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Art AND: Christine Buckton Tillman

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Christine Buckton Tillman lives in a house of 30 flat-file drawers. It makes sense because Tillman and her husband, the printmaker and college educator R.L. Tillman, are each constantly producing new works on paper that need to be stored somewhere, so why not in any and every available spot? For most artists, storage is a central concern, so my immediate reading of the two-artist household having access to that much horizontal storage was one of admiration—I live in a six-flat-file-drawer home myself.

For the past two years, Tillman, who works full-time as the Visual Arts Chair at the Park School, has been focused on filling these flat files with three bodies of work that influence and bleed together in their subject matter and methodology. In her everyday life, Tillman documents colors and shapes that intrigue her with her smartphone camera. She prints selections of these photos at the Pikesville Walgreens and then reimagines the subjects for small collages that she then turns into gouache paintings. Because her source material is imagery from her everyday life—which, like many, became largely home-based in 2020—the resulting works portray, in one sense, a chronology of the pandemic for her family and a portion of her daughter’s childhood. They manage to be intensely personal small paintings while essentially representing life held still.

The third body of work she is currently exploring utilizes printed and sewn clusters of color on fabric, which give the artist an opportunity to connect to growing up in a family that practiced needlework crafts after dinner. It’s also practical, Tillman explains; her household is “one year into the horse years,” so the artist now finds herself sitting for hours at the barn while her daughter cares for and rides horses. This kind of practical solution to infuse her everyday with art seems typical for Tillman who, alongside her partner, picked Baltimore over Chicago and other more expensive cities as the place where they would set their roots 20 years ago. 

SUBJECT: Christine Buckton Tillman, 44
WEARING: A dress I found when searching “rainbow dress” on Amazon, gold glitter glasses, leggings, argyle socks, Blundstones
PLACE: Sudbrook Park, Maryland

 

 

Christine Buckton Tillman and Lisa Solomon, Chroma, 2015, at Gallery CA. Photo: Stewart Watson
Christine Buckton Tillman, natural color, gouache on found natural objects

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Christine Buckton Tillman: Most important is hard. Recently I’ve gotten a lot out of Ingrid Fettel Lee’s Joyful, and Wendy Ann Greenleigh’s Mindfulness & The Art of Drawing.

You’ve lived all over the country, including Chicago and Iowa. What makes Baltimore a great and unique place to be an artist? 

This summer marks my 20-year Baltimore anniversary! I’ve never lived somewhere for this long. The Baltimore Museum of Art and Walters Art Museum have been free almost that whole time. One of my favorite things about Baltimore has been having access to a collection that you get to visit and revisit—seeing new things in the work each time you go back. I’m happy the Félix González-Torres piece is back on display, and I have favorite pieces in the American Modernism collection at the BMA. It’s fun to see how the work is recontextualized differently. My all-time favorite place to visit has to be the Chamber of Wonders at the Walters. Our daughter is now 10 and it’s a joy to see all the work through her eyes as well.

Baltimore is a place where I’ve been able to make work and show it. There’s a bunch of great artists working here and lots of great art to see. It has a real DIY sensibility. The pace is slower, I guess, but as a working mother and artist, I’m not sure anything feels slow. 

You’ve taught at the Park School for 20 years now and became the visual arts chair in 2017. What changes have you observed in art education for high schoolers over your career? Do you think students today graduate more prepared for a career in the arts, or have expectations changed?

I think art educators are becoming more focused on the process than the product, which is exciting. It’s something we’ve always emphasized at Park School. There have been some big shifts nationally in this kind of thinking in my career and it’s great to see how it’s trickling down to all kinds of schools.

In terms of today’s graduates being more prepared for a career? I’m not sure that’s the role of a high school. I am far more interested in fostering habits of mind for students to define their own path. 

 

Tillman in her studio, photo by Justin Tsucalas for Issue 13
Christine Buckton Tillman, drawing cluster, various drawing materials

In your studio practice, you are often playing with and addressing color relationships. Can you talk about what being a colorist means to you?

That’s hard because it’s sort of like asking somebody to talk about a thing that you love so much. It’s hard to find the words and the language. Color is super important to me in general and when something is so important to you, you almost don’t see it—you don’t know you’re swimming in the water.

In the studio, I’m most actively working through decisions about composition and shape, rather than color—it’s a little more intuitive. But color is what draws me in and gets my attention and drives the work, and I do a lot of reading about color.

I have another part of my practice that is this ongoing collaboration with an artist in Oakland, Lisa Solomon, and we have this ongoing collaboration we’ve done since 2015 where we crowdsource objects and then organize them by color. We’ve done a number of them, and we do public and private commissions. 

What is your working relationship like with Lisa? How do you balance project management together while living across the country from one another?

I love talking about this project. Lisa and I met on the photo-sharing site Flickr back in 2003 when we both finished grad school. We admired each other’s work and were in the same place in our artistic lives. We always talked about showing together and finally made that happen with a show here in Baltimore, at Gallery CA, called Chroma back in 2015. The collaborative piece was a fun add-on in our proposal, but very quickly it became the focus of the show. We crowdsourced small colorful objects from people online (we were sent thousands) and in person, and arranged them by color on the wall. We installed a different version of Chroma in San Francisco the following year, and were commissioned to make a permanent version at The Wharf in DC in 2018. Since then, we have done several small private commissions and a printed wallpaper version for a corporate space in San Francisco.

We are great collaborators and friends. Project management is no different than working in a remote office; we even arranged a small commission over Zoom using an overhead tripod, and the wallpaper was made entirely by sharing files online. The big install work needs to be done together in person with a team of assistants, so travel is involved for at least one of us. Our dream is to take Chroma to Japan, which would be some big travel for both of us. Fingers crossed.

Would you say that you enjoy taking things apart to put them back together? Is that an essential aspect of what you’re doing?

This is the great part about talking to other people about your work in the studio, I’m not sure I would’ve come up with that language for myself. But I think you’re right, I take things apart to put them back together. I also feel like I want to pair things up and bring things together that weren’t together before to see similarities. 

I’m a big fan of natural history museums, you can go to a display case and it’ll be full of all the birds—they might all be songbirds, or predators, or share a geographic region. When you bring things together, you can make new connections. You can look at things that are really similar and see tiny differences and things that are very different and see similarities.

 

Christine Buckton Tillman, Coverlet, 2021, dye sublimation and fabric dye on various fabrics, vintage handkerchief, and safety pins, 46 x 56 inches
Christine Buckton Tillman, tote bag and test tile, 2020, gouache on paper, 8 x 8 inches

Do you pursue any hobbies in addition to your work? Do you think that these hobbies have any influence or impact on your work or do you view them more as a stress relief or way to unwind?

I walk or run between 2-5 miles every morning, I listen to podcasts and audiobooks while running which lets me do two things at once. I also have a daily yoga practice. These habits definitely relieve stress, but also speak to the kind of discipline it takes to make work as a working mom. Like, getting up to run when it’s dark and cold, I have to be very deliberate and carve out time for work. Long days of discovery in the studio aren’t really a luxury I have.

Those practices definitely keep me sane and are a good way to start the day. My favorite unwinding activity is taking my daughter to the barn; she started riding last summer and we’re in deep.

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it?

I’m a pretty big cook, and we make most of our meals at home. But here’s the time to give some businesses some props. Since moving out to Sudbrook Park I’ve been a big fan of Jake’s Grill, Mari Luna, The Silk Road, and La Food Marketa.

What advice do you have for young artists who want to “have it all”— i.e. a family, an art career, and relative financial stability? How did you decide what was most important to you?

My first thought is “Oh man, I don’t know if I should be giving advice on that.” But how messed up is that? A family, an art career, and relative financial stability should not be that hard of an ask. I think having models is more important than advice-seeking people who are doing it. I had some fantastic models in my school days. My professors in undergrad were the age I am now. They were mothers and fathers who balanced active parenthood with the teaching and service load of a liberal arts college. They made art, they went to shows, they loved music and community. I realize now how formative seeing such full lives were to me.

I think it’s important that people talk about how they balance it all. I keep a home studio. Our daughter goes to school where I teach. I’m married to another artist. Those are parts of our story. It’s going to look different for everyone.

 

Christine Tillman, patchwork plaid, handwoven mylar party streamers, 30" x 36" x 90"
Portrait of the artist in her studio by Justin Tsucalas
Christine Buckton Tillman, zigzags and zinnias, 2021, gouache on paper, 8 x 8 inches
Christine Buckton Tillman, balloons and bookshelf, 2020, collaged drug store photo prints, 4 x 4 inches

One of those eternal questions I get from college art students is, how do you find your style? What do you think unites your work as a single aesthetic? Does having a unified style matter to you? 

Just this morning on my walk I saw three rows of vintage lawn chairs in some kind of honor system sale for $2 each. There was a time when I would have tried to bring them all home. But instead, I took a dozen photographs of them. They were so great. All these stripes and plaids and great materials. I want my work to be as exciting as all those great lawn chairs. 

I realize that’s a bananas answer to that question. But I guess I want my work to emulate the things in the world I love to see. I used to be a big collector of objects. But that was at odds with a family home. I didn’t really need a giant Sterilite tub of vintage cake toppers anymore. Now I mostly collect images and put them into the work I make.

Inspiration comes from everywhere, but a body of work is likely to be put into context with other people, at least posthumously. Whose work would you like yours to be read in context with?

I love this question. Polly Apfelbaum is my color and playfulness queen. I love Jim Hodges‘ work. In terms of peers who I feel an affinity to, Lisa Solomon of course—I think we’re pretty linked. I love Lori Larusso’s work, Barbara Campell Thomas, and Nick Satinover is making some amazing prints. Amze Emmons and I went to school together and we have a similar color sensibility and interest in mining the built environment for source material.

Do you believe in astrology? If so, what insights can your signs give our readers into your personality and mindset?

Belief is the wrong word for my feelings about astrology, but I am into it. I have had people correctly guess out of nowhere that I’m a Virgo/Libra cusp, and I very much relate to all Virgo memes. 

Who are your art or career heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why are they the coolest? 

Once again Polly Apfelbaum! I bought her monograph back in 2002 and it’s been a book I still pore over in the studio. I love her sense of joy, scale, play, color, and her ease of working between media, her sense of materiality, and how she lets things be easy. 

What are the last three emojis you used? Have you given up emojis?

 ❤️🌈🤞I love emojis. These three seem optimistic and accurate. 

What would your teenage self think of the direction of your life so far?

Ha. She was a nerdy suburban punk. I think she’d approve.

 

Photos of the artist by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt. Art images courtesy of the artist.

This story is from Issue 13: Collect, available here.

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