Artist William Knight opens the screen door to his studio in a 1920s-era mill on a quiet side road not far from his Burlington, NJ, home and says, “Look around for a bit and then we’ll talk.” He then disappears to finish up a few preparations for his Grounds For Sculpture exhibition, “Out of context,” currently on view through Saturday, April 13.
The studio space — once used for preparing yarn — presents a frozen state of flux: packing materials in rafters hang, titled boxes look ready to tumble, and sculptures — made of thin strips peeled from car tires the artist found along New Jersey highways — seem ready to uncoil.
“I’ve been making these rubber pieces the last 10 years,” says Knight, 66, now in front of one of the 20 pieces in the exhibition — his first at the nationally known sculpture center.
The use of tires, he says, was a way of extending beyond his artistic and perceptual boundaries. “I moved from representational painting to abstract painting by a change of medium. I left painting and started using encaustic. I loved that medium and started working in abstraction. When I went to the Vermont Studio of Art, I noticed roadside fragments of exploded automobile tires, picked up a dozen or two, arrived with these ‘little beasts,’ washed them in vinegar, and began to tease them apart — play with them and link them together.”
The decision to use tires as a medium for art comes from his desire to train his eye to explore and see things anew. “Just because it is dirty and discarded doesn’t mean that you cannot look at it and change the context. I want to take it out of context,” he says of his non-traditional choice and points to the spiraling root like figures that evoke music terms: fugue, performance.
Knight says that music is just a partial influence and comes from his longtime partner, opera singer David Arnold. “Listening to the classical music that he’s playing influences my awareness of structure and how music is put together. The more I hear it, the more I hear how he will bring out a certain phrase. So it’s very natural for me to have that in my artistic repertoire as something to find parallels.”
A more direct influence, however, is nature, as attested by the paintings that hang near the sculptures. “I painted landscapes and plants for at least 10 years, representational paintings looking at the beauty of the nature. I forget about it consciously. But it’s there,” he says.
Natural images are also reflected in his current work, small pieces that combine metal, mirrors, and light bulbs (both broken and whole). He says, holding up a small sculpture that uses a discarded light bulb, “Its shape is not as lyrical as a flower, but I can see that it was informed by nature.”
Knight feels that the natural forms stir feelings and then connection. “We’re emotional and without our emotions we are lost. We have emotional responses to things we see. I think it is a mistake that the artist requires that viewers know something before they see the art work. If the piece is boring no amount of storytelling is going to make it interesting,” he says.
What, he believes, is required of the artist is ongoing exploration and work. “When I come in the studio (which I never leave in my consciousness), I am working. I am not following a tradition or rehashing anyone else’s idea. The goal is to make the best work I can.”
For Knight “best work” means “never being completely satisfied with anything. Looking at it when it is cold, looking at it again, going back to it, and asking is there an economy of scale? Is there anything superfluous? Does it have rhythm or balance? Does it work in the surround and walking around the piece? I study the work a long time. And I’m not afraid to say that something is not going to work. Sometimes I look at a piece and say it will never get better than it is now, but it’s complete. I can devote three months to something that completely fails. But I say ‘take away an artist’s failures, and you take away his successes.’”
The artist’s ideas of balance and rhythms come from his interest in architecture and the beauty of some designs where elements, such as windows, could never be placed in any other order and where the architect “got it right.” He also takes delight in seeing how other artists balance their works, saying that it helps train the eye to see potentials that are hidden by habits of perception.
“As an artist I feel as if I have two big forces. I have my eyes, and I have my intelligence. The intelligent side of the brain tells the eyes what to do. The brain will tell the eye that (a discarded tire) is garbage. But the eye will say, ‘Hey let’s look at it.’ So I’m enabling the eye to gain more a proportion of the real estate of the brain. I am trying to make the eye as dominate as I can. “
While Knight came to art when he was in his late 30s, it seems to have been an ongoing part of his quest to find his path.
The artist was born in Miami, Florida, where his physical and artistic life where affected by plant life. “My father thought that it was a miracle that orange and grapefruit trees could grow and bear fruit and that you could pick it without it costing anything. That economic observation led him to a life in nature and orange and grapefruit groves. Later, he invented a way to fresh squeeze oranges to be sold in quart containers, long before it was done anywhere else.”
Then in a simple gesture that combined creativity and kindness, Knight recalls his first step in becoming an artist, “When I was five, I picked 10 orange and red hibiscus blossoms and put in a gardenia tree that didn’t have any flowers.” The act surprised and touched his mother.
While his parents thought that making a living in the arts was a “hopeless endeavor,” his mother sang in the church for 20 years and seemed to model how the imagination could enhance one’s circumstances. “She played with us as if she were a child,” he says, adding that it was her way of having the childhood that had been denied to her.
With a desire “to get to the root of things,” Knight studied philosophy at Tulane University, yet maintained his connection to art through art history classes. He continued his studies at Georgetown, Harvard, and MIT. “I was interested in social science and how political thought influences our society. I wanted to be a teacher, but those areas paled and I didn’t purse them. I knew about the real world and becoming an artist was an inclination and choice. The art world seem more deep and satisfying to me.”
In Boston he met Arnold, who was advised to go to New York to advance in his music career. Knight and Arnold moved to Roosevelt, New Jersey, nearly 30 years ago. While Knight took classes at the New York Studio School, Arnold performed significant roles at the Metropolitan Opera.
To support himself, Knight says, “I have made my living in many ways. One was editing a chapter of some books at Princeton University Press, a book written by (19th century American naturalist and writer Henry David) Thoreau. It was a manuscript that had been discovered. I have worked as house painter. I taught college English in the maximum security prisons in Avenel and Trenton State Prison and taught in the Mercer County Community College English department.”
Knight and Arnold now live in Burlington, New Jersey, in a home once owned by Civil War general and former U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant. The house, Knight says, was selected for its space to accommodate artistic pursuits rather than pedigree.
The central New Jersey proximity allowed Knight to continue his artistic studies at the University of Pennsylvania and at Mercer County with artist Mel Leipzig, whom Knight credits with finding his path.
Just as Thoreau’s writing deepened Knight’s connection to nature (one strengthened by Knight living for a time in Thoreau’s native town of Concord, Massachusetts), Leipzig deepened Knight’s connection to art. “He’s a brilliant teacher and to have the example of seeing someone whose life was turned on by art was useful to me. In the strongest sense I would put him as the first who led me and gave me an example of a life in art.”
Knight also credits Leipzig with helping him to clarify his vision with the revelatory comment, “You love painting space.” The younger artist says, “I was doing it without being aware of it. Working with space was natural. A painter who likes deep space is going to make sculpture at some time.”
It was that love of space that caused Knight to leave the two-dimensional canvas and step out of his studio and onto the road that he was following to both find inspiration and material. Now Knight says that he regularly stops to pick up tires on New Jersey highways, mainly Routes 295 and 195.
“After collecting tire fragments, I wash off any dirt with a combination of Simple Green, vinegar, and Dove. I study their shapes as I’m cleaning them; sometimes a fragment will suggest a particular path to take, and I lay it aside. Otherwise I sort fragments into a boxes, dramatic pieces, wide and long pieces, short and narrow pieces, and so forth. I have walls where I hang them for quick reference.”
The search for materials, he says, is “sort of involuntary. It does not start with any intent. That comes from the shapes of the found objects. I start making associations, looking for contrast, or the surprising unity of disparate things, be they tire fragments or other objects.”
Knight says that since his uses what he finds he has few choice preferences and that no particular tire brand works better than another for creating art. Yet, he says, “I learned from Goodyear that there are many different rubbers used in each tire: hard, resistant rubber for the outermost layer; soft and runny rubber next, to give cushion.” He says that he has discovered that there may be 20 different kinds of rubber in a single tire.
The artist, who has shown in New York City and Philadelphia, says the current Grounds For Sculpture exhibition “put a fire under him,” helped him complete his tire work allowed him to complete the tire work, and opened a new phase for his art and life. “I want to reply to the art side of my life and turn off what is not contributing to that,” Knight says, standing before a background of art made from a life on a road less traveled.
Out of context, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Sculpture by William Knight. Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., through Saturday, April 13. $8 to $12. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.