Scotty Peek is a local artist whose work has been shown all over the Southeast for the past ten years. He is also my brother-in-law. Journalistic ethics dictate that writers aren’t supposed to interview their relatives. Perceived bias of a piece being too “fluffy” and overly-positive is the first caveat. Perhaps worse, there is also the risk of the interviewer and interviewee offending one another to the point that holiday gatherings become awkward dances where the two parties sit as far away from each other at the dinner table as humanly possible. Certainly, these are fair enough reasons to leave the job of discussing family in print to total strangers.
So much of Scotty’s body of work, however, is focused on relatives that it only seems fair for a family member to turn the attention back on him. Before I married his wife’s brother, I spent two years studying education at the University of South Carolina. Scotty gave me an oversized pastel green image of generations past from his Pothos series as a housewarming gift, along with the graft of the pothos that inspired the exhibition. That original plant was a late 1960s wedding gift to his (and now my) in-laws. I placed that piece – and the ivy-like greenery that accompanied it – in my bedroom. Since I lived alone, the non-descript faces of a young couple holding a baby had a protective presence for me. I liked to think they kept me company.
Just as that hazy image connected me to my future family, his drawings of his wife, Sally’s, (and my husband’s) distant aunts, uncles and cousins in his Her/My Family series also tied him to his new relatives. The subjects have a familiarity that is instantly recognizable. The faces – often blurred by the charcoal and pastel media he uses – have a universality that anyone with a scrapbook of memories could identify.
“Many of the images are of people to whom I am now related but will never meet or know,” he wrote on his website, www.scottypeek.net. “Rendering the images is a way for me to familiarize myself with my new family and participate in my own personal way with Sally’s past.”
Though family is a reccurring theme, Scotty resists the idea that all of his work is about one specific idea. Pothos, Her/My Family, his other fine art concentrations, and his recent forays into portraiture are part of an ongoing discussion that often generates more questions than answers.
“Art as an everyday conversation is something I think about a lot,” he said in a recent interview. “Nothing too profound, just a way of discussing what a person is thinking about….kind of mundane actually. Imagine if every conversation we had was profound and each of us only talked about one thing. That would be both overwhelming and boring for everyone.”
The depth and breadth of this ongoing conversation is evident in the Forest Acres home he shares with Sally and their nineteen-month-old daughter, Sophie . He has sold or traded much of his work, but the few remnants speak volumes. Globes he collected at small Tennessee antique stores, wire sentences he made during his tenure in the Master of Fine Arts program at the USC, and even an orange and brown elementary school satchel full of fading colorings expose the varied and intense thought processes that often led to his full-scale exhibitions.
Myrtle #3985 is one such relic that still remains in his possession. This middle-aged woman with thoughtful, sullen eyes is one of twenty portraits done for the 2004 “A Garden of Myrtles for Myrtle” exhibition in Myrtle Beach.
Considering that Myrtle was a popular name in the 1920s and that his work would be installed in rooms built in 1924, Scotty researched and reproduced these images of women named Myrtle to celebrate the name’s tradition and the tree common to South Carolina.
Myrtle #3985 – the number represents the possible count of Myrtles in the world at the time and the shade of pantone he used in creating the piece – was a schoolteacher whose husband had absconded with all of her money. Now hanging in Scotty’s living room, Myrtle #3985 sparks comments about state history, connections among strangers, and a debate about whether every piece of art needs a back story to be understood or valued. Again, Scotty does not want to place one, myopic label on anyone’s perception.
“I don’t think it’s fair to define art for anybody,” he said.
Without adding an Andy Warholian counter-positive to twist dendrites (such as “I don’t think it’s fair for anybody to define art”) Scotty leaves the thought hanging in the air. None of what he does has to be more complicated, because, for him, art is a form of communication: a statement that can return a response or end in silence. He does, however, always have a point.
“I’m a person who predetermines what (my work) is going to look like. If I don’t, I’m not motivated to go in and make those marks,” he said. “I always hated free writing in English classes. I guess there’s a point where it’s psychoanalytic but I like to think out the sentence in my head.”
In the past year, Scotty has shifted his focus from creating his fine art to painting oil portraits on commission – a change in course that did not happen on purpose.
“My first client was somebody who wanted an oil portrait and I told him that I would do a drawing,” he explained while standing in his understated home studio, displaying the works in progress of children’s faces. “They were having a hard time finding a painter that they liked. I had to get out my dried up oils and I did a portrait for them. In a way, it happened accidentally and it turned out to be something really good.”
Kinsey B., one of his first commissions, demonstrated what a little dry oil could do. Almost photographically clear, the smiling young girl in a soft, blue dress could easily walk off of the canvas. His other portraits – painted from photographs he takes himself – also echo the conventions of his fine art concentrations. Precise and deliberate, it is easy to imagine these immortalizations sparking familial conversations in the living rooms of the portrait subjects – not too distant from those inspired by Pothos or Her/My Family.
Scotty argues that there is a definite difference between fine art and portraiture. This is a debatable realization considering that the world’s most famous piece of art, the Mona Lisa (which is incidentally on his bottle of odorless paint thinner), is an enigmatic portrait. Though historical commissions like daVinci’s are now displayed at in the finest art museums on the planet, Scotty says the lack of complete artistic control makes portraiture more of a collaborative effort than the product of one person’s work. Not that one is better than the other. Perhaps that argument would play out more thoroughly at a dinner table.
Regardless, the challenge of a new medium – or of painstakingly perfecting a subject’s teeth (he says those are the hardest) – keeps him in his studio. Working full-time as the curator and assistant director of the Sumter County Gallery of Art during the week, he spends week nights and weekends addressing whatever audience – in museums or homes – he encounters.
“I don’t know if I would say anything if no one was there,” he explained, considering the spaces he’s filled with his work. “I wouldn’t talk out loud to myself.
Unless the artist is making art with no intentions to ever show it, it’s always in the back of your mind that someone is going to see it. For me, there is some kind of responsibility not to speak a language that the person who sees it is not going to be able to understand; it’s just how it works.”