Al and I conducted this interview in early July 2008, by e-mail because cross time zone telephone just seemed too cumbersome. The work discussed in the interview will be featured in the Swope’s fall exhibit: Umbria from the eye of Al Pounders, October 17, 2008– January 03, 2009.
LP: Al, I understand you have been visiting Italy for the past 20 years; what first took you there?
AP. Actually, my first trip to Italy was in 1970, with my first wife, also a painter. We did our own tour of Europe that included places in Italy. Two years later we were separated. I spent a sabbatical year in Rome, 1972-73. In June of 1973 I had a one man show in Rome at Galleria Due Mondi. I visited my daughter Mary Beth in Bologna twice in the 1970’s. she moved there permanently in 1975.
In 1986 I found a sabbatical house on Monte Acuto in Umbria. It belonged to Robert Barnes, a faculty member at IU. Years before, Barnes, William Bailey, and James McGarrell bought houses in that area. My present wife Loren Olson, a painter, and I lived in the Barnes house for a year where I fell in love with the mountainous landscapes all around us.
LP. Did you begin painting in Italy from the start?
AP. I began painting immediately. No surprise, because I work all the time no matter where I am.
LP. What drives or pulls you to continue to go back?
AP. It was not only the landscape, but the people, the language, the art and the food that draw us back to Umbria. We now have many friends there. Not only Italians, but expatriates from England, France Germany and the US and elsewhere.
LP. I notice the Italian landscapes, in this show, are grand panoramic vistas rather than up-close intimate spaces; what about the area, or you, makes you paint it this way? (In a recent artist statement you mention myths and miracles, the supernatural side of Italy; do you think this mysterious and spiritual side of Italy is why you are drawn to the omnipresence of the vista?)
AP. When I was in art school in Buffalo (1948-52) the Albright Knox Gallery, right next door, owned the most recent work of the Abstract Expressionist painters DeKooning, Rothko, Kline, et al., work that clung to the surface and did not venture into deep space. To paint deep space was to be out of touch and too “Romantic,” as in 19th century literature and pre-Impressionist painting.
I have always spent summers doing landscapes but never employing deep space. Flattening space was what I was taught to do. That was Modernism. It was only when I saw the vistas around Monte Acuto that I told myself, “Now I’m Gonna do it!”, unashamedly.
The art of Italy has been so steeped in religious mysticism that it is hard to ignore. And what an enormous quantity to ignore! I think that a lot of great Italian Art is not about religion, although the subject matter is there. The painting was largely about seeing and about human experiences.
LP. Your painting style is not bound by a photorealistic dedication to document but rather seeks to interpret the essence of your experience of the place (am I correct?). It would seem that you use painterly devises to bend and mold the space into a fantasy that stems from memory and history; what are some of your favorite painterly devises in relation to these Italian landscapes?
AP. I told my students that being a mirror to nature is not being an artist. I almost never allowed them to use photographs. I take snap shots of my vistas after the fact to get a closer idea of such things as farmhouses. When I look at these photos I find that they hardly remind me of what I was looking at for all those hours. I was looking for stuff the camera didn’t even notice.
LP. I think our readers would be interested in your working habits, for instance do you begin plein-air and then move into the studio or do you begin with sketches, do you ever use photographs as references?…that sort of thing.
AP. I work on-site, on canvas for two sessions of at least 3 hours each. In
the past I have done pencil or ink sketches, or fully realized watercolors. 24” x 32” canvas is the maximum on-site size. The rest of the work is done in the studio, in Italy and then in the US. Most paintings require 4 or 5 months to complete. Some even take years. Often the original image has been changed so many times I can’t remember what I started with.
Of course the history of landscape painting has had its impact in me, especially the 19th century French painters. I think of myself as belonging to a sort of brotherhood, a part of that history. I belong to my own time, but also to those earlier times. The hottest next thing doesn’t interest me.
In the work I employ changes of size, atmospheric tricks, made-up color, staggered movements of forms back into space and a layered series of colors built up to produce a special kind of light. Each painting seems to want to take its own direction no matter what I do to try to stay in control. Different themes appear and I just go along with happens.
LP. And the logistics of cross ocean creative endeavors (i.e. do you paint on stretched canvas and then un-stretch it and roll it for shipping? Or what?)
AP. At first the work in Italy was mostly with watercolors. They were easy to pack and bring back. Now my work on paper is usually with oil paint sticks. Most of the current work is on canvas. When it’s time to go I roll it all up and pack it as a piece of luggage. The larger paintings are done here in the US from smaller works that I bring back.
I bring much of what I need such as paint and canvas from the States. Most of it is available in Italy, but is more expensive and harder to find. Half of my luggage is filled with art stuff.
LP. I realize when you are in Indiana you continue working on paintings you began in Italy; do you also paint Indiana landscapes? Do you paint differently in Italy than you do when you are back home in Indiana (whether on Italian landscapes or Indiana landscapes)? Does the native landscape, or feel, of each place require or elicit different feelings, viewpoints and painterly concerns? (or are these things more internal to you?)
AP. I did Indiana landscapes while teaching. I took students out to paint for the entire day. While they worked I would often do a small painting myself. I am not drawn to the Indiana landscape nearly as much as to places in Umbria, Le Marche and Tuscany, all not far from where we live. We have always rented a house in Italy. So far it works for us.
LP. Al, I am curious to know if you have always been a painter and have you always been drawn to landscapes or have your energies and attention progressed from a different occupation and interest?
AP. I firmly decided I would be a painter upon my return from serving in Korea during that war. I had a family already, so I know I had to support them as well as my painting habit. After jobs of all sorts I mostly was a teacher.
In graduate school I taught myself structure by studying Cubism, which impacted my work for years to come. Still-lifes and interiors were my subject matter.
In 1968 I began painting tondos or circular paintings, using items of clothing that posed as portraits of the owners of those pants, shirts, dresses, etc. That led to scouring thrift stores for odd pieces such as costumes and uniforms and old ties. I started doing metaphors with borrowed images from art history, especially war themes. That was during the Vietnam War. Clothing paintings went on until about 1982.
I began spending summers in Antigua, West Indies in 1974 where I began doing tropical landscapes that turned out rather abstractly. I wanted to avoid swaying palm trees and all that. My first Italian landscapes, begun in 1986 were also more abstract, until I began accepting what I was looking at: deep space and complex merging of cultivated fields with rugged mountains. The character of the place began to be my theme.
LP. Obviously having retired you are in a different stage of life than you were when you began visiting Italy; do you bring a different personal perspective to Italy and to painting than you did twenty years ago?
AP. Because being a painter has always been my main focus, teaching was just a spin-off of what I learned in my studio. Yes, I was required to be something of an academic but I managed to teach what I thought was important to teach. Retirement simply left out the teaching part. After 38 years, I no longer have any desire for teaching.
Post Script. In a phone conversation after the interview Al noticed that we never discussed his still lives. Al wanted to add that the flower still lives, also included in our exhibit, are done when it is either too hot or stormy to work outside.