Bill Thelen, who lives and works in Raleigh, never really meant to show his sketches as stand-alone works of art—at first. He has made drawings since he could pick up a pencil, but not until graduate school did he notice that other people responded to them as works of art. The result is that 29 of his works on paper, with such titles as 2 Purple Pretzels, Lord Cucumber and This Loneliness, are on view in the exhibition Area 919. Find out more about Thelen’s work in this video. Portrait of Bill Thelen by J Caldwell.
“I’ve tried to draw in public places and whatnot, but mostly I just like to draw by myself in my studio,” Bill told us. “Sometimes I draw on the plane, sometimes I draw in public spaces, but I always feel very self-conscious that people expect more from it. I always feel like I’m being judged when people are looking at my drawings when I’d rather just keep them very personal. So it was very strange for me to actually show my drawings as a work because they were always more supplemental or ephemeral; it’s just like a practice. I go to the studio every day and I start with drawing and then I go on to whatever task is at hand. It was really a personal thing and a private language that I had with myself to visualize ideas and so I didn’t really want to share those with people too much. Then when I was in grad school, people started noticing them a little bit more and they used to start popping up, and then, I mean, it was never my intention to share these drawings.”
We asked Bill about the way the drawings are arranged on the gallery wall.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “The drawings are always in conversation with each other. When I was asked for a studio visit, I really had to let go of my own personal narrative or structure of the drawings and let [the curators] have their time with the works, with the drawings. I was really open to them picking out any drawings they wanted, which I’ve never done before in my whole life, and it was kind of a new experience for me, especially with the show, where they could just choose them and I could let go of what they mean to me and let them be open for interpretation for the curators and the public to decide how they would interact with each other. So it was actually a new and exciting experience for me to do this show because I’ve never put them in this kind of context where I didn’t have complete control.”
Is it okay for us, as visitors, to make up our own stories about Bill’s drawings?
“Oh yeah,” Bill said. “Of course I know where these drawings come from, or sometimes I forget where they come from. I’ve made these drawings 10, 12, 13 years ago, so these are really old drawings. They’re really about that moment in the studio, like, they’re immediately, they’re an immediate access to what I’m kind of thinking about when I’m in the studio. So for me too, the meanings get lost, they get jostled around, and so I mix them. Sometimes they mean one thing, another time they don’t. So it’s a really good way for me to sort of let go of some of my control over the trajectory of these drawings or the way they’re placed together or what not. It’s really to let people make their own narrative or their own structure.”
Wait, why is it important to let go of control?
“Because I think with my past where everything was all about my structure and my process, and the exact way,” Bill told us. “I come from a film background, so everything is edited and put into a specific structure, narrative, sometimes, sometimes not, where it’s following my trajectory. With this work, I’m allowing people to pull these images and I’m okay with them being structured in a different way that maybe makes me uncomfortable. Like sometimes I would see, like, in the show itself like oh, that drawing goes with this drawing. There’s a picture of a man and then a business man, I forget the name of it, and in my world he’s paired with this loneliness, but in the exhibition they’ve separated those two. Part of me, that’s a little difficult. For one thing I’ve never really shared these drawings that much with the public. They’re really personal, and it’s kind of difficult to have people, you know, engage with them, look at them, laugh at them, I don’t know. It’s just an extension of my studio practice that is never really shown. It’s almost like pealing back the layers of other pieces and works to show, I guess, my thought process.”
Tell us about Yuri.
“Yuri, I think he’s the one that was really paired with This Loneliness,” Bill said. “I mean I’m not sure, I don’t even know why I named him Yuri. Sometimes if I don’t know who the people are, if I see them on the street or if I find them in newspapers or magazines, I draw them, and then I attach names to them because a lot of time people don’t know my drawings, especially. I’ve been drawing bald men for about 20 years, and sometimes I don’t know their names so I just invent these whole worlds that I imagine that they exist in. And so Yuri was this business man, and I did the other drawing, This Loneliness, and I paired it with that one, and I just imagine this guy, I mean, that worked, was a single guy, he’s bald, and uh, and that there’s this depth. I mean, I think the reason that I’m drawn to bald guys, myself being bald or balding or whatever you wanna call it, was just that there’s this layer of middle age and business and which I know nothing about, really. I just imagine what it’s like to be this person. This Loneliness is a song by El Perro de Mar, one of my favorite singer songwriters, and it was probably playing in the background and I think when I started editing the two it was like oh, these worlds are kind of coming together. My background is in film and video and so in my mind I’m always editing, shuffling images around, and so it’s interesting that I’m not making videos and films from a technical standpoint, but I really am editing not only the drawings together to make this kind of narrative or makes this exhibition, but I’m still part of this editing process and it’s really important to me. And then I’ve read Eisenstein’s theory of editing where you kind of can put two unrelated images next to each other and you get the whole other meaning, and then another person would get an idea or a narrative, putting these images together, and bringing their own world to creative their own narrative and so that kind of experiment to let the curators pick the images and put them together however they saw that. So in that way it was kind of exciting, but it was also kind of nerve-wracking as well to kind of release these images into the world.”
What about the half an orange?
“I honestly don’t remember why I drew that one,” Bill said. “… A lot of times I don’t question why, I just do. Like with drawing, I think it’s my least calculated part of my art making process. I just kind of let it all hang out in the studio when I draw and I don’t really think about it too much. It’s almost, it’s unedited because I can always tear up the drawing if it offends me or it’s just not what I was looking for, or I just can put it away. There’s a drawing in there, that Red Devil, that was in the garbage for the longest time, which everyone seems to like. But I just look at it and think it’s like the worst drawing ever and people seem to like it so it’s like oh what do I know, and it was totally in the garbage.”
When the lights are out and the museum is closed are your drawings talking to each other like those little dolls at night in the nursery in the storybooks?
“I’d like to think that when the museum closed that these drawings kind of run around and interact with other art works and nudge them and laugh at them,” Bill said. “Here these are, these crappy little drawings. They’re kind of making fun of masterworks or masterpieces and then you know, playing the devil’s advocate or nudging at what’s acceptable, what’s not, having a laugh at other works and then running back. Maybe it’s because they’re laughed at all the time that they need to get out there and you know, jab back at some other artworks. I imagine a lot of people come and you know, they see Lavar’s drawings or Stacy’s drawings or any of the other drawings and people are saying, ‘How the hell did these get in the show?’ And that’s a question for the curators.”
“Whenever I am drawing or talking about my work I don’t really take myself too seriously,” Bill said. “I also like to have a good time in the studio and kind of make myself laugh, and hopefully, you know, the viewer will follow that line of thinking or whatnot, but sometimes it doesn’t happen and I’m okay with that, too.”