Artist Betsy Alwin talks with fellow Rosalux artist David Malcolm Scott about his former life as an architect, how moving around the United States influenced his work, and what precipitated his move to abstract paintings.
David, the last show we had together was a little over a year ago. I was really impressed by your new work, which was different from what you were doing before. You were making work that was very illustrative and the new work is so abstract. The way you talked about how they came about and how prolific you were making them made me think of Rilke and the Duino Elegies (he wrote those in a matter of weeks). What precipitated this transition and why did they seem to flow so easily?
The change in my work was a long time coming. My work has always had some abstract elements to it, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. Over the years, as I executed works on the prairie and cities, it became harder and harder to paint and finish the pieces. Why I'm not completely sure...I think partially it was boredom with what I was painting (over and over again the same landscape like the Minneapolis riverfront).
Another part was the hurt -travel and road trips were a big part of the inspiration for my scrolls and 'scenic' paintings, but with the Great Recession that part of my life largely disappeared. Without the inspiration and renewal I got from travel, movement and road trips, I increasingly felt the need to break away and do something new. It was almost as if I felt trapped. There were always abstract parts and flourishes in my landscapes and over time I noticed how much more I enjoyed painting and composing them. I worked more of those parts into some of the paintings I was doing and it became clear that abstraction was showing me the way.
Once I committed to the change the work just flowed out and it continues to. I try to keep it simple and not think about the change in my work too much. I focus on the pieces I'm working on and how to react to the last line or form I laid down and not get too 'wedded' to any part I've done until the overall composition gels. On these works I usually 'draw' the composition with tape, at first being as loose as possible about what's happening, then work out the color, then draw again if needed, change color as needed and keep moving. That said, sometimes I sketch out an idea or ideas in my sketchbook first or the color of a piece comes to me first...I may look at a blank sheet of paper and the urge to lay down a swath of red or yellow or another color before I have any idea of a composition. With the abstract painting, all of these ways of working work; the important point seems to be to not get hung up with a particular process, to be open to trying another way.
Another interesting thing about the abstracts to me are the titles. When I was doing landscapes and cityscapes, for most part the title of a piece wasn't that important -it was often an afterthought added after I finished the painting. With these abstract pieces the titles often come to me as I start a piece or as I'm working through it and in a sense can guide me toward how to finish a painting or help me understand what a piece is about. I know that sounds weird, and it doesn't really explain what happens, but the titles seem to be locked to the work. Once they come to me, that's it, and it's the only title that fits the work. It's the strangest thing, and I don't fully understand what it's about, but I'm going with it.
I would guess that your training and work as an architect influenced your work throughout your art career. Can you talk about why you were drawn to study architecture in the first place and how you were then led to study art?
Architecture has been a central part of my life, even now, out of the field for over 25 years, it remains a part of my life; it's in my blood. My father, Kenneth McCoy Scott, was an architect, when he and my Mom divorced she remarried to an architecture professor and writer, Cecil Elliott. Growing up, visits to my Dad's office, building sites, Cecil's design studios and trips to examine and see buildings were part of my upbringing. I'd always drawn, painted, and loved art and out of high school I was tempted to major in it, but various influences convinced me that it wasn't a practical choice and that I'd never make a living at it. Architecture would give me a chance to draw and use some of my artistic abilities, so I went that direction.
I adored my father and part of my thinking was that, after school, I could move back to North Carolina and work with him. He died when I was still in school, at Kent State, and in the long term that was one of the reasons I'm not an architect today. If Daddy hadn't died I probably would have finished my studies at Kent, moved to North Carolina, and still be involved in architecture today. As it was, about the same time as he passed, the program at Kent was having troubles, I was increasingly unhappy there and was thinking of transferring to another school.
An architect friend of the family spoke highly of the University of Minnesota and suggested I transfer there, as he said, "It's a very good program and a great place to live.” I took him at his word and here I am. Influenced by an artist girlfriend at Kent State, I had started to try my hand at painting and, as I was finishing architecture school here, I started to paint more and more. It became my respite from the intensity of architecture school and the profession. A year after graduation I had my first gallery show and I continued to show my paintings for the rest of my time in the profession.
In 1994 the architecture studio I was part of broke up and my art was going well, I was getting more and more exhibits. I was burnt out and my health was suffering from architecture stress so I decided to go with art. Also I wanted more control of the creative process. In architecture your design ideas get pulled at from many directions and I was sick of it. My paintings may or may not sell, but I get to paint what I want. Once I decided to go full time with art, I thought I needed a deeper knowledge of art and it's world, so I enrolled in MCAD's MFA program.
What was it like to work as an architect and have your own firm? Do you still keep it as an interest?
Over the years I worked for a number of firms around the country and, in the end, was part of a collaborative studio, An Arch, with people I'd been in school with. Working in the field was intense; it's a very tough profession; real feast and famine. When you have a lot of work there's a lot of overtime and the pressure's on. Firms grow as they get work and shrink and fire people if they don't. There is no safety net in architecture and luck plays a part in a firm's success; the right client comes in the door or notices your work and it's off to the races. Among the other stressors are contractors and engineers who doubt the need for architects, clients with a lot of money, power, and no taste, and computer 'design' programs that give people the impression that they can design a building -to name a few. The result is a lot of cheap ugly buildings and a lot of burnt out architects (and former architects).
I'm slightly jaded, if you can't tell, but there were good things. One was working and studying with some of the most intellectually well-rounded people on the planet. The education I received was second to none. In architecture you study a little of everything and, when I was there, the University of Minnesota had one of the best programs in the country. I was lucky to work for two brilliant people; one was my father, who I worked with for a year after high school; his interests and knowledge were wide and deep. He graduated first in his class at N.C. State, was a talented Modern residential designer, and had the finest drafting hand I've ever seen. The other was Eduardo Catalano in Boston, who, besides running a firm that did work all over the world was also the head of the graduate program at M.I.T. Lastly was An Arch, there were half a dozen of us and we were together for six years. It wasn't always easy designing with six people, all of whom had an equal say in the process but we produced some sweet projects together.
These days I don't do much with architecture besides a little consulting with friends who might have a project or house they want some advice on but I don't get out the pencils and T-square. Also, once every month or so, I get together with three guys I went through school with, and we visit a building in the Twin Cities that has caught the interest of one of us...of course these days we're restricted to a Zoom meeting.
I was wondering how the architecture background might have influenced your previous landscape works and now I am thinking that it would also influence the new abstract work. What do you think your background has contributed to this?
Besides my upbringing, between school and my professional time, I put 20 years into architecture, so it's influence is all over my brain. I don't miss much of working in architecture, but I do miss design and that process. When I look at the city or the countryside, I'm always putting lines and connections between what I'm taking in visually. My cityscapes and what I chose to show and how I render it go directly back to my architecture days as does my use of hard lines, edges, and forms in my paintings.
The newer abstract work I'm doing is close to the design process in that I'm dealing with a space, the canvas or paper, and trying to come up with a harmonious arrangement within it. It differs in that there aren't the external pressures on the process that there are in architecture. This has given me a real sense of freedom and looseness. With the landscapes and cityscapes, even though it was my work and largely my choice of what to put in them, I often felt the push and pull of external forces as I did in architecture and it was affecting my production and ideas. With the abstract work, all of those feelings melted away,
You were born in North Carolina, but you moved around a lot as a kid. Do you feel that this influences your work or way of working in any way?
I was born in North Carolina, but we did move around a bit. My Mom's second husband was an architectural history and design professor who was also a good administrator. His extra skill was in helping programs that were having problems get turned in the right direction. He would suffer no bullshit no matter who an academic was. So we moved from Raleigh and N.C. State, to Auburn in Alabama, to Stillwater Oklahoma and O.S.U., and finally to University of Detroit. In Detroit, I went to University of Detroit High School, a top flight Jesuit all boys high school.
I'm not sure how all of that influences my artwork or my way of working with the exception of prairie as one of my recurring subjects.
I know that the six years we lived in northeastern Oklahoma instilled in me a love of the prairie. Some of my friends were from ranching and farm families so I spent time out in the landscape hiking and riding horses with them. During the second year we were in Stillwater, Cecil was working on a book project, Oklahoma Landmarks, which was a small, mainly picture book of the significant architecture in the state. So, as a family, we spent quite a bit of time driving around the state to photograph buildings and landmarks Cecil needed for his book. Also, my family were museum goers so I was exposed to a lot of art and history as we moved and traveled across the country.
Can you talk about your academic journey -I am always interested in this experience because I went to a few schools, too, and transferred a few times. You also attended a few schools -how would you compare them? Can you share some memories from your times at these different places? What did you take away from each of them?
I went to a very good high school, but I was a lousy student there. Mainly I was interested in sports and hanging out with friends and girls, and I graduated with a C average. I know another part of it was the change of location and mentally adjusting to it, we had gone from a small town on the Oklahoma prairie to the middle of a large northern city with a very angry population of three million.
After my year working for my father in North Carolina, I was looking for an architecture program. My father had wanted me to wait another year before college, but I was itching to go. Kent State came up. They would accept me with my bad grades, they had architecture, it was a three hour drive to Detroit, so I could see my Mom on breaks, and one of my best friends was there on a football scholarship so I figured I could play there as well.
I didn't have the grades to get into the architecture program right away, so I spent my first years in Liberal Arts establishing a good grade point average and playing sports. I was always good at history and political science, so I loaded up on those. After several years of buttoning down, I was admitted to the school of architecture.
It may have been hard for me to get into, but I soon found out that architecture school was closely related to the 'Hunger Games'. The class I started with had 180 people and by the end of the third year, when I transferred to Minnesota, there were 60 of us left. It was much the same way at the University of Minnesota. Lots of all-nighters and a course load that spanned the University: physics, calculus, a lot of engineering classes, architectural history, art classes, urban planning and design studios. It was the spectrum of the classes, as much as the workload, that got people. In those days the thinking was that it's a tough profession, so it was best to weed out people in school. All our professors had gone through the same ordeal, so that was the way it was.
I had a couple of things that helped me get through it. One, now that I was in architecture school I wasn't going to bail and disappoint my father. Two, from sports came a competitive streak and I wasn't going to let it beat me. Three, I loved education and learning new things.
Kent State was a good public university and the first few years were a lot of fun with my teammates and the social life it offered but the architecture program was thin on course offerings and the faculty was almost all entrenched academics who weren't keeping up with the design trends in the greater architectural world. We did have a dynamic dean who was trying to change things, but when he got hired away to another college, I knew I had to get out. When one of the teachers I clashed with most was appointed as temporary dean, I baled and headed for Minnesota.
The program here was as different as night and day. The faculty was a mix of academics and people from the profession, so you had books and real world experience teaching you, and there was a lot more social interaction between the faculty and students -something I really valued. The course load was richer in breadth, there were many more offerings for electives, and they had a foreign studies program which was something I wanted to do (I ended up going to China for mine). Also, living in Minneapolis was a big step up from rural Ohio and inner-city Detroit. I really enjoyed my years in Detroit, but it was a tough and at times scary place to live.
I thrived when I moved here for school and when I graduated I saw no reason to move anywhere else. By that time my Mom had moved to Boston and my father was no longer there in North Carolina and I had a really rich life in Minneapolis, so I stayed put.
I decided to switch from architecture to art and wanted to go back to school for an MFA while staying here [in Minneapolis], but my choices were limited. I'd already been a student at UMN Twin Cities, and I thought it would be good to be at a different college. I thought a smaller, focused art school would be a better fit, so I applied and got into MCAD's MFA program. It was a good fit and I enjoyed the smaller community feel of the place and how accessible everything was. As I was hoping, I learned a lot about art and my work at MCAD and my time there helped push me in new ways. I had good mentors like Hazel Belvo, at first. After she'd been in a car accident and withdrew from teaching for a while, Carole Fisher offered to take over as my mentor and I accepted. I thought of myself as mainly an acrylic painter when I entered the program, but after seeing some of the watercolors I was doing on the side, Hazel persuaded me to focus more on them, which I thank her for to this day. Our work was very different but we really got along and she gave me a lot with her critiques and humor. She and Vesna Kittleson, who was part of my thesis committee, were a great help as I developed my watercolors and scroll paintings. Vesna and I remain in contact and I really value her friendship., her sense of history, her joy of life and insights to today.
I think everyone wonders how everyone else is coping during this crazy time (and wondering if they, themselves, are coping alright?) but I want to ask how this strange past nine or so months has affected the way you think about making work? Has your approach or goals changed?
Covid days have been strange, crazy and tough. Red Savoy/Keegan's, where I worked, laid us all off in March and then closed at the end of June, so I'm between full time jobs. I have been helping a friend get a small company going, but that really doesn't pay at this point. I'm really leery of taking on another service job and being exposed to Covid. Since I'm able to get by, I'm going to keep it as-is, for now. I've been sitting tight, trying to do things that help me keep healthy through this time; paint every day, exercise, eat right, meditate, keep in contact with friends and family, etc. All the things they're telling us to do -I don't get them all in every day, but I hit them enough to keep sane, so I'm coping.
The election and its aftermath added another tension and stress to life. As a long time student of history and politics, this insurrection was especially hard to take. Hearing people shouting USA and watching them wave our flag as they committed treason was surreal to say the least.
Can you share an influential image of something that has gotten you through to now? Can you also share an image of your work?
I've sent you a photo of a poster I have on my living room wall. It's a black and white shot of Paris by Peter Turnley, one of my favorite places on earth. My Godmother was Parisian and over the years I've been there four times, spent about a month each time, and had some really great experiences there. I look at that photo every day and it brings back memories of those visits and the time I spent with her and other people I met there. Looking at it also brings back to me the idea of travel, the thought of being able to go somewhere else, to go see friends and family, to freely move about even among crowds of people, to be someplace else besides the Covid confinement we find ourselves in. We've got a while to go with Covid, but this photo helps remind me that we will see an end to it.