Scot J Wittman Artist Interview

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your work.

This interview is dedicated to my mother who recently passed away: default kindness, unflinching belief in others, maternal. She, and my father who happily is still with us, raised me to value travel. By the time I graduated college I experienced dozens of countries. As a rambunctious child I ran fearlessly atop Hadrian’s Wall. Entering my teenage years I floated in the Dead Sea, climbed to the top of Teotihuacan, and went deep into the secret cave of… it’s a secret. I even ditched my own graduation (sorry Rutgers) to compete in the Japan Open for Frisbee Golf. In recent years I have found myself less interested in broad travel and more interested in living locals’ perspectives. In January, just before Covid-19 decimated travel, I returned from an artist residency in Iceland; I spent a lot of the time off-roading with friends I made within 24 hours of my plane landing. We had amazing fun, I saw sights (at altitudes) I would never ever had seen on my own, and we are looking forward to the next time we are all together. All of these experiences funnel into my studio. Some of my earliest works involve maps of my travels; it is why my website is mapographer dot com. Using maps from around the world, I would cut and collage portraits of iconic figures. Xerox copies of territories that kings and queens ruled provided the palette of tones to create six-foot-tall facial portraits of the kings and queens themselves. Sites of exploration were collaged to create likenesses of explorers. This is touched upon in my TEDx talk “From Paralysis to Muralist.” Today people say my dance-centric work is very different, but I disagree. The recent Grand Jeté series discusses person as icon or referent, and showcases place as the only other main element.

Tell us about the themes you pursue in your work.

One critic wrote that my work invites unlikely characters to commingle on stage for a single moment one-act play. I was showing 50 works of my silhouette series at the Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia. After years of collaging black and white maps together to make large portraits, this new intimate silhouette series involved cutting colorful silhouettes from my personal travel maps into tableaus. The old black and white collage works of historical figures were built on the Appolonian and Dionysian facets of printed maps: the data of region and the beauty of composition. The new color works of fictional characters offered the suspense of Victorian silhouette, allowing the viewer to dream. Staged figures became touchstones: a maitrê d’ with a playful monkey on his top-hat, a bride wearing scuba gear, a brain surgeon balancing an anvil on her finger. Often compositions included animals as symbols. Just as royal court portraits involved a dog connoting fidelity (hence the name Fido), my works incorporated a whole range of symbols. Between the characters, costumes and symbols, the works illustrated tensions and tendencies between people. This is the universal experience I am mining: how and why people come to develop relationships. The balance between people. The imbalance between people. The nexus, blindspot or interstitial space between the two. Just prior to the Grand Jeté Series, the Silhouette Series allowed me to conjure any character I wished. Remaining focused on the same themes, I grew to believe viewers would more closely relate to work that illustrated real people in real places. This led to the Grand Jeté series. We are entering a human/post-human landscape with expanding capabilities and shifting desires. As we reach beyond our fingertips, our desires occupy a fantastic space. My work raises an eyebrow to the new future as much as it keeps a nostalgic watch on the shrinking present.

Your work focused on the body, what image and concepts are you trying to convey.

In a private basement studio just outside Manhattan a few years ago, international dance talent Peiju Chien-Pott met me for a photo session. I was looking to capture a specific pose in efforts to generate my own source material for a 300-ft. wide mural. Quickly the session turned into something different. I learned in that moment, for me, it’s not about recording a single contour in space but rather capturing the essence of talent and ability. To discuss what happened next, first I need to go back a few years. I was working with Dr. Ramille Shah in Chicago. As an artist in residence at ThreeWalls in the West Loop I would work with scientists at major Institutions in the heart of the city. Dr. Shah’s impressive work uses technologies to advance individuals’ bodies’ performance. I still am in awe of her work, and the ability the medical profession has to rebuild and restore. Back then, I was also working in tandem with prosthetics designers literally across the street. Equally in awe of their ability to provide for individuals, I had front row seats to their vanguard technologies and remarkable designs. The more I appreciated their work, the greater my interest grew towards those who have honed their bodies to do incredible things without the assistance of current biotechnologies. This is the seed that first saw a ray of sunlight beaming into the basement studio photo session with Peiju. While witnessing her brilliance of movement, I thought about the duality of performance as literal and metaphorical. What started as a simple snapshot session quickly morphed into something profound. I popped my camera off the tripod and started capturing dance, and the dancer, rather than a single moment. It is difficult to explain, but, it was the moment when a gear locked into place. I felt in that moment that dancers reify the dream of natural performance for the rest of us; they remind us of our human core. I wanted to bring the moment out of the basement and into a space more regal. Seeing the body in marvelous performance situated amidst noble settings allows one to think of their own bodies and their own edges of possibilities. Metaphor on the gallery wall is meant to inspire metacognition in the viewer. The body of the Grand Jeté dancer becomes both aspirational ideal and record of ephemera.

How has the pandemic affected you, your artwork and day to day.

These three questions are serious, as I feel so deeply for so many. It is through the lens of empathy and appreciation of others that I see myself as relatively unaffected. I still buy food nearby (Philadelphia’s famous Reading Terminal market is a block away and has remained open), still teach a full roster of classes and complete my Dean of Arts responsibilities (via remote learning/connecting, for Rutgers Preparatory School), still work at home (major drawings as well as quotidian necessities), and still watch too much TV (lately reruns of House). Concerning the second part of the question, I am using the long hours staying safely inside to make drawings - Faber Castell recognized my work online only days ago. Classically trained as a painter, I have always enjoyed making extremely detailed drawings. I just completed one of my most intricate drawings: Bear and Ballerina. There is a short list of investors who receive one drawing from me every year; if the Bear and Ballerina drawing does not sell by the end of 2020, one person on the list will receive it gratis. This was an opportunity that I initiated a few years ago; in a short time I will be creating a ‘lite’ version of this opportunity for any ten people who contact me by the end of summer wishing to participate. There are two main differences with this new version: it is more affordable, and money coming to me will turn into donations to help those affected by the pandemic. The third part of the question asks about day to day coping with the pandemic. I have been keeping strict self-imposed limitations with tight circles of cordon sanitaire. I have also been focusing on the positive: time to connect online with others, time to cook slower food, time to make art in peaceful solitude, time to learn new skills. Admittedly I am feeling a bit restless. I miss spending time with friends. I miss large stadium size gatherings and local social events. I miss Azavea meetups. I miss REC member sessions in Philadelphia. I miss tasting beers at Barcade that smell like bacon. I miss tackling other peoples’ dogs. I miss simple interaction. Above all, I miss having the option to do all these things, as my life is actually not so different day to day. It is like looking at a vase that has a solid mass interior rather than an open space that could hold water or flowers; the form looks the same but it is the valuable space inside that provides shape, structure and meaning. Until I have the space to come and go with greater ease, I will stay in, make more drawings, and watch more House.

What is your working process, what tools and mediums do you use.

My process involves a lot of research, scouting, meeting and luck. Luck is officially part of my process. It was raining the last time I met a dancer while we hiked together uphill to a hidden cave quarry. I wanted to salvage the time together by shooting in a different location just fifty yards down the way, but between hotboxing dudes in a truck on ‘set’ and five year old girls whizzing around on ATV’s, it was one big mess. We hiked back down and drove to an alternate location. During travel time, the sun came out. We had the new location all to ourselves, felt great, set up shop, and I made one of my best selling photographs. This is typical of my location shoots: not the rain, but the planning and executing. Just as I have hundreds of missed shots on my card in pursuit of The Shot, I also have location experiences that are relegated to “just fun experiences” as if that is a bad thing. Once, as part of the Makers Circle residency in North Carolina, I hiked to the top of a mountain because of a fellow artist’s suggestion - once I got there, after concluding it was of no ‘use’ to me, all I could do was spend an hour enjoying the breath-taking 360-degree view. Could be worse! When weather and location do synchronize however it is as if nothing else is happening; I am totally in the moment. Even setting up is an enjoyable time. While the dancer is warming up, I am arranging all my equipment. Because it is my aim to spotlight the dancer, I use large softboxes. They are mounted on Profoto wireless monolights. Using these lights allows me to focus on the moment and interact with the dancer rather than fiddle around with the actual lights: no cords, simple power adjustments at my fingertips, intuitive. I have been using flagship Nikon cameras to capture the moment; soon I will be shooting larger works with large format cameras. It is my pleasure to reveal here for the first time that I have been working on a 2.0 version of this series. “Boulder Dancer” that was exhibited in the Whitney Biennial in a collective, and every other image in the series created around the same time frame, features a single dancer. On the horizon is a body of work involving numerous dancers. One image features a couple near a ‘private’ waterfall. Another will feature an entire dance collective once I shoot it; scheduling is proving to be challenging. The work will involve more lights, more assistants and more luck to make it all work. My process starts with the vision in my head: the end product. Then I ‘simply’ have to do whatever needs to be done to realize that vision.

What do you feel the role of artists and photographers is in society.

Dread Scott and I were sharing a pizza in his studio a bit ago. There’s a place near him that does something to garlic that is amazing; my mouth is watering just thinking about it right now. While chewing and chatting, I learned more about his upcoming (at the time) Rebellion Reenactment. I value and appreciate Dread for the work he does; his art opens [my] eyes, and I find his work important and powerful. Jumpcut from Brooklyn to the British Isles: I quote a very young musician: “I know life is not always beautiful, that there is ugliness in the world; that’s why I’ve learned I want to write beautiful music because I want to make the world a better place.” - Alma Deutscher. Crossfade from that brilliant young girl’s quote to a Harvard cognitive psychologist professor’s quote: “Photography is a kind of virtual reality, and it helps if you can create the illusion of being in an interesting world.” - Steven Pinker. I am trying to place my work in the center of this triangle. The Grand Jeté series is meant to shine a search light on topics, deal in the commerce of aesthetics, and challenge what is perceived to be the edge of possibility. Through showcasing and framing, I am creating photographic moments in hopes that viewers are moved to action. That action can be simple rumination or radical involvement. If the action is direct purchase of the work, donations are made to medical facilities, dance communities and parklands. My role as artist involves being a contributing part of my community rather than standing independent of my community.

Exhibitions and public events are currently on hold, have you any projects or goals you are working toward in the meantime.

I am very excited about my upcoming hybrid arts traveling solo exhibition Duencia. This is a work that has been in the planning stages for years and was just beginning to coalesce before the pandemic. Three galleries have already backdated Openings for this exhibition until 2021; one is still hoping for the very end of 2020, as printed invites have been ordered. It is all very thrilling. The genesis involved a desire to bring the static image of dancers from the wall into a space that may impact more viscerally or in a more fluid and profound manner. To put this hybrid media grand exhibition together, I started meeting in 2016 with a range of collaborators. Virtual Reality, 3D-printing, and special ceramics are involved in the show along with the Grand Jeté photographs. And live dance performance at the Openings! “In the studio” I have had initial meetings with dancers, engineers, programmers, assistants and advisors all before Covid-19 stunted our scheduling. Brainstorming dance sessions, held in a grand theater on stage, were captured on video and can be found at Duencia dot com. 3D-prints of dancers have sold, generating initial seed money. Funding from different sources is providing supplemental support. Conversations with technologists took place in private studios and public commercial venues. It was nice to meet in person and point, hold, manipulate, experiment and learn: underrated moments of clarity in today’s situation. These initial meetings seem distant. I am eager to resume conversations. Dots are plotted, but need to be connected. New Jeté works are scheduled. I will be showcasing new recent drawings of dancers and wildlife in Duencia, made during the pandemic. Ceramics and 3D-prints will allow people to walk around similar themes in the round, and Virtual Reality will allow people to have similar experiences in a different dimension. What may be most dramatic are the dance performances. The work is designed to scale from a minimal couple of traveling dancers in corporate galleries to dozens of participating dancers and dance departments at selected scholastic venues. When the proper time reveals itself, people coming together to see dance performance amidst related art objects will be a welcome celebration.


Recent Posts

See All