David French, Artist
David French’s elegant sculptures ignite the imagination. While they don’t represent any real thing in our world, they look almost familiar, like ritual objects, tools, plants, or even creatures you’ve stumbled on walking through a magical forest. You think they are from another time or place, perhaps a parallel universe.
He carves the sculptures out of wood and through layers of paint and surface treatments, he imbues the pieces with a sense of character and history—a life full of experiences before they’ve come before our eyes.
David has exhibited widely in galleries across the country and in Europe, and his work is included in many private and public collections. His next solo show is in June 2014 at Linda Hodges Gallery in Seattle. To see more images of his work, visit his website at DavidFrenchArtist.com.
David talked with Constellation617 about his childhood, how he became an artist, and the kind of art he is drawn to. The interview took place on November 9, 2013, in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. In person, David is warm and thoughtful, and speaks with a resonant voice.
C617: What is the relationship between your artwork and where you came from?
David French: I think that I’m nostalgic about my childhood, and that who I am and where I came from carry considerable weight to what I do. They're not necessarily obvious in the work I produce, but they're there nonetheless.
C617: What was it like growing up in St. Louis?
David French: I grew up in a suburb of St. Louis, and my father worked in advertising for Monsanto. We were in a landscape that was farmland quickly transforming into suburbia. This was the early sixties. On one street I remember an expansive view of rolling hills and opened-up space. This whole area is now dense subdivisions. For me, things like that have a significance in time.
And then on the opposite side of the street was a barber shop where my mother used to take us to get our haircuts. The barbers there were Jewish Holocaust survivors, all with numbers tattooed on their arms. Around the same time, my dad would be running us down to have our pictures taken in front of the St. Louis Arch as it was being built.
I also remember as a child being taken to a vacant lot right next to the subdivision of our first house where a helicopter had crashed. Some kids were picking up broken glass as souvenirs, and some had blood on them. And when you think of Monsanto, you think of all these weird things—their involvement in Agent Orange, the agricultural programs, and everything like that. In so many ways, the suburban experience that I had growing up was one of subtle madness.
C617: As a child, how did you deal with these confusing times?
David French: In part, I grew up thinking we were in this idyllic suburban paradise. We had woods in the backyard, which was this intriguing world I could go into and explore. It was really magic, these woods. They held a mystery to me that was very powerful. I was also watching Disney, Superman, and Leave It to Beaver on T.V. and reading Dr. Seuss books. Music was a big influence. Beatlemania. That’s what I feel I was growing up into.
Even though I lived in this small burgeoning suburb, I felt were we strangely connected to a larger world. My mother had left Czechoslovakia in 1938 and we had relatives in concentration camps. These experiences were in line with the men with tattooed arms at the barber shop. Somebody you knew would leave, go to Vietnam, and get shot. Monsanto was producing Agent Orange. The St. Louis Arch was being built with the whole country watching. There was this sense of being connected to the larger world.
So I guess in a way, all this perplexing information was coming at me. And with my father’s death when I was fifteen, I was knocked off center. Everything about that made me want to escape.
C617: When did you start making art?
David French: I remember one night waking up when I was a small child. There had been an assignment at school—this was in kindergarten—to make a fire truck cut out of different colored papers. I brought mine home, and then I woke up at about three o’clock in the morning and turned on the lights in my room and reorganized my whole bulletin board to fit in that fire truck I made. I can still remember being terribly obsessed with how this was presented on my bulletin board. [Laughs.]
I remember in kindergarten, trying to draw a bird and realizing how hard that was. Also drawing a helicopter—which I thought I had done a very good job at—but I had used only a yellow crayon because it was a bright sunny day outside.
It is interesting that I can still remember these instances, assembling model airplanes, making things, building forts in the woods behind the house. I had these fantasies of just going off and living in these forts by myself and thinking I could live off the land or something. There were a lot of fantasy things involved in that.
C617: How did you take these influences from your childhood and your interest in making things to get to the next step of becoming an artist?
David French: My father realized I had an interest in drawing. When I was in junior high, he got me lined up to go to this drawing class that was outside of our neighborhood. When we first went in there and looked around, the quality of the drawings was so beyond what I was doing that my father felt like it could be inappropriate to just drop me off in the midst of this because it was too advanced. But I still recall that I had an easy time saying, “No, no, this is good. This is where I need to be.” I wasn’t afraid of it. I wasn’t intimidated. I realized I could do this, but I needed to get caught up with where other people were.
So there was this interest, and I remember in high school—Art in America, ARTnews, Art Forum—they were carried by the school that I went to. I was one of the students that looked at these magazines for inspiration, knowledge, and just to understand what was happening. I scoured the art section of the bookshelves.
C617: How did your experiences at art school affect you?
David French: In Atlanta, Georgia, where I went to art school, there was a lot of interest in regional folk art. Working in the gallery after I finished school, I was fortunate enough to see this kind of huge juxtaposition of looking at works of modern masters like Milton Avery to seeing folk art by Bill Traylor, Howard Finster, and Sam Doyle.
At Atlanta College of Art, one of the most pivotal moments for me was going to a lecture by the Reverend Howard Finster. His uncanny approach to working with any material that came his way kind of blew my mind. It opened up so many doors to what was possible.
His experiences as a Reverend and using those experiences as a very authentic part of who he was made me look at folk art to understand its authenticity. That it was being made purely out of a very human need rather than some full-blown academic art-world statement, which sometimes I feel is detrimental to artists. The artists that I am intrigued by the most have a sense of authenticity in their approach to melding their life with their materials. With my own work, I feel like I’m melding an inner world on a subconscious level.
C617: How does an artist who is academically trained retain that authenticity in your art?
David French: That’s a conundrum. [Laughs.] All great art thinks outside of the box. My attempt to work outside the box is both of a beneficial nature but also a dangerous one. The danger for me is that it might step to one side of what’s traditionally thought of as making art, with its lineage and self-referencing to what’s come before.
And yet I feel that if I’m working from a place of what impacts me, then I still feel that I’m within the proper boundaries for what I’m doing. I don’t want my work to be mixed up with this idea of craft, although I do feel that there is an intense idea about craftsmanship in my work, which I try to keep loose and I don’t want it to restrict the work.
Recently, a friend of mine said that he felt my work was not necessarily painting nor was it necessarily sculpture. I like the fact that it plays back and forth.
C617: Was there a moment you realized what art was?
David French: One of my first moments of grappling with this question was when my father was taking pictures of us. He was an avid photographer with a strikingly good sense of balance and composition. He was taking pictures of us outside of a van Gogh exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum, next to a Mark di Suvero sculpture, which I had mistakenly thought was a construction site for an addition to the museum or something. I had no idea what the thing was. I was eight or nine, and I was wondering why my father wanted to take our picture in front of this thing. He explained to us that it was art, and that just blew me away.
C617: Can you define art?
David French: In some ways, the world is the box. To think outside of the box is to make art. Because starting from a place where it is as if nothing exists, you’re the creator. You get to put those first words on paper, make the first move in a dance, sing the first words in a song, and to work from a place where nothing exists until you start to shuffle those materials around and put them in front of yourself and put yourself in front of them. That to me is a magical experience.
I see the artist as being a kind of modern shaman. To take all these elements and reconfigure them in a way that creates something out of all this bizarre stuff called life. But, then we ask ourselves, to what end? It’s kind of maddening because we stand back and criticize ourselves and ask ourselves: Have we done the right thing? Is this the wrong thing? Have we made a proper statement out of all of this? And it’s our human nature that makes us look at these things and ponder them in intellectual ways that are at times inadequate for trying to understand the expressive potential of doing these things, making these things.
I think of Picasso saying something along the lines that we spend our lives learning to make art like a child. That’s paraphrasing hugely.
C617: What kind of art are you drawn to?
David French: I’m drawn to art where there’s a sense of immediacy. Where you get this chemical neurological hit and where there are no obstructions. I felt this recently when I saw Patti Warashina’s drawings at the Bellevue Art Museum and also a fantastic show at the Henry Art Gallery of Ray Metzker photographs. There’s such a strong human component to both of those artists’ work in that they deal with the figure, expression, and gesture in such a way that it’s so powerful. And although I’m not dealing with figures, this is something I want to convey in my work, even though my work is abstract to some extent.
I think that there is an explored world, whether it’s surreal or very representational, that entices you to take part in it, and the easier that enticement comes, the better. For me, with Patti Warashina’s and Ray Metzker’s work, I feel that their work invites me in so easily. In Ray Metzker’s exhibition, there were these shots where two people would be the focus, but the people in the background were all stories in themselves, too.
C617: How do you create this type of character and story in your abstract work?
David French: I’ve always tried to instill a kind of inner world in my work, or a sense of its belonging to this world but not necessarily being of this world. So, a kind of strange netherworld of being outside that box of rational expectation. Occasionally, there’s a humorous quality that causes some people to start laughing when they see my work. And some of the work, I think, makes people uncomfortable. I don’t try to go for some sort of happiness or darkness. I allow the work to take its own path.
I don’t always like questions to be answered. I like to wander through a museum and realize that despite whatever information I might have about this artwork, there are things about it that I’ll never know.
I was at a friend’s house for dinner, Ron Ho, who is a terrific artist who makes jewelry, and I looked around at the artwork he’s collected and said, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could magically bring together every person, alive or dead, who had any part in crafting all the objects in this home?” The house would have been packed because there was so much art surrounding us.
When I was growing up in St. Louis, I had to use my imagination. I was kind of told not to ask the barbers about the tattoos. My parents didn’t want to explain the whole deal to me at that age. There was a mystery there, but no matter what I can read about or study about it, there is no way I am ever going to understand what that experience must have been like. So that in itself is a mystery.
And when you think of how many millions of people were affected by the Holocaust, it touched so many lives, and yet there we were in this Midwest place, in the middle of America, as I always viewed it as. Growing up watching Superman flying from tall buildings and saving people, which is something that everyone wanted at that time. This higher power that would swoop down and save people. That was, in its own form, an artistic expression of the times.
View a slider of David French's process and selected artwork and installations (below).
©2014 Christine Waresak. All rights reserved.