Relics from his past, glimpses of his future
Bill Mead's pentimento pieces span time in geologic layers of paint
by Paul Smart
There was a period of almost half a year when painter Bill Mead, who lives on the edge of Woodstock's legendary
Maverick Arts Colony, had to wait for a contractor to get up the big pieces that he needed to finish the studio in which he
works nightly. The time, he says, had an excruciating quality to it - at least until he was able to fill it by sheetrocking and
doing the other finishing touches necessary to give his artmaking a proper home once more.
Bill's standing in front of a paint-splattered wall on which a series of his abstract works, all teetered between the
decorative and otherworldly, hang. He's talking about what he does, how long he's been doing it - maybe even the big
question of why a painter keeps painting even when he's not showing, not actually making any money from what most
drives his life. The wife and kid are inside the main house making dinner. For now, the painter is describing the other half
of his heart: that given to the process of creativity.
We've established that we both come from the same central Virginia city, Lynchburg, and know quite a few people and
places in common. My kid's now playing with his daughter, Clara. I've written about Bill's wife, a former WAMC
newscaster and current touring author of Public Radio: Behind the Scenes.
Mead started realizing that he wanted to really do something with art toward the end of his high school years, and ended
up studying the stuff at Virginia Commonwealth University when the place was starting to emerge as one of the leading
lights of contemporary art. He went on to museum jobs in Baltimore and New York before getting accepted into two of
the top colonies for emerging artists in existence these days: the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown,
Massachusetts and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture up in central Maine.
Such places are built like launching pads for the most serious artists. Provincetown takes a full seven-month
commitment to straight studio time. Skowhegan's a long summer of intense studies with the nation's top contemporary
artists. Both are designed to impart serious dedication to one's creativity - a drive to explore one's work until it becomes
wholly original, completely personalized, yet tied to the rigorous line that makes up the historic arc of modern art.
After attending the two, Mead's career seemed to take off like a rocket. He began using raw teapot shapes to center
what are basically his painting experiments, and they started selling - selling so well, in fact, that for a brief time he
became known as "the teapot guy." At that point he decided to lose the central objects, the better to concentrate on
what he was exploring: the ghostlike pentimento effects that occur when an artist paints over his first effort, which years
later become discernable. In the process, he lost the momentum of his gallery career. No matter, in practical terms,
given that Mead had already built up a real-world business building museum display stands that would support him and
his family, leaving his art apart from any need for monetary income.
We explore the idea of pentimento for a moment - a term I had first learned via the Lillian Hellmann memoir of the same
name. It's a key to what Mead makes, from starting processes to final acts of completion, from choice of images to
represent to uses of color and even paint (the artist tends to work with a milk-based casein, very flat-surfaced and
"It always starts with an act of putting my mark on," he says of his painting, which he likes to do at the end of each day
- almost as a summing-up, as well as a reminder of who he is, what it is he does.
Sometimes those marks are comments on decorative arts: circles or floral designs; maybe a houselike shape. It hardly
matters. He tends to work in series of works, all loosely based around a similar concept. Nowadays the works are red. In
the past they've had floral elements - or teapots.
He builds his painting surfaces out of small pieces of wood that he puzzles together.
Then the painting gradually takes on its own life, over a period that can take anywhere from hours to months. He directs
it, responds to what he sees; moves paintings along the wall and at some point into the house, where he sees how it is
to live with what's been created. If it doesn't work, it comes back home to the studio.
Mead shows me piles of works that he's moved beyond and has started recycling, creating new works over the surfaces
of old. "I find that the important parts of a work tempt me to bring them back to the surface. What I do is a lot of
scraping and erasing, then submerging things back beneath color," he says. "It's a process that happens over and over
The works on his walls represent various stages of completion, from the finished to the just-started, which he terms
"glimpses into my own future." But all have a similar sense of accomplishment, being equal parts timeless and
"I try to distance myself from what I'm painting so I'm not thinking too much about it while doing it," he says, noting how
he'll listen to news shows or sports to engage all but the more creative parts of his brain while he's working. "I want to
keep the art from becoming precious." He says the process is a mixture: part wrestling, part "flow."
He says that he wishes he were a better salesman of what he creates. But all his training, including the 20-plus years
that he's put into his daily creative work in his studios, with these paintings, has taught him another serious lesson: that
to be really good, art has to feel ready to be out in the world - and not just for anyone, but for the painter himself. "In the
end, it's a way of keeping my sanity," he says. "I come in here and work things out that I like. And that's art."
And pentimento? How does it apply to his life, as well as his paintings - that act of allowing what's been done before to
shine through, to inform the surface?
It's a recognition, in the final rounds, of the powers inherent in time, in sticking to things - a recognition of the
complexities involved in seriousness, in adulthood. It's the fuel in Bill Mead's art.