Interview with artist Craig Crawford of the Carolina Galleries.
I read that you followed in footsteps of your grandfather who was also a painter. Please tell me more about your interest in painting as a child?
Yes, my grandfather, Roland Crawford, was an architect and painter. He received a Fulbright to study in Rome and then spent some time traveling around Europe, ending up at Beaux-Arts. He became an architect in the Art Deco tradition in Los Angeles, California. He painted very academic watercolors of the buildings he designed and I grew up around some of those paintings as well as some of his landscape oil paintings. Until I was eight years old I lived in California, not far from San Francisco where my mother is from. When I was young my family spent time going to museums and I remember it being inspiring to see both sculpture and paintings. My mother realized I had an interest in drawing when I was 7 and found an independent instructor that I learned from. My parents were avid naturalists and because of this we spent much time hiking and backpacking in the Sierra Mountains. My father, who had a PhD in Meteorology, eventually built a cabin in the mountains that we went to most weekends. This early exposure to museums and the outdoor wooded landscape over time helped me connect the two interests.
How did your interest in painting and fine art impact your childhood?
In 1972 we moved to Aiken, SC where my father was starting a lab at the Savannah River Site. In Aiken, I had daily access to the outdoors where I spent most of my free time roaming the woods oftentimes looking for and finding American Indian pottery shards and arrow heads. My room was in the basement of the house next to the woodshop we had where I eventually made wooden sculptures and paintings in acrylic. In middle school I started to paint and draw surrealistic images. At this time I became aware of the power an image can have and enjoyed getting a reaction out of friends and family with them. The images also became very personal and reflected what was going on in my life. In high school my interest in art as a vehicle to express my emotions and ideas became more pronounced. As an undiagnosed dyslexic, school became more frustrating and my art became more important and cathartic. In 1982, I was accepted to the Governors School for the Arts, then a summer program located at Furman University. The experience of being among other students with similar interests and learning styles was life changing and solidified my interest in the arts.
Do you paint on location (plein air) or in a studio? Do you prefer one over the other?
When I first started painting the landscape I primarily painted plein air. Over time I became interested in techniques that I can better execute in the studio. Painting outdoors in an environment that is public has a tendency to make me self conscious and distracted. For those reasons I primarily paint in the studio from memory. However, we recently built a studio and home in the middle of 20 wooded acres, and I am currently painting some work outdoors of the South Carolina sandhills. I am less interested in an accurate representation of a location and more interested in exploring my emotional response to the natural environment.
What is your favorite subject matter?
Interpreting the landscape that I am familiar with through the use of multiple techniques, composition, and a great appreciation for 19th century American landscape painting is what interests me. In 18th and 19th century American landscape painting artists conveyed a sense of mystery and intimacy that comes from the interplay between realism and personal emotional history. The familiarity with the landscape that I take with me to the studio allows me to reflect on what I have seen and depict the image in a manner that is visually and emotionally consistent with the experience of that particular place.
I enjoy painting the low country landscape since I grew up going to Kiawah Island. In the mid 70’s my parents sold the cabin in the Sierra Mountains and purchased a small house on Kiawah. At that time the island was not very developed, there were still wild horses on the beach. Those memories are ones that I draw on for my paintings. I also enjoy painting swamps for I spent two summers working for the Savannah River Ecology Lab where I spent most of my time working in the swamps along the river. I draw from those memories as well. I enjoy the feeling of being alone in the woods so I try to convey that in my paintings
Your work is described as “often mistaken for 19th century works, a strong tribute to his study and mastery of the craft.” Please tell me more about your creative process and how you achieved such proficiency.
I am very influenced by painters of the 19th century. After receiving my BFA from the University of South Carolina I became very interested in materials and techniques of painters. At that time I was having difficulty finding a graduate school that had that as their focus. For that reason I became interested in painting conservation as a way to understand how paintings were made in the past. I was also interested in an apprenticeship as a way of learning for it would suit my strengths as a hands-on learner. In 1989 I was accepted as an apprentice to Charles Olin, the former head of painting conservation at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. I was required to commit to five years and I stayed with him for eight. During that time I was involved in the conservation of paintings from all periods, however 19th century paintings interested me the most. Through the intimate examination of paintings I have learned how to construct a painting using both thick and thin applications of paint allowing the darks to remain translucent and the lights generally opaque. When I begin a painting I generally paint quickly sometimes using my hands with a thin application of paint. I then begin to push and pull the darks and lights. I allow each layer to dry before a new layer is applied.
Can you tell me why your art collectors love your paintings?
Generally I think people like the mood that I convey in the paintings. I also think that they like the fact that they are painted using a restricted palette and with variations in paint quality.
Tell me more about your passion for conservation? How did you start?
I was fortunate to have been able to connect with Mr. Olin and move to Washington DC. There I had access to great works of art at the Phillips collection and the National Gallery of Art. I also had many varied experiences in conservation where I was able to treat Ben Shahn’s Social Security murals and 40 wall paintings in the department of Interior. During the time with Charles I had the opportunity to move to Buffalo, NY and work with James Hamm, the professor of painting conservation at Buffalo State College, on the treatment of paintings in the Roy Croft Inn in East Aurora, NY. After leaving Olin Conservation I was employed by Christina Cunningham Adams to work on the frescos at the National Capitol. We moved back to South Carolina in 1999 when my wife Carol, a book and paper conservator, was hired by the South Carolina State Archives. I then started Crawford Conservation Inc. I enjoy the problem solving aspects of conservation and how the decisions that are made during a treatment are restricted not only by the materials used by the artist but by the idea that the original materials and intention are not to be altered. I do feel as though I am working for the artist and trying to preserve their life’s work. Conservation is not only about the preservation of individual works it is also about the preservation of one of mans unique qualities, man’s need to express his inner thoughts and emotions. Conserving paintings keeps me looking at works of art which keeps me in touch with the lives of artists.