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Tm Gratkowski: Process Paper Artist

Sometimes there is no real answer to what kind of artist you are when people ask.  Are you a sculptor?  Are you a paper artist?  With Tm Gratkowski he is a process based artist, and watching him work there was definitely this instinctual rhythm to his process.  Settled in a quiet row of storage units turned studio space in Gardena, CA Gratkowski creates constantly and follows the path his hands want him to.  Jumping from a wall lined with paper 'sculpture' to flat 2D pieces on the opposite wall, Gratkowski is essentially unblocking his creative process by starting a new project and moving back and forth from one to the other.  

Currently using a concrete substance called Quickcrete, Gratkowski is able to explore the creation of sculpture with paper elements in a new form.  By almost excavating sections of the sculptures exposing paper that forms in an organic shape underneath the quickcrete.  To see more of his work check out the upcoming exhibitions and read further about his process below.

“Paperworks”, Sept 27 2015 - Jan 3 2016.  CAFAM (Craft Folk & Art Museum), Los Angeles, CA. curated by Howard Fox, LACMA Curator Emeritus of Contemporary Art
“California Sculpture SLAM”, Sep 25 – Nov 15, 2015. SLOMA (San Luis Obispo Museum of Art), San Luis Obispo, CA
Featured artist, Fall/August issue 2015 Alexandria Quarterly Magazine.

Tm Gratkowski flips through one of his many sketch books.  Photo © Aimee Santos

One of Gratkowski's tools, an X-Acto knife, lines the work table where creations are manifested.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Gratkowski in the process of creation.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Stacks of books in all stages of manipulation exist throughout Gratkowski's studio.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You’ve been working with cement recently and incorporating paper along with the drying process. What brought about the incorporation of this new material and does it challenge you as much as paper?

I was looking for a new material I could use with paper.  Something that would almost be the opposite of paper but could still be about paper or needed the paper in some way.  Water and oil presented obvious problems, but concrete (quick-crete) dried fast and its curing process left little to no change in the paper as it dried.

There aren’t really any challenges with the concrete because I’m not trying to develop ideas about concrete - that’s not the intent.  The concrete is used to allow the paper to exist in another suspended state or form.  With these paper-crete ©TRG 2013 pieces, it’s almost as if the concrete is holding onto the paper and the paper is trying to free itself from the solid piece of concrete.  The two materials need each other to create these new sculptural forms. 

A practice piece of reflective material lays on a table while Gratkowski works on one of many projects.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Gratkowski sections off his studio into spaces where he can work on multiple projects at the same time,  jumping from one to the other to break any monotony or creative blocks.  Photo © Aimee Santos

As a process based artist do you find you discover answers or solutions faster or slower rather than if you were to write about your work or theorize as to its overall meaning.

Theoreticians write.  Artists make.  Theory is very seldom a practical application used in the practice of (art) making – where there are too many unknown variables that can’t be known until physical action has begun.  Most people discover that, by doing, we are immediately producing and learning what to do and how to work out the kinks - in the process of making. 

A small paper-crete #16 sculpture sits on one of Gratkowski's shelves in his office in Gardena, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Gratkowski's 'To Do' list.  Photo © Aimee Santos

For many artists the act of social interaction is a challenge which means speaking to gallery owners about their work is another hurdle. You are currently represented by Walter Maciel Gallery in Los Angeles. How does gallery representation elevate your work and have some of the hurdles been taken out of the race with a rep?

Art is a social activity.  Artists need to be, or learn to be, articulate and comfortable communicating on many different levels.

The artist and gallery relationship is about building a bigger market for the work and getting the work seen by collectors, curators and museums that help establish careers.  As in any relationship, we (the artist and the gallery) can inspire and elevate each other.  By doing so, the art will also become elevated to a position that benefits both entities - we need each other!  In this respect, working with Walter Maciel Gallery has been wonderful and we are currently developing museum exhibition opportunities and bigger exposure for my work in general.

Currently you are a self-sustaining artist. How long did it take for you to quite your ‘day job’ and just focus on your craft?

First, let’s destroy the myth of the “self-sustaining artist.”  Most artists have another source of income coming in. Whether it is through teaching art, part-time jobs, full-time day careers, partners’ support, or family money - every artist needs consistent income.  Selling enough art on a consistent basis is only afforded to the few.  I work my ass off on many different levels every day to afford myself the opportunity to make art.  A better percent of this is through art sales thanks to Walter Maciel and his staff, the other is through a framing business for artists I started called FRAME, and surprisingly to most people when I tell them, I also have a day career as an architect.

I wish I could make art full-time all the time, but that’s a very privileged position for most artists to find themselves in. “Day jobs” divert a tremendous amount of energy and time away from making artwork.  Since 2007 I’ve devoted the majority of my energy and attention to my art career and I am working hard in the hopes that, in the near future, I will find myself in a position to devote even more time, if not all of my time, to making art.  But until then, I will wake up tomorrow and make art with a vision and scale even larger than what I’m working on today.  And maybe that’s the true meaning of a “self-sustaining artist” - someone who will, at all cost, do anything to make art.

Much of Gratkowski's studio is meticulously organized.  Photo © Aimee Santos

A stack of colored paper in Gratkowski's studio in Gardena, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

A detail shot of one of Gratkowski's pieces.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You mentioned with your work “it’s all about the edge.” Can you elaborate on this subject? And what if there were no edge?

Well, it’s not really “all about the edge.”  This is only a small, but specific, detail within the larger idea of what I am doing.  The edge/edges - how things transition from one thing to the next - are fascinating moments I want to articulate in various ways.  Consider a detail like Vermeer’s play on light.  Remove the details on the edges of most of his constructed environments and the whole thing falls apart.  We don’t really look at the details, but we sense its presence. It’s that little extra something artists do that adds to the experience of looking.

If there were no edge, there might not be any art. I never really liked seeing that moment when a painting or any work of art just stops - either stopped by the edge of a canvas or stopped by a frame that covers up that part of the painting you no longer can see. It leaves me wondering if that was the artist’s intent, and wondering what that edge really looks like if I could see it?  I like playing with the edge, especially in collage and in the transitions between images, colors, or pieces of paper.  That edge can become an exciting moment – like in a line-drawing where that line, that “edge”, gets expressed in a variety of ways.  Believe it or not, even though I’m a contemporary artist working in the 21st century and only using paper, I use and apply a lot of old Renaissance techniques in my art practice.

Remnants of rejected books from the City Library in Inglewood, CA. Photo © Aimee Santos

Stacks of magazines lined up next to the wall show a sense of categorization for future usefulness.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You mentioned that colors and text change with the season in magazines and that it’s important to change your paper from magazines as the seasons change. Do you find the color and text palette inspires the work to evolve into something new?

I work that way for specific reasons.  It’s just one of the arsenal of methods I use to keep my work relevant to current topics and trends. I try to change the entire palette of paper I use as trends, styles, formats and technologies change.  Typically, I purge my studio of most paper at least every two years - this helps keep everything current.  

It does not inspire the work.  It’s more about using information relative to colors, patterns and even font-styles which typically represent a specific time and place - context is very important. Much of my graphic source material comes from magazines, but a larger portion of it comes from paper recycling plants throughout Los Angeles: large format graphics and posters.

The edge of one of Gratkowski's pieces.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Works in progress at Gratkowski's studio in Gardena, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos