In conversation with artist Jim Ulrich
Posted by Aimee Coles on 02/06/2021 at 05:43
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Following on from our interview with Abstract Art Canada’s founding artist, David Brooks, we spoke to co-founder and artist, Jim Ulrich, to find out more about his long career as an abstract painter and to get his views on abstract art.
Aimee: When, who or what inspired you to start painting?
Jim: I was born in Lethbridge, near Calgary in Alberta, raised on a farm in southern Alberta and came to Calgary to work. The company who I worked for put me in the advertising department so I was sent to night classes at the local art school but I actually started pursuing art formally as an undergraduate at Eastern Washington University.
Aimee: Did you start off in abstract or in a different style?
Jim: I didn’t really start in a specific style; I covered a broad range of styles in my studies at university. The styles I’d follow would have a lot to do with my teaching professor at the time.
Aimee: How would you describe your current style of painting?
Jim: I use abstract images but I also use representational as well. My paintings look pure abstract but it depends on the work. I’ve moved through a lot of different periods. You could describe me as an abstract painter but contemporary painter might be a better description. Sometimes I paint from photos, sometimes I paint in the outdoors. Either way, it all evolves into an abstract style.
Jim in his studio
Aimee: Has your style changed or developed over time?
Jim: Yes, my style has developed according to how my interests have developed and also how I’ve grown as an artist. Even now, I think my style is still developing. I look for new things – breakthroughs in my work – I continually try to challenge myself. That said, I think it’s important to settle into what you want to do and to be true to yourself rather than continually hopping styles.
Aimee: Which artists inspire you?
Jim: There are so many. I started my career in the sixties at the tail end of abstract expressionism. Americans such as Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still were big influences. Also pop art: Warhol, and his imagery taken from advertising campaigns. Chinese ink paintings have also influenced my art. Then there was conceptual art of the seventies: Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit, for example. For me at this time, I was particularly inspired by the German contemporary artist, Gerhard Richter, and the American graphic artist, Robert Rauschenberg. In 1975, when studying in San Francisco, I saw Rauschenberg’s Retrospective and it changed my whole perspective on art. It was outrageous but it opened the door to what art could be.
Working in Australia
Aimee: Where do you seek inspiration or does inspiration ‘strike’ without warning?
Jim: I think often it’s more about perspiration than inspiration.
Sometimes an experience can inspire my work. For example, when I was traveling in Australia, I read about a young woman, Kate McQuarrie, who was killed by a crocodile in the Gulf of Carpentaria so I painted a series of paintings ‘Homage to Miss Kate’ which was inspired by the story.
Aimee: Do you always paint in the same place?
Jim: I have two studios: one in Alberta and one in Thailand. I struggle with Canadian winters so I generally spend those coldest months in Thailand.
Jim’s studio in Alberta
Aimee: Take me through your process: What is the first step? Are there certain set stages?
Jim: I try to work every day or I’d get lazy. You have to set the conditions so I come out to my studio, I have my coffee and then either I carry on with a painting I’ve already started or start something new. When starting a new painting, there is always a lot of planning, stretching canvases, some early drawings and painting. From there I start to develop some ideas that I want to go with. Sometimes I work on the floor: I pour paint onto plastic then manipulate it until I’ve got some sort of pattern. Then I pour on some acrylic paint and I add the canvas which when I peel it off reveals a really interesting print. It’s more like hydraulics than painting.
I love the concept of pareidolia: seeing an image in an image. You allow your imagination to live and then allow improvisation to take over. This really has a place in my style of art.
Aimee: How long does a painting take or does it vary a lot?
Jim: I work mainly in acrylics because they dry quicker than oils. Overall though, it’s impossible to say how long a painting takes as I work on a few at a time and I work until the painting is finished.
Aimee: How do you know when you’ve finished a piece? Do you go back over it and change it?
Jim: It’s an intuitive thing. You look at it and you know there’s nothing else you want to do to it. If you have more ideas then that’s for a new painting. The only time this doesn’t apply is if I’m working on a series of paintings on a particular theme and I might work on them one at a time or work on them simultaneously .
Aimee: Is there a ‘right way up’ to an abstract painting?
Jim: I have a pretty good idea of how I want the painting. However, my wife sometimes comes into the studio and tells me to turn a painting up the other way. I listen to her because she has a good eye. We often collaborate. Also, if a buyer wants to put it a different way around then I don’t mind. This isn’t a universal approach though: German neo-expressionist painter Georg Baselitz painted many of his works upside down, deliberately. They are worth millions. If you bought one, could you turn it right side up? Of course – but it’d sure ruin a Baselitz.
Aimee: What do you enjoy most about abstract painting?
Jim: I love the freedom it brings. The openness. I can do anything I want. Art is my life. I’m always looking for new things and new experiences that I can use in my work.
Tools of the trade
Aimee: Would you recommend taking up abstract painting?
Jim: Yes. Just have a go! You’ll never know if you’re going to enjoy it until you try. You have to build the skills first though. Mix some colours, learn what the paints can do. Try different tools. Gerhard Richter paints with a giant Squeegee. Or you can just use your hands. Thousands of years ago, Australian Aboriginals were blowing paint from their mouths through their hands. This is probably the first example of airbrush and stencil.
Aimee: Do you think you have to have any innate qualities or skills to be able to paint abstract?
Jim: No. It’s harder to do realism than abstraction. For abstract, you just need to have courage and curiosity.
Aimee: What do you think makes an abstract painting good?
Jim: Art critics and art historians look for roots and connections. They try to tie art into another world and to create labels. They try to tell you what to like but I think good art comes down to taste and uniqueness. You learn a lot about art by looking at art and by being sensitive to what you’re looking at.