Writing > Conversations

Eric Valosin: Can you tell us a little bit about your background that might have led up to this body of abstract, partially automatic line drawings?

Kevin McCaffrey: I discovered drawing and painting when I was a priest and religious in Jerusalem. It was a turbulent time in my life and I found in drawing and painting a release and a kind of therapy. I began with watercolors, thinking they were easy. And I began with landscape thinking that was easy, too. But I also considered watercolors a little grandmother-ish, so I moved on to oils, considering them a more serious medium. I always liked landscape because looking at a distance often gives me a nostalgic feeling. We had a summer house growing up, up in Orange County [NY] and I always remember looking at the Shawangunks across the fields and having this misty nostalgic feeling. But after some years of doing straight, traditional representational landscape, I felt at a dead end. I was doing a lot of it of the Meadowlands since I had a feeling for them, being near where I grew up. But it was getting tired, and I felt it was stuff that could have been done 70 years ago. So I felt called to do something more imaginative, something that would excite both me and the viewer.

EV: What compelled you to stick with landscape imagery even when transitioning from your more academic style? (or was it even a conscious decision?)

KM: Again, there’s an emotional attachment there, even in a more imaginative, spontaneous style. Landscape can come from different places, like the artist’s imagination, as well as from a straight imitation of nature, so it’s a flexible genre. It also lends itself to integration with cartography, a connection I’m exploring now and really enjoying. There’s this intersection between representation and abstraction in maps that I find fascinating: The real world meets symbolic imagery.

EV: Do you see a particular relationship between the landscape - or the creation or viewing of the landscape - and the body? Or mind?

KM: Well, we are dealing with the earth, after all. There’s a strong connection there. But the body leads to the spirit, and vice versa. I’ve believed for a long time that the body, rather than concealing the soul as many think of it, actually reveals the soul. A feeling, like anxiety, can provoke a real, physical reaction, like acne. So I think there’s a great deal in creating and viewing a landscape that feeds into the body/spirit connection.

EV: What is the significance of line in your work?

KM: Line is where it all begins, isn’t it? When I was at my dead end, feeling like I’d mined the Meadowlands for all they’re worth, I went back. I wanted to go as far back as I could artistically. So I started asking: What is line? How can it be created? What is its atomic structure, if you will? So I put on my mag-eyes, tried to see as minutely as I could, and get back to this starting point, or starting line, if you will. And I let the line, a squiggly kind of line, go where it will, almost like a Ouija board thing, trying as much as possible to let my subconscious determine the line’s direction. I was really going for something primal, very much in the surrealist tradition.

EV: I know you very intentionally use an ordinary Bic pen. Gunning for a sponsorship deal? Do you see a necessary tie to the ordinary in your process that couldn’t be accomplished with, say, a $300 calligraphic nib?

KM: Ha, ha!! I don’t like fussiness in art and when artists make a fetish of their materials. Some of them, it seems, put on white kid gloves in order to work, and that for me takes a lot of vigor out of the process. So I guess the use of an ordinary Bic pen is a reaction against all of that we-have-to-use-the-finest-paper-in-the-most-refined-way kind of working. Also, the Bic pen, on the scale I work on, just gives the best results. The way the ink comes off the ball and adheres to the fibers of the paper - vellum is best - just makes the variation in values I’m looking for.

EV: You’re tediously miniature process seems highly meditative, if not grueling. Can you talk a little about that, and how you’d like that to translate to the process of viewing?

KM: The meditative aspect grew out of the therapeutic aspect. When I got down into the minute squiggles, it was and is a kind of escape into a microcosm, a retreat from the real world of my problems. The grueling part is maybe an expression of masochism, but, hey, nobody’s perfect! Ha, ha! But, yes, it’s all part of that letting the subconscious take over, not seeing an overarching focus or end point to the work, just going from mark to mark, line to line.

EV: Can you talk a little about scale in your work? First, how do you decide on the scale of a given drawing, and second, what do you imagine the scale of the world inside your drawings to be.

KM: Scale is very important. Sometimes I don’t decide on what the scale should be, like with the rest of the drawing, I leave that to forces beyond me. But sometimes, what seems like a “normal” size drawing, say, 22x30”, is actually on a very large scale, given the intensity of the work. Anything larger than that would be an epic work for me. But I try to achieve larger and larger scales as I get more comfortable with this way of working. Also, when I do more cartographical work, I’m getting more formal with the scale, trying to work in more strictly scientific terms. A sense of scale in that kind of work is important for giving a sense of importance and emphasis to the various elements. Why is that house so small compared with the surrounding fields? Why are those tank-like objects the size they are? Is water purification important to the inhabitants of this place?

EV: You mentioned cartography earlier. Can you speak a bit about this relationship of your work to cartography and exploration?

KM: Sure. This summer I did some research into cartography and mapping and it was very interesting. I’m more and more intrigued by our efforts to discern meaning in the world, the physical world, by visual means. I guess that’s why I’m an artist! Duh! No, Cartography and mapping have been ways of understanding the unknown, or rather the recently discovered. And it’s a science that concerns the whole world, the whole universe, earth and sky, quintessence and the elemental earth. I mean, the early Moderns were really concerned with the big picture, literally, and maps were this crucial, vital way of understanding everything, really. And when used in art, I think they introduce this universal element, and bring a science to art that can be lacking. I’m not too big on “self-expression” in art. It’s over-rated and just a sign of a narcissistic society. That does contradict what I said earlier, doesn’t it, about the whole therapy aspect? Well, “I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself!” as Whitman said.

EV: What do you see as an ideal project for this work down the road?

KM: Something larger. More intensity devoted to fewer works. I feel that at the moment I’m dealing with a lot of facets and I’m still approaching a stage of integration. Another thing I did this summer was learn some elementary cartography using markers and a compass. I really like doing things within the landscape besides drawing and painting it. There are many ways to engage with the landscape and I’d like to combine several of them. I’m also concerned with going from drawing to painting in my work. How do I carry this technique of minute lines into painting, where the tools seem so big and bulky in comparison? I did a work this summer where painting and drawing and mapping or charting are integrated into a triptych. I kind of like the results. But an important part of considering the future is being open to it, letting things from it shape you, and not trying to be a master of the universe all the time. Whatever’s down the road, I believe in approaching it humbly. The future’s something to collaborate with, not try to dominate or strictly determine. Whatever it is, I think it will be fun.

Kevin McCaffrey
August 2012

Kevin McCaffrey is a colleague of mine from MSU's MFA program. Coming out of a religious background and theological training, his approach to drawing landscape has a particularly mystical undertone. Our interview begins to unpack his burgeoning style.

You can visit Kevin's website here.