Since retiring from a career working as a graphic designer for KUED-TV, Doug Wildfoerster has given full rein to his personal artistic vision. The self-taught watercolorist has had his work featured in solo shows at Alpine Art, the Chapman Library, the Day-Riverside Library and the Duchesne County Library, and in group shows at the Springville Museum of Art and Art Access Gallery.
Wildfoerster majored in both theater and art at the University of Utah, and says these two disciplines have come together in his paintings, 25 of which are on display at Finch Lane Gallery in an exhibition entitled Cassandra Never Really Did Come Back From Mexico: Painting the Stanislavski Way. “My paintings constitute a notebook of ideas – characters, locations, moods, motivations – for a play I’ve been working on my whole life, as it turns out,” he writes in his artist statement. “I’m almost done with it; I just have to write the ending.”
Rebecca Pyle spoke with the artist.
RP: Love your “artist statement” for your show at Finch Lane. Different from the usual statement about light, form, color, as refracted by the artist, and the nod to “the human experience” – instead, yours has an almost-recipe for baking bread in a car’s engine – and you quote Shakespeare, Van Morrison, and a Roller Derby choreographer. Your bio, at its end, is short, humble. In addition to your art/theater background, your graphic arts career at KUED-TV, “self-taught watercolor artist” commands attention here. And these paintings, as watercolors go, are very large. Does a theater background make these paintings seem small?
DW: That’s entirely possible. Some of my favorite painters have done set designs, from time to time, along with their more usual ways of working. I have lots of admiration for good set and lighting designers. Their impact on the effect a play can have on an audience is immense. A good set can become an important character in a play.
RP: You use clay-coated Masonite boards. I’m not familiar with that. I would guess the clay acts as a sort of desert-fixative for the paint.
DW: It’s a commercially available product made by a company called Ampersand. The name they’ve given it is Aquabord. It’s a pleasure to work with. It’s a durable surface, colors come across beautifully, it can take lots of layers of paint, you can easily (for the most part) clean up areas you might want to repaint, you can scratch out some of the color and paint over it with another color for interesting effects – it’s a very adaptable surface to work on.
RP: You have both art and theater backgrounds, as well as your former graphic design career. I remember after painting sets for a community theater and a repertory theater, long ago, the world was never the same for me. You’d crossed a magic barrier line: you realized an incredible amount of the world is theater-dressing, appearances; you felt grief about the demolition and disposal of the sets you’d worked your heart through, but also realized, or I did, how temporary and frail and idealistically wishful all built things are. Similar realizations for you, or did your (acting, producing) work in theater affect you and your artwork differently?
DW: I didn’t especially mourn the striking of a set. But what always hit me was “how temporary and frail and idealistically wishful” human relationships can be. You work closely and often very intensely and intimately with a group of people to create something ephemeral and then it’s over and you go your separate ways. Sometimes you see one another down the road and often you never cross paths again. Easy come, easy – or not so easy – go. That fact certainly has an influence on the way I think about my paintings.
RP: The Stanivlaski Method (which you’ve incorporated into the title of the show) – I am guessing is saying – why can’t an artist follow Method acting, too? Defeating an artist’s fear – as he faces snow-white flat waiting art material – in the ways an actor’s fears, about an echoingly-empty dark stage, can be defeated, through Stanivslaski’s methods? Helping expression —
DW: As Marc Chagall would say, “Stelllllaaaaaaa!”
RP: Round shapes. They abound in these paintings, the huge moon in “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” full-bloom roses, deep sea divers’ helmets, round lizards’ eyes. In “When I Go to Heaven, I’ll Be Taking a Road Trip” that round emblem on the back of the convertible, the magic symbol, or belly button, of that painting.
You, as character, are spottable in many of these paintings, such as “Publicity Photo for the Desert Oracle Theatre Production of Krapp’s Last Tape – The Musical” and “When I Go to Hell, I’ll Be Taking the Train” – wearing round spectacles. Observer (painter) and observed (actor, caught freeze-frame). How did you choose, for your paintings, round green lenses?
DW: Round because I, myself, have been wearing round eyeglasses in real life ever since “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” came out in 1967 (I was easily influenced). Opaque green either because I was hiding from Satan or because I didn’t feel like painting eyes that day. My memory is fuzzy on the specifics. I love your thought that the emblem on the back of the car is the belly button of the painting.
RP: Are you a painter-philosopher? The round glasses suggest Lennon, Hirohito, Pessoa, Joyce. Hockney. Someone philosophically breaking down the world into painful, but necessary, parts?
DW: The only things breaking down into painful, but necessary, parts are my hips. (Read this in your best Grouch Marx voice.)
RP: As in drawings by Peter Max, transportation features in your work: in your show at Finch Lane – bus stops in California; an antique car with great round headlights and an antique-looking chauffeur behind its wheel (“Howl”); in “When I Go to Heaven, I’ll be Taking a Road Trip” the glossy (deep purple) convertible; and also, that richly-filled train, laden as if for a departing, bookish pharaoh (“When I Go to Hell, I’ll be Taking the Train”).
DW: It’s the old story. Any big change, even one that you think is likely to be positive, carries uncertainty with it, sets off a warning jolt. I read a quote by a Buddhist teacher that says it well: “To be uncertain is uncomfortable but to be certain is ridiculous.” I also once read a very dark fortune cookie that said, “Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.” That can be true; but also, hard to swallow.
RP: What was your childhood like?
DW: When I was a kid, I was pretty much a typical kid. Played baseball, rode my bike, watched Captain Video, wrote appropriately juvenile poetry, was told by my junior high art teacher that I would be better off taking a shop class. Maybe the only thing a little different from some of my friends was that I was a reading junkie. I’ve always had an absolute mania for books.
RP: All in Utah?
DW: No. A couple places in New York, a couple places in Montana, Idaho, a few places in California and, finally, Utah. At some point my childhood ended but I’m not certain where I was when that happened.
RP: At KUED television, during your career there as a graphic designer, did you ever reach the point where you were pretty much allowed to do as you pleased?
DW: Sometimes, but design by committee was the prevailing style there.
RP: “Cassandra Never Really Did Come Back from Mexico” – I am guessing alludes to someone returning, changed, from another place. Am I right?
DW: Not a hundred percent certain. Cassandra was very secretive, almost never let anyone into her life.
RP: The emblazoned, elongated orange heart on a turquoise door suggests – a change of compass in a person, yet still a loyal return to the place one came from? Does one return half-hearted, or double-hearted? (Why didn’t Dorothy stay in Oz?)
DW: I don’t know. I was never able to ask Dorothy.
RP: And, speaking of doors, there is door after door in your artwork. In the “Window Shopping” paintings, in various cities, storefront windows serving as visual doors, and multiple real doors also showing, at back of shops. In one, a Mona Lisa-mysterious woman (“Window Shopping in Los Angeles”). In another painting, an image of a door set inside the image of a head (“Another Day in the Life of the Only Amazon Parrot in Needles, California”). Doors, as in theater? Mysterious stage entrances, exits?
DW: I’m sure that every one of us can think of a door which left its mark on us. Are you happy you walked through it or do you wish you hadn’t? Kicking yourself or congratulating yourself for either turning or not turning the knob? Those are some of the moments that make life interesting.
RP: The lizards! Moving through your watercolors, large and small, low to the ground, in their scaled armor, with their round, watching eyes. In some ways, they look like ancient automobiles, with round headlights and running boards. Are they small mythic dragons in these paintings, or symbolizing the enduring armor artists must have, to keep on? Or nature proving it will be getting the last laugh on our human endeavors?
DW: Dragons and lizards – such fearsome creatures. We tend to use our imaginations to pretend we have everything under control. We don’t have everything under control.
RP: What might be some of your favorite places?
DW: My studio. I came to painting as a serious obsession very late in life and I’m making up for lost time. There’s pretty much nothing I’d rather be doing than painting. Outside of my studio, my favorite place is any place where I find something or someone that (who) sparks my imagination and suggests the possibility of a painting. And I can stumble across that person/place almost anywhere I go.
RP: Nature, again: plants appear in small fervent patches in your paintings. There’s a brilliant green patch behind a sleeping homeless man in “Bus Stop in Los Angeles.” It could be peaceful, seeing a man asleep outdoors, but his wrinkled clothes, and the unaccommodating place he has fallen to sleep, in front of a fast-food sign, signal desperation, exile, loss: a whole play, a tragedy, in one painting. Joni Mitchell’s “got to get back to the garden” hums through my head. Yours?
DW: That’s such a great song. I listen to music pretty much constantly when I paint – rock and roll, blues, jazz, R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders – I did something in this painting (“Bus Stop in Los Angeles”) that I do often. I mix up locales and subjects that, in my mind, complete one another. The ad on the bus stop bench where a homeless man is sleeping is a sign I saw on a pizza joint in Las Vegas and the weedy patch is a carefully-tended (I presume) little garden that’s next to a design studio/prop supply shop elsewhere in Los Angeles. For me, all these elements illuminate one another.
RP: Fast food signs are in many of your paintings. Why?
DW: My secret shame is that I have a real fondness for the visually tawdry; food signs at the state fair possess that in glorious abundance. A lot of things at the state fair possess that in glorious abundance. Rich source of material.
RP: If names are destiny, as ancient Egyptians believed, then will Doug Wildfoerster’s next paintings be explorations of forests in Alaska, Canada, or the Black Forest in Germany? If a train could take one happily to hell, and a road trip in a convertible could take one happily to heaven, are airplanes and seaplanes and Stanisvlaskizing about them next? Storefronts in Anchorage and Fairbanks? Instead of lizards, bears. In Fairbanks?
DW: It won’t be Germany. I like to drive. The worst that can happen when you drive is a car can come around a blind corner, driving in your lane, and pulverize you. You don’t have to be terrified longer than the time it takes to say “Oh, shit!” because that’s all the time you’ll have. An airplane can take God knows how long to fall from 35,000 feet, but long enough to say an awful lot of “Oh, shits!” while you’re thinking about what it will be like. To hit the ground. So “See the USA in your Chevrolet” (as Dinah Shore sang long ago).
RP: The pandemic has made retreating modes of existence the norm rather than a singular, private, artist’s preserve. Through lack of contrast, have artists lost some of their remote-island existences?
DW: An enormous number of people have had their lives turned upside down by the pandemic but I think that, for many, there has been this revelation: living a more solitary life, being driven to examine your own interior resources, has some real benefits. It’s not a form of punishment; it’s an opportunity to engage in some serious exploration of your life, without the usual social obligations.
RP: That road trip bread you refer to in your artist statement, making word-play with the words “roll” and “role” and the “roll”/”role” of rolling car wheels creating a traveling oven. Do we just guess measurements of flour, butter, eggs, honey, yeast, salt?
• 1 cup of whole milk
• 10 tablespoons of unsalted butter
• 1 large egg
• 4 cups of flour
• 2 tablespoons of honey
• 1 envelope of yeast
• 1 teaspoon of salt
Note: I do not guarantee results/safety/process. Good luck. Mix everything together in a large clay bowl, cover with a scarf knitted by your grandmother, and bury it in the backyard. Dig it up the next time you remember it’s there. Put the container in the engine compartment of your car. Drive in whatever direction you want but drive long enough to allow the engine compartment to heat up to the point where the dough will brown to perfection. Stop by the side of the road somewhere, and, if the roll is fully baked, butter and eat the roll. Before the role eats you.
RP: Speaking of roles. Once upon a time, what were your favorite roles, as an actor?
DW: Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape. Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew.
RP: The bread. Do you guess when it’s done, as you drive, by the toasty aroma? This would be a pleasant thing, driving to Alaska, but I think a jet would be better. On that long a flight, they might serve food.
DW: Now, Rebecca, a couple things I know you already know: 1) Airplane food, if they even serve food on airplanes any more, has a really lousy reputation and no one wants to eat it if they don’t have to; 2) While there are periods of tedium on a long drive there is always the chance you’ll see one thing, one terrific thing, that will give you a great idea for a painting – and that one thing will make the whole drive worthwhile. And there’s always a Subway, every fifty miles. You can wait that long for lunch.
Doug Wildfoerster: Cassandra Never Really Did Come Back from Mexico — Or, Painting the Stanislavki Way, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Sep. 24.
Rebecca Pyle is a writer and an artist with work in dozens of art/literary journals, in the United States and also in journals (in the English language) in India and the United Kingdom and in France and Germany. She graduated from the university the Wizard of Oz adored, the University of Kansas, where she studied art and lit. See rebeccapyleartist.com.