A Conversation with Denis Gaston
Mark Kerstetter: You grew up in Florida, a state that has undergone rapid development over the years. Did you live in a rural place or a city? How did you occupy yourself as a boy?
Denis Gaston: Both. We lived in Tampa for a few years and then in small towns north of Tampa in rural Pasco County. My parents had the good sense to let me go and I spent a lot of time roaming the woods, building forts, or conquering space invaders. Thanks to that freedom, I developed a rich fantasy life.
MK: What drew you to fine art and how did you develop your skills?
Denis Gaston: Fortunately, both parents were artists and I had access to images of Modernism from an early age. My first drawings were from life – my mother sleeping, the cat sleeping. They were very still lifes. Later in school I began drawing cartoons which jump started my imagination. When I announced to my father that I would study art in college, he advised me to take plenty of business courses.
MK: Have you always been fascinated by masks, icons and faces?
Denis Gaston: Yes, I’ve been intrigued from the first time I saw African and Oriental masks in art magazines. There was so much energy and mystery in them. Later I realized the dual function of masks – they hide the wearer’s personality while projecting a completely other face.
MK: Before turning to fine art full time you were a graphic designer. What types of jobs did you do, and what media did you work in?
Denis Gaston: Being mostly a free-lance designer/illustrator, I couldn’t afford to turn down any work. At various times, I did logo design, newspaper and magazine ads, editorial design, production art, display show windows, catalog illustrations, grocery store point of purchase signs. I learned a lot on the job.
MK: What’s a typical day in the studio like for you?
Denis Gaston: There is no typical day; I must take what is handed me. I’ve had the liberty of eight hour days on end and days when I barely managed a couple hours in the studio. I developed a work ethic early on, so the work always gets done. Even time outside the studio is important. All experience becomes raw material for that moment when a painting happens.
MK: Some of your most beautiful works are your small black and white drawings. I understand you make these as warm up exercises? Are they—or any of your images—completely spontaneous or do you try and capture glimpses, maybe when half asleep or at odd moments?
Denis Gaston: Yes, it’s a way of calling out the slumbering inspiration. I try to be completely spontaneous with my imagery, usually working directly on the canvas with no preliminary sketches. That said, I also have an idea from experience what will happen. When things are going right, the painting takes on a life of its own, and I just have to get out of the way.
MK: Tell me about working in wax and tar.
Denis Gaston: I’m a constant experimenter, always trying new materials and substrates. Once I discovered a roll of tar paper left over from a roofing job. For days, I did nothing but pastel drawings on that stuff. I was turned on to wax by a friend who used it in her sculptures. I do not use it in the traditional encaustic way of mixing pigment and wax before applying. I layer on paint and then liquid wax until the surface is built up. I love beeswax because it dries instantly and is so unpredictable.
MK: Your work looks thoroughly modern, and yet it has ties to ancient art as well. Do you think that Modernism has an inherent link to ancient art, or is this connection something unique to certain modern and contemporary artists?
Denis Gaston: One of the few benefits of Colonialism was the introduction of tribal art to Europeans. The museums of Europe and later America were filled with fabulous examples from Africa, India and Oceania. This so-called primitive art had a big influence on some early Modernists like Picasso, Klee, and Dubuffet. In the sense that Modernism is a throwing off of extraneous artifice, it shares an inherent link with ancient art. Every mark or sculptural addition in older indigenous art is charged with meaning. Nothing happened by chance. Look at Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to see the connection.
MK: In a recent iconic portrait series you apply dabs of pure pigment to the surface somewhat the way Van Gogh did. Do you have plans to develop this method, perhaps larger?
Denis Gaston: I have control issues with paint brushes. Perhaps it’s a holdover from commercial art, but using brushes, I often find myself being too careful and predictable. Using palette knives takes the slick and contrived look out of the picture. I am more comfortable letting colors blend on the canvas in the impressionistic style. It suits my loose style of painting. Yes, there are a bunch of large blank canvasses waiting for me and my palette knives.
MK: You have said of this iconic series that the figures “function like emotional signposts, states of mind with which to become acquainted.” Is this ‘getting to know’ process for the viewer alone, or is it true for you as well?
Denis Gaston: Making art is like embracing a mirage – as soon as you think you know it, it’s gone and remains unknown. Painting becomes a constant effort to know oneself and by extension the world. In that sense, the painting is a window, offering the viewer a glimpse inside. What they take away from that experience may change them as it changed the artist who created it.
MK: Reading your blog one notices that you are active in your local arts scene. Why is that important to you?
Denis Gaston: Painting for me is a long solitary affair. The coming together of like-minded people is a necessary flip side of an artist’s life. We can’t forget that there are others who share the same joys and sorrows of the creative process. It’s another way of gathering inspiration.