The walls of Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s Bed-Stuy studio are covered in images, wide-ranging in their content. The Queen of England, Vogue models, a ring through a bull’s nose. Mug shots, head shots, a couple’s embrace. These will serve as visual instruments for the work ahead. Existing bodies will be cut up, sliced up, reworked, rearranged. Not in collage, but from the mind and by hand. Painstakingly so. On Quinn’s canvas, the beautiful and the less beautiful collide with one another, forming creatures that feel, in turns, peculiar, powerful, and unnerving. They are less portraits than they are the result of, in Quinn’s own words, the “psychological excavation of the internalized world of a human being.”
The story of how Quinn arrived at what has become his signature style–and the one that would place him squarely in the middle of the art world conversation–is one of those made-for-movie moments. In 2013, Quinn was preparing five works for an art salon in a Brooklyn brownstone. He came up one piece short. The day of the salon, with just hours to go, Quinn began to paint quickly. It was nearly stream of consciousness, an old memory resurrected. Lips, an ear, eyes behind frames. Eventually, he stepped back from the canvas and realized he had, in ways, captured his brother. He called the work “Charles” and brought it with him to the salon. The piece was a success. The rest, as that worn saying goes, is history.
Like “Charles,” Quinn’s genesis as an artist is an unexpected and compelling story. Born one of five on the South Side of Chicago, Quinn’s family lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, a famously impoverished and violent housing project. His parents were illiterate. His brothers each dropped out of school. The odds, from the start, were not stacked in Quinn’s favor. But in ninth grade, having cultivated some nascent artistic talent with the encouragement of his family, Quinn was awarded an academic scholarship to the Culver Academies boarding school in Indiana. He moved away, only to have tragedy alter the course of his future soon after. His mother died unexpectedly, and then, without warning, his family disappeared.
It is the hardships that Quinn faced that makes his triumph all the more sweet. Without the support net so many others take for granted, he graduated from Wabash College in 2000, after which he received his MFA from NYU in 2002. Years after working on his craft, Quinn is hitting his stride, exhibiting solo shows with the likes of the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, M+B in Los Angeles, Pace Gallery in London, and the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn. This week, at Art Basel, he’ll be teamed once again with Rhona Hoffman.
Below, we talk to Quinn about enduring lessons, remembered visions, and always working in the present.
Former occupation and your most notable memory there:
My former job prior to being a full-time professional fine artist was that of a teacher. I taught at-risk youth as I helped them to avoid further criminal justice involvement via professional development, education, and behavioral change. Teaching a young man to read and write was my most notable memory. Never shall I forget such a momentous experience. At times, the mere thought of it brings me to tears.
Your childhood was extraordinarily challenging. Do you remember, within that environment, your first introduction to art as a kid?
My first introduction to art as a child shares the same real estate as my first memory. My mother, a poor woman, had given me, perhaps as a gift, a large coloring book and a box of crayons, giving birth to my overwhelming obsession with creating art. Her sacrifice within an already financially strapped circumstance laid the groundwork for the blossoming of a buried talent—as though she had given me two gifts.
Is there anyone that helped you cultivate your talent?
My father and one of my brothers, Richard, cultivated my talent. Every weekend, my father and I, sitting at the kitchen table, drew comic book characters. He taught me to use my arm as a drawing tool, avoiding limitations as dictated from drawing by the wrist. Erasing marks was not an option; all erasers were removed from my pencils. His statute was resolute: every mistake was designed to make my drawing abilities more proficient. My father was formally uneducated and illiterate, yet he taught me the most enduring aspects of my skill-set.
Oftentimes, my parents were unable to pay the light bill; candles became the replacement. For entertainment, Richard and I had drawing competitions, where speed was important, which developed my confidence in intentionally laying down marks. Mistakes had to be avoided; Richard, being many years older than I, was incredibly fast. Through sheer determination, I won most of the competitions.
Do you work to be that person to children you see in similar situations to the one you were in?
It is my hope to be an inspiration for young people who live in environments similar to that in which I was born and raised.
Do you think there was magic at work when you were creating “Charles”?
Perhaps. It was certainly the first time in more than ten years I had felt such freedom and happiness in my studio art practice.
Your work deals with identity as a result of experience. What experience has most shaped your own identity?
Identity as informed by experience certainly stakes a claim in my work, yet exploring the spectrum of humanity functions as the underpinning of my work. I am not sure if I could intelligently identify any given experience that has most shaped my identity; arguably, such would be a philosophical debate. All experiences are inextricably tied, a complex set of choices, both known and unknown, along a continuum of time.
The pieces feel like this balance between the beautiful and the grotesque. Would you say that life, in some way, is similar to this?
That which is beautiful is born from that which is unpleasant, chaotic, and grotesque. Upon being born into the world, the baby takes her first breath, which is a beautiful reality, but one that can exist only with the signature of breath, which is, without fail, bound to the contractual agreement for the child’s assured death, which will be, no doubt, an unpleasant, chaotic, or, depending on circumstances yet unseen, grotesque reality.
What is your process in amassing imagery?
My process for amassing imagery is democratic, happening with a tremendous amount of liberty. Initially, I receive “visions” — visual images of works — from which point research is undertaken to gather photographic references that satisfy the components of the visions. This process is continuous; files of images are organized into different categories; works are completed accordingly. My visions are my preliminary sketches; actual pre-drawings and sketches do not exist. I never record my visions; I never forget them.
When you work, do you have all the pieces together in advance or is it more stream of consciousness, building as you go?
While photographic references are placed together in advance, the actual process in creating my works is dictated by working in the “present,” where intuition serves as the atmospheric platform: decisions are divorced from excessive thinking; self-interpretation is removed; the work directs me as I collaborate with my materials.
I read you have anxiety, as I’m sure most artists do, about not being good enough. How does that fear fuel your practice?
I am incredibly, deeply insecure about my work. I find that no work I have created is good, although, at times, they appear to hit the right notes. My visions for the works are superior. My life’s quest is to create a work that would be palpable enough for my mother to come back to life. There continues to be an unfathomable distance between my current work and the work I seek to create. The current works are mere sketches in comparison. Therefore, it is imperative that I improve, develop, evolve. Such a dire predicament fuels my practice.
How did you find your current workspace and where is it?
My wife and I purchased our first home in Brooklyn. It’s a two-family home. My studio is based on the ground level of the house.
What do you eat for breakfast?
I normally eat egg whites or scrambled eggs, some bacon, perhaps two pieces of sausages, and an apple. I also drink a few glasses of water and a cup of coffee.
What’s a day typically look like for you, from start to finish?
Normally, I wake up at around 7:30 a.m. or 8 a.m., go for a walk with my wife, have breakfast and coffee, exercise in the studio, and begin working at either 10:30 a.m. or 11:30 a.m. I normally work in the studio until midnight or 1 a.m. On many occasions, I work until 2 a.m.; sometimes, until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m, in which case I may start the next work day in the studio a bit later. My work day in the studio is divided into three sections; each section is composed of five hours; between each section I have a fifteen minute break.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?
I mostly listen to podcasts — “Fresh Air with Terry Gross,” “The Brilliant Idiots with Charlamagne Tha God and Andrew Schultz,” and “The Read with Crissle and Kid Fury” — while also listening to podcasts about world history and film criticism. I tend to listen to Donny Hathaway’s music and other artists of the same genre, along with a dose of hip-hop albums, such as Jay-Z’s and Kendrick Lamar’s latest albums. Occasionally, I listen to audio books.
Least favorite question people ask you as an artist:
Any question that is a clear indication of a racial and prejudice viewpoint is my least favorite question.
What are you currently working on?
Currently, I am preparing for two solo-exhibitions scheduled to open next year—my second solo show with M+B Gallery and my first solo show with Salon 94 Gallery—as well as for my group show at the Drawing Center Museum, in addition to other museum shows.
What medium or tool are you most interested in presently and why?
I am most interested in black charcoal and soft pastel. I enjoy the tactile experience of dry materials.
What material do you go through the most of?
Black charcoal and fixative.
What book/ film/ work of art most recently captured your attention and why?
The paintings of Liu Xiaodong and Jack Whitten have recently captured my attention because both painters are uncanny in their abilities to manipulate the materials in ways that are somewhat unearthly. I find their processes difficult to understand, which is why I find their paintings to be terribly compelling and enriching.
What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?
1a. Being that the future is unknown, it is far more beneficial and powerful to be optimistic rather than pessimistic about it.
2a. Be grateful, work hard, and visualize where you want to be: faith without work is dead.
3a. One day in heaven is better than a hundred years in hell.
What are you looking forward to at Art Basel?
On exhibition this year at Art Basel will be a body of work for my solo booth with Rhona Hoffman Gallery. While I look forward to seeing the works installed in the booth, I am quite nervous about them because of my uncertainty and insecurity. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic—I know not what the future may bring.