Gregory Wilkins: Finding purpose through embroidered collage
Gregory Wilkins is a self-taught artist. He grew up in a multi-ethnic, multi-national family and always felt ‘different’ throughout his childhood. His mother encouraged him to express himself and he started to explore creativity through performance and art. He travelled the world, immersing himself in different cultures and supporting causes fighting for equality.
These experiences have driven his life of creativity and form the foundation of his artworks. Greg’s work on paper and canvas uses reconstruction and collage, paint, photography, stitch and beadwork to represent the layers and complexities of life and explore the meaning of existence.
In 2016 and 2019 Greg received Professional Mid-Career Artist Grants from Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council. He was awarded an Artists on Main Street grant (via the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota) and a Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council Small Arts Project Grant in 2018. He has won numerous awards including best in show at the ‘410 Project’ juried exhibitions in 2018 and 2017 (Mankato, Minnesota), the Ringholz Foundation Art Prize in 2018 and first place in the Arts Center of St. Peter juried exhibition, Minnesota, in 2017. His work is held in private collections in Minnesota, California, Florida, Idaho, and Washington, DC.
In this interview, Greg shares how he struggled to fit in as a child and how he gradually learned to embrace his feeling of uniqueness, feeding his passion for creativity with his art. Discover how his career developed and how issues of global community and social inequality inspire his work. Find out how he creates his layered works in a mindful and organic way to satisfy his need to express himself. “For me, art is not a choice. It is a necessity.”
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Gregory Wilkins: When I was a boy, my mother sewed, crocheted and crafted. We had heaps of fabric, yarn, thread, and patterns stacked everywhere. The cornucopia of colours and textures changed with the seasons as she made us Christmas and Easter outfits, school clothes and holiday decorations for our home.
I am one of seven children and she made all of our Hallowe’en costumes. She would work into the night to creating a menagerie of animal costumes; a lion with a full mane, a rabbit with pompom tail and an oversized stuffed carrot, clowns or a witch with black flowing gown and a giant, pointed hat. Every year something spectacular would be created.
As we grew older we began to craft our own creations. One of my favourite costumes was a sailor paddling a canoe. I created a sailor suit on top with the ocean below. Sewn felt seaweed and fabric sea creatures were glued onto corduroy trousers, with a boat form made of chicken wire with hand painted fabric sewn and wrapped around the frame. I was a sight to behold!
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
I grew up in a multi-national and multi-lingual home, so I felt different from most; an outsider. My local community did not understand my global perspective, what it meant to be a queer kid and my love of all things different.
But this empowered me to be an advocate for change.
Rather than allowing others to stunt my passion I expressed myself, my authentic, peculiar and unique self, through my art.
I first got actively involved in art when I was nine years old. I was an actor at Bay Street Players at the State Theatre in Eustis, Florida. As a performer, I learned the value of collaboration, taking risks and learning by doing.
I learnt a lot. There was more to theatre than being on stage; set and costume design, lighting, fundraising and audience development. I got involved in the Young Peoples Theatre. We built scenery, created and developed scripts, made masks and costumes and learned about the history of theatre. It made a big impact as I found a group of people that embraced difference as something special, rather than casting it out.
I had found somewhere that accepted me and allowed me to grow.
My mother taught me to crochet when I was eight years old. I was not very good, but she encouraged me to keep trying. A year later I took what I learned from crocheting to my school class and shared it with my peers. It was frowned upon by my teachers because it was something they felt boys “should not do”.
Later that year, I performed in drag version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the Wizard of Oz. I was in the show at Bay Street Players and was excited to share it with my school classmates. But this led to problems. I began to get picked on, bullied and beaten up.
But my mother supported me. She said, “God does not make junk”. She explained that I was special, even though people did not see it. That I should not hide the person I was.
Art, both visual and performance, became a way to express myself. I was free to be, do or wear anything. Life was about living and living fully, to be full of passion and be mindful, not mindless.
I tried many things; needlepoint, cross-stitch, painting, clay and woodwork, storytelling and drag.
For me, creativity was about exploration. Learning by doing. Today I am a self-taught artist. I take risks, make mistakes, then grow wiser from the experience.
For example, I’d never used a sewing machine until 2017. I was struggling with how I was going to complete enough work for my first solo exhibition at the Arts Center of St. Peter, Minnesota. So I watched a YouTube video on how to thread the machine. I became fully engaged.
I found that learning by doing informs and shapes new directions and outcomes.
The urge to create comes from within. As an artist, I try to find meaning in this hurried, nonsensical world. Few find the time to contemplate, reflect, and renew.
Art for me embraces chaos and brings resolution. I try to give the viewer an opportunity to explore existence. For me, art is not a choice; it is a necessity.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I am self-taught and like to learn continuously. As part of my education, I have visited many galleries and museums, explored UNESCO sites and visit and volunteered with artists and arts organizations around the globe.
When I was an undergraduate (1985-90) at Warren Wilson College, North Carolina, I wrote down all the things I might want to do with my life. I also developed a personal statement, “Creating a life of change, impacting the lives of one or many”. Combined, my goals and vision statement have taken me on a grand adventure.
One goal had great importance to me. I wanted to travel. For me, travel was not just about visiting. It was about living there, meeting people and experiencing the culture. My art is a reflection of those experiences.
Global travel directly impacts my art. It resonates through colour, texture, images, and titles. I am inspired by life stories, community celebrations, the depths of a cave system, the powerful energy of a rainforest, or the vastness of a desert.
I completed my undergraduate degree (1990) in Intercultural Studies, History and Political science. I also worked at the Smithsonian Institution at the American Art Museum in Washington, DC, the Shakespeare Theatre and The Lansburgh. In addition, I volunteered with the Whitman Walker Clinic caring for people with AIDS and worked with the Human Rights Campaign. While in Washington, DC, I attended anti-war protest marches. I took part in demonstrations to bring awareness to the HIV/AIDS crisis and LGBTQ social issues, such as equality in housing, healthcare and the ability to serve openly in the military.
These experiences were powerful because I was able to discover my voice. I began using these experiences to influence my art.
For the next few years, I prioritized my graduate and doctoral studies in Ohio and Florida, receiving a graduate degree in Educational Leadership in 2001. In 2002 I returned to Washington DC. I worked as a figure model for artists at The Foundry in Georgetown and the Washington Drawing Center (formerly the Dupont Drawing Group). I also began to privately model for Bob Worthy for his “Fallen Warrior” series.
After spending time in Idaho I moved on to Minnesota. In 2009, I saw a volunteer opportunity for the Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council, to help distribute art grant funding. I served six years (2010-16) on the executive board as secretary, vice president and two years as president. While on the arts board, I reviewed hundreds of grants, attended many art openings, music events, and cultural celebrations. I was motivated to reboot my art practice.
I returned to one of my pieces “Idaho Snake River Wheat”, which at that time had no wheat in it. I began stitching wheat shafts into the canvas. I discovered a new technique in my art.
In the winter of 2012, I spent two months in India. I visited workshops and factories. India has vast sweatshops supplying the world’s fast fashion. I was moved by the people and stories of their hardship. Sewing is historically considered “women’s work” and the women work six or seven days a week, but bring home very little income.
I wondered if there was something I could with my art to bring awareness to their plight.
I wanted to reconnect with the experiences from my trip. I entered a photograph into a juried exhibition and it wasn’t selected. I returned home and cut the piece up. No sooner had I done that I regretted it. I put it back together by adhering it to a canvas as a collage and began painting into it as well as sewing directly into the canvas, blending the photograph, paint, and thread. This was when I first began to develop my artistic style, using photographs and embroidery in my art.
In 2016, I was awarded a four-month sabbatical. I left the United States to visit educational institutions around the world, attend cultural events and work with communities in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Borneo and Bangladesh. The sabbatical energized me.
I was about to turn fifty and had set myself a goal of having a solo exhibition. I applied for a grant and was awarded $3,000. The show was daunting because the gallery space was vast and would need at least sixty pieces.
Rather than hand-stitching all of my mixed media paintings on canvas and paper, I pulled out my trusty sewing machine. I created over a hundred pieces in eighteen months to fill the gallery. I developed a black and white photograph installation, showcasing indigenous people I’d met along my travels.
The show was called, “Lives Unfurled: Chaos to Simplicity” and received rave reviews.
Layers of memories
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
When I travel, I take many photographs and write a travel blog. When I get back home I review my images and re-read my thoughts about the people I met, their stories, celebrations and rituals.
This period of reflection informs my art.
I see pattern in a dress, ripples on the surface of water or an ornate architectural element. I try to express my experiences through my art, using paper, canvas, and fabric.
I currently work full-time at Minnesota State Mankato. When I am not working I delve into my creative practice. I try to do something artful every day, whether creating, researching or experimenting.
My creative space was in my apartment up until February 2019, when I moved into my first studio. In warmer weather, I work outside in a forested area. I have a temporary studio between fallen trees and mud puddles and work while batting away the mosquitoes! My easel is made from fallen tree trunks lashed to living trees and I use a tree stump as a table. In this outdoor studio, I put paint to canvas and paper. In the winter months, I bring my art indoors but focus on needlework and beading.
I do not begin with an end in mind. I don’t use a sketchbook. I refer to my collected photographs, travel blog and my memories.
I also let my emotional self shape my work. I cannot rush the work. It requires patience and reflection.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
There is a lot of responsibility starting with a clean fresh canvas or paper. I start by trying to destroy the sense of pureness. This might be done by crinkling it up, throwing dirt on the surface and pressing it in, pouring something onto it or throwing paint across the surface. I make gestural marks with a marker or graphite or use spray paint to alter the surface. Something always emerges from this process.
I step back to look at the markings and texture that is emerging from the work.
I tape out elements that give me joy so that I may return to them later, and I then add more paint to the surface. I repeat the process until the surface is covered with blue tape and paint. This can take days or weeks. I usually work on six to eight pieces at one time.
When I am ready, I peel away the tape and reveal the many layers beneath. Stepping away again, I see the many marks I have made. If the many elements make sense to me, I set the image aside for a later time. If the elements of the piece do not talk to each other, I go back and add another image on top of the paper to create clarity in the work.
I use the lines and structure to inform me where I am going to sew, either by hand or machine. I build layer upon layer until I feel it is complete.
I use the same process with my photography. I take an image that I like and paint and sew directly on the image. Or I cut it up and put it back together. This takes time and patience because the paper may tear and the damage has to be incorporated into the work.
I also experiment. I make marks on paper or canvas. Then I cut the piece into long strips and weave it back together. The image is transformed into something new. I sew into the piece by hand and machine, add glass beads, more paint and other elements until the work is complete.
What currently inspires you?
Texture inspires me. Anything that encourages the viewer to step up close and investigate.
I am intrigued by lived experiences that are vastly different from my own, by men with unwieldy beards and moustaches, by women, their wisdom and strength.
I am inspired by the environment, by architecture that pushes structural elements and creates gathering places for silence and contemplation.
I am driven by the possibility of a global community transcending the conflict of nation states.
I am inspired by the question of existence and current political events, from a president who is careless and vulgar, to the ordinary men and women who want to build a better planet for future generations.
From places to textured faces
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
In 2008, my work contract at Washington State University in Pullman was not renewed.
I moved to my partner’s farm in Idaho. I had fallen deeply in love with my partner Scott Clyde. Despite where my heart was, I made the difficult decision in 2009 to leave him behind and return to Miami, Florida (where I owned a house) to find work. To stay connected in spirit, I began working on a piece called ‘Idaho, Snake River Wheat’.
It was a painting on canvas of my reflections of the Snake River, the largest North American waterway. When I had completed it, I felt like it was missing something; a “soul”. The season was autumn, a time to harvest wheat.
The Clyde Farm was established in 1877 and raises 2,300 acres of wheat. I began sewing in wheat shafts to the painting. It was a long and arduous process.
This piece changed the direction of my art, while I rediscovered my heart.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I have always been intrigued by UNESCO sites and particularly by ancient architecture.
In Varanasi, India at the holy Ganges River I admired the majestic temples but also fell in love with faces. I was drawn to textured features like beards, moustaches and intense smile lines. A face full of wrinkles that reflected a life full of hope and hardship.
Since that time, my photography has journeyed from places to faces.
In the past, my art was abstract and thinly applied. Now, I am moving more toward portraiture and landscape, though not in a traditional sense. My pieces have become more involved with texture, beads, thread of varying styles, yarn and recycled fabric. I want to begin exploring found objects and “weaving” them into canvas and paper.
Today, I am more patient with my outcome than when I first began. I understand my limitations and find solutions with the tools and resources I have at my disposal.
I am also more at peace. I can set an artwork aside and wait for a time that it will speak to me. The ‘now’ is not critical. I am okay with finishing it later.
In 2018, I was involved in a severe automobile accident. Another car collided with mine, causing it to spin out of control and crash into another vehicle. The paramedics had to cut me out of my car. I was rushed to the hospital with lacerations to my face, concussion and a collapsed lung. I lost the use of my legs and left side of my body and my sternum was broken in eight places. I was unable to work for many weeks and was in severe pain. I am recovered but still suffer from back and neck pain, headaches and PTSD flashbacks.
But my art has evolved with my recovery. I have learned to take rest breaks and live within my physical limitations.
I have also gained confidence with my art. I am applying to galleries and exhibition spaces so my art can be seen and enjoyed by others. I currently have seven solo exhibitions scheduled through to 2020, as well as numerous group shows.
Life is short. Live large!
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Be fabulous! Don’t listen to the naysayers; they are a dime a dozen.
Make mistakes and take risks. They are an excellent opportunity to enlighten your process and inform your practice.
Be true to yourself. Follow your instinct.
Read, travel, visit museums, galleries and craft fairs, talk with seasoned professionals. Soak it up like a sponge!
Act on your vision. Push boundaries. Let your imagination go wild. Sometimes let the process lead you forward without a final end product in mind.
Minutes matter and moments count. Find the time to do what you love.
For more information visit Gregory’s Website
How did Greg’s inspiring journey to becoming an artist affect you? Let us know in the comments below