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Interview with Roger Cates, December 4, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Roger Cates, December 4, 2007
December 4, 2007
Interview with award-winning artist and North Carolina native Roger Cates, who discusses his artistic background, personal aesthetics, and preferred mediums, as well as art organizations in North Carolina.
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Interviewee:  Cates, Roger Interviewer:  Hayes, Sherman / Jones, Carroll Date of Interview:  12/4/2007 Series:  Arts Length  60 minutes


Q: Today is Tuesday, December 4th, 2007, and I'm Carroll Jones with University Librarian, Sherman Hayes, and Chris Malpass with the Randall Library Oral History Program. And this morning we are in the Helen Hagan Room, Special Collections, with Roger Cates, a North Carolina native and highly-regarded artist with numerous awards, including Best-In-Show, Southport. Good morning, Roger.

Roger Cates: Good morning, Carroll.

Q: I'm so glad you're with us today. Let's start off by you just talking freely about your early years. What part of North Carolina, where you were raised there, interest in art, if you had any mentors, etc. Just go.

Roger Cates: Okay. I was born in Randolph County, near Asheboro, North Carolina, in a family of eight children. (chuckles)

Q: Oooh.

Roger Cates: 'Course there weren't eight when I was born - I was the fourth. And when I was five, my parents moved to Red Springs, North Carolina, over in Robinson County. And my father worked in a textile mill for several years, then he worked later for, at Fort Bragg for the Army, and I was raised from the age of five till I - went off to the Army, really. I stayed in Red Springs and went through grammar school and high school on the same campus. I worked in a textile mill for a few years after that. That was my first, I guess, efforts to, to paint or to get into art was, I did one of these draw-me things, you know, you used to see in magazines and consequently - 'course that was just an advertisement to get you - they did give awards sometimes, scholarships - but I think it was a drawing or something - if you sent a draw-me a picture. But I did sign up for this home-drawing course and art course.

Q: How old were you then?

Roger Cates: That was after I was out of high school. I was probably around nineteen. I found - I had a difficult time at that time. I was not, things weren't going well for me and I really dropped out of the course fairly quickly. I just didn't feel I had time. I didn't feel like doing - so I didn't try hard for many years later again, try anything.

Q: Excuse me, could I ask you - you had no interest in art or anything up until that time, or were you just kind of fooling around and this spurred you on?

Roger Cates: No, in school I was - we didn't have art as a subject in school, but you know the grammar grades, you are given an opportunity to draw and one thing or another, and I was always - I had a reputation for being able to draw well, you know, and use the colors, do the crayons with, you know how that is (laughs).

Q: Since grammar school, then.

Roger Cates: Yeah, and in high school, I did some things for - projects and stuff with drawing, but was never really taught anything or given any guidance early on.

Q: And that wasn't something you were at that time aiming toward?

Roger Cates: No. I thought a guy had to make a living (laughs). I really didn't know anybody that made a living as an artist in those days. I don't know where you had to go to make a living. I suspect to New York or something where you - so, I didn't even think about art as a career to - for any length of time. I went - I worked in the mill for a few years. I didn't know what I wanted to do and I, we were poor. I really could not afford to go to college, or I didn't think I could at the time. So I was - worked in the textile mill. I was - when I left there, I was an air condition mechanic, helper. And the Army started - it was the Vietnam War time, you know, in the sixties, and I graduated in 1960, and 1964, the Army told me that I was going - the Draft Board told me I was going to be drafted the next time around. So I had an older brother that was in the Army and he liked it. He had - later became a helicopter pilot, did two tours of Vietnam. But I decided, well, maybe I'll like this. I don't want this mill work, I know that (laughs). So I went in the Army. I joined. I took three years and I said now - I went in unassigned. I figured, well, they'll find something that I'm capable of doing. I had an idea that I was - I thought I was fairly intelligent, but I've learned a lot since then (laughs). But anyway, I ended up being in the infantry. That shows you how intelligent I was (laughs). And I served in Germany and I went to Vietnam, did my tour in Vietnam, but I was attached to the military police - I had only four months left in the Army when I got over there and - I came back without having really seen any action. We came under fire a couple of times in the camp, but nothing, nothing significant. But we were guarding a port area and that was my experience. I rose to the rank of Sergeant and I realized when I was in the Army that I needed more education, that the ones that were educated were the ones that were successful. So, that was my plan when I got out of the Army was to go get an education. You had a question?

Q: No.

Roger Cates: Okay, okay. So when I came out, I went to work - I had to have some more money. I was not - the Army didn't pay well back then (laughs). So I went to work, got me an old car. I applied to N.C. State, was accepted, decided - in the Engineering program - decided I really didn't know if I wanted to do four years of school. And I - in the meantime, I'd been working for the Department of Transportation. A friend of mine worked for them, and he hired me as a temporary employee for - as a, on a survey crew. So I went to work with them as a temporary employee and I enjoyed surveying. It was really, it's fun, and very quickly they let me take a party out and do surveying work. So, but I decided then that I would go to a technical institute and I went to W.W. Holding - they had a co-op program with the Department of Transportation, whereby you -

Q: Now, I ask you, did you ever attend N.C. State, or - ?

Roger Cates: No. I did go back and get a degree later.

Q: Okay.

Roger Cates: A bachelor's degree, but not at State. I went to W.W. Holding, which is Wake Tech now, in the Raleigh area. And I was older than my classmates, of course. Got an Associate Degree in about '71, I think it was, there. Went back to work with D.O.T. and that's where my career was. I worked with D.O.T. as an engineering technician for a number of years. Was married when I was thirty-four years - no, thirty-three years old. I met my wife in Asheboro, by the way, where I was when I was just a kid, but she wasn't born when I left there (laughs). But anyway, I - to make a long story short, we - I applied for a scholarship to the National Highway Institute and went back to school at UNC-Charlotte, in my thirties, and got a degree there in Engineering.

Q: So you're, so art hasn't even entered the picture yet?

Roger Cates: No.

Q: I think that's interesting, because you reflect a growing number of people who, later in life, kind of get captured by the art experience. We all, we all assume it has to start real early, but - so when did you, when did you start to find you had time and inclination?

Roger Cates: Well, I've gotten a little beyond where I started - I did start before I was married, in Asheboro. I had a co-worker there with D.O.T. who was real interested in art. He drew a - did a lot of drawing and painting and had some talent, but he never - it was never trained. And he was never trained in art. He suggested to me that I try some painting and told me I should get me some acrylic paints and gave me a little guidance, you know, so I did that and I began painting in my early thirties.

Q: This was in Asheboro?

Roger Cates: Mm-hmm.

Q: And this was - how old were you then?

Roger Cates: I was maybe thirty-two.

Q: Oh, okay. About the time you met your wife? All these things happened at once!

Roger Cates: Right before - yeah, about the time I met my wife. Might have been thirty-one, I don't know. About the time I met my wife.

Q: Okay.

Roger Cates: And I painted some, some in acrylics and oils and - awful stuff (laughs). I still haven't improved that much, but I've improved. It's a lot better than what I used to do, you know (laughs). And I went for years - I painted off and on after we were married. I moved to Boone - as a District Highway Engineer up there in the - well, first I went to Rockingham, worked there for a while as a Division - I mean, a District, Assistant District Engineer, and I had to kind of make Division Engineer later. We lived there for four or five years, and this is after I graduated from UNC-Charlotte. And in 1994, I went to Boone as a District Engineer - covered three-county area up there, and I - this job was terribly stressful - I found it to be, anyway. And it used up all my time, and I found that I cannot do anything creative when I'm stressed (laughs). Just don't, don't do well. I enjoyed the work to a certain extent, but parts of it I really hated. Stayed there until 1995, eleven years, and finally decided -

Q: In Boone?

Roger Cates: Yeah.

Q: So you were there from '84 to now?

Roger Cates: '95 - no, no artwork to amount to anything during that period.

Q: And you were right in the heart of a lot of creative -

Roger Cates: Oh yeah, yeah, I was. I had some friends, I knew a fellow that was a photographer that has done some real good work, and it was a good place to do artwork, but I didn't do any. Came down here in '95, and - as a Division Maintenance Engineer responsible for maintaining roads and bridges and -

Q: You came to Wilmington and New Hanover County?

Roger Cates: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And we covered a six-county area. And it was promotion as a reason I came. I really hated leaving the mountains. I liked it very much. My wife wanted to leave. She hated the weather, but I really enjoyed it up there. And it was probably - I was probably here a couple of years before I started doing some painting again and the first thing I tried - I entered a show with - a juried show with the local art museum, St. John's it was then. Now it's Cameron. And I was rejected. I looked - I went to the show and looked at some of it and I said, well, I was rejected, but really, I like mine better than some of what I see here! (laughs) So anyway, it's just what you prefer in art, so -

Q: Were you working in acrylics at that time?

Roger Cates: Yes, yes, almost entirely.

Q: Tell - for anybody looking at this, you just tossed out an art term - "juried show" - what is a juried show?

Roger Cates: Well, you don't get in the show unless they - you're juried in - a jurist looks, judges everybody.

Q: A single jurist?

Roger Cates: Uh-huh. Usually it's a single. If you have different types - if you have 3D and 2D, you may have two jurists, but usually it's a single jurist for the two-dimensional stuff.

Q: So somebody who has some knowledge and prestige comes in and picks -

Roger Cates: Yeah.

Q: So it's a subjective process, but theoretically, they're trained in the background -

Roger Cates: Oh yeah, they are - usually have good credentials for those type things. Better than mine (laughs). But anyway, I didn't feel too bad about that or bad about that because it - I knew that I wanted to do - I like realistic stuff. I knew that's what I wanted to do. Norman Rockwell, I think, is a, is a great artist. A lot of people consider him just an illustrator, but I think he's an artist.

Q: Could I ask you this? Do you feel, since you prefer realistic type work, and working in that direction, that your engineering background has something to do with the way you paint? And how you [inaudible]?

Roger Cates: Might - maybe the way I feel and think had something to do with being an engineer, and yeah, that attitude or that thinking probably influenced my work. Now, I like abstract work - some of it - and I'm not sure, it's hard for me to identify why when I see it, but some things just appeal to me. I know they're - I can sometimes say that they're well-designed and that sort of thing.

Q: Maybe there is that in the back of your mind.

Roger Cates: Yeah. I had people tell me - one of the, one of the guys that buys some of my work - he says he can see the engineer struggling with the artist in my - (laughs). He likes my watercolors and I do pastels, also, but he prefers the watercolors because he says you can't change those as easily and he sees some struggle there, he thinks.

Q: What in the world - did you, did you like to do watercolors?

Roger Cates: I do, yeah. I have a love-hate relationship with watercolors. It's difficult (laughs).

Q: I've heard this from others, yeah.

Q: Why is that? I don't - why?

Roger Cates: Well, watercolors wanna do their own thing, things, sometimes and - often - and sometimes it's nice, so you get some happy accidents, they call 'em and -

Q: It's just difficult because it -

Roger Cates: A lot of people stay away from 'em - they think it's difficult because it - well, you have - most watercolors will do some wet-on-wet work, which means -

Q: Do some what?

Roger Cates: Wet-on-wet.

Q: Wet-on-wet. I heard that expression recently and I did not ask what -

Roger Cates: It means you put some paint down and, before it dries - or you put some water on the paper, and before it dries, you put some color into it or more color or different colors, and you get unusual effects, and it's unique to watercolor. You don't get that with any other medium. You can come close maybe with oils. Well, you can come close with acrylics, but acrylics dry as quickly, too. You can use acrylics on watercolor paper and get - and I've done some of that - the problem is it doesn't want to stay wet long and, once it dries, you - it's there, you can't change it. Watercolors - you can do some changing, but you can make a mess easily, too (laughs). And I have a piece I'm working on at home now that I told my wife - she says, "What're you...?" - I've been upstairs working - and she said, "Well, what are you doing up there?" And she said, well, I said, "Well, I'm making a mess," and - so she came up after a while and says, "What're you making, a mess?" And I was painting again, and I said, "Well, it's hard to tell at this stage" (laughs). It's sort of - watercolors - unless you're doing really controlled stuff, no wet-on-wet, you sometimes are not sure whether you're gonna arrive where you intend to.

Q: So do you lose - I mean, I don't know if people realize this - there's lots of work that just goes away? I mean, since your costs aren't so bad with watercolor? Do you have work that - you know, you try it, and say I'm doing something else? Or - ?

Roger Cates: And I'm saying something that's not always true, but watercolor - the better - some of the better watercolors look like they just happened, almost like they were very simple and easy, and if you lose that freshness about them, and you can do that when you add more colors and you tend to - you put layers, you tend to get a buildup of colors that blocks the light from hitting the paper and bouncing back. Actually, watercolor's transparent - I'm talking about transparent watercolors now. The light goes through and bounces back from the paper - goes through the transparent colors, and it gives it a glow that you just don't get from other mediums. So if you, if you put too much down, or if you put colors together that aren't compatible, you'll often get what they call mud (laughs). You'll get colors you don't want - mud - you will lose the intensity of the color, or the chroma. So.

Q: Let's talk about something that's always bothered me about watercolor - is that serious people like you who spent a long time painting come to watercolor and at the same time a beginner and an amateur goes to watercolor, and in some ways watercolor doesn't have kind of the reputation that acrylics - or oil painting has that kind of, you know, mystique. What happened with watercolor? Is it because it looks simple that people just don't seem to hold it in the same - now, I'm not talking about the fineness, [inaudible] I'm saying -

Roger Cates: Yeah, I think it's - I think that some of it - the fact that it's on paper - canvas things - or the fact it's under glass - some people don't like to be separated from the work by glass.

Q: Is it subject matter? I mean, around here, you know, it's every beach scene is watercolor-

Roger Cates: Yeah.

Q: Maybe just because we -

Roger Cates: There are a lot of watercolorists - and I'm saying something, I'm criticizing now - there are a lot of watercolorists out there, but there aren't a lot of good watercolorists, in my opinion.

Q: Okay.

Q: Well, I've heard this before.

Roger Cates: Yeah (laughs).

Q: So you're in [inaudible]. Is there a problem with - in watercolor - in bleeding, or not getting - you can't go over it.

Roger Cates: Yeah.

Q: Or if you do, you're kind of sometimes getting an effect you didn't want in the first place, and before you answer that, answer that in connection with this: did you - when you paint, you're just giving, illustrating the story about [inaudible]. Do you, do you know what you're going to - when you sit in front of something, do you know what you're going to paint? Or do you have an idea in your mind, or do you just let it flow?

Roger Cates: I have an idea in my mind, oh, obviously. I mean, to paint realistic work, you need to have a plan, you know.

Q: Do you outline it first and then fill in?

Roger Cates: I draw - I generally draw it. Generally, I draw mine - I may make some sketches to get my values right. Values are important - lights and darks. And to try to see if it's going - get an idea if it's going to look right, and then I will do a larger drawing, usually on tracing paper. And I'll - I have done a reverse drawing, but if I do it the way it's gonna appear, the line drawing, and I may not draw all the detail, but I'll do some kind of line drawing, I will turn over to the back of it and draw it over, draw it again on the back, then lay it down on my watercolor paper, after I've stretched it. I stretch my watercolor paper with - if you know what that is - it's -

Q: I do.

Roger Cates: Okay.

Q: I learned.

Roger Cates: Wetting it - okay. And -

Q: I don't know - what do you, do you actually wet the whole paper?

Roger Cates: Well, I wet the paper. I usually put mine in the bathtub, take it out, and let it stay for a few minutes, take it out, then put it on a - some kind of board support. People use plywood. I use a foam-core type board that's - Gatorboard, they call it.

Q: So you let it dry -

Roger Cates: Yeah, well, you know, you lay it out on it and you staple it. Some people tape it with a wide tape, but I usually staple it. Now, I do put some masking tape over the edges to get a nice, clean edge, which is not that terribly important.

Q: So you're purposefully trying to stretch it out?

Roger Cates: Well, it will actually expand some when you get the water in it and when you staple it down, it dries and it becomes taut. And the reason for doing that is if you just - if you're using lightweight watercolor paper - 140-pound or less -

Q: It'll buckle?

Roger Cates: It buckles if, when you put water on it. You'll start getting waves.

Q: [inaudible] I've seen those -

Roger Cates: Yeah.

Q: Lots of prints have that kind of wave on it that, so they didn't treat that -

Roger Cates: [inaudible] Prints, or - ?

Q: No, I mean, I mean actual watercolors -

Roger Cates: Originals, okay. Yeah. Yeah.

Q: So when yours - then you're finally done, you leave it in that stage - if you take up the staples, will it still - ?

Roger Cates: No. No I, then I - after it's dried, you take up the staples and trim it and -

Q: Oh, okay. Well, that's good. I didn't realize that you actually stretch it out.

Roger Cates: Yeah. And you can use 300-pound watercolor paper and not have that problem, depending on how much water you put on it. Some people think the soaking - takes, it takes some sizing off, they don't like that. It doesn't bother me, I guess, because I'm accustomed to it. But - and the water is more apt to soak in when the sizing's washed out. And if you don't leave it in the water too long - it doesn't take much of it out. A lot of people like 300-pound - it's more absorbent. They don't have to stretch it and - but then, a lot of watercolorists - even if they don't stretch it - will wet the paper before they - wet it and get it moist and maybe put paper towels on it to sort of take the surface water off, dry it up, but they've kept moisture in there because the color flows better, the watercolor flows better and goes in better if you have a little moisture in the paper. But I usually let mine dry completely if I want - if I want moisture, I'll add it with a sponge or a brush.

Q: Back to this history standpoint, you're obviously spending near full-time - I mean, this is what you're concentrating on. I assume you've retired, probably, from the roadwork, but -

Roger Cates: Mm-hmm.

Q: Did you seek out, then, training? I mean, you're really self-taught. Were you looking, then, to improve technique with any kind of workshops or training?

Roger Cates: I have - there is a lady here that - that I have been to a couple of workshops she's had that - it's the only workshops I've ever been to. It's not that I don't think anybody else can teach me. I've always learned better on my own, and I have a lot of books that I've collected and read. And - but she - this lady is a good artist, recognized across -

Q: Can you name her?

Roger Cates: Yeah, Ann van Blokken Karwowski.

Q: Oh yeah, we have some of her work [inaudible].

Roger Cates: Yeah, she's an excellent artist. And I have been to a couple of her workshops, but my -

Q: Do you, do you - I know you're a very active member of the Wilmington Art Association.

Roger Cates: Mm-hmm.

Q: Do, does that group, in essence, offer continuing education by conversation? Or, you know, I mean - in other words -

Roger Cates: In fact, some of Ann's work has been - workshops have been offered through them. Both of them, in fact, in Wilmington, have been offered through them.

Q: I mean, do, does the membership get together and talk about technique? I mean -

Roger Cates: We work together, some of us are in the Gallery, which is sponsored by the Wilmington Art Association.

Q: This is the one on Castle?

Roger Cates: Yeah. And, and I'm in that Art Association - the, I'm in the Association here. I'm also in the Associated Artists of Southport - I joined that this summer, and I work in the gallery down there, too, so - and you get to talk with artists and that. I'm so interested in pastel now - I talk with pastel artists - Ann is good at both. Wait, she's good at acrylics.

Q: Tell us what -

Roger Cates: She's good at everything, I think (laughs).

Q: For the uninitiated, pastel, that's new to me - what is - ?

Roger Cates: Pastel is pure pigment held together by some type of binders. If you looked at it, you'd think - chalk is what you would think, but it's not truly chalk.

Q: What is your application medium?

Roger Cates: Using a stick, and you just apply it directly and you may layer, you may put other colors over it, you may blend it with other colors on the surface - usually apply it on paper, something with tooth - it has to be a paper with tooth. Now they claim to do - the most popular thing I think now for support is sanded paper. Used to -

Q: Sanded?

Roger Cates: Sanded. It's just like sandpaper.

Q: Oh.

Roger Cates: In fact, early artists that used it used - just bought sandpaper, hardware store sandpaper. I think a lot of 'em used a European brand of that - I've never used it - I don't know what it is - and there's a lady that did that and developed her - was teaching art, and developed her own paper. The most popular paper now is called Wallace paper. Her name is Kitty Wallace, and he developed this paper that she uses -

Q: So this paper is known as, for pastels?

Roger Cates: Yes.

Q: Okay. Because it adheres well to it and -

Roger Cates: Ah, well, you could, you could put a lot of layers on it. One problem with pastel - you can get to a point where you can't add any more, unless you spray it with something called a workable fixative that fixes the pastel there and makes a - gives you a little, a little tooth that you can work over it, you know.

Q: Did I just miss something? Did you say that this Wallace papers are strictly for what type of - ?

Roger Cates: Pastel.

Q: That's what I thought you said. Yeah.

Roger Cates: Although some people use 'em for oil painting - I can't imagine why, but I have read that they do that. And some people - and I have used 'em with watercolor and pastel. I put a layer of watercolor down - paint an underpainting with watercolor, and then go over it with pastel.

Q: I wondered - so how does the pastel do with the wetness? Do you have to dry it then and come back with the pastel, or - ?

Roger Cates: Oh yeah, you need to wait for it to dry.

Q: Dry. So they don't work together.

Roger Cates: Well, let me correct that. You can paint with wet pastel. You can put the pastel on the paper and take over a brush with water in it and go over it and paint it. You can just paint with watercolors and then - and you can have another painting of pastel. It'd look a lot like a -

Q: Acrylic.

Roger Cates: Yeah, or something like that.

Q: Do you have to wait for one medium to dry before using the other, that they don't bleed?

Roger Cates: Depending on the effect you're trying to get - I have painted - I have intentionally put paint or water on a piece of paper and go over it with pastels to see what you get, you know (chuckles). But most the time, generally, you paint an underpainting, let that dry, and then put the pastel on top of it.

Q: Do you, are you - in your pastels, are you still going for realism, or are you, are you heading towards any abstraction here? We're trying to see if we could push this engineer into some abstraction at all.

Roger Cates: I'm more apt to do abst - semi - I don't even call it abstraction, maybe impressionistic.

Q: Impressionistic. That's right.

Roger Cates: More with watercolor than with pastel.

Q: Well, I think of the impressionists as being a little diffused in their - like looking through something with a - through gauze or something like that.

Roger Cates: Yeah, yeah.

Q: And I keep getting a sense from you that you're a little more linear than that.

Roger Cates: Linear - I wouldn't use that term, but I do like to see some edges. But I like soft edges. I like some hard edges and some soft edges. I use a mixture of -

Q: Yeah, I think that the watercolor as kind of an impressionistic medium would be standard, but I've seen even some folks using watercolor that are just - have sharp edges and deep colors and so forth.

Roger Cates: Oh, yeah.

Q: A very surprising - that shift - because I think in the modern mindset, watercolor has this kind of, like you said, soft edges or a beach scene or - you know what it is -

Q: Gardens and ponds -

Q: Gardens and ponds, or, you know - and so you're applying some of the edges, but I've seen some watercolor that's just as sharp as can be.

Roger Cates: Sharp. Yeah, sharp - yeah, you can, you can - you can get all kinds of techniques.

Q: But that's a completely different technique then - is that - ?

Roger Cates: Not necessarily. You will see a mixture of those, you know. A lot of times the soft edges go back to the wet-on-wet. A lot of times you get that - with wet-on-wet, you only get soft edges. That's soft edges. But you can also soften the edges by applying a wet, damp brush over the edge after you've painted it, maybe before it's dried too much, too far along. And even after it's dried, you can sometimes lift, lift it and soften it, depending on the type of paint. Pigments are different (chuckles).

Q: Did you only take off then when you retired? Was that when you started going eight hours a day? In other words, what [inaudible]?

Roger Cates: Yeah, and I'm not sure eight hours a day was a good term for me. I have - I tend to get interrupted. When you're retired, you know, you don't like to punch a clock, and you tend to get immersed - I may go for days and maybe weeks at times and not paint. I try - I'm trying to make myself pick up a pencil and do something every day. I may be thinking of something, I may be drawing. But painting- I have to be inspired to some extent. I think I do my better work if I feel a real motivation to do this. I want to do this.

Q: Is it a subject motivation? Or just a time of the day, or what - ?

Roger Cates: It's a combination. I can see a scene and there's something about it just strikes me and moves me, you know, and I just want to get it on paper and let somebody see what I see. Others see what I see, I - a lot of times, it's light. The - I tend to put shadows - a lot of shadows - in my work because I love the contrast of the light and shadows. I like to - atmospheric perspective - what atmosphere does to the colors and that sort of thing, so -

Q: So you don't, you don't have a discipline whereby you get up, have a cup of coffee, read the paper, and by ten o'clock you're in your studio -

Roger Cates: No, I wish I did.

Q: You sit and you stare -

Roger Cates: I wish I [inaudible]. I kick myself -

Q: We figure if he's an engineer, right? He's gonna -

Roger Cates: You're making me feel bad (laughs).

Q: You must be somewhat disciplined - that's why when you say that you do have an idea of what you're going to draw, and so I gather that you have to be inspired, which is a good thing.

Roger Cates: Uh-huh.

Q: There's no point in just wasting your time. But on this subject, do you ever get together with a group of your artist friends and either work plein air, indoor or whatever on the same thing? Or, also, do you ever work from photographs? Do you take -

Roger Cates: I work from photographs a lot. That's -

Q: Okay.

Roger Cates: I rarely work plein air. I've tried it and I wish I were better. I've got two problems with it. One, it's difficult when you don't have everything there and the - just the light changes and the bugs are bothering, it's too hot - the sun's shining on the canvas -


Q: Yeah, and I can understand that!

Roger Cates: But the other thing is I'm - I tend to be shy. I don't work in front of people. I don't like to work in front of people. And I don't - usually, if you're out working and doing the things I do, there are people around somewhere.

Q: That's true.

Roger Cates: And they will walk by, you know, so - and I shouldn't let that bother me, but I have. And I have been out with a plein air group and done some of that. I remember going out to Airlie Gardens once and I was looking for a place that was away from the path, you know (laughs), and I found a place but I think I lost - in the weeds over there - I think I lost half my brushes - not half - I did lose a brush, I think. And the bugs were bad and it was really not an ideal place. Another person was with us - she went over and sat right next to the path and had a good place to sit, see it and -

Q: I think it's a good point. If you're doing that outside work, people go by and wanna talk to you! I mean, it's not a private -

Roger Cates: Yeah.

Q: That's not as bad as if there's two or three together and they talk to each other about your work! (laughter)

Roger Cates: Yeah, that would be bad. Too, photographs - a lot of what I paint is a fleeting thing, you know. Light changes sometimes -

Q: Yes. Yes.

Roger Cates: Light changes constantly, really, and I like to work - do things that are, have natural light - outdoors - I have done some still lifes - but I've not done portraits, but - except for drawings from photographs myself, and - but I find with photographs, I can take - especially digital camera. That's the most wonderful thing ever happened to me (laughs). I can take two hundred photographs or whatever, and take 'em back and look them over in my time - and I realize - you have to realize when you're an artist - that you lose something in photographs, even in good, digital, high-resolution photographs, you don't quite - cameras lie to you sometimes. They distort images, they distort perspective some - and they don't get the colors exactly right, and they don't, they - things - unless you get some exposures that show the shadows, you lose something in shadows -

Q: The point is, you're not copying the photograph.

Roger Cates: No.

Q: You're just using it for -

Q: As a guide.

Q: As a guide.

Roger Cates: That's right, but I have found if I have a really good photograph, I did a really good painting, usually (laughs).

Q: So if you were out at 6:30 this morning and took a look at that sky -

Roger Cates: Yeah.

Q: It was like God was painting. It was the most magnificent thing.

Roger Cates: Oh, yeah.

Q: And my husband said, "I wish..." - we were in the car - and he said, "I wish I had my camera."

Q: But you know what happens so often is the camera brings it down to this size, and your pictures are generally a pretty good size -

Roger Cates: Yeah.

Q: What would be your normal size of canvas or, or paper?

Roger Cates: Oh, I paint from - I rarely paint a full 22 x 30, which is a full watercolor sheet. Some people paint large - they get rows of watercolor paper, you know. But I - the largest I paint, paint is a 22 x 30. And usually I trim some less, so it ends up being a 21 x 29.

Q: I was gonna say - it's quite different from an 8 x 10 - you, you know, or even a [inaudible] size.

Roger Cates: I've done some 8 x 10s.

Q: So you're changing it - you know, when you're making it a much bigger size than -

Q: Well, it's whatever the eye sees anyway.

Roger Cates: Yeah, yeah, you're having to change it, yes, that's right.

Q: Well, I'm always - I'm so often disappointed by the grandeur of outside, and then you [inaudible].

Roger Cates: It's frustrating, yeah!

Q: You're looking this way, you know -

Roger Cates: That is frustrating! You get this panorama out there and you lose it.

Q: But how - the challenge is to get it back in the painting.

Roger Cates: Yeah, it's hard.

Q: I think the painter has a better shot at it than a photographer, in some ways.

Roger Cates: Yeah, they do.

Q: There must be techniques you can use to capture that. I know you did - you and I attend the same church and you did some really large pieces for them for some particular events and so forth -

Roger Cates: Mm-hmm.

Q: Is that uncommon?

Roger Cates: That's uncommon. You saw the largest thing I've ever done (laughs).

Q: What was that?

Roger Cates: That was on canvas. That was acrylic on canvas.

Q: Okay.

Roger Cates: The largest one I did.

Q: So we've talked watercolor and we've talked pastels. Those are the two dominant areas. Have you, have you done oil?

Roger Cates: I've done oil, but not in many years. Right after I began painting with acrylics, I did try oils, and I liked 'em. My wife is the main reason I got away from oils. She's had some allergy problems and oils were - bothered her, so I just quit doing that. You can get materials now that aren't as bad as they were - aren't as strong, the smell - that don't outgas as strong, as much as -

Q: And acrylic? Are you using acrylic quite a bit, or not so much?

Roger Cates: Rarely. Rarely use acrylic - I -

Q: Is it just too intense, or what, it's one of the techniques, or - ?

Roger Cates: I like - let me just tell you why I like watercolor. I like watercolor because of the way it flows on the paper - there's nothing like - and you can do this with acrylics, too, and I've done that, but I like the watercolors - give you more flexibility than the acrylics do, if you use it as a watercolor medium, if you're using acrylics on watercolor paper. But I painted acrylics mostly on canvas and board and masonite, or - but I like the way the water is thin. It flows off your brush easily - transparent watercolor. I enjoy that. The acrylics don't flow - if you're using, using it on canvas and not thinning it down a lot, it doesn't flow well. It dries quickly. You don't have time to do a lot of changes with it. You can layer, you know - paint over it. It's a nice thing that you can paint over it. I like pastels. Well, another reason I like acrylics - they change - the color gets darker when it dries. I mean, you put it down there - watercolor does, to some extent, in the lighter colors, but usually not a great degree. But in acrylics, you will paint and think you have it weak like you want it, and even realizing that it's gonna get darker and it won't, still won't be where you want it. It's hard to do it exactly right.

Q: So the person - while they're working in acrylic -

Roger Cates: They have to have -

Q: They have to be trying to think ahead to how that's gonna dry -

Roger Cates: Yeah. It's pretty consistent - it's gonna dry dark. It'll go dark.

Q: This raises another question I have for you as an artist. When you know ahead of time what you want to paint, you're sitting down and you're starting to work on it, do you kind of lose track of time and you keep going until you feel it's good - you know it's good and you -

Roger Cates: Now you're talking about when I'm actually painting -

Q: When you're actually painting and talking about the paint drying and so forth, or being damp, do you just kind of lose sight of time? I mean, eating dinner is not necessary?

Roger Cates: Sometimes, I guess -

Q: You want to finish what's in your head at that time. Or at least get -

Roger Cates: Sometimes I do, but you reach - or I reach a point sometimes where I'm tired and I realize that I'm making - I'm not doing my best work and I need to back off sometimes.

Q: Well, when you're feeling good, you know you've - it's good.

Roger Cates: Mm-hmm.

Q: You can feel it.

Roger Cates: Yeah. And I've had - that's been rare, when I've really - had -

Q: You're vicious with yourself, you're hard on yourself.

Roger Cates: Earlier you said something about painting with a - do I just start to paint -

Q: Yes. And let it flow.

Roger Cates: Some of the best work I - not the best - some of the work I enjoyed the most was when I didn't think a lot - I knew what I, what I was trying to paint, and I wasn't really trying to do it exactly like it looked to me. I was just - it just flowed somehow. And I've done a couple of paintings like that - both of 'em are gone now (laughs). I sold 'em - that just seemed to happen - that just - with watercolors. That's the medium.

Q: And they're sometimes the best ones? They just flow - ?

Roger Cates: Yeah, they have a certain appeal. They look more spontaneous and fresh.

Q: Mm-hmm. Roger, do you do any commission work? I know some artists don't like to do it.

Roger Cates: Rarely. I was trying to think if I have - I've done one - I did one for the church one time (laughs). I didn't charge 'em - but did a painting of the church several years ago.

Q: I was gonna ask you - you have been active for many years in the Wilmington Art Association.

Roger Cates: Mm-hmm.

Q: Which has a wide mix of people and quite a few are like you, coming late in life, or later in life, shouldn't say late in life, to art - and now, and now you're working down in Southport. Differences? Compare and contrast? I mean, those are both in our area and they both kind of have some of the same mission, right?

Roger Cates: Uh-huh.

Q: But are they different? Are they different, different organizations? Different - ?

Q: Is there an atmosphere - ?

Roger Cates: Well, they've got the same types of people out there - they're artists, yeah, and in fact, some artists here are members down there and some that live down there are members up here. The differences in the Association - there are differences in the Association in the way it's set up. You have - down there, the gallery is a part of the Association. You're an exhibiting member or not an exhibiting member. Up here, you get juried into the gallery - you, and - 'course, you're juried in down there, too. They have to look at your work to decide if you're going to be an exhibiting member. But the gallery here has, in the past, has been run as a separate organization, responsible to the Art Association.

Q: Right.

Roger Cates: But it had its own steering committee, and so forth. Down there, it's all the same thing, yeah. And that - they're moving closer to that here. They're trying to - yeah.

Q: The same missions? I mean, I know the Franklin - is it the Franklin - ?

Roger Cates: Square?

Q: Square Gallery has such a long tradition in visibility that it probably hasn't struggled as much, you know, as the, as the Wilmington Art Association, which has tried to find a venue, right? Hasn't that been always a problem for the last several years?

Roger Cates: Franklin Square is fortunate that they have their - they have that building there almost free, I think. They pay a dollar a year or something for it (chuckles). I'm not sure exactly what it is, but it's donated to 'em by the town - lets them use it. They get a lot of tourist traffic in the summertime in there, and we do - or did - have our own location here in Wilmington. We don't get as much on Castle Street. We get very little tourist traffic. But they have had that - they've, they've got some great potters down there - pottery. And it sells well.

Q: That's true.

Roger Cates: After I got out in front of that, I heard that they sold a lot at Franklin Square, but most of their sales are pottery. They do sell paintings, some paintings, too, but they have some good pottery that is inexpensive, really - they have some pottery training down in that area and it's just a good place.

Q: You mentioned about working there. You might explain to us - when you join an association, part of it is a responsibility to contribute time, right?

Roger Cates: Well, the Wilmington Art Association - you can join and you don't have to contribute to 'em. But if you're going to get, be in the gallery, you gotta contribute time. You apply for gallery to exhibit your work in the gallery. It's juried in. They look at your work.

Q: By other members? There's a committee or something that - ?

Roger Cates: Yeah. Now, in Wilmington, we have an outside - we get some outside artists to jury [inaudible].

Q: So, in other words, if you're showing in that Wilmington Art Association Gallery, somebody has made a judgment that it's worthy to be in there.

Roger Cates: That's right.

Q: But you have members who never won, necessarily, a show, but they want to participate in the program, or - ?

Roger Cates: Yeah. You can be involved in the programs and never go to the galleries, as far as that goes. We have meetings at various places.

Q: Can you have your work shown elsewhere, either in the state, or in the south, or any regions of the country, juried shows, going back to, let's say, Boone? I know that there are some ar - you don't - you don't - you just don't -

Roger Cates: Never had a show - I didn't work in Boone - I painted - I can't remember painting in Boone - I may have done some drawing, but can't remember any paintings I did there -

Q: So you're strictly - you do your work strictly in this region?

Roger Cates: Yes. There's a rule - now, I do enter shows -

Q: Well, that's what I'm talking about.

Roger Cates: I entered the state show, yeah, the - I'm a member of the Watercolor Society of North Carolina.

Q: Okay.

Roger Cates: And I'm a signature member -

Q: And what is that society, what is that - in other words, that's just a bigger - bigger - ?

Roger Cates: Yeah, and they promote art - watercolor work. The Wilmington Art Association is any type of artwork is involved -

Q: Okay.

Roger Cates: But the Watercolor Society - it has to be a water medium. And I -

Q: Are you invited into that, too? Is that the same kind of - ?

Roger Cates: No. I joined, but a friend of mine was involved in it and he gave me information about it and I joined it. But I could go online and join, you know, I could find out about it. And I have - they have an annual show. It's a big event.

Q: Right.

Roger Cates: And I have had three works juried into the annual show since I joined a few years ago, and that makes me a signature member. It means I can put their - I can put "Watercolor Society of North Carolina" after my name -

Q: That's what I was getting at -

Q: And they promote with programming, and shows and so forth - watercolor - that's their -

Roger Cates: Yeah. That's right. And education in it.

Q: Are there comparable ones? Is there a Pastel Society, or a Painting - ?

Roger Cates: There's a Pastel Society of North Carolina. It's, it's fairly new. It's headquartered in Chapel Hill. I have not joined yet and I've not joined their Pastel Society yet - a friend, an artist friend, was a member of the one in Chapel Hill and she said some things - there were some things she didn't like about it, so - I went and looked at their show, their annual show on the internet, and all I saw was pictures of people getting awards and I didn't see any of their work, so I said, "Hey!"

Q: Yeah.

Roger Cates: By contrast, the Watercolor Society in North Carolina - you can go on their site and you can find paintings that have been in the show this year and who won what - I mean the paintings - you don't see the people, you see the paintings, and that's what I think it's about.

Q: Who buys your paintings? Do you, do you sell any to corporations, to business offices, to banks?

Roger Cates: So far, I haven't. Well, there's an exception - the painting that was Best-In-Show at Southport - the July national show in Southport -

Q: Is this the July Fourth - ?

Roger Cates: Yeah. That show - that painting - I received a Purchase Award from Dosher Memorial Hospital. In other words, they bought the painting.

Q: Oh, good. Okay.

Roger Cates: So it's in their exhibit, I assume. I haven't been to see it (chuckles). It's there, I think.

Q: So mainly, you're selling to individuals.

Roger Cates: Yes. In fact, almost entirely.

Q: An occasional library might buy one.

Roger Cates: Yeah, yeah.


Q: Randall Library.


Q: And, and do you - since you aren't making a, quote, "living" now, you said you didn't know how an artist could, and you're not making a living now -

Roger Cates: No, I'm not making a living, and it's probably because I don't wanna do - as Caroll says, I don't get in there at 8:00 and work till 5:00, like I should, but that's the thing - I don't work well under stress. If I have other things on my mind, I'm not apt to do very well at it.

Q: But then I'm saying, you're not necessarily pining after that every one has to be sold, right?

Roger Cates: No.

Q: I mean, you would like them to be sold.

Roger Cates: Right, but I don't think - I doubt there are many artists that are, that sell all their works. Some do - some well-known artists - I mean, everybody snaps 'em up (chuckles). I mean, if you have Minnie Evans' work, you know you, it's gonna sell. I don't care what she did -

Q: Well, when she was doing it, they weren't necessarily selling.

Roger Cates: That's right, that's right, they weren't selling. But there are artists that are selling everything they paint, you know.

Q: Very few - I think, very few.

Roger Cates: Yeah.

Q: Do you have -

Roger Cates: I'm guessing at that.

Q: Do you reproduce any of your work so that others can buy something for a lot less than a hundred -

Roger Cates: I have tried it. I've not been terribly successful at selling at the price I had to ask for it, or I felt that I had to ask for it.

Q: The reproductions are just -

Roger Cates: Yeah. So I generally - no, I don't - I have done some.

Q: Who do you - when you were basically self-taught, and during this period, did you study any one particular artist?

Q: I don't care when. At one period - over another? That you were kind of aiming toward? Or did you just look at everything and choose your own?

Roger Cates: No. No. There are artists I like. There's an artist called Car - a lady named Carolyn Blish, I think - she's still a living artist and I don't - I really love her work. And there are a number of others, you know, that I like. I like Thomas Eakins, I like Vermeer - the "Jan"? "Jon"? "Yon"? Is that the way you pronounce it? Vermeer - his work. It's really, I think, it's some of the best I've ever seen.

Q: His light and shadows are unbelievable.

Roger Cates: Oh, yeah. I just - I almost could walk into his rooms, you know, interiors.

Q: That's true. That is true.

Roger Cates: Yeah. I just love his work.

Q: And the faces - how light will reach the faces, yeah.

Roger Cates: Yeah. I like Andrew Wyeth. But I wouldn't do his type work - it's depressing to me (laughs).

Q: Listen, any last - thank you so much - we're coming to the end of this and I really appreciate the actual lesson in detailed watercolor and painting. I learned an awfully lot. Thank you for -

Roger Cates: Well, thank you for having me.

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