Christian Sis is the first of two artists I interviewed who occupy studio spaces within VAR Gallery and Studios in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood. The spacious gallery and studio areas are built within a beautiful, previously vacant historic building – now complete with new movable walls, a small stage, a bar and hidden studio cubicles. They regularly host music, comedy acts and drink-and-draw events. Christian’s body of work is a refreshing blend of thoughtful self-reflection, humanity, and modern faith.
JW: You do many self-portraits, can you tell me what the importance of self is in these works?
CS: That is what the self-portraits started out as, where you are always there and it’s something to draw. I like spending time doing self-portraits just because you have that time to meditate and think on things. It evolved from there. Now if there’s a figure in a piece it might also represent something going on in my life. It might not even look like me but sometimes I have this connection with the figures in my work where they are sort of avatars with a similar feeling to what I feel.
A lot of my work, especially a couple years ago, had to do specifically with having disabilities. It’s a big part of who I am, it reflects in the work.
JW: Aside from the title of your drawing called Knee Brace, it wasn’t totally apparent how disability plays a role in your work. There must be some symbolisms that you use that represents that, or perhaps reoccurring ideas.
CS: Specifically in that piece – it’s funny that you mention that because it’s a piece that I’ve never talked about before. [the knee brace] is a thing that is always on me and it’s always part of me. It started out as a superficial beginning to that series, where before I was thinking about the deeper emotional aspect about being a person with a disability – how you deal with your self-image and things like that, I was thinking what are different parts of my disability. I thought about my knee brace and I decided I would just show the action of it and look at all the different facets of the knee brace and try to put them into a drawing that shows some kind of motion. It ends up being an interesting drawing in the way that it relates to me, because my knee itself doesn’t move, it’s always stuck straight. That drawing with the knee brace is active, and you can see a lot of movement, that dynamic is interesting.
JW: Many of your figures lean towards static poses or portraiture so that one might have jumped out at me as being a bit different. That one started out with the actual physicality of the knee brace itself, then you went on to the other aspects of it.
CS: That was the starting point for my senior show and getting into some other areas.
JW: What role does faith play in your work?
CS: It’s huge. I feel like there’s a part of my faith in every piece I do. Finding myself as an artist came towards the end of college. I was kind of given permission to make art about my disability. When I was around 16 [years old] my disability became a lot more serious and it was from that point that I started thinking about God and Jesus more. That was the way I grew up, but it didn’t become a real thing in my life until towards the end of high school. It’s still what motivates my work, even when I’m getting up in the morning it’s the first thing I’m thinking about, that this is Gods day, and it’s a big influence in the work – looking at scripture and thinking about the ways that Jesus has worked in my own life. When I was doing the work for my senior show, there were figures with different disabilities, it was to bring honor to people. When we think of these things as being ugly, there’s a disfigurement here, I was thinking of Jesus being the one who gave the most honor to those who are completely forgotten. That was huge to me, and I was inspired by that. I was reading a story about Jesus healing a leper when no one else wanted to even make eye contact with this person and it just stuck with me.
Getting into the work now, there are people in these specific narratives. I don’t want to be labeled as a quote-unquote Christian artist, I want my work to be assessable to everyone, but the things I’m reading in scripture or the things that inspire me are coming through in the work. There might be certain things like hope, or kindness. There are a lot of positive interactions between my figures.
JW: That’s very powerful. Aside from scripture, what else do you read that contributes to your work?
CS: I don’t know that there is that much. It’s weird how inspiration can come to you; if you are just sitting you might get an idea. Obviously, I’m an artist who is interested in people and the human body. Just today there was this guy walking down the street and he walked in an unusual way and he had super high-waisted pants on and seeing that, I was like, “wow that guy is just really cool.” The actual mechanics of the way he walks and his style, there are a lot of things that inspire me. Books that I go to, one is hand-drawn patterns. I look through this book [Over and Over by Mike Perry], and it gets me excited, gets my heart beating. There are many cool drawings in here, and I’m fascinated by patterns and textures.
JW: Do you think there is a tie between the patterns in your drawings, the rituals that come with religion, and the rituals that come with creating a body of work? I see a similarity in the way you relate to rituals and practices.
CS: I don’t know. That is such a good question, I will have to write that one down and think about that. In my pieces, I like a lot of contrast. There are different contrasts between- there’s a still figure and maybe just a mark of pastel that seems to have some kind of action. There are organic sections, but also geometric sections. Something may be rendered in colored pencil, like a face, where I spend hours trying to get the color just right. When I’m doing the hand, it’s a goofy almost childish drawing. I like that contrast a lot. What you specifically asked, I will have to think about that, but those contrasts are what I’m thinking about.
There’s something exciting about repetition, where you’ve got a task and you are working towards a goal and you say, “OK this section will be filled with a texture or pattern and it may take a really long time but it’s exciting to get there.” It’s a small goal within your large goal of a finished drawing.
JW: What sort of moments do you gravitate towards capturing?
CS: The positive ones. I like work that is uplifting and hits your heart. Something that will make you smile. People, helping and kindness - but that’s not to say that my work always has super cheery, happy qualities.
JW: You say you are interested in people and humanity. I’m trying to get more specific about why you choose to draw the images you draw.
CS: There are times when figures are placed in a drawing and I have to find my way of making a narrative in it. That’s something that’s engaging to me too, where I’m starting a drawing with marks and lines. They start out as things on a page and I don’t even like the way it looks but I like putting something down that I can react to. It always makes it a little more exciting when I see figures in a piece. I would consider myself a figurative artist, and when you see a person in a piece, we are going to reflect that back on ourselves. It can be a challenge to figure out how the figures are going to interact – it’s a recent thing I’ve been doing where I’m making only the faces. They end up getting collaged into the piece. It’s the added challenge of – you have a piece going and you have to make it all work.
JW: One event I saw that you were a part of was the Monster Drawing Rally. I’m always interested in artists collaborating towards a greater good; tell me about that event and how you contributed.
CS: That was fun. It was 18 artists and 6 artists would draw at a time, for one hour. This was at Present Works Gallery, the goal was to quickly turn out work. We were drawing like crazy. That was primarily a fundraiser for Present Works to bring in exhibition artists but it was also a pretty big challenge.
JW: I read you classify it as a performance, why?
CS: The drawings were about the people that came to see that show and all the artists working at the same time. I didn’t completely like the drawings I did and I know some other artists felt similarly, but it was an exciting venue where people got to watch artists work and see what they do under pressure.
JW: Although you didn’t necessarily like the end result of the drawings, what were your hopes and intentions before you began?
CS: Going into it was exiting because it’s the opposite of the way I work; I like to be alone. I put on my big headphones and get in the zone. I’ve also always felt a little bit uncomfortable when people are watching me draw. It’s like that moment in art school where the teacher is coming around and they are going to look at you for a minute, and your armpits get kind of sweaty.
I liked going out of my comfort zone. When I was there I got an idea for my first drawing and everything else after that was shooting from the hip and that’s the way I wanted it to be. There were many people, and they had a DJ sounding like (club beat noises) and they were blasting music. You feel like, well this better be good. I would do that again in a heartbeat, it was so much fun.
JW: You also teach art that the Milwaukee Modern Chinese School. What is that like?
CS: It’s a small school and they are in the Lumiere building at Marquette. It’s a program that offers classes to the Chinese community at a low cost. I teach art there to kids ages 5 to 8. I’ve gotten involved in the Chinese community. I go to a Chinese church; I’ve been going there since I was 18 a lot of my friends have been Chinese. The dad of a girl in my youth group asked if I’d be interested in teaching art, he had heard I was an artist. I work at Villa Terrance and Charles Allis Museums. I also work for a company called Kumon, doing math and reading tutoring, and I do private tutoring with kids through our church who are Chinese foreign exchange students. Then, in the summer, I work at the zoo as a face painter. Lot’s of stuff.
More of Christian’s artwork can be found at http://christiansis.tumblr.com | Instagram: @christiansis