Behind the Scenes with Edward Bateman

The artist discusses imaginary colors, talking with the dead & more

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Jun 5, 2019

Featured artists

Johannes Vermeer

Edward Bateman

In our series Behind the Scenes, artists answer questions about their creative process, philosophy, and more. This installment features Edward Bateman, an artist and professor, who makes art that crosses the boundaries of photography, digital imaging, printmaking, book arts, and animation/video. You can “discover the universe in a single leaf” with his work LeafScape. (Read our other exclusive interviews with artists here.)

Describe your ideal work setting.

Late at night, which lately has extended to 4 or 5 in the morning. There are fewer interruptions, and there is something magical about the night. Its peacefulness helps put me more in tune with what I am creating. I can find the zone where I stop second-guessing what I’m making. I can see what the work is telling me.

If you could own the exclusive rights to any specific color, which would you choose? (i.e., Anish Kapoor owns Vantablack)

There are imaginary colors! Unless you get deep into computer work, most people don’t realize there are colors that can only be mathematically described yet are nearly impossible to even imagine. For example, try to picture a super-saturated yellow that’s also very dark. If you try to mix that with the computer or with paint, you can only come up with green or brown. But you can use these imaginary colors in the computer to get some results that wouldn’t be possible in any other way. Plus, owning some of these colors would likely not hinder any other artists.

What does your workspace look like?

This is my studio/office at the University of Utah where I am the head of the Photography/Digital Imaging area. I can always be found working here late into the night (I am the departmental night owl). Whew! It has been such an amazing and busy year, so every horizontal surface has become a shelf!

Do you like to talk about your own art when it’s in progress?

Seldom with people … more often, it’s the work itself that I have a dialogue with. It presents me with new information and ideas as it’s being constructed. Unless I am making discoveries along the way, it’s not a satisfying journey. But once a work is completed, then I can talk endlessly about it.

How do you know when a work is finished?

That can be such a challenge, especially with a medium that’s as plastic as digital! I know that I am finished when all the elements conceptually link up for me. Also, when there isn’t anything left that distracts me from the work’s larger meanings. When I let things grow and evolve, it reaches a point where the work takes on a life of its own and I can see new things that I never imagined.

Would you rather have not enough to do with your day or too much?

I can’t imagine not having enough to do. As I tell my students: An artist’s work is never done.

What’s one of your favorite works of art?

I’d started with the intention of replacing the face of the woman in this image. Her face was nearly life-size on my screen, and I was sizing a different woman’s face on a new layer. We were eye to eye, and it was like I heard her voice in my head saying, ‘‘Please don’t take me away. I want to be remembered… I want to be part of this picture.’’ This may not be as crazy as it sounds. It’s not uncommon to hear authors say that once they heard their character’s voice in their head, the book practically wrote itself. Keeping that woman’s face was one of my best decisions—and a great lesson in listening to your work.

What art do you consume to help fuel your work?

I typically find that books and music are my best inspirations. Looking at visual work more often becomes a catalog of things that have already been done. Books are more abstract. They take me into my imagination and put my mind to work creating images in my head. When I’m working with moving work, I often play music, frequently one track over and over. I find that playing music gives the work an invisible sense of rhythm.

Who, if anyone, do you show your in-progress work to?

I have a few artist friends in Europe who I share what I am working on. (Thanks, Sabine, Wuon-Gean, and Jehsong!) This works out well since when it’s late at night for me, it’s morning over there. Often the sharing is just for fun and encouragement, but frequently, they’ll catch some little details and problems that I didn’t notice.

What’s an image that makes you feel old?

This is a polaroid of me and my Saturn V rocket. (It was so precious to me that I never dared fly it!) It is incredible to believe that we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing!

What do you think is the age at which people are at their most creative?

I feel that as long as you stay very curious about literally everything, that creativity never really goes away. The one advantage that getting older has is that you can get more disciplined… and trusting of that. Hard work is almost always more important than simple creativity.

What do you feel when you look at your past work?

I’m careful about what I let out of the studio, so I rarely cringe. I’m more likely to remember what was going on in my life when I made it. Frequently, and especially with very old work, I’m often surprised to discover the seeds of work that would come much later. Only in hindsight can you see the threads that run through your work and make sense of your life.

In all honesty, what were the last 5 songs you listened to?

Lord of the Desert by 3hattrio. Over and over … It had a pacing, mood, and rhythm that seemed to fit this project. And I’m playing it now … yet again. (It helps that they are friends.)

What’s an image that represents what success means to you.

Being included in a history of photography textbook felt like I had reached the point where I had made a recognizable contribution to my field. At nearly 600 pages, ‘‘Seizing the Light; A Social and Aesthetic History of Photography’’ by Robert Hirsch is a remarkable book! Originally, I was simply to be included as an artist, but as I continued to correspond with Hirsch, I was invited to help edit its new chapter on digital photography. When I took over teaching the history of photography from a retiring colleague, it was nice to hold up the book to show that I knew what I was talking about.

How much of your work is accidental?

I wish it was more! That is the hard thing about working digitally: There are seldom happy accidents. You have to build that possibility into part of your process and remain open to possibilities. In this project, it was while scrubbing the video timeline that I noticed that there were some things that became invisible at slow speeds. That was such a revelation, and those discoveries caused me to change the timings on this project. But on the flip side, digital work is perfect for the control freak.

Is it better for an artist to take themselves too seriously or not seriously enough?

You have to be serious enough to be a professional but not so serious that you lose the joy of discovery or become arrogant. If you fall into that trap, you run the risk of losing sight of why you make art. Otherwise, it could be very easy to become discouraged. I have a tradition where I have to work on art after every exhibition opening. It’s a reminder that getting to make art is its own reward. It’s serious fun!

Is it better for an artist to be an optimist or a pessimist?

I think you have to be an optimist. There are so many challenges in making art! For me, every big project hits a point of frustration where things just aren’t working. And over time, I’ve learned that it’s just part of the process, and if I keep pushing, that’s when the magic will happen. I’ve been doing this for long enough that I know it’s “simply a matter of work” (to quote one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies). I have a saying for this process: The muses don’t cough up the goods until they know you’re serious!

If you could have any artist, living or dead, paint a portrait of you, who would you choose?

It would be Vermeer. Then I could see how he worked and we could settle the debate as to whether he used optical devices (such as lenses and mirrors) to make his work—and how.

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Meural Exclusive: Edward Bateman's "LeafScape"

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