Origin Stories: A Poet and Painter in Conversation
How I Became a Painter: Trevor Winkfield in Conversation with Miles Champion
How I Became a Painter: Trevor Winkfield in Conversation with Miles Champion, newly out from Brooklyn’s Pressed Wafer, is a book comprised of an interview between the England-born and NYC-based Winkfield, a painter, and Champion, a poet. The conversation took place over several meetings during 2009 and 2010 in a West Village park, and was suggested to Champion by his friend, the poet Kyle Schlesinger, for an issue of Schlesinger’s magazine, Mimeo Mimeo. As Champion later related, the book begins with a “[focus] on Trevor’s activities as an editor and publisher, so that, when we were done, it seemed natural to do a second interview in which Trevor talked about his art. And then it occurred to us that we had a book.” And so, after several meetings and Champion’s careful editing, the accompanying images were selected and How I Became a Painter was well under way.
This is, above all else, a dialogue between two friends; it is one essentially of humor, affinity, adventure, and down-to-earth talks whose subjects and interests engender further exploration, which of course will only produce more probing by whomever is playing the foil. A particularly satisfying object in itself, the book is a small paperback volume with a handsome, colorful acrylic painting by Winkfield, entitled The Third Page, as its cover. Its design and layout are remarkable, and in keeping with the artist’s work: clean, deftly arranged, and supremely pleasant to look at. The content of the conversation, also like Winkfield’s work, leaves a strong after-image in one’s mind. The cover stock is matte, with the “soft furry” feel similar to what Winkfield fawns over in describing John Latham’s books (p. 29), and its interior page is finely suited to the images of his own works, which are composed with house paint for a more flattened look and a newsprint-like texture to temper his brighter hues.
The conversation commences without fanfare or introduction; it has no need for insightful preface or literary epigraph. A black-and-white 1968 photograph of young Winkfield smiling in Leeds greets us as the frontispiece, followed by two facing-page images of a watercolor from Winkfield’s germinal years, and a Francis Bacon figure study from 1945-46. And that’s how the book graciously proceeds: full color images of works mentioned throughout the conversation, which is chock-full of references, figures, and epithets that demand further looking.
Winkfield has no hesitation or secrets, and freely admits to copy-cutting, misunderstanding texts, not understanding, and being “stupid as a painter.” This type of candor is an endearing Winkfield attribute, one that can’t be missed when reading his impressions — the freedom with which the painter shares his inspirations, good works, and insights is a major part of the interview’s irresistibility. And there are gleeful, ingenious insights to be gained through glimpses, not just of ideas, but chiefly of Winkfield’s procedures in painting and drawing, with which Champion relates and is attuned to through his own use of diversely juxtaposed images in the writing of his poems.
With Winkfield’s drawing at the end of the book, That Various Field for James Schuyler, there’s an unmistakable view into the compositional practice of simple elements in complex relationships. Here he uses solid black ink lines that render the dissimilar but excitingly paired side of Dionysus, a diminutive rectangle of tartan, and branch-cuts of acorns being poured into a bowl held by a woman’s long-nailed hand. “Sharing a quality with poetry,” as Champion points out, we get a more complete picture of Winkfield-as-painter (in Champion’s telling) in his use of color, which he employs as a “unifying agent” (p. 103). They draw a keen comparison to Ted Berrigan’s word-brick Sonnets and works by Clark Coolidge and Larry Eigner, all of whom created a kind of “poetry that seemed more built than written, the words as building blocks, each flatly displayed in natural light, with no shadows or recesses in which the author as ego could grow monstrous” (p. 102).
Citing the discovery of the endlessly fascinating Raymond Roussel (Winkfield has edited a volume of Roussel’s work into English, called How I Wrote Certain of My Books, 2005) as one of the two greatest art events of his life, it’s apparent that the material of the interview, too, is an analogy of the procedure of moving pieces to form a picture (or story), and here one finds a paradigm of the imaginative process. The interview’s composition could almost have been constructed on the theme of the jigsaw Winkfield mentions: “how to look at pictures closely, and how abstract — almost incomprehensible — large areas would often remain until the final two or three pieces were found and also slotted into position,” (p. 12), harkening one to Georges Perec’s preamble to his incredible novel Life, A User’s Manual. In one of Winkfield’s Rousselan responses to Champion, he says “I think you’re right about influences … one could unwrap them endlessly” (p. 12), to prize open a box of delightful images, anecdotes, curiosities, and give the Q&A an absolutely perfect metaphor for the function and charm of the painter’s oeuvre.
The poet-painter relationship and intersection are key here. How did Winkfield become a painter? By way of knowing and admiring poets and their works, after having done the heavy lifting (of seeking and long-looking at masterpieces), starting way back in his teenage years in the 1950s. And after an intervening time wherein Winkfield had stepped away from the canvas, it was incidentally the poet Kenward Elmslie who, in the 1970s, sparked Winkfield’s realization that it was again “time to attack the picture plane” (p. 63). Champion also masterfully cajoles his subject in the matter of beginnings, recounting the painter’s return and long-wrought crystallization of his later and current manner, with imagination and craft.
The two men seem to cover everything in a couple of outdoor park sittings, but in a somewhat sequential, if forensic manner. From the exploration and explication of place, to the complex matter of creative abandon in lieu of conventional life and the elite, from which Winkfield has somehow managed to abscond without turning his back, having discerning taste without snobbery. In fact, he has gone to some lengths to make known his appreciation for the unacknowledged precursor, the Larry-Fagin-dubbed Neglecterinos, the “second-tier artists… waiting to be visited, if you jettison that academic straightjacket called ‘hierarchies,’ the idiocy that keeps everything in its preordained place” (p. 41). The desertion of hierarchy is key to Winkfield’s approach of discovery and invention, major and minor artists being interchangeable. This statement from his friend Harry Matthews, “language by its nature makes us focus on its conclusions, not its presence,” (The Case of the Persevering Maltese) makes perhaps more immediate sense when considering the creative process and the fantasy of popular success and prizes, which Winkfield and certain of his contemporaries shrewdly take note of.
The conversation is so robust, so matter-of-fact, one feels the two should not be conducting an interview, but catching up after an extended time apart. Both Champion and Winkfield seem to view what others call “art,” and discovering art, as acts of interest and pleasure, and for the reader, this proves to be a suitable historical record of some of the best of these acts. It’s true the two gentlemen situated themselves in a New York park that day and perhaps wandered bodily a bit, but the voyage they took their reader on may as well have been from a balloon — gliding over the whole world as the best literature gives license to do.
Trevor Winkfield and Miles Champion, How I Became a Painter: Trevor Winkfield in Conversation with Miles Champion (New York: Pressed Wafer, 2014). 112 pages, ISBN 978-1-940396-02-6. $20.