Communique: "Life Itself" Closing Reception | Topher Alexander & Kristin Pors At WHQR

May 25, 2018

Artists Topher Alexander and Kristin Pors approach art from different directions using different materials, but their work comes together at the MC Erny Gallery in the exhibit Life Itself. Friday, May 25th is the closing reception, one of the stops to make on the 4th Friday Gallery Walk.

Listen to Topher and Kristin above. The closing reception runs 6:00pm - 9:00pm and both artists will be there. 

Topher Alexander: I'm more or less from Wilmington. I've lived here for about 20 or so years. I currently work at UNCW as their gallery director for the Cultural Arts Building, and I will be going to graduate school at UNC Greensboro in the fall.

Gina Gambony: Oh really?

Topher: Yep.

Gina: Are you dragging the whole family?

Topher: Yes.

Gina: How would they feel about that?

Topher: They don't know yet, but they're going to love it.

Gina: What are you going to study?

Topher: Fine Art.

Gina: Tell me about your background. How did you become an artist? When did you know you want it to be an artist?

Topher: My mom was always an artist and just kind of grew up around her all the time working on things. My brothers are both artists - one's a musician, another a fellow printmaker. We all love to travel. We've just kind of always lived - what's the word?

Gina: Gypsies?

Topher: [Laughs] Some people have called us gypsies, but I know that's not quite it. It's not a flattering word.

Gina: I think it's flattering. I'd rather be a gypsy than a banker or something.

Topher: We do things a little differently for sure.

Kristin Pors: Free spirited?

Topher: Free spirited, absolutely.

Gina: And poor.

Topher: Poor - always poor, but we're happy. We have fun.

Gina: Money does not bring happiness that's for sure. I mean it's really true. They don't just say that to make poor people feel okay. It really is true. So boom. Making art does make people happy.

Topher: Yeah, I'd say so. I don't want to say it's therapeutic necessarily, but it feels like something that always has to come out of me. There are downtimes in making art, but even in those downtimes I'm thinking about the next thing that I want to work on and express. I'm not big on writing or even talking a lot, but art is a way for me to communicate the things that I normally just can't get out on my own.

Gina: I think there's some of those feelings expressed in the work we have here at WHQR, and we'll talk about that in a second. Kristin, can you introduce yourself?

Kristin: Sure. My name's Kristin Pors. I'm originally from Pennsylvania. I grew up there. I got my BFA in Fine Arts from Kutztown University, and I've lived in North Carolina for about three years now.

Gina: And what got you here?

Kristin: Actually, it's kind of a long story, but I met my partner in Japan. We were teaching English there, and then when we came back we decided to settle in North Carolina. He's originally from North Carolina. Now we own a photography business, and that's why we're primarily -

Gina: Your job is photography?

Kristin: Yeah. Yeah. 

Gina: Tell me about your background with art, and how did art come into your life? How did you find it?

Kristin: I've always really been interested in art from a young age. My mom said that I used to draw before I could talk. So, I've always doodled and drawn since I was a kid. Throughout my life, I've been drawn to art and drawing and painting. I just decided to follow that when I went to college and majored in Fine Arts.

Gina: Let's talk about the kind of art that you each do. Kristin, why don't you keep going with that now? How has your art - the work that you do, the materials that you use - how has that changed or not over time, and what do we have here in our studio?

Kristin: I think my approach and my processes has been pretty steady throughout my career because I'm naturally a perfectionist. I'm very meticulous, and I think my art shows that as well. I'm also very detail oriented. I think also that that comes across as well. More so now, I use pastels and a mixed media throughout college. I'm focused more so on pastels now and ink and charcoal and also graphite. But now I'm into using pressed flowers in my work. I've always been interested in botany and botanicals and natural forms in general. I always thought it'd be cool to try to find a way to integrate that into my art. So, that's what I'm currently exploring and continuing to explore.

Gina: What do you like about the charcoals and the pastels? What do you like about those materials?

Kristin: I think they're just very expressive, and also for me there's a lot of room for error because I like to really apply them heavily. Then, I like to take away and explore different layering and mark making. I like to make expressive lines in my work. So, they're forgiving in that way. It's kind of neat to see also the relationship between mediums, especially pastel and the different lines that you can create with different mediums.

Gina: Looking at your work, it's abstract, but then I also start to see things in it. It was talking a little bit to Topher about that earlier. It's almost a little passing thing that happens looking at your work where I'll be like, "Oh, is that a -?" and I'm not even sure that I formed the word. Or, I see or I feel and not quite name certain images. Very subtle. What is that? Is that just my mind? Is that just my mind trying to make it into something I can name, or is there something in it?

Kristin: I think you're right with subtlety. That goes back to details. I like the idea of things being subtle and then interpreting them as a way that's personal to you. Leaving room for interpretation. The Figura Series that I have out there all stemmed from figure drawing and life drawing classes. I wanted to create a synthesis with the different forms. I didn't want anything to be too obvious right away.

So, I liked the idea of the harmony that those forms would naturally create on their own instead. Because I feel like, with my work, I can be very analytical and try to over construct things. For example, with "Heartstrings" there are lots of figures that came out after that I didn't really intend to. I like that, or like for you where different things can kind of pop up or out that I didn't intend to from the beginning.

Gina: It's a really cool experience for me as a viewer. It's fun. Actually, I definitely feel like I saw some legs.

Kristin: Yeah, it's definitely possible.

Gina: It's like, "That's a thigh, I feel it." How do you know when you're done?

Kristin: That's a really good question. I often don't have a definitive finished point. I'm very detailed oriented, and I'm also a perfectionist. So, I feel like, "Okay, keep going. It's never done. It could always be better." But for the newer one that's out there, called "Sunnyeyed," that's how I felt where I got to a point and felt like I was doing too much and overworking it. So, I stepped back and analyzed it.

Usually, in order to make sure I'm done with it, I just take a break from it and then go back and reanalyze it. See how I feel about it. It's kind of a gut feeling, I guess.

Gina: There's some quote about "You never finish a piece of art, you just abandon it" - or, something like that. You just don't work on it anymore. Topher you do you have a lot of prints out here. Tell me about that and what that means. How do you make these, especially the really big ones?

Topher: Primarily been working with wood cuts recently. I find pieces of plywood around - a lot of washed up wood or just found pieces of wood. There's something about working with the wood that I like - that there is something inherent with it. There's wood grain, there's knots and things going on in there that come out later on that you don't really see right away. You don't really know until you've pulled a print from it, which is after you've carved out your image with chisels and things like that. You'll roll ink over the surface, put down paper or Muslin and apply pressure to the surface. It's basically like a giant stamp.

There's so many details that you don't know that are in there until you've actually pulled that print to see what it is. So, a lot of times what I'll do is I'll carve and accentuate some of the things going on within the wood grain and pull a print with a color. If there's something in there that I see that I want to bring out more, I'll go back in and carve again. Then, I'll print the same image again with the black on top after carving it a second time. That defines the edges and brings the subject matter a little bit more to the forefront. The nice part about woodworking is there is an end point. It isn't something that just continues on and on. There's only so much wood. You don't have any surface left, so you have to stop.

Gina: If you carve too much, you've got nothing left.

Topher: It'll just be white.

Gina: What I'm curious about is how you roll it with a big piece like that. Because I do know that, with really big pieces, they use a steamroller.

Topher: Right. Well, I've been working a lot lately with Ben Billingsley at Cape Fear Community College. We both love doing the big print events. They started at Carolina Beach by Jennifer Page. They'll carve whole sheets of plywood, roll ink on the surface, and drive over it with a steamroller to get a big relief print from it. We both love doing those events, but they only do it every two years. We wanted to find a way where we could do it whenever we wanted. So, we've been playing around with the idea of rolling it with a sod roller for a few years. He bought a gigantic four foot wide sod roller, which they use for landscaping. When you fill it with water, it's about 500 pounds.

So, it gives us enough pressure where we can carve a whole sheet of wood and print it without having to wait for the steamroller event every year. I've been working really closely with him for the last year especially. We've perfected our method, and we've really got it down now. We can do this whenever we want. We don't have to wait every two years for our Christmas in July.

Gina: So, you're pushing a 500 pound sod roller with your hands?

Topher: It's actually pretty easy. We have Richard Kahn at Cape Fear built a little handlebar for us. It attaches to the sod roller, and we each get on one side of it and push it back and forth. It's actually pretty lightweight, and I think that's what I enjoy most about it. It involves someone else at all times.

I couldn't possibly make half of what's out there on my own. I have to have someone else to help me do it. We help each other. We push each other to do new work all the time. Within the last year leading up to this show, we were printing every month to get ready for it. Next time we really are going to concentrate on his work because the last few times we're all about my work. He's definitely helped me out a lot.

Gina: I want to ask you, Topher, about a lot of the prints that we have out here. I mean there's something kind of sneaky about your work. Actually, both of you in a way. Because it's like, "What is this?" And then, "Oh!"

But, with your pieces, I noticed it'll be called something like "Campus Walk" or "Happy Hour," and you look at it. You get close into it, and you start to perceive it. A lot of them are people who are disconnected - and a lot of them have cell phones. I'm not sure if every single piece has a cell phone in it or not.

Topher: Almost all of them.

Gina: Tell me about that. You had a lot of that to get out.

Topher: I lived abroad for many years. I lived in Vietnam for a long time, between 2004 in 2009. When I came back to the States, there was this whole culture of people on their phones that I had completely missed. There was no subtle arc to it. I was just kind of thrown back into this culture that was completely foreign to me. I had no idea what people were always on these phones for all the time. I think that's something about being an artist - constantly looking at your surroundings. I work at Yosake downtown, at the Sushi Bar, and while I'm working I zone out on my work. I'm always looking around at people eating and dining and talking to each other. But, more and more, I noticed nobody was actually interacting with each other.

They were always constantly on their phones. I started noticing it everywhere. It started driving me crazy. I was like, "What is this? How come nobody knows how to talk to each other?" I came from a place where nobody had any of that and then was thrust into a culture obsessed by it. It's been a good five or six years where I've explored that idea, and it's become less of an observational thing now. Now that I have an iPhone, I feel like I've internalized some of it. It's not really about making a statement on people being on their phones so much anymore, but it's trying to understand how people are communicating differently. I'm using an art form in wood cut is ancient. So, you're taking this ancient form of communication and trying to internalize what's happening with this modern form. It's an interesting juxtaposition to me.

Gina: That's so fascinating in so many ways. Let me ask you, Kristin, in the way that Topher has had this experience with the cell phones where he saw something, it was disturbing to him, and he expressed it through his art. Do you ever do anything like that? Has anything overtaken you in that way?

Kristin: Honestly, I do internalize a lot of that. But most of my work is abstract, so maybe I reflect that in a less literal way. Maybe more metaphorical through very intense line work. But not so much on a literal scale.

Gina: Your stuff is coming out and being just kind of whatever. It's more metaphor going on.

Kristin: Yeah. Especially with the whole title that we decided on, "Life Itself," is interesting because it compares the literal and the metaphor. That's explored within both of our works.

Gina: Sure. That title, "Life Itself," for the collection - and you two were put together by someone else, right?

Both: [agree]

Gina: They were like, "Hey, we're going to put you two together." Which I think is kind of a fun thing. In a way, I'm like, "That could so suck for somebody." I mean, you know what I mean, like just like, "Oh wow, like I don't even get your art at all, like what is happening to me? Why, what are we going do for it?" But, it also makes you look at it and be like, "What could this mean together?" Yours is based on figure drawing, and yours is based on the interaction that's happening between those figures. Or, am I just making this up?

Kristin: That's perfect.

Gina: Alright, let me ask you this, Kristin: Tell me about the piece that you like of Topher's. Which piece do you like the best?

Kristin: There's a couple. I really like "American Dream" and also "You, Me, and I," one of his newer prints - the larger one. It's primarily blue and black, and the other one is a smaller print. It's primarily red and black. I think what draws me to it is the very primal mark making. It's very expressive, it's very dynamic, and that kind of coincides with the contrast in use of colors - the black and the red. It's very vibrant. I can relate to that. I really am drawn to that kind of work.

Gina: Topher, which piece of Kristin's do you like the best?

Topher: There are a few. There's a couple on the wall that I think - it could even just be the exposed brick wall - that there's something about them that look really beautiful in the space. I'm naturally drawn to a lot of black and white. So, when I see color used well in a space, I'm more drawn to that. I naturally think of how you could translate it to printmaking - just can't help myself. I try not to focus on that stuff so much because all I'm thinking about is, "How would I print that?" Some of the color pieces that she has the pressed flower makes those a little more unique where it's something you're like, "Okay, that can't be a print. It has to be what it is." I'm drawn to the pastels and the press flowers for sure.

Gina: Can I ask you both also who are artists - famous artists, like the ones that are in the books on the shelves in the store - that inspired you a lot in your work? Or, maybe not in your work, but just inspired you a lot that you love to look at their work and it makes you feel that feeling of like, "Oh yeah"?

Topher: I never get tired of looking at German Expressionists work, and it's really easy to see the connection in my own work. I have books, tons of books, on all of them. I'm always finding a new piece or new artists that I become obsessed with. From Edward Munch to Kirchner, Emil Nolde, all those guys had a savage way of working that I was always drawn to. It wasn't fussy, and it wasn't art that had to be perfect. It was experimental, and it still looks experimental. It's something that lived in that era. I've always related to it, and it's what got me into printmaking and woodcut in particular. I was always drawn to their work, and then I could finally start making something that I felt was more in line with what they did.

Kristin: I'd have to say probably Abstract Expressionism. Similar reasons, just the expressive use of mark making. Especially like Willem de Kooning was very expressive in his mark making, but he also incorporated figures in his work. So, I feel like I can relate to his work a little bit. I've also really liked Paul Cézanne. It might be kind of biased because I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provance. So, they really drove home Cézanne over there. But, I can really relate to his use of natural forms in his work and his methodical use of shapes and different ways he interpreted the world around him.

Gina: Hmm. This is going a little long. So, I have one more question - if you guys are okay with keeping on just one more question.

The last question I would like for each of you to answer is: How do you work? Are you planners? Can you work on a schedule? Are you late nighters? Are you early morningers? Are you very hectic when you get inspired? It's interesting to me too to know right now that your stuff is very perfect. Although it's perfect, it's not symmetrical. It's very abstract, but you're a perfectionist, as you said. And you are more of the rough hewn kind of thing. So that, that's really interesting. I can't wait to hear the answer to this question: How do you work?  

Topher: I think all artists have to be resourceful, but I pretty much just take what I can get and work with it and take the time that I can get and work with that as well. I have two kids at home full time. If it's at night, then I work at night. If I have wood around, I make a woodcut. If I have copper around, I work on copper. I draw all the time. I don't paint as much as I used to because it takes so long, and you really have to have a lot of time to work on a painting. Whereas, with a woodcut, you can go in and car for an hour in and come back tomorrow and work on it some more. But really, whenever I can do it, I'll make it happen in those hours or weeks. Whatever time it is I have to make it, that's what I'm doing.

Kristin: I'm sporadic and spastic with my work. I've always been kind of a night owl, and bad habits die hard. So, I tend to work at night. That's when I start to feel inspired to work. I'll start early evening and then work a late night. Also, I'm working my other job during the day so I try to balance the two. I don't really plan my work at all. I have an idea in my head and plan it out in my head. I'll try to attack it from there and see how it develops, bring it back and tighten it up towards the end. It's organic in that way.

Gina: I'm a total night owl. In fact, this like this time of day right now, I would prefer not to be in public. I love from about 6:00 at night to about 6:00 or 7:00 AM in the morning. That's the time I feel best. Then, when it starts getting to like 9:00 in the morning and all the way through the day and the middle of the day I'm just like, "Ugh." And then around 6:00, I'm like, "Yes." I don't know what it is. I have read - and I don't just selectively pick this stuff out - that people who are like to stay up at night are smarter.

Topher: I prefer to stay up late, but I just can't anymore. I love working at four in the morning, but I've got to be up in three hours to make pancakes. So, that just doesn't happen.

Gina: I know! I was a single mom for many years. There was a time when there was no staying up late. Actually, I would still do it sometimes, but there was a big price.

Topher: During a lot of these newer woodcuts, I was like, "I can't kill myself working at night" because that's typically what I was doing. Right after school, I'd get to get to work. Get the kids on whatever they wanted to do for a couple hours. I'd go on the porch and work in the daylight. I felt like it made a big difference. Even though the work is still kind of dark, it has a lot more light to it than my earlier wood cuts do, for sure.

Gina: Is that good?

Topher: I think so. It means I carved more. I did more work to it.

Gina: When you say more light, you mean - ?

Topher: I could actually see what I was doing.

Kristin: So, it wasn't a surprise.

Topher: [They all laugh] It wasn't a surprise. I actually knew what I was doing the whole time.