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Foad Satterfield: things known: An Interview with Megan Wilkinson.

Foad Satterfield and I sit in his Emeryville, CA, studio, surrounded by works in progress, pieces of his African art collection, and his vast storehouse of paintings completed throughout his venerable career.

We share mint tea and chat about art, nature, travel, meditation, and the interconnectedness of life, the latter of which Foad says is the one abiding belief that has always driven his work.

MW: I can't be the first person to remark on how perfect it is that a painter with an obvious love of color was raised in a town called Orange (Texas). How did growing up there spark your initial interest in art?

FS: I lived with my great Aunt Bertha Barque in Orange in an environment of love and support. I was often given the liberty to explore nature during my formative years, and in doing so, I developed a personal philosophy of the certainty of things that was informed by my observations. Every year I watched the cycles of the pecan and fig trees in our yard or would ponder the open sky at night, and it began to dawn on me over time that there is a certain organization to all this.

I would also busy myself with constructing things. My Aunt had this great old wooden secretary desk, and I would take her discarded letters out to the porch by the mint garden. I would arrange the envelopes to build cubicles out of them using tape and paper clips. I then housed critters I found in the mint in the little rooms I had created for them. It was important to me to have uniformity with these little dwellings. I imitated the patterns of the porch bricks and traced the outline of insects to create a sense of order within the arrangement.

I remember too, that I used to play with the rhinestones from my Aunt's jewelry. I would pick out the gems, put them in a box, slide under her bed so it was dark, and then use a flashlight to make a theater light show off of their reflections.

I recognize now that what I was doing was taking the time to look at something deeply and letting myself be moved by it. I had an inherent drive to bring about that effect.

Even now I ask myself, "do my paintings act as vehicles, moving the audience toward a deeper understanding of themselves?" It is my desire that my work, through the metaphysical instrument of painting, awakens a center within viewers that moves them beyond the intellect, filling them up, filling them with light. It is the same essential impulse inherent in music and in nature. We all look for this internal deepening-and we find it and share it in ways in which we are predisposed. It's a life mandate to make us feel whole.

MW: You mentioned that your Aunt took a surprise trip abroad. How did her travels broaden your own world back home in Orange?

FS: My Aunt Bertha was a country girl from New Iberia, Louisiana. The furthest she had ever travelled was to move with my Uncle Emile across the Sabine River to Orange. One day, she announced she was going on a pilgrimage to Rome and Palestine. She said she'd be gone a month. She stayed for six. Bertha ended up travelling all over Europe. While she was gone, my family started receiving steamer trunks filled with artifacts from her travels. I would open the trunks, my imagination would take hold, and it was as if all of a sudden I would fall into the Louvre. These items began opening up my world. Until then, we had just one painting on the wall in the dining room--that was it. It was an uninspired Italian reproduction. Seeing all those curios in those trunks was a spiritual experience for me. They showed me a larger world that I wanted to participate in.

MW: I know you frequently visited your family in California during that time. Were they instrumental in encouraging you?

FS: I used to visit my Uncle Stanley in San Francisco during summers. When I was eleven, I encountered the artists Clyfford Still, Arshile Gorky, and Jackson Pollack. This was cathartic for me, because I really liked how they used paint, and for the first time, I understood these individuals as people--people who were serious about doing this thing called "art." Not only that, my introduction to them was in this big place called a museum where I headed everyday. During my sojourns, which incidentally were forbidden, since I was not supposed to leave the house unattended, questions emerged for me: What were these people looking at and what were they seeing? What made these paintings so important that they were hanging in this grand place?

My uncle lived on Ashbury near Haight and bought me my first professional-grade paints. It was on the 4th floor of his house that I had my first semblance of a studio. At sixteen, one of my first projects as was to replicate a Beatles' album cover with its dramatic chiaroscuro. This time was also the beginning of the Haight-Ashbury Psychedelic art and music scene, but that style didn't resonate with me too much. I was drawn to exploring things with more gravity like the Both/And Jazz Club and later the Blackhawk, both now long gone, where I first heard Bobby Hutchison and Dexter Gordon. As a young artist, this was the world I wanted to inhabit.

MW: Sounds like a fantastic childhood! Your family was living in the South during the Jim Crow era though. Did the ugliness of that ever filter into your experience?

FS: Orange had a thriving Black enterprise zone; so while I still lived there, I was isolated to a certain degree from all that. My Uncle Emile built a hotel, movie theater, and grocery store on Second Street. Everyone worked hard and had money. However, we moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana when I was seven or eight years old. In third grade, I entered a "Litterbug" contest using my sister Jackie's paints from Walgreens. I won first prize, but when they found out that I was from the "colored" school, they took it back and I was given third place. All the winners were invited to visit the local news channel. The producers brought in the white kids and interviewed them, but "ran out of time," before they interviewed me.

I stayed in Lake Charles through high school but never had art in school, because there was no money in segregated schools for the subject. I was always daydreaming though. The closest thing to art I could access was music. I played clarinet and joined the school band, because they took trips. In junior high, I wanted to be a fashion designer. I already knew how to sew and crochet, even tailored my own clothes, and started to draw then as well. In 10th grade, I decided I was ready to go to New York to go to fashion school, but my parents said no.

When I started to witness and comprehend the obstacles before me, I realized I needed another strategy to navigate this new landscape of racism. I determined I was going to distinguish myself by being aesthetic in my way of dressing and way of being.

People went to Lake Charles to party because it never closed down. There was a boulevard where the adults would stroll. Even though you might still be a teenager, you had to act like an adult-had to be right. GIs came in from all over. I would wear a three-piece suit and fedora and smoke a pipe or cigar. I wanted to be hip. It was a potentially dangerous scene too--I had to be careful.

There was a guy, Toulouse, who became my mentor and protector on the street. I had no brothers and was a likely target, because I was different. My buddies wanted me to tailor their stuff, which made me a bit uncomfortable, because I knew I couldn't be too out there, and I didn't want to attract negative attention. In truth, I liked hanging out with the adults better, because they weren't so petty. Just living this way was an art unto itself, I think. I had to be shrewd, present a presence, project confidence, and I had to look aesthetically sharp. It was a fascinating process to maintain. There could be no raggedy edges--it had to be all zipped up.

MW: What about in college? What were your first real art classes like? Did you have any influential teachers or artists whom you admired?

FS: I went to Southern University in Baton Rouge and declared art my major. They had a small department that had teachers who wanted their students to be serious.

Jean Paul Hubbard was one of my teachers at Southern. He was a master draftsman and painter but better at doing than teaching. He did facilitate an atmosphere though, of doing your own exploring. Then there was John Payne, a successful sculptor originally from Detroit, who taught us about the business of art--what it took to make a living as a professional artist. Aside from that, there were two other teachers who weren't really helpful at all towards their students--it was more about their own process--but I took the time during their classes to experiment and my drawing got better.

As far as artists outside of Southern, I looked up to Jacob Lawrence, John Biggers, Romare Bearden, and others, and really respected their work. They were figurative painters, and although I was not that interested in figurative work initially, I concentrated on the figure in graduate school.

MW: Did you go directly into your Master's program after undergrade What happened when you were drafted into the Vietnam War?

FS: Yes, I went on to graduate school at LSU. LSU finally had integrated classes, and I was one of the first African American students. While I was in school, Paul Georges, the figure painter from New York, was a teacher at LSU. Around this time, I began to discern my place within this "art" thing. I decided what I did and didn't want to do. I knew I wanted to be a serious practitioner. While my teachers were good, I didn't know if they were telling the truth to me or not about my works. My mentor was too nice. How could I grow if I was never given constructive feedback? I knew I had to stay with Georges, because he would take no prisoners.

He was a good teacher too, in that he taught his students how to make something well, especially a figure. He taught us how to maintain its integrity.

I completed one year of grad school but then was drafted into the army. This interrupted my educational process but allowed me to be very focused upon my return. My time in Vietnam continued to form me even when I got back. It impacted my ideas of conflict as well as my questions around "what role does an artist play or not?" When I got back to school, I was all business. My thesis came into focus, while visiting and sitting for prolonged periods in a park next to the Baton Rouge zoo. My pieces had some figurative elements, some Rousseau: "body in nature: neutral or political?" Black bodies--how can they be safe?" aspects to them. This was me just exploring these concepts. I knew I didn't want to be an overtly political artist, as many other students of color felt compelled to do. It was not who I was as a painter, even though I feel very strongly about it and often contemplate how the themes I do work with would be useful in order to form an expression of resistance.

MW: How would you describe your own approach?

FS: I have been more interested in self-inquiry/identity but not specifically focused on race, as such. I feel strong in my foundation of who I am as African American, but I always thought that, although significant, it was only a part of me. Who I am is much bigger than that. I've sought to engage my larger self--the one that transcends the individual. Given that, I've leaned toward metaphysics, philosophy, and spirituality.

MW: You've talked a little about the metaphysics of painting, but could you say more about how those three things shape your work?

FS: I have found that philosophy is useful in understanding rational thought, but can sometimes be sterile without a spiritual aspect. In addition to that, in college my roommate was Rosicrucian, and we used to talk about all things esoteric. My Aunt also had a friend who was an Eastern Star and, when I was little, she used to come over to our house and tell me about the ancient Egyptians. I was inspired by her stories and traveled twice to Egypt. In the works I produced from those trips, I really played with materiality--having to navigate the physical space in this earthly realm--in concert with what would be the beginnings of my spiritual evolution. Since that time, I have developed a meditation practice based on Eastern philosophical teachings. I do not consider myself a "joiner," so I don't belong to a particular religious group. I think the systemization of these teachings dilutes them; a contraction occurs. Once something is defined, it is easy to be limited to that particular container. Not being wedded to any specific philosophy but plumbing the depths of many frees me to identify and apply wisdom from each. Studying these great traditions also buoys me to do my work best. Meditation is a tool that helps me access that deep center of personal verification reflected in my work. It also heightens my perception and increases my capacity for quiet observation and study. It opens the inner door for me to go beyond the physical material of subject and object.

MW: You use these skills in your most recent bodies of work revolving around nature. When did you start on this current path?

FS: In the 2000s, I met Oliver Jackson, who had a profound influence on me and, therefore, also on my paintings. Oliver helped me to understand that a maker must totally and completely submit to the work, to understand the history of the craft, and to distinguish the extraordinary from the good. From that association I felt more confident in moving forward on developing my nature-themed paintings. It was also during this period that I visited Kauai for the first time. I became fascinated with the myriad visual aspects of water, like the interplay of light and color, and the infinite number of possible compositions I could use to make an effective body of work.

These were my first water paintings, but I continued to investigate the theme during subsequent trips to Mexico. My series of sacred Cenotes paintings highlight water as it relates to scarcity and abundance, its transformative power, and its gift of the endless opportunity for renewal.

While water remains an important feature in my works today, I have started to include in my view the dynamic power of the land. I am awed by all that I observe, while being outdoors and try first to internalize it and then to represent it. I want my paintings to reflect the understanding that every facet of our ecosystem, from epically large to infinitesimally small, is inextricably related and mutually informing. The unifying environments I create invite the viewer to not only embrace the whole they witness within the painting, but to recognize themselves as being integral to that vitality too. They are meant to be the antidote to our overscheduled lives and to provide a nourishing, reflective opportunity to pause and reconnect with our innermost selves.

With these works, it has come full circle for me. I've always tried to live equally in my mind and heart and have spent quite a bit of time in nature exploring the relationship between observation and feeling. Since my days back in Orange, I've had a strong inclination to do so.

In addition to that, I continually ask myself, "What impact can I have?" This harkens back to my time growing up in Orange but also to my days at LSU. Though my chosen subject of nature may not seem political per se, I view them as so. At a minimum, they are related through me, as a caring instrument, putting all of my own experience onto the canvas, but also in the completeness of what I am trying to capture. My intention for my paintings is to encompass the whole experience: negative, positive, beautiful, heart-wrenching, seen, and unseen.

Looking back, I am so touched by the experiences that have continuously shown up for me at pivotal times throughout my life. Because of this good fortune, I've been able to move from platform to platform. I also know I am who I am now, because of everything that came before me. These connections are clear to me, and aren't confined to me personally, obviously; they are present for every part of our existence--it's all interrelated, one, and complete.

When Foad and I wind down our conversation, the bottom of my tea has gone cold. Just part of the experience, I think, and gulp down the rest. I begin to ponder more the idea of interconnectedness, and mull over the fact that it can be deceptively simple in a way--sure, we are all humans on this floating orb called Earth. But it is in sitting with it for a while that its true breadth unravels and reveals its many, many complex layers. The painter from Orange, Texas, perceives all of that and presents it to us through his panoptic art to take in and experience it for ourselves. Foad is part of this vast network, has an active dialogue with it, and gives back to it with his creations, which in turn entice us to recognize our own links to its continuum. Step into his paintings, let your own imagination take hold, and fall into its supportive web, ever present and just there waiting for you.

Megan Wilkinson has spent the last 17 years working in the San Francisco Bay Area museum and gallery world. Currently, she is a freelance writer, art consultant, and practicing artist who has a passion for life-long learning and traveling.

Caption: Foad Satterfield

Caption: Foad Satterfield, Sticks and Stones Series. Spiral, 1978 Gouache 24" by 30"

Caption: Foad Satterfield Sticks and Stones Series. Icon, 1982 Oil on linen 36" by 48"

Caption: Foad Satterfield Water Series. Tunnel #1, 2001 Acrylic on canvas 84"by 108"

Caption: Foad Satterfield Cenotes Uxmal, 2014 Acrylic on canvas 60" by 64"

Caption: Foad Satterfield Narrative #3, 2016 Acrylic on canvas. 78" by 52"

Caption: Foad Satterfield Woodfox #3, 2016 Acrylic on canvas. 48" by 96"
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Author:Wilkinson, Megan
Publication:Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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