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Interview with Michael Van Hout, November 5, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Title:
Interview with Michael Van Hout, November 5, 2007
Date:
November 5, 2007
Description:
Interview with local artist Michael Van Hout, in which he discusses his arts education, his sculpting technique, and anecdotes from his career as an artist.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Van Hout, Michael Interviewer:  Hayes, Sherman Date of Interview:  11/5/2007 Series:  Arts Length  60 minutes

 

Hayes: Greetings. Today we're interviewing Michael Van Hout. Did I get that correct?

Van Hout: You've got it.

Hayes: Is there another name to that, Michael?

Van Hout: No, no middle initial.

Hayes: This is Sherman Hayes, university librarian at William Madison Randall Library at UNCW, with Ashley Shivar. And we're doing this as part of our oral history project related to artists. Michael, before we go way back in your life, we'll get right up front. If we said categorize yourself as an artist, what are you, a sculptor?

Van Hout: I would say I would be solidly a sculptor, because that's really what I've done for the last 20 years. Even though I aspire to be a painter, it's always something that it's in the future.

Hayes: Before we dig up those 20 years as a professional artist, let's get some contacts by going way back. Where were you born, were did you start, and how did you get into the business?

Van Hout: Okay. Well, my dad was in the military, career military, West Point graduate. And he had hopes-- I'm one of nine children, and the second son. And I had good enough days, I just didn't have the athletic ability. But my dad had high hopes in high school and early college that I would follow in his path to West Point. But it was also the '70s. I say I'm definitely a child of the '70s, and I rebelled. And I found out later that that's very common in the military, that a lot of children went to the other extreme, went toward the arts, dance and music.

Hayes: Was he an engineer type?

Van Hout: He was infantry. He was 82nd airborne, special forces, green beret. He probably spent four to five years in Vietnam. My early memory was 1964 he had a year tour in Vietnam, and I was in the fourth grade. But as far as...

Hayes: Was your mom an artist?

Van Hout: My mom was artistic. And we'll always remember her, she would do these kind of Degas ballerina drawings. And earlier she had done lots of depictions of the family in the Stobart style. When we go back and say, you know, where did the artistic ability come from, we usually attributed to my mother. The other thing is my father is Dutch, so we also say, well, there must be those Van Gogh genes in there somewhere. But actually the idea of being an artist was never an option when I was a child. For one thing, I don't think schools really saw art as a very important...

Hayes: Did you have a high school curriculum?

Van Hout: We had a curriculum, but they were very-- the classes, there was nothing very-- we never met other artists. We never had any-- we would study Impressionism. We might be sort of just draw in some class. There was nothing anything that concentrated on drawing, painting. That was never really an option when I was in high school.

Hayes: Did you move around a lot?

Van Hout: We did. We moved, extensively during Vietnam. By the time I went to high school I went to three different high schools. We ended up in Virginia, then the Philippines, then back to Fort Bragg again. But I've been in North Carolina since '65, that's my-- Fort Bragg being the major military base. We were always stationed here in North Carolina. So I really consider myself a North Carolinian by choice. Yeah.

Hayes: When did art as a real passion start?

Van Hout: This is always interesting, because I've had to write this so many times for biographies. I was a poor student, went to State, North Carolina State in Raleigh, when I realized I was very much a liberal arts person. And when I was a kid in seventh grade our teacher was a big Thoreau/Emerson fan, and we read Walden. So I think that was my early model for what my life was going to be. And I got into the forestry program at State, not only to find out it was more scientific than I can handle, of course. So I sort of just floundered at State, was a poor student. Dropped out of State, out of the classes, for two years, and ended up working on the grounds crew. And what happened at that time, we were on the grounds crew and we'd be putting pine straw baling, you know, undoing baling. The pine straw, there are all these leftover wires. And just out of nowhere I just started making these little sculptures. And I was maybe 20, 21 years old. I had pliers and wire, and I just started fashioning these sculptures. And I had several friends who had been dropouts at school, this was 1974. And a lot of people were into crafts and creative arts. And they said, "You know what? You should go to arts school. You're really a talented artist." And I was like, "Are you kidding me?" And it's so strange. At that time I had a full-time job. I started doing woodcut prints, I started making-- especial working with the wire. I found myself after work at night, that was what I did. And I had already had a strong feeling at that time that that's what I wanted to do, was do studio art. So I had several friends that directed me to go to school in Greensboro. It was more of a choice because my-- I think six of us graduated from school there.

Hayes: At Greensboro?

Van Hout: At Greensboro. UNC Greensboro.

Hayes: Out of the nine?

Van Hout: Out of the nine, six of us. So I sort of followed the family.

Hayes: [inaudible].

Van Hout: Well my sister Brooks [ph?] is in school there, and I mean that was one of my main-- so my sister's there, you all have my family, it's just up the road from Raleigh. So I ended up at UNC Greensboro in '77, and I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. It was wonderful studio classes. I showed my portfolio of my early prints and the wire things, and the teacher said, "This is all fine, but what we want you to do is just drop it. Drop your animals, drop your cute things you're making and you need to learn to draw and paint. You need to learn to draw and observe." And I still think back to that time, that's one of my happiest times. I was in college. In those days I think I was able to go back on a student-- I got a state grant. Worked at the Wetherstone [ph?] Gallery for work-study.

Hayes: Tell us about the Wetherstone Gallery.

Van Hout: That's the main, I mean, wonderful gallery attached to the university.

Hayes: Who was the director?

Van Hout: James Tucker [ph?] was the-- and Burt Carpenter [ph?]. Do you know who Burt Carpenter is?

Hayes: The reason I bring that up is that we just got a major piece of art from the Green Hill, is there a Green Hill?

Van Hout: Green Hill is different. Green Hill is the city gallery in Greensboro.

Hayes: But the curator is...

Van Hout: Edie Carpenter. She's Burt's daughter.

Hayes: So you know her?

Van Hout: I knew Edie when she was little. Because when I was in school, one of the other things I did, I did yard work for all the professors in the department. Because I was a little bit older student. But I worked for Burt, and I worked for Mr. Tucker. I worked for all the professors in the...

Hayes: So you were part of that history, because that was great for the museum.

Van Hout: The museum. You know, they're famous for the Dillard collection.

Hayes: No, I don't know what that is.

Van Hout: And what they did, they realized they didn't have the kind of money to buy the original de Kooning or the original Georgia O'Keeffe. And what they do, they go to New York and collect like the working drawings of a lot of famous artists. And I think Burt was really the inspiration behind that. and every year they'd have this Dillard's collectors show. And they had a budget, and they'd go up and collect this wonderful collection of drawings and small paintings.

Hayes: But really famous people.

Van Hout: Famous, famous people. The people you still hear about, you know. We saw it.

Hayes: So I assume you see work in progress.

Van Hout: Well, we just had to do the exceptions. You know, the pieces would be checked in and they'd have to be cataloged and photos taken, and information compiled about these different artists.

Hayes: So that was the job?

Van Hout: That was the job, right. We helped do installations and paint, you know, like grudge work, but it was fun.

Hayes: At least it was right in your field.

Van Hout: Yeah, that was wonderful. It was wonderful.

Hayes: So you would say your grounding, then, was in basic studio art. You had to take all different classes. Did you take sculpture too?

Van Hout: Oh, yes. Well see, the school was known for bronze casting, so they had a real strong sculpture program there. And the other thing, like I said, was almost a 19th century academic program. As far as they had clay modeling course, courses where you worked on the model about 15 hours for one pose a week, or straight-ahead still life course where you're working for the very simple pared down motif. And they're whole point was they didn't want you coming up with all these creative ideas. It was much more a basic ability to observe and critique your work.

Hayes: That's interesting, because that seems to contrast to the other artists we've talked to who went to schools in that same period that said free, and do whatever.

Van Hout: Greensboro had the famous, you know, happening, the '60s happening, the girl who dove in the pool of spaghetti, you know, that famous...

Hayes: No, I don't know.

Van Hout: It's in the 60s. But that happened at UNC Greensboro. So that was like the '60s period was much more that early-happening art. It's not that that didn't occur, that there weren't the artist who were working in that mode, but basically an undergraduate program. And the graduate program, they really emphasized a basic skill of drawing and observation. I mean, all my friends who went to school there, they were so glad they got that...

Hayes: Foundation.

Van Hout: ...foundation. Exactly.

Hayes: You were actually a studio art major?

Van Hout: I got a BSA in sculpture.

Hayes: So you at that point did say besides painting, you did sculpture.

Van Hout: But the funny thing, my strength, the thing that I really-- that was 1977 and went back to school, I started observing all these people painting. And they'd be set up, and always working from life. There was hardly anybody painting, you know, in their studio that they weren't working from a still life or a figurative, or landscape. But I was surrounded by all these people painting, and I was just taken with it. And I spent eight years out of school, probably that as my main focus was painting, and the sculpture was more a secondary priority.

Hayes: You mean when you first got out?

Van Hout: Well, even in school and when I got out of school.

Hayes: Or even in school. What were your sculpture projects that you remember from that time period?

Van Hout: Well, we did a lot of figurative, because that was more acceptable. In terms of a class project, that's what they would have preferred.

Hayes: Explain to us what you mean by figurative.

Van Hout: Well, what we'd do is we'd have a model on a-- she'd be on a seated position in the middle of the room. And these courses were incredible. There's be the professors, graduate students, undergraduate students. We'd be in a large room, model in the center of the room. And we all had clay stands with a little clay base that corresponded with what the model was sitting on. And we'd all have our little rolling easels. You know, you'd have to stand, and every 15 minutes you had to move, so you had to work this figure in the round. And it was really a 19th-century approach. Matisse was big.

Hayes: Were you using your hands, or tools?

Van Hout: Hands and some tools, but it was basically, we had really become experts at messing with this clay. It was just a working ceramic clay that would turn pink when you'd fire in the kiln. They'd fire them if you so desired. But you work on this piece a week.

Hayes: How big were you trying to get to?

Van Hout: These were always, given a number of people, they were no bigger than that.

Hayes: And was your goal abstraction, or exact replication?

Van Hout: Generally exact, yeah, reduce. The whole idea was that you were going to really capture that figure in the round. It was funny, because people could take a pose. If they were a painter they wouldn't be thinking three-dimensionally. And one of the teachers, her funny comment about some people's drawings, "These creatures don't have backs." So people would invariably capture the front, but they really wouldn't have an understanding of how to figure the weight of the figure. So in doing that, forcing the student to move around this model, they were forced out of that making this symbolic figure. They were really looking and seeing a form.

Hayes: Would you say if I went to Europe in some schools today, that would still be the model?

Van Hout: I don't know if it's here. I think there's probably programs even in the United States that they still-- that they would go with the more traditional approach to art. I don't know that, I just know I've seen the work from people from Greenville, from east Carolina. They tend to be an abstract school. You know, it depends who the teachers were. We had another famous teacher, Peter Agustini [ph?].

Hayes: Agustini?

Van Hout: Agustini. He would talk about Franz, as in Franz Kline, and Andy, that he know all the top famous pop artists. And I found out years later that he really didn't know them. I saw with buddies in there, the after shows. And he was exhibiting with them, with Rocco [ph?], he knew de Kooning, he called him Bill. But he did these beautiful-- he did these kind of Chinese horses that were just spectacular.

Hayes: In that also?

Van Hout: Well, actually clay.

Hayes: No _____________.

Van Hout: Right.

Hayes: Do you have a sense, as you look back now 20-something years, did you see some of these images that you're working on now, that you even had a glimmer of those, or are these all recent, about animals?

Van Hout: No, the animal thing, that is funny. And I'll always be trying to figure that out. That's something that's solidly me that-- as an example, I have a son who's nine. And my wife has wanted all these years for me to paint him, you know, to do a likeness of him. I can do it, but I'm not drawn to it. The animal forms have always been my main sculpture. And I always find these bountiful ideas that just feeds me. It's just simple, simple forms and I can't help but think part of it has to with my own sense of humor that I'm drawn to animals. And I know certainly other people are, as far as the subject matter. I found that people identify with them in such a strong way.

Hayes: I do want to go back to that because I think that's interesting. Now you're done, you've got a BFA?

Van Hout: BFA in sculpture.

Hayes: Were you thinking then to do an MFA?

Van Hout: No, not really. My mother wanted that. She wanted the security that I would be able to teach. And it's funny, I have taught through-- when St. John's-- before the Cameron, it was St. John's, of course. I taught courses to adults and to children. Didn't enjoy teaching kids at all. Enjoyed teaching adults, but on the other hand it was like taking me out of the studio. That was something I felt even when I was 20-years old that that's really what's my calling, was studio work. And I do know other people who are studio artists. They say it takes a certain kind of obsessive quality that you-- and I have friends who are carpenters and woodworkers. It's the actual hands-on that they enjoy. And I don't mean that just for sculpture, I mean for painters or printmakers. They like the actual...

Hayes: Let me interrupt for a second. You said hands-on. For those who aren't familiar with this, your fingers are all taped up.

Van Hout: Right. That's my daily ritual, and that's my protection because I'm working with wire and I need dexterity. So I tried to wear gloves, it's too cumbersome. So I just tape the fingers, so I usually just wear a half-glove. And it just helps me from getting, I mean I just-- it's similar to a paper cut. It's really painful. And the days where I've been in a hurry and I didn't tape my fingers, end up hurting my fingers. I get so used to it. But other people...

Hayes: And I guess you don't have workman's compensation.

Van Hout: I don't have workman's compensation. I'm a self-employed individual. That's right. So I have to take care of my...

Hayes: So after you get out of school, are mom and dad and everybody else going, "What do you do as an artist?"

Van Hout: Not at all, no. But it's funny. I'll back up a little bit. When I was at State, this is-- it's too much to go into. Basically I was wasting my father's money. We were paying out-of-state tuition. I dropped out of school almost the second end of my second year at school, and I was so scared to come home, because I knew my dad would be furious at me because I failed that whole semester. So I stayed away from home for about six months. And it was like this real growing up time. I couldn't ask my parents for any money. I worked in a brick plant, firing bricks in a brick-- I worked at a steel plant, worked in a brick plant, and then what happened? Oh, yeah. I'm trying to remember how that worked out. Oh, yeah. That was the time I worked at-- did all those rough jobs. That's what it is. I came back to state and I ended up getting a job on the grounds crew. So I was in Raleigh area. So I worked at this-- it was pretty rough work. But when I got the job on the grounds crew I was surrounded by college kids again, even a couple who live here in town now. Susan Dillard worked with me. I don't know if you know Susan Dillard. And she and Don Gilford [ph?], and then I have another friend who was a very talented musician/artist. These are people who encouraged me, once I started making those sculptures, said, "You should go back to school." Oh, I'm sorry. I backed all the way to before I went to school. But when after what happened, I had done all the yard work for all the professors when I was in school. So that's how I basically worked out this really good way of living. My girlfriend and I found this house in the country outside of Greensboro. And what happened, it was a beautiful old farmhouse on 40 acres, beautiful landscape. So we moved out to this house in the country, this is 1980. The deal I had with my landlord, I worked for him one day a month doing farm work. He had three farms, and we would pick corn, work in his garden, cut firewood in the winter, an that was my rent. So I had one day of work-- the only bill I had-- at that time I didn't even have a vehicle. I ended up getting an old pick-up truck, and then I had my contract with all the people I did yard work for, all the professors. So then this is the time where I just buckle down. I have, you know the situation with-- I mean, I hardly need anything to live on. And I just set up the studio in this old farmhouse. And my subjects were out there. I did lots of cow sculptures in those days.

Hayes: What was the medium that you were using?

Van Hout: Woodcut print, painting, wire sculpture.

Van Hout: So the first show I had was a wire sculpture of cows.

Hayes: Where is your market? You were out in the country. Did you take it into Greensboro?

Van Hout: Well, at that time Greensboro -- that was interesting. At that time Greenville was the-- had just opened then. It was a non-profit gallery, and they would hold show. But I belonged to the Greenville, and then they had the Greensboro Artists League. And the artist's league was, you know, one step removed from Greenville. They didn't have the big shows that Greenville had, but they gave you the opportunity to have these small exhibits. And when I look back on my resume I realize maybe once or twice a year if you could say I'd like-- they invite you to be in a print-making show, or to be a sculpture show, or painting. So that's really how I got my resume started.

Hayes: Did you try the Behr [ph?] circuit?

Van Hout: Never had any desire to do that.

Hayes: Because your smaller things would seem to be very appealing.

Van Hout: I think it was logistics for me, and I probably would have done real well. And one of my best friends from art school was a man named Paul Sumner [ph?]. We just had a show at New Elements this summer. But we graduated at the same time. We were really close friends in school. He ended up going to craft fairs to making it into these big craft fairs, the Baltimore, and Philadelphia. He has work in the Smithsonian in their craft museum. And I chose more the one-man show gallery route. And what I did, like I said, that was a very important part for which I always stressed that if I meet young artist people is to really have low-- your cost of living really be as small as possible so you can afford to have studio time. So I found the situation that my studio and home cost me next to nothing. On a beautiful day that I was painting a landscape I would stay home, and then the next day I would go in and rake leaves or mow grass. So that really, when I look back to that time in my life, that was probably my freest and really formative time. I spent seven or eight years living there.

Hayes: You did a lot of art work.

Van Hout: I did a lot of art work. And that's really where I started establishing my career. That was from '80 until '88.

Hayes: Did the animal figures start immediately at that time?

Van Hout: They did. And the prices were very-- (laughs) being a poor person I look back and I said I charged how-- I remember my first painting I sold for $100 that I was so amazed that somebody would pay $100 for it. So just my idea of money at that time, because I lived a very, very-- it was very lean. But it's interesting. What happened is I lived in that country for all those years; 1987 was the pivotal year. That's the year that I had my first really successful exhibit at St. John's, which I also need to back up, I have to go back to 1980. That's when I graduated from school, found this home in the country, but it's also the first year I visited the New England Aquarium in Boston. And that-- it's funny. All these things happened --

Hayes: Is this [inaudible]?

Van Hout: I was up visiting friends and I'd go to the aquarium. And before that time my subject matter was farm animals, zoo animals. That was really what I enjoyed doing, what I'd rather have been doing. Went in the aquarium and I see the fish, and that was-- I was just blown away. Came home, and besides doing my painting and sculpture I just started making these rudimentary sheet metal fish sculptures. And that seed was planted then, and here it is 27-odd years later. But that was my major-- that was the thing that really put me on the map artistically. So I started making these big, big installations of the fish.

Hayes: But I've seen others, like turtles.

Van Hout: Always loved the turtles. Yeah.

Hayes: Is that what drove you to the coast?

Van Hout: No, once again it's my sister, I call her my sister Brooks. You know in families you have those pairings. And that's who I followed to Greensboro, because we were-- she's three years younger than me. She was in nursing school at the time. Well, she and her husband lived in San Francisco, then they moved back to Wilmington early '80s. And I would come down to visit. My brother-in-law Bill is a psychiatrist. I met Lorraine Perry [ph?]. Lorraine Perry gave me this opportunity to show-- she saw-- Bill told her that I did artwork. She gave me a chance to exhibit at St. Thomas Day Festival they have in city hall, and that was 1984, '85, '84. And I met Wren Brown [ph?] from St. John's at that time.

Hayes: He was the director. I think that was his title.

Van Hout: Right, he was the director. And I showed him-- I swear, I still think of what I showed him. I said, "Wren, I'd love to have this exhibit...," I had started doing these installation shows with fish as if you were in an aquarium. And he said, "Well, next time you come down, talk to me." So I came down in '85, showed him what I was working on. And he goes, "What about summer of '87 you could have a show here." And I didn't have no documentation. I had these little rudimentary folk arty-looking fish. And they still say that's one of the best shows they had there, that people loved it. I had over 300 fish all hanging from the ceiling, and it's as if you were walking through an aquarium. And that was the show that-- that was the time where I was able to go from-- quit doing yard work and go totally to a studio full-time making a living.

Hayes: And then the motivation was you might as get where the fish is at?

Van Hout: Well, it's two things. I kidded that was my Rip Van Winkle time. Because I lived in this sort of artificial world where I didn't pay rent. I had broken up with my girlfriend so I was upset about that. It was like I need to move and, you know, get out of town. And I went to Wilmington to have a show, and it was so funny. Wren was gone that summer, and Claude had had a-- he was opening with me.

Hayes: Claude Howell.

Van Hout: Claude Howell had his figurative drawings upstairs with my show. Well, Wren put him in charge since Wren was gone, the director of the museum. Claude invited me to his house, to the party. And I was so busy installing that show I had never been in-- seen that fountain, and I just had one of those magic moments. I walked up the street. I think Wren let me stay at his house. I came around the corner, here's this beautiful fountain, and it's in July in Wilmington, and I'm going to the Carolina Apartments. And down in this apartment this fabulous art collection, all these people are being so nice to me, you know, Claude and all his friends. I realized later who all these people are. I met Thomas Wright and Tony Rivenbark. But, I mean, it was just a house that-- Claude knew everybody in town, and it was so welcoming. It's like, "God, this is so cool." So that's where it planted the idea like, "Wow, it'd be neat to live in this town." So...

Hayes: Except for the cost.

Van Hout: Well, that was the big thing. He says, well, here I am, I think I was around-- I must have been about 35 or so, I can't remember. But I remember, here I am, I've lived-- this'll be the next challenge. Can I make it as a studio artist and not be living on the-- you know, living in this unreal situation.

Hayes: And you didn't want to go back to yard work.

Van Hout: No, I didn't. But, I mean, I really did-- at that time was there was a whole lot of demand for the fish, and I knew I could make a living, it was just a matter of finally paying a rent and all that.

Hayes: So now you're married with a family?

Van Hout: Yep. And it was funny. All of this happened so rapidly. My brother-in-law is really funny. He said, "When you move to Wilmington you don't have to rent the first thing you see," which is, of course, what I did. It was on the corner of 3rd and Castle. It was a long pink-- it had been the A&P, people have told me. But I came down and stayed at Brooks and Bill, and I was house hunting. First place I look at, it was like $275, $250 rent. A 70-foot long building right on the corner of 3rd and Castle. And I...

Hayes: And you saw it as a studio, too.

Van Hout: Yes. I saw it as a studio. No, this was a studio.

Hayes: You have to have the space.

Hayes: Right. So what I did, I rented an apartment for a while at Carolina Apartments, then I had this studio. But what happened, quickly I learned I couldn't afford both rents. And my wife's brother is Andre. We became friends, Andre Nance. He was a builder. He came over. I said, "Andre, what can we do? I just need to have a bathroom here. If I could have a bathroom...," it had kind of a rudimentary kitchen, so I can just make this my little studio apartment, which we did like that. And I think my landlord said put a new heater in, my rent was $375. It was a fabulous studio. Big, big open space right in downtown Wilmington. I mean, I couldn't have asked for a better studio. That same year I had an exhibit at St. John's, so this is the following summer, a year-- 1988. I met Merriman Kennedy who runs New Elements. And it was like the perfect timing. The show was real successful. There was a big demand for the fish.

Hayes: Were you selling the fish individually?

Van Hout: I would sell them originally individual. And what happened, they were so inexpensive people didn't want just one, people wanted-- they wanted to collect all the different types. So what happened, as many fish as I can make, she was selling. And it was just perfect timing between my move. She was at a new location at downtown Front Street. And it was just the perfect pairing.

Hayes: And your stuff was not so crazy expensive. There was something for lots of folks.

Van Hout: For lots of folks.

Hayes: I think for a gallery, sometimes, it's a real hard thing when they have thousand dollar paintings and the people really want something.

Van Hout: These pieces are $25, $35, $50, $100. They were very affordable. That helped very much. And they were coastal.

Hayes: Helped her too. And they were coastal.

Van Hout: Because it was funny. I didn't take that into consideration.

Hayes: That wasn't why you did them, right? It was because you wanted to do them.

Van Hout: Because I had no connection. I'm not a boater, I'm not a surfer. That really comes more from my imagination, that whole idea.

Hayes: Well, it does make sense, though, although I think there's a universal appeal for fish. But obviously on the coast they do well.

Van Hout: They do well. And what happened with that idea, that simple idea, it went basically from an aquarium idea to the thing-- in the installation idea, I'd have to stress that. The fact that you take a space and it's how they're installed in the space can make it very dynamic. That's the thing for the last-- since '80, I mean since the last 20 years I've done work for aquariums. And what we've done is take that basic schooling idea, a lot of times they're not painted but it's hundred to 300 fish. The Pine Knoll Shores, I think that's how many fish they have. And we came up with these mass groupings in these really, really kind of dramatic environments. And I never thought that I was going to be doing installation work, especially with someone's...

Hayes: Is that still sculpture, or installation?

Van Hout: No, it's definitely sculpture, but it's not going to-- installation is a big part of it.

Hayes: It's not a free-standing fish that you just have and it goes anywhere. You design that for each space.

Van Hout: It's kind of designed with movement in mind, with a sense of movement.

Hayes: And they're there permanently.

Van Hout: They're there permanently.

Hayes: Tell us some of the places. I guess we have to do a commercial message saying that we have one of yours at Randall Library, the Center for Marine Science.

Van Hout: The Center for Marine Science.

Hayes: Just in the North Carolina Aquarium here?

Van Hout: We have Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher and in Pine Knoll Shores. Have several installations in their building.

Hayes: You said an elementary school?

Van Hout: I just did a piece at Ogden Elementary. Where else. Oh, the libraries, the public libraries, David Painter [ph?].

Hayes: Is that the main downtown branch?

Van Hout: The Monroe branch, the northeast branch, and the downtown branch. All of them have them. And that's really because of David. David really liked that idea of installing them in the library.

Hayes: Let's talk about technique. And I know this independently that this is not a casual process for you. In other words, the work you do on animals is a very deliberate preparation, sketching. Can you tell us if you're thinking of installation, walk us through the creative process of that.

Van Hout: Well, I'm going to back up a little bit on that point about the-- and it's part of-- if I'm trying to explain my work to somebody my big inspiration was both Calder, Alexander Calder who's famous for mobiles, but particularly famous for his early wire work, and also Picasso. And specifically the piece that just blew me away in college was this-- he used sheet metal in collage technique. He made this wonderful guitar, paper guitar that was the Cubist guitar. It's about this big. And the whole idea, the way it was explained to me with my professors, what modernism did, it took that idea of the monumental sculpture. It took that idea that sculpture could be something other than that. That it didn't need to be this grand, heroic figure; that you can take an animal, you take an object, and with using really, really simple materials come up with this really, you know, sublime, interesting object. And, you know, Picasso did that again and again with all these different paper pieces he did. So that was very inspirational to me. My technique is decidedly I don't weld, I don't cast. All my things are really hand-wrought. That's the...

Hayes: Well, I see some welding.

Van Hout: That's a basic soldering that's just for the armature. And that's almost incidental that I had to use that.

Hayes: Soldering is different than welding?

Van Hout: That's different. That's, you know, you're most basic joining technique. And I had to do that for strength.

Hayes: So this here is called a solder?

Van Hout: Yeah, that's solder. That's hard, hotter...

Hayes: To put the key parts together.

Van Hout: Right. Almost everything I do is hand-joined. And what's happened is the earliest pieces were, of course, small, lighter-gauged wire that was very easy to work with pliers and small joining. Then what's happened is all these years later I started making things larger and larger. I needed larger wire, The forms had to start supporting their weight so they started becoming more and more complicated. Then what I do is, I think there's this kind of balance. I go back and forth, I start making these things that are really structural and really complicated, and then start realizing that I'd want to go back to the simple line-drawing again. So that's sort of a back and forth thing that happens with the pieces. I could give you an example. I started on these birds last year. And the idea that it's like a line drawing, and I'm reducing it. I try not to do feet, eyes. I try to reduce it back down to this really, really simple line drawing. And these are just sort of examples of the most simple kind of three-dimensional wire drawing.

Hayes: Do you use those as prep work?

Van Hout: That's the actual, that's as is. They're usually put in a group with different poses. And they really need to be hung in a very clean simple, you know, area. They can get easily lost. Yeah.

Hayes: So they're a line drawing of wire.

Van Hout: Of wire, exactly.

Hayes: This is two-dimensional feeling you want from that?

Hayes: Well hopefully, I mean they do need two-dimensionally, but you can't help but try to impose them in space. So it's kind of a-- I mean, I could allow artists to use that, but you're sort of finding-- trying to impose them in space and it's get attention. When I did the show I did these really complex gulls, and I have them there, back in the back. And the first person that saw them said, "Those things look like they're just going to drop out..." That's probably the worst thing you can say in my industry, is those things look heavy. And I just about died, because I worked so hard trying to get this elegant gull, and it just didn't work. So that's one of the things in my brain that I'm still trying to come up with this perfect-- this bird that has a sense of flight. That's my ongoing...

Hayes: But you don't use the feathers.

Van Hout: No, I don't do that.

Hayes: But the fish, we're not seeing examples, are more solid.

Van Hout: They are more solid.

Hayes: And even shaped as fish. Do you study those?

Van Hout: What I do is I work a lot with-- I mean I just find an image in a book and I go to the aquarium. I mean I want to know the volume. Sometimes the volume is lost when I'm trying to do, you know, a herring or mackerel. And the amount of trouble I'd have to go to get the volume doesn't work out, so I end up getting a silhouette. And the way they're exhibited, they're exhibited as a silhouette, and it works fine. I don't tend to do things that are anyway fancy. They're always based on observation.

Hayes: How do you study the schooling?

Van Hout: Mostly from you know, because I'm not a diver, it's just from, you know, these incredible nature shows they have now, how fish happen to school. To use an example, somebody would want me do like that anthromorphods where you impose human traits. They want to have me having fish and baby fish swimming together. Generally, I mean I think the way it works out scientifically, when fish are born they're all the same age. So when you see a school of fish they should be the same maturity. They're not swimming with their mother and their father. It's not that I don't do a variation in size that makes it more interesting, or visually interesting. But I tried the concept of massing where I have fish that are-- it's sort of playing with space where there are compressed groups within the school, and ones that have kind of fallen away or stragglers, or piece of ______________ in the back.

Hayes: So you're stretching this all out ahead of time. You're not just putting these together. Are you using your drawling skills as the prep for all of this?

Van Hout: That's the prep for it. Then the installation, it doesn't matter how much I much I imagine how a piece is going to turn out. When I install it in a space, that's the thing that's almost the reward. You know, given that they have chosen a good spot for them within the building, you know, I have certain parameters I have to work in. It usually turns out like these surprises I never planned on, it could be shadows.

Hayes: I was going to ask you about lighting. Do you get control of that?

Van Hout: No, I don't. When I'm going into a building, I have very little control.

Hayes: Lighting can make such a huge difference, particularly on schooling fish.

Van Hout: Well, if you go to the Fort Fisher Aquarium, Dick Roberts is the design coordinator out there. We did this group of mackerel that are, I think it's about 250. It's a solidly black room, I mean black space. And they hung this incredible bridge system. But we came out with this, it's two floors, and we started the fish where they're not only moving in this pattern like this, but then they're turning, and then they're dropping down at the second floor. And it's the most spectacular place. Well, that was Phase I. And it really is spectacular. You can enjoy them upstairs and downstairs. And the movement from the heating ducts, that's another thing, the air ducts, having those beautiful, you know, light...

Hayes: And since Dick was the designer you could do lighting on that.

Van Hout: He did lighting this year. Just this year he got those kind of lights, it looks like a pool. You know, it has the flickering blue light. And I had never seen it before. And I went down last time and you come in the building, and it really is spectacular.

Hayes: I saw it originally, but I haven't seen it lately.

Van Hout: Yeah. We added more fish, and then he put the lights on it, and it's pretty spectacular.

Hayes: That's great. And the thing is you're not copying, you're not trying to be a nature artist, but you still feel a fidelity to the quality of the animal.

Van Hout: Exactly. As an example, I do subjects that are, you know, traditionally a cliché. I've done flamingoes. And my whole challenge is can I make a garden sculpture a piece that's not cute. People say, "That's cute." But I say, "If you don't want to compliment an artist, go tell him his work was cute." (laughs) I mean, there's a lot of work like that if you were doing rabbits. Inheritably they're a cute animal. So that's my whole challenge is to do animals in the still and to still make it somewhat, not solemn, but make it where you're really observing this creature and it doesn't have to be...

Hayes: But you're not running away to weird creatures. Some people would go that extreme, right, say I'm not going to do turtles, because turtles are very much wanting to be protected now, and people are interested. So you're not running away from basic animals.

Van Hout: No. One of my most embarrassing things, I did a loggerhead turtle for the Loggerhead Turtle Society, I can't remember the name of it, and they protect turtles. So this was my one TV interview. And this woman stuck a microphone in my face and she goes, "Why turtles?" And I just started smiling. I didn't know what to say to that (laughs) because, I mean, I realize I don't have anything-- you know, there's nothing political. I mean, I always go back to form. It's form, and it's also that wonder of them existing. A good example, I have pictures of a snail over there. I did several snails recently. And what happened is, you know, it's chicken or egg how you end up with a subject. It seems somebody's garden -- my friend Michael and Kathleen Glancy [ph?] wanted a piece for their garden. And I was thinking oh, I could do-- sort of in the middle of this area I could have a loggerhead turtle and then have some fish cascading around it. You know, first I was thinking sea life. And then I went out and they said come out and see the garden. And they had these big concrete frogs in the garden. They're kind of humorous, you know, mass produced, but they had a lot of personality. And it just stuck in my mind, I want something that's going to work with those frogs. And it was like the next week, so my brain's open, and I'm watching this show called Zaboomafu, it's a kids-type show that's on in the morning. And it's these two nature guys and they have footage of animals all over the world. And all of a sudden they show this snail like (snorts) and it's super-magnified with this beautiful spiral. And I said that's exactly what I'm going to pitch to them. So it's grounded, you know, it's in the garden, it's of the earth, I don't have to put it on a stand. So that was the path that wasn't-- I think a snail would be a perfect subject. That's how it came to me. It suited the situation with the garden, and that's really why I'm doing this turtle. My friend Karen Crouch [ph?] has her turtle she's doing for the hospice, that is being dedicated in November. You know, and I was watching her make her turtle and all. And I wanted another creature that was of the earth, you know, I didn't want to do-- for Liggin's [ph?] garden, my friend Liggin Flynn [ph?], he said I really want a four-legged creature. So that was four-legged creature, something of the earth. That was sort of my process.

Hayes: Let's talk a little bit about the difference you have as an artist. You have done the gallery side, some of the small stuff. But it seems to me more and more that yours is about a relationship with an individual client. So is that a different set of skills that every artist brings to the table? You've already designed a design element, how does it fit outside, weather issues, lighting. You still have to create your sculpture. But if it was a wonderful piece and doesn't fit where you need it to go, it's a failure. Right?

Van Hout: And you have one, so you don't consider successes. But usually what I do, that has happened in the last five years, and that's sort of what's sort of happened career=wise that I really enjoyed. I've lived here a long time and I have-- I'll be at a party and somebody will say, "What are you working on?" I said, "Well, I'm doing a piece for somebody's garden." "I'd love to have a piece or my garden But it's sort of funny, but that's how it happens. But I'm kind of-- sometimes I'll juggle them for about a year before anything happens, you know, when we first talked about it. And I would say, "Well, what are you thinking that you'd-- you know, do you have a certain creature you have in mind?" So something comes from them. Sometimes they have a real strong feeling. But generally people are "Oh, you're the artist. You just tell me what you're thinking."

Hayes: Margie Worthington [ph?] wanted one?

Van Hout: Margie wanted a cow. She wanted cow. It was so funny. She said, "I talked about that years ago," and I didn't remember. (laughs) And Marge's dad raised cows. And so I think it's sort of a tribute to her father. And Margie knew that, because Margie and I have been friends a long time. Because a lot of my subject matter for years were the-- I did cows for years in wire and woodcuts. And she knew that I loved the farm stuff.

Hayes: It seems like by going to the personal gardens itself your work has a tremendous penetration. Because you did have the major show at Cameron where you might talk about the giraffe and the zebras. How many pieces was that?

Van Hout: Well, it actually was only, I think it turned out to be, it was only nine pieces.

Hayes: Yeah, but they were life-size.

Van Hout: They were life-size. Right.

Hayes: The giraffes are large. And then you did a mini-show for us at Randall Library. We had a wonderful response. We weren't trying to say it was an exact replica, but we knew what it was. It was zebras, right?

Van Hout: Zebras and giraffes.

Hayes: And those go together in the wild.

Van Hout: They do. And also it was the idea that played-- once again, I called the giraffes kind of towers and not-- then I was thinking the zebras were a great-- I was originally just going to do-- because of the height I was just going to do a bunch of giraffes. Then I thought it would be so neat to have -- and it's just conceptual idea. I was looking at giraffe books, and here 's these little grounded zebras, right under the legs of the giraffes. That's perfect. You have some of them draw your attention low and high. And that's funny, it's just those kind of-- it's a basic design concept that you want the installation to be successful. So there's humor element of this little sort grounded animal and this tall animal, and there's a natural element that they do, in the wild, travel in the world together in herds. And then it also works on this humor level. You had the spots, the stripes. And that's when the thing sort of clicks. You go oh, that's a great idea. That's fun to do.

Hayes: Well, you say you have to juggle lots of projects going because you can't afford to just have one. You're supporting a family. How many kids do you have?

Van Hout: I just have one child, Dooley [ph?] who's in fourth grade. So it's...

Hayes: And your wife's name is?

Van Hout: Marlissa [ph?]. And she's a therapist. So life is easy now compared-- when he was little I spent a lot of time taking care of him. My wife worked full time, and then those first five years I basically was-- my wife called him seahorse, and I took care of him. He was little. So things were kind of lean for a while. I was just getting by. And now I'm much more where I'm working with a full-time schedule. And generally what I have, I have like this--lately I have a large project I'm working on. And generally I have three or four projects when people need, you know, it could be a group of 15 fish, 5 fish. It could be a Christmas present. I have my galleries that I need to keep supplied with work.

Hayes: You do still do galleries?

Van Hout: I do two galleries, New Elements here in Wilmington and then in Somerhill, in Chapel Hill.

Hayes: Good. And those are your smaller pieces?

Van Hout: Well, as an example, both of them I ended up I did two of the big fish installations just in the last couple of months. So they do bring in...

Hayes: You mean somebody will buy something but might want something more?

Van Hout: Well, no, they saw installation that-- I showed the groups of fish in two shows, one in New Elements and one in Summerville. They ended up having clients who saw that show, and then both-- I mean those seem to be going and on a lot. But the installations are 50 to 100 fish, each home. So...

Hayes: Will you be working mobiles? Is that a new venture?

Van Hout: It is. When they see the big, I call them shower curtains of the fish, people call them a mobile. People call anything that's hanging, they'll say it's a mobile. And I don't correct them because, I mean, they basically have the idea. Mobile you have a single point, you have a point where it hangs and the pieces rotate on a balanced-- they're balanced pieces. What happened at the Ogden Elementary where I did this installation, I was just going to do a group of fish, but they had nothing to hang from. They had one single bar. So I came up with this-- the only way I could do it was to have two points that I could have these pieces...

Hayes: Cross-grounded?

Van Hout: So it's just working with your given-- you know, there are certain situations you get in where you don't have any choice, restrictions.

Hayes: We're coming to the end of the interview and we want to thank you so much. I want to give you a chance to say as you speculate out the next 20 years, are there things that you really want to get done next?

Van Hout: Well, the thing I want to do that I expressed earlier is that I have my masonite panels in here. I am going to attempt to go back to landscape painting, that's my-- that I've been telling my close friends for years. Because I really loved, love, love painting and it's something that would really be a challenge for me. The art, this all comes to natural, there's a kind of playfulness to it. The painting's a little tougher, but it's something that I really aspire to get back to painting and landscaping, landscape in particular. So that's what I'm going to try to do.

Hayes: Stay tuned. Thank you very much.

Van Hout: Thank you.

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