Portrait and studio shots by Violet Shuraka.
I had a studio visit and photo shoot with Brooklyn-based artist Ted McGrath last month for Cheap & Plastique #11. Then we had a nice chat about living in Greenpoint, music, inspiration, and art via email. See more of Ted’s work here.
C & P: Where are you from?
Ted: Just outside of Philadelphia.
C & P: You currently live and keep a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. How long have you lived here?
Ted: I moved to Brooklyn in 1998 and I’ve lived in Greenpoint since 2002.
C & P: What do you like most about living here?
Ted: I have the last affordable apartment! Seriously though, when I moved in it was a much more low key neighborhood, and you really had a sense of it being this crazy secret, it was relatively clean, there are some beautiful blocks and way back when it was super affordable. It felt almost suburban, it was so quiet, but you could walk or ride to Williamsburg in no time and taking the trains through Queens got you into the city pretty fast. Now there’s all this nightlife and shopping, like a new bar opening on every corner every week and that aspect of the area is starting to get a liiiittttle homogenous. Blah blah. That’s all well documented and argued over and doesn’t answer your question. At this point, I’ve been here for 12 years and it really feels like home. The greater community of artists and musicians out here is a fantastic and supportive one, and all things considered the dining options out here are incredible.
C & P: What is your favorite spot in Greenpoint?
Ted: In general, my studio. Corny as that sounds. Or the roof of my apartment building.
C & P: For music?
Ted: We’re currently blessed with a glut of incredible record shops all within blocks of each other. Academy, Co-Op 87, Permanent and Captured Tracks are where I’m spending the most time / $$$ presently.
C & P: For food?
Ted: River Styx or Achilles Heel. It feels insane actually saying that based on the names. Apparently if you open a bar or restaurant in Greenpoint with a Greco-Roman mythological name, it’ll turn out pretty great.
C & P: For artistic inspiration?
Ted: I’m really lucky to have a lot of friends and colleagues living and working in the neighborhood, so usually it comes from hanging out in our studios and apartments, passing around books and records and the like.
C & P: Currently your studio is in the Pencil Factory, where many other creatives (both artists, musicians, and illustrators) work. Do you feel that being in this particular building and studio space inspires you and your work?
Ted: I’ve worked out of that building off and on for the last 7 years or so. I think I primarily enjoy it because its a block and a half away from my apartment which makes working late into the night or early in the morning less daunting. Also the super and his staff are just great folks, and I really love the unit that I’m in. It’s kind of unfinished, there are these huge pipes running down the middle of the room and all over the ceiling which I find really attractive, and it has these fantastic old doors that look like something out of a barn or an old church. Lotta character. Good working vibes.
C & P: Are you friends with others in the building? Is there any collaboration between tenants?
Ted: I’m friends with a lot of folks in the building and I know a lot of the more illustration and design-centric folks collaborate together on things now and again. I’m excited because one such friend of mine is putting together some short animations and asked me to score them, which I’ve only really dabbled with in the past, but I’m really excited to dig into that.
C & P: You studied at Pratt Institute. Did you study illustration or fine art at school, or both?
Ted: I studied illustration and design, but I was fortunate to have these great teachers that were constantly encouraging the students in general to soak up as much of the overall general art world as possible, and a lot of them were (and still are) active and dialed into the contemporary art scene. There was also a lot of mandatory cross disciplinary structure in that curriculum which I’m increasingly grateful for with each passing year. At the time though, I was a little freaked out because I ended up graduating with an unwieldy “illustration” portfolio of fairly large semi abstract canvases with no clear editorial slant. It was great and confusing.
C & P: Did you always know that you would be involved in a creative field as an adult when you were young?
Ted: I think so, yeah. As a kid I really wanted to get into comics but quickly realized I wasn’t cut out for it when I got to school.
C & P: Recently you made the decision to pursue fine art and put your illustration business on the back burner for a bit. What made you decide to do this?
Ted: It just felt like the right thing to do. I had this realization where I discovered what really excited me about making visual art had very little to do with making good illustrations, at least the way that economy and community function now. So after 2 years of walking around in a near perpetual state of stress and grumpiness, I started edging towards moth-balling that practice in early 2013. The more steps I took towards getting out of it the better I felt. And that’s said without nastiness or bitterness either.
C & P: Do you still take on illustration commissions if asked?
Ted: Time permitting and depending on the client or story (or $$$), certainly.
C & P: I know that you created artwork for the band These Are Powers in the past (and was also a member), has your work found it’s way onto other music packaging or music-related projects?
Ted: Absolutely. I’ve designed record sleeves and posters for a lot of bands and venues in the greater New York area, and I have murals at Death By Audio and The Silent Barn. I really love being part of that wider community.
C & P: Have you always played music? Does music influence your artwork?
Ted: I’ve always played music. I grew up in a verrrrry music-centric household. My dad’s a brilliant pianist and guitar player and my mom, though the visual artist of the two of them, played piano and cello for a while. I’ve lately tried to think about how I make music more with respect to the visual art. Because I never received any truly “formal” musical training, it’s a lot easier for me to be intuitive and spontaneous with songs and recording than painting, where you can sort of psych yourself out with issues of “correctness” and quality. Like “this had better be the best brush stroke I’ve ever laid down, says your college tuition and every decision you’ve made in the past about anything ever!!! AAAAAHHH!!!!” I’ve been a lot better lately about NOT getting into that headspace with painting and it’s been great. I’m much more forgiving of my work when I’m making music too, so I’m trying to manage my time better so I can work on all of this stuff and not feel like a crazy person. Listening-wise, I usually have music on in the studio, but not anything too demanding or that I haven’t almost completely internalized. Good time tunes unless I’m just not in the mood, you know? Been real into American, pre-63 oldies lately, doo-wop, early RNR.
C & P: What is your process like when creating artwork in your studio? Do you work on multiple pieces at once?
Ted: I like to work quickly. I’ll work on 2 or 3 things at once, it helps me not overwork them, takes a little of that above mentioned stress out of the equation. I like to attack a piece, get it right to the point where it feels just undercooked and then get it out of the way. Start another. Rinse and repeat ’til I make something I know is either truly awful, or hopefully, coming together into something exciting faster than usual. Then I take a break and let my eyes refresh.
C & P: What medium do you most frequently use in your paintings? Oil? Acrylic? Is there ever an element of collage in your work?
Ted: I like oil paint and ink and spray paint and pencils and oil sticks. Collage wise, sometimes I’ll use the good pieces of bad paintings in other pieces rather than try to recreate those moments of serendipity, which rarely even pans out in mirco.
C & P: You also keep a sketchbook (I have seen an interview with you online where you drew all of the answers!) Have you always kept a sketchbook? Do you look to the sketchbook when creating work in your studio, or does your studio work come from different place in your brain/body?
Ted: I started actively keeping sketchbooks somewhere between my 2nd and 3rd years at Pratt, primarily because I felt like I was really behind everyone else and needed just more fundamental practice. So I started keeping tiny ones with me at all times and bigger ones to mess with at home, primarily just as exercise. As a result, when I completed some pages that felt more “finished” or polished it was really exciting, and they became these cool artist books after a while. Then I kinda felt like I became “the sketchbook guy” which is fine but also had it’s moments of stifling limitation. I still keep the small ones around, but they’ve become more lists and random bits of info or actual preparatory sketches for bigger pieces, as opposed to life drawing. The big painty ones primarily only get used or worked on when I’m on vacation at this point. I just started to get bored or feel like it was becoming a repetitive process with diminishing returns, I couldn’t tell if I was making anything good in them anymore.
C & P: Who would you say are your biggest artistic influences?
Ted: I like Max Beckmann and John Singer Sargeant and Amy Sillman. Leon Golub. Cy Twombly, Jamie Wyeth.
C & P: Is there a time/place that you would rather live in than the current?
Ted: Nah, the best place to be is here, the best time to be is now.
C & P: Or one where you could be transported back via time machine to spend a few weeks hanging out and spying…
Ted: Oh I dunno, New York in the 70s or 80s? Sure. But I think if you get too romantic about that stuff it crushes your ability to enjoy the present.
C & P: Do you feel that NYC is still the best place on the planet to pursue a career in the arts?
Ted: Oh, I have no idea. For the time being, I’m happy here and I feel like I’m making the work I want to make both visually and musically. You can make yourself a little bonkers pondering the endless choose your own adventureness of geography or social scenes or whatnot especially these days. I try not to worry about it, keep me nose to the grindstone, take care of the work and hope it takes care of me.
C & P: Would you consider moving elsewhere?
Ted: Like I said for now, no. The moon if we ever get that sort of thing up and running. I mean, who wouldn’t wanna live on the moon for a minute?