Zeitgeist | March 3–31
Rain or shine the artist sets up his easel in one location for 14 days to see again what he has already seen.
WORDS Angie Renfro
Every morning for fourteen days, Paul Collins arrives, sets up his easel, brushes, and ink, then he waits. He waits until he is informed by his chosen location of what the day’s painting will be. You might have seen him stationed out in the city, in a parking lot at Heritage Fuel or up on St. Cloud Hill. He’s there regardless of the weather—in fact, the day’s weather is sometimes evident in his work: water splotches from rainy mornings that disrupt flat washes of grey; cracks in a painting’s surface on the days so cold the ink froze. He commits to studying a particular site for two weeks, a fortnight, until he’s heard what it has to say, learned what he needed to learn, and then he moves on. “I set up out in the world,” says Collins. “Every time I do it I think I know what I’m going to do, but I find something different; I meet somebody. It’s really eye opening.”
The story of how the Fortnight Sessions came to be begins with the shock and dismay Collins experienced over the results of the 2016 presidential election, a disbelief shared by many. In response, some of us engaged in shouting matches on Twitter; Paul chose to paint. He took it as a call to action to step outside his bubble and explore the difference between his perception of the world and what he felt was somehow missing. He decided that in order to understand his misperceptions he needed to engage with his work and environment in a new way.
It was in the spring of 2017, while painting the mural he created for the Elephant Gallery in North Nashville, that Collins realized how much he enjoyed working outside his studio. Building upon that, during a study abroad in Italy later that summer he began working en plein air with ink on paper. It was by working in this way—outdoors, interacting with the passersby and immersed in a new and dynamic environment—that his perspective shifted. By quietly studying a location as an outsider, he was able to really notice details he might otherwise have overlooked. Through documenting small moments, he was able to see a place in its complicated entirety. Collins returned to Nashville with the idea to be a tourist in his own town in order to understand the nature of perception. With only two weeks to prepare work for an upcoming show, he applied this time parameter to his new way of working, and the first of the Fortnight Sessions was actualized.
“The developing theme is getting outside my bubble and trying to either see things that I see every day in a new way or see things that I just never see,” explains Collins.
The opportunity to learn from a particular place informs his choice of location. He seeks out sites that embody layers of history, politics, and the ways humans are impacting the environment. In his view, “The reality of the thing is made up by the differences.” For Collins it is an act of slow journalism. He takes the time to methodically document what is currently happening, what has already taken place, and what this says about humanity at large.
Often, he is approached by locals during a painting session. “When I pull out the inks, that’s just like a glue trap,” he says. “People come in and they start talking to me and they want to be imaged.” In these impromptu portraits, Collins learns the stories of the people that make up the site he is studying. The subject matter of paintings from one session might range from a portrait of a gas station manager to a landscape of morning traffic to a study of building remnants at Ft. Negley. When a series is seen in its entirety, these individual elements construct a greater picture, allowing the observer’s experience to be made up of multiple points of view. One feels deliberately placed in a space between being both participant and observer, provided with the opportunity to see a place from a new perspective.
“The developing theme is getting outside my bubble and trying to either see things that I see every day in a new way or see things that I just never see.”
Collins’s choice to work with monochromatic ink on paper reflects a desire to be fully immersed in a moment instead of distracted by decisions of color or texture. He is free to move quickly and react to the changing scene before him. The finished paintings reflect this sense of immediacy. You can feel the frenetic energy of the birds in flight in Trastevere Rooftop. The capriciousness of a morning’s weather is apparent in Smoke Break wherein you can observe both the crisp shadows of a bright sun and the pattern of raindrops in the ink when, in the course of a session, the sky changed.
Reflecting a level of confidence that can only come from years of experience, Collins commits to each stroke—there is no room for second guessing or do-overs. To alter would be untrue to the moment—of an artist, brush in hand, recreating in real time his experience of a place, documenting the nuance of a scene. He explains,“I believe that knowledge and experience are available through direct immersion. The challenge of working in real time [is that I] see things I haven’t seen before . . . all of a sudden this world just opens up.”
Paul Collins is engaging his misperceptions with curiosity and humility. He is actively stepping outside areas of familiarity, bearing witness, and in doing so, asking that we all pay a little more attention. His work challenges us to pause for a moment and be fully immersed—to really look, to take notice of our own perceptions and allow things to unfold.
He is learning to let the work lead him, and it has: Each session has been informed by its predecessor. When asked where the next fourteen-day immersion might be, Paul answers, fittingly, “We’ll see . . . I’ve got my eyes open.”