Bill Thelen’s studio sits in his backyard beneath a giant tree with its trunk covered in ivy. The studio is a simple structure with one door and one window with an AC unit. Inside, drawings and paintings are pinned up on the walls, and there’s a large desk and some shelves. The desk has a neatly arranged selection of markers, pens, watercolors, inks, and other miscellaneous, but organized, stuff including a back scratcher from South of the Border. The drawing mat on the desk is covered with neatly spaced out doodles with no scribbles or marked out stuff. Everything in here has a place. The shelves hold records, magazines, art books, doodads, and boxes of art and collections.
Throughout the studio visit we look at different bodies of work from over the past twenty years, art books, and little boxes of clippings and collections. Bill has been in the triangle area of NC for a while. In 1996 he started Lump Gallery in Raleigh and was the director until a few years ago when he stepped down. He’s still involved in an advisory role.
Although Bill works in different mediums, drawing is at the center of his art practice. Bill’s line drawings of objects, text, and people, sometimes coupled or grouped together, often emphasize the singularity of the subject contained within the perimeters of the drawing’s edges. Occasionally, he includes light washes of color. Bill draws everyday, typically early in the morning before going to work as an art teacher.
He brings out a small box and starts flipping through drawings on business cards and old sketchbooks from when he lived in San Francisco following undergrad. He made these drawings at bars and didn’t think much of the drawings, but he held onto them.
I would just draw in bars and stuff, you know, not thinking about it too much, and I just kept them. These are sketchbooks from over the years.
So when you were drawing in bars and stuff, did it feel like something important or relevant?
Well, when you’re drunk, it does.
(laughing) Yes, it does.
You know? I come from a film background. It felt good to me, but it never felt good to anyone else. I never got any validation from anyone until grad school.
Up on the top shelf is the first painting he made of a bald man. In addition to bald men, sports, mascots, and teams have continued to be running themes in Bill’s work. He brings out some pieces from his time in grad school at UNC, hand embroidered drawings on used gym towels picked up from the Y. One towel has an embroidered portrait of Harry Cooper, curator and bald man.
Moving on to more recent work, I talk about Bill’s sculptures from past shows. We look at some pictures of a large wooden cactus piece, which looks like a three dimensional drawing. If the exhibition space allows, he prefers to show at least one sculpture alongside two dimensional work. Bill currently has a show called Hotel Theory up at 21c Museum Hotel in Durham. He says he continually thinks about how he wants to present his work within a space.
I’m always looking for a way to enclose people in the space.
The piece on the floor at 21C, the drawing in the corner. That’s a nice element.
I always like to challenge the way that we look at work. You have to stretch to reach it or get close to it. I know it’s annoying when people do that. Like, oh, do I really have to crouch down? Sometimes I just like to do it anyway, but I hate it when other people do it. Except Polly Apfelbaum or people that’ve been doing it forever. I love her and what she does.
We talk about Polly Apfelbaum’s large graphic rugs and the joy that comes through in her work. Joanne Greenbaum is another artist that Bill returns to and has a lot of respect for. We flip through the Hokusai Manga book, and Bill points out all of his favorite bald men drawings. Then Bill brings out a book of Tala Madani’s paintings. I am not familiar with her work. Bill loves her, and I can see why. There’s a dark sense of humor running through the narratives in her paintings. And then there’s the bald men in sensitive situations. The looseness of the way she paints and the way she can kind of meander is something Bill says he wants to experiment with, especially with painting.
Bill pulls out a quilt made by Team Lump depicting artist Ray Johnson, conceptual collage artist who studied at Black Mountain College in NC. Team Lump is an artist collective with a revolving roster of artists who are generally connected with the Triangle area of NC. Bill says collaborating on Team Lump projects makes him more adventurous in his own studio practice.
In addition to drawing regularly, Bill likes to clip, meaning he likes to cut out images from magazines and newspapers and organize the clippings. He makes collage couples, where one bald man is clipped from a magazine and then matched up with another bald man clipped from another magazine. My favorite collection is the sugar free sampler candy box which now reads “sugar-free, bald, and loving it!” and is full of tiny clippings of bald men heads originally collected to make a sort of shrine. There are several boxes of these collections of clippings and ephemeral paper items that function as source material for drawings and as collections in and of themselves.
Recently Bill has been collecting the pamphlets included with medications he takes to manage diabetes. He’s got a poster size one with what looks like an entire novel’s worth of text printed super tiny tacked up on the wall. He runs his hand over the paper which makes the same crinkly sound as a body sitting on the examination table during a visit with a doctor.
While sharing his work with me, Bill brings up multiple ongoing projects he is working on and several plans for future projects. Collaboration and supporting artists seems to amplify and feed his own work. Hanging out with Bill often turns into a brainstorming session for impossible projects that seem within reach with him around.
For additional information about Bill check out his website.