Interview with William Biggers—The Evolution of an Artist

21 05 2011

A few years ago, Bill Biggers contacted me through my blog, requesting permission to use a floral photograph as inspiration for a painting. After visiting his art websites, I wrote back and told him that I would be honored for him to paint from one of my photos. We kept in touch via e-mail and two years ago we met in person in Greenville, S.C. I was visiting my friend Carmen, who had moved to nearby Greer a few years earlier. Carmen and I met him at his home, where he gave us a tour of his studio and work, followed by a leisurely lunch in downtown Greenville.

Bill is truly a Renaissance man—skilled in so many artistic disciplines. While he is a very talented illustrator, painter, and stained glass artist, I especially liked his pottery. I collect Raku and he had some lovely pieces in his home, all created during his incarnation as a professional potter in his studio, Mountain Pond Pottery, at Lake Lanier and Lake Nottley. I felt an immediate kinship with him because like me, he loves acquiring and applying new creative skills. Graphic design, painting, drawing, printmaking, marketing, writing, pottery, stained glass painting—he does them all and he does them well.

Born in Atlanta, GA, Bill now lives in Greenville, S.C., where he creates portrait paintings and drawings on commission. I found his diverse career fascinating and he graciously agreed to be interviewed and share his career and works with my readers.

When did you first discover your creative talents?
I began drawing and painting immediately after eye surgery at age three. I could see individual leaves on trees, birds, distance and most important—single, not double images. That progressed to an impromptu crayon and paint mural on the lengthy hallway to my bedroom. Needless to say, at first Mom was upset but fell into gales of laughter.

Where did you study art?
I continued drawing and painting through high school. I had no formal training until my first classes at Georgia State University, where I majored in visual arts. I studied under the remarkable and late Jim Sitton. Additionally, I took painting courses under the late Joseph Perrin, printmaking under Jim McLean (Editor’s note: McLean retired in 1994 and has since illustrated 11 books, most of them with well-known language guru and punmeister, Richard Lederer), and pottery under a man named Potter.

Did you inherit your artistic talents from your parents?
Short answer—maybe. Late in life my mother surprised us all with a seemingly sudden and remarkable interest and talent in multiple-layer painting and firing on porcelain, which shares some characteristics with stained glass painting. Her work was beautiful.

My father, Bill Sr., was head of the Meteorology Department for Eastern Airlines, and in WWII he taught American and British pilots weather and navigation. After his retirement, photography became his hobby and lasted until he lost vision. My sister, Sydney, is a highly creative interior designer and her daughter, Lea, is a gifted jewelry designer.

What other creative mediums have you worked in?
First and foremost—drawing and painting in all painting mediums—from watercolor to oil, acrylic to tempera. That’s the most consistent media—especially watercolor—which is the most ancient and long-lasting medium. I’ve enjoyed printmaking—especially old techniques of etching and woodblock printing. I’m still an enthusiastic stained glass fan, but had to close my shop due to illness. The physicality was too demanding and I couldn’t do any work for over two years. Now I occasionally work primarily in watercolor.

Tell us about the evolution of your career.
I worked in the graphic design field for 17 years, specializing in visual tools to aid in teaching, illustration, printing, promotional and marketing materials, writing and heading an award-winning design team of artists and photographers. During my GSU tenure, I completely designed the then new Educational Media facility from the ground up with the universities chief architect. The facility design included plans for HAVAC, electrical, space usage, and a complete layout for departments of Graphics/Photography, Film/Video, Distribution, Audio and supportive staff.

I left GSU to develop award-winning consumer catalogs for an importer. Concurrently and five years prior, I developed Mountain Pond Pottery, creating one-of-a-kind and limited edition raku and stoneware. I liked raku because it’s an art with such an exciting process. (The creative process of Raku as practiced today has evolved from methods developed in Japan in the sixteenth century. A Korean tile maker’s hand-pinched tea ceremony bowls so impressed the Japanese emperor that he named the tile maker, Raku, meaning pleasure. The Raku family practices pottery to this day. Westerners have built on that simple and elegant approach by making a wide variety of forms and formulating more distinctive color glazes. After forming, bisque firing then glazing, the piece is thrust into a preheated red-hot kiln at nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. At the time of glaze maturity, when the piece is close to transparent red, the piece is lifted out of the kiln with tongs and/or gloves, then plunged into a container of sawdust, straw, or a combustible material like oil rags. The piece is tightly covered and sealed to allow carbons released from the combustibles to penetrate the glaze and clay body which produces the characteristic black clay body and individual and surprisingly unpredictable glaze results now characteristic of Raku—each finished piece is scrubbed when cooled to remove soot, and bears the distinctive marks of tongs or gloves adding character to the form.)

After working with the importer, I was Resident Potter at the John C. Campbell Folk School, while also heading the marketing department there. I also taught and authored a history of the Brass Town Carvers, a then 60+ year old program at JCCS patterned after Winter Work in carving by Danish farmers.

After JC Campbell I traveled west to California to work at the former Pocket Ranch Institute and the Star Foundation. High in the mountains above the vineyards surrounding Geyserville, I produced marketing materials and a motivational video. I was also on the management team for the large 2,000 acre retreat and psychotherapeutic facility.

After several years I returned to the southeast and soon worked as Operations Director and Music Personnel Manager for the Greenville Symphony, in Greenville, S.C. Four years later I had to get back into art and left the Symphony. I took some time off and subsequently returned to my first love—the visual arts. I took a short drive to Tryon, N.C. and came upon a glass studio—Tryon Decorative Glass—owned by stained glass artist Michael Kitchen. We hit it off discussing art and art glass. I was amazed with his work.

Under Kitchen’s instruction, I learned the art of glass painting with multiple layers—painting with ground glass mixed with bonding agents, which remain on the painted glass surface long enough to place in kiln. This assured the ground glass would stay on the painted glass through handling and firing; the pieces were then fired in special glass kilns. I also learned window design and fabrication with Kitchen. At that time he was contracted to create windows for many United House Of Prayer cathedrals and small churches throughout the East and Midwest. These projects were more than inspiring. Kitchen now works with Glass Works Stained Glass Studio in Charlotte, N.C.

Two years later, in January 1998, I ventured out on my own to create Biggers Glass Painting & Stained Glass Design, with glass studio customers throughout the U.S. Throughout my career incarnations, I continued to create portraits, drawings, and products for communications, business, crafts and the arts—my specialty and passion remains portraits. (View Bill’s stained glass painting and design portfolio here.)

Do you draw every day? What is your favorite medium? 
Yes, if you include doodling. Usually it is just a couple of minutes of sketching per day because my stamina is greatly reduced. When I feel capable, I do full drawings and paintings in acrylics and primarily watercolor.

My favorite medium is watercolor—the oldest painting medium. Chemically, watercolors are pigments made from ground minerals and dyed inert powder, held together generally with gum arabic made from the acacia tree. Watercolors capture luminosity and offer a range equal to and often exceeding that of other mediums. I’ve devoted a page to the history of watercolor here on my website.

On average, how long does it take to complete a work?
The time to create a work varies enormously. Paintings take longer than drawings. Other major factors include the amount of detail and style, number of subjects and size. The time is quite variable, especially since I can only paint for short durations.

Can you explain the process on a portrait commission from start to finish? Which commissions do you enjoy the most?
It can vary by medium—oils and acrylic paintings take longer—yet a watercolor can easily be as time-consuming. First comes the initial contact and commission. I ask many questions of my client to get as much verbal information as possible to determine their needs and hopes. A portrait is special to people and I like to give them that opportunity to co-create in the beginning. Ideally I like to work on a thumbnail sketch and feature detail of a live model, and take photographs of the desired position, and from all angles. From there, I take photos of the subject and retire to my studio to begin working. For out-of-town commissions, I rely entirely on photos—requesting not only the preferred sitting, but also as many photos as possible of the subject to get a more complete feeling for the portrait.

It is hard to distinguish which commissions I like most as “I’ve never met a commission I didn’t like!” I like portraits of men, women, children and pets… the rare and occasional landscape or still life… and respect for the nuances of watercolor seem to outweigh any other medium.

How would you describe your illustration/painting style?
I “play” in every style I’m aware of, but for commissions I generally lean heavily toward “new realism,” with intense detail—at least as much detail as I can muster.

What are your influences? What artists inspire you?
Truthfully, that is the most difficult question. As a child I was amazed by artists like Norman Rockwell, Leger, Wyatt—the work of 1950s realists that I saw in magazines and in museums and galleries. As I matured, the love for these artists continued, but a mountain of other artists flooded in—from Expressionists to Impressionists, late 19th century realists to cubists, Fauves—almost every style and within those styles, many artists. 

My likes increased exponentially—I am a great lover of Monet, Manet and Van Gogh. My tastes jump back to the great 15th century European painters and sculptors. Later came appreciation for watercolor’s resurgence in the 2oth century and on to artists like Dali and other surrealists, and Picasso to Braque. Additionally, Motherwell, Frankenthaler, Pollock and just about every major artist known on the Abstract Expressionist scene—their creativity exploded into my artistic consciousness. Then there are conceptual artists like Christo and Oldenburg. A few of my favorites are the minimalists.

I have to mention the giants in stained glass design and painting from the 13th century to the 20th century—the late, great national treasure, Dick Millard. He was a friend, mentor and wild man spirit who died in March of this year. He is missed by his wife, Vicki, and literally thousands of fans worldwide.

My paintings don’t seem to reflect these many appreciations and love for visual diversity. However, I do think that these various movements expanded awareness and somehow enriched my experience as an artist. Additionally, living and working in California, Arizona, and the southeast has really influenced my work. (Above: Bill created this stained glass painting, “Prayer for Nation & The World,” to honor the 9/11 victims.)

How do you keep your work fresh and how did you come to formulate your style? Does it progress naturally? What is your creative motivation?
In a word—I try, but sometimes fail. I work at seeing things as they are in the moment. As to style, it seems to have matured to some extent. Opening my eyes each morning and scanning the room, I’m motivated and inspired by everything that surrounds me—shape, form, details and color—as much as my awareness can conceive. That wasn’t always a good characteristic—I was often described as a daydreamer in my primary school days. Catching up was swift and exciting at the college level.

What are you working on at present?
I’ve spent several months sketching and thinking about a personal project—something challenging—a young lady, hand draped over the back of a wooden chair, heavily lit from one side, only slight bounce of light on deeply shadowed part of face and form.

In the last couple of months I have worked on two caricature pieces for a niece—one for a mud run benefit that eventually was transferred to their team’s T-shirts. Another project was a caricature of her friend and co-worker’s Bon Voyage party. An occasional simple piece for a family member or friend keeps the cobwebs away. My niece suggested I render the Markley Chapel at Greenville’s 200-year-old Christ Church (right). The original artwork was sold at a silent auction to benefit the church’s school. Additionally, I made a few Giclée prints from the image, as well as notecard packages.

I noticed you have wide range of artwork on the walls in your home. Whose works do you admire and collect?
First, Jim Sitton, who was one of my university professors. He was a master of giant drawings with details, scratches and usually indistinguishable tiny forms of near microscopic size covering an entire piece. I also have a photolithograph by Jim McLean, one of the printing instructors at GSU. I was fortunate to visit China in late 1994 and acquired two contemporary Chinese paintings, one of the “Venice Of China” (an intaglio print), and a colorful primitive interior with several people. Both are outstanding and unfortunately, I do not know the artists. The three week+ trip expanded awareness and amazement of my favorite subject—other people. Photo © Bill Biggers

There are other works—photography by friends, a large print from another. My favorite pieces, which I would love to possess, are Dick Millard’s glass paintings and panels.

Tell me about your work with the Greenville Symphony.
After three interviews over three months, I was awarded the position of both Music Personnel Director and Operations Director. I managed the Symphony’s budget, attended all rehearsals and performances, contracted musicians and coordinated blind auditions. I supervised the Symphony’s music librarian and was responsible to the Music Director-conductor, David Pollitt. I suppose I enjoyed the rehearsals the most—seeing a piece be interpreted, then evolve into a performance. I also contracted numerous guest artist performers until the last few months there. In late 1994 Maestro Pollitt was offered a cultural conducting exchange with the conductor of the Shanghai Symphony. Three people were going and a benefactor paid to have me included. In all, I worked no more than three partial days followed by at least 10 days of travel. We first explored Shanghai, then Beijing, then went north to the emperor’s tombs and the Great Wall. Initially, we landed in Hong Kong, but didn’t explore until our last two days in China. A strong memory was the enormous bird market, spanning alley after alley, with species of birds I’ve never seen before nor since. I also enjoyed the Jade Market in Hong Kong. Outside the tents were old Chinese men with cloths covering the ground and many ancient jade pieces. The harbor in Shanghai was incredibly scenic and beautiful. The Chinese food was remarkable, with little similarity to Chinese food in the U.S.

How does the word passion relate to an artist?
First, I think any work, field or endeavor should done with some passion and not always with the major goal of producing income. If you are good at something, you can be a success in many ways. The key is to find that thing—or things—that jets your juices and stirs your passion enough to make each day an adventure.

If you weren’t an artist what would you be?
That’s easy—a writer and a psychologist.

Describe yourself in three words.
Curious, listener, friend

My Favorite…
Words: Peace & tranquility
Colors: Yellow & blue
Foods: Fish & pizza
Music: Mozart, Lennon, Tyler
Authors: Michener & Dickens, plus a few contemporary authors
Actors: Anthony Hopkins & Javier Bardem
Movies: To Kill A Mockingbird & Schindler’s List

No interview would be complete without the requisite “you’re stranded on a deserted island” question—what five things must you have with you?
Books, music, My Spiritual Path writings, nail clippers, and several pairs of reading and distance glasses (two pair of bifocals)

(Editor’s note: Interesting—he didn’t even mention art supplies! My answer was always something like: cheese, chocolate (never mind how they’re going to be kept fresh), a horde of fine black sharpie markers, a stack of sketchpads, and a guitar for entertainment (I could finally teach myself to play—something I’ve wanted to do for years). Then the obvious question is—why do we not say, “a boat,” so we won’t be stranded any longer!?)

I will never forget: Any slight inkling, step or expansion of awareness, and those whom I’ve loved

I wish I could: No wishes—I like to be surprised.

What is one thing you most want people to remember about you?
I guess, “He lived for a time.”

To see more of Bill’s portrait work, visit www.PortraitsByBiggers.com.

To see more of his glass painting, visit www.BiggersGlassPainting.com.

Both websites were designed by Windy Airey of Windy’s Design Studio.

Bill can be reached at Bill@PortraitsByBiggers.com or WilliamBiggers@gmail.com.

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9 responses

22 05 2011
Bill Biggers

Cindy, you are way too kind and generous. Thanks again; enjoyed the article.

22 05 2011
Eleanor Shoemaker

What a splendid interview of a lovely man. Thank you for expanding on Bill’s many gifts and talents. He is too modest to toot his own horn.

23 05 2011
Michael Hartwig

I was so happy to have the interview sent to us to be shared. Bill is a unique talent and a great person. In just the few times we communicated the sincerity and warmth shone through.

25 05 2011
thekingoftexas

You and your subject both did a magnificent job on this interview. One could not have done it without the other. Any interview can be broken down into two major areas, namely questions and answers. This interview and others reminds me of the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg, an argument that is still debated in some circles.

In my somewhat unlettered (but unfettered) opinion, there can be no argument as to whether the questions or the answers of the interview came first—without questions there would be no answers. The only exception I can think of is the old Johnny Carson show where he first gave the answer, then opened a sealed envelope to reveal the question.

An outstanding interview, mija—you should have business cards printed to offer your services as an interviewer, with a phrase such as “Have questions, will travel, satisfaction guaranteed.” Then you could get photos of the subject as well as answers. Just decide on your hourly rate and then factor in the costs of travel, lodging and sustenance, then add ten percent just for good measure—you’re worth it!

In the interest of full disclosure to your legions of readers, I am The King of Texas. My Kingly Edicts can be found at http://www.thekingoftexas.wordpress.com. Also in the interest of full disclosure you—Cindy, the interviewer—are one of my three beautiful princesses, the one that lives, loves and labors in Virginia.

25 05 2011
cindydyer

Why, thank you, King! What a wonderful review/comment. I love your idea of making a business out of it—don’t know if that’s viable, but it sure sounds good. I really do enjoy doing these interviews/compilations with interesting people. I have some other lined up for the future: Erik Gauger, a traveler/writer/photographer from Oregon (I met him online a few years ago) and Marni Maree, a watercolorist/artist here in Virginia. While I gravitate to interviewing artistic types, I think I’ll also aim for interesting people in fields that intrigue me (but that wouldn’t ever pursue). What do you think of that idea?

25 05 2011
cindydyer

Thanks, Eleanor. He is so talented and such a sweet guy, too! I really enjoyed interviewing him and he put so much heart and thought into his responses. It was easy to craft a great interview with such great answers!

25 05 2011
Bill Biggears

The KING is right Cindy… Imagine occasional trips and short last minute junkets as far and as wide as possible; you could take years to compile the following—no rush: You stop people who “look” receptive (yeah, carry along a friend), or pre-arrange with people like me—to question them about their life, beliefs, interests, what they have achieved or overcome. I see your portrait photos and interviews now housed in a photo-book masterpiece.

2 09 2011
modern art

Good info. I reached on your website by accident, so thanks.

15 09 2011
Mugs

Nice post. Thanks for sharing.

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