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'Escaping the prosaic in search of the poetic:' A Q-and-A with artist William Itter

From Oct. 16 through Nov. 20, Indiana University's School of Fine Arts (SoFA) Gallery will present "William Itter: A Retrospective, Paintings and Drawings 1969-2009." The exhibition will display works by Itter, an IU professor emeritus who joined the faculty in 1969.

"Layered Land"

"Layered Land" by William Itter

On Oct. 16 at 5:30 p.m., Itter will give a lecture in Radio/TV 251 titled "Cubes Curves Facts Fantasy: A Paradigm" as an introduction to his retrospective, followed by an opening reception from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in the SoFA Gallery and the IU Art Museum's Solley Atrium. The Itter exhibition will be presented in conjunction with "Form and Surface: African Ceramics, Baskets and Textiles from the William Itter Collection" at the IU Art Museum.

Itter taught and directed introductory studio courses in drawing, color-design and painting until he retired in 2006. He developed a program for Fine Arts graduate associate instructors who taught fundamental studio courses, for which he received the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1999.

As a professional artist, Itter has exhibited his work primarily in Chicago and Cincinnati galleries and various other shows in Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where his work is included in both public and private collections. Here, Itter answers questions about his creative process and relationship with IU.

Live at IU: Your retrospective features a selection of your creative work since coming to Indiana University in 1969 and is held in conjunction with a showing of your collection of African art in the IU Art Museum. Can you tell us how collecting African ceramics, baskets and textiles has informed your work?

William Itter: I am intrigued by African forms that demonstrate an improvised rhythmic record of construction and inventive unpredictable shifts of texture and pattern. These round and flat objects of clay or fiber, made by individuals from many African cultures, are in my home along with many other handmade objects. I am surrounded by their artistic achievement. I research their qualities and traditions and reflect on their design, just as I would each drawing and painting I create. As I speculate about the object's specific form and surface details, they reveal an inventive resource for my creative and teaching activity. My studio work as a fine arts painter-professor, in turn, provides insight of their design significance. This provides an interesting circular dialogue of discovery and influence -- to possess a collection of creative activity and to be creative about collecting. My collections have progressed much like artwork develops, with additions and subtractions, seeking resolve.

LIU: In your paintings, you use still life and interior still-life themes as a metaphor for memory. In the planning of your retrospective, what has revisiting the last 40 years of your work revealed or how has it contributed in this investigation of memory?

W.I.: As an active creative individual, I can say that my work over the years is under continual review, as a visual record of exploration for new work, for slide and power point lectures, and for gallery representation and exhibitions. This past year, I have reviewed works I did many years ago, especially studies that led to paintings. Now I am reminded of the continuum of my creative development, that ability to represent things in a way that evokes a heightened sense of observed pattern and light in nature. I realized the other day that most of my work plays on one's perception of sculptural form the way an architect's drawing represents a model of a planned building. My work over the years has an ironic thread through it that shifts a condition of the real world to an imagined one. I would like my work to be seen for what it is and not something descriptive about that which already exists. But a viewer might imagine my paintings to be plausible by entering into them. Painting and drawing has always been an ironic form of expression for me. To this end, I don't think any art could be possible without memory.

LIU: Can you describe briefly how memory makes its way to a finished painting? What is your process?

W.I.: Aren't memories modified perceptions? Artistic activity has always been a search for what one wants. Painting presents a realm different than reality, unless one is painting the garage door. Painting is a pictorial fiction for me. To begin, I wander about extemporaneously for a while, drawing. I look through earlier drawings for ideas. Then shapes and patterns emerge that suggest things that reference places I've been or things I have seen. Drawing is hard work because I have to dig down within myself to make vague thoughts have shape and compositional wholeness without illustration by description.

I try to escape the prosaic in search of the poetic. Transformation of real space to illusionistic space presents a paradox fitting the two dimensions of the canvas surface. Nothing is real there except paint becoming something other than paint. I use a drawing in painting as a sculptor uses an armature, creating a framework to establish color effects that form an atmospheric and spatial illusion. With color shapes, chords and bundles of visual meanings ply simultaneously. Sometimes painting seems based on anticipation as if watching for things about to come around the corner. I simply want to construct a place as clearly as possible that represents quantities and qualities of life actions.

LIU: Your work with the fundamentals program at IU has influenced thousands of students over the years. How do you hope your retrospective will contribute to the new student body, which is not familiar with your work?

W.I.: This is an interesting question because my retired colleagues and I often discuss our roles and reputations as faculty -- what strengths we have to hand to those following. I think it is much more than refusing to quit. We all continue to make art, show our work, strive to be vital as always and interact with current faculty and students. We all live in the present. We fear being forgotten and want to demonstrate our energy and artistic potency.

One never retires from art. To make art is to make something new. No one I know who makes art is at all interested in making something old -- if it was not impossible, it would be irrelevant in any case. I am passionate about a lot of old art, but I am not passionate about making it. Learning a thing is always new and fortunately I like to learn. So that is what I would like viewers to look for when attending my retrospective, especially young artists just beginning their exploration of making art with serious goals in mind. I would like them to see my ambition and those things in my work which are timeless, in addition to everything else.

LIU: For those who are hoping to have the longevity that you've experienced in creative pursuits, what is the one thing you would want to impart? What is the secret to keeping oneself motivated, no matter the vehicle?

W.I.: First, be patient with yourself. Remember, school is about learning how to learn what you like by doing it well. Make work and play one thing. Explore everything you are interested in and find what you learn most easily -- determine where your strongest memory for a subject resides. You might discover that is what you enjoy doing, not just for yourself but others. What do you want to communicate? How will you do it? Shouldn't it be because you love doing it? No half steps allowed. Small steps lead to big steps. Second, two things: recognition and anticipation. Be alert to the life around you and dream about it. Art cannot exist if neither is present. Oh yes -- find your passion.