and intuitive aspects of my personality? I have no idea.
I had a Jesuit priest as an instructor in college. He said he joined the order to get closer to God.
However, the closer he would get to God he said, the further away God would move! I feel the same way about painting, my painting.
When I paint, I am somewhere else. I feel as if I am a channel, an antenna or a portal to something.
I don’t mean that I go into a trance or that the calligraphy is automatic writing. I am trying not to paint anything but rather something.
What that something is, I have yet to discover it. And, because I’m so damned analytical by nature, I’m afraid that I will eventually come to understand why I paint and that it will ruin the joy of exploration.
As Francis Pharcellus Church wrote in the seminal editorial of its day in the New York Sun to Virginia O’Hanlon (Yes, Virginia), “Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world. You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart.”
The surface of my paintings are, to me, a veil that is concealing whatever it is so this quote is spot on.
Do you work with music on or in silence?
It varies. I sometimes do and sometimes I don’t. Most of the time it is in silence.
And when I do turn to music, since my musical taste is so eclectic, it’s to match the mood of the direction the piece I’m working on at the time is going and not to stimulate or inspire me.
What question about your work do you get most often?
Well, that depends on who’s asking. There are people who earnestly want to “understand” abstract art but, for some reason can’t because they feel they are not well educated in Art.
“What am I supposed to be looking at?”, they ask. Others want to know what it is I’m saying.
My answer seems to stun them. “Nothing,” I say. It’s just a composition using contrasts, the alignment of forms, repetition of elements and the relationships of the marks and forms to each other.
I still don’t know what my paintings say to them or, to myself. But, there is a voice that is present in me that I try so hard to listen to.
The odd thing is that it goes quiet when I paint. Or, does it just whisper so low that I can barely consciously hear it?
What is the question you encounter most when you tell someone you are an artist?
It’s probably the same question that every artist encounters: Do you make a living doing that?
The best version of this question was asked by a gentleman who owns a café overlooking the beautiful beach of Figueira da Foz on the Portuguese mainland. He had quite a collection of Michael Barrett’s (French born Portuguese painter, 1926-2004) paintings.
He asked me if I was a showing painter and or a selling painter. That comment inspired me to be a “selling painter” even more! Perhaps, the question is more about authenticity rather than success.
So, I guess, that from some people’s point of view, if you’re successful, you’re a real artist.
How has your style changed over the years?
My style has not changed greatly in forty-years. It amazes me. It evolved and continues to evolve but, but no matter where I wander off, it loops back to some starting point again.
I sometimes will find an image of a decades long painting and wonder how I was able to circle back so to speak to the exact same place. Since I’m a bit pedantic, I really need to know how and why this happens.
For quite a while I was vexed by the constant comparison of my work to Cy Twombly. The first time I heard his name was in graduate school. Some said our work looked so similar.
I thought Twombly was a student at another school. The funny thing is, had I taken up a friend’s invitation to go with him to Captiva Island off the Florida coast where Rauschenberg had a studio, I may well have run into Twombly.
I avoided knowing anything about him or looking at his work for forty-years. It’s still an odd thing since I think that there are parallels in our evolution over the years.
My current “style” is the result of an exploration I started back in 1977. Let’s see where I end up this time!