INTERVIEW WITH BILL THELEN
How long have you been making artwork?
My earliest memory of drawing probably goes back to grade school. I remember being really inspired by team colors and mascots. I used to fill my room with drawings of every school in our division. I really haven’t stopped making “art” since. I didn’t really commit to the idea of being an “artist” until I graduated from college.
Who are your favorite artists?
This is a tough one because I love so many. I’ll just name a bunch of artists I find interesting off the top of my head… Kai Altoff, Bjarne Melgaard, Martin Kippenberger, Tala Madani, Joe Brainnard, Richard Tuttle, Cady Noland, Gary Hume, Christine Hill, Carol Bove, Ray Johnson, George Kuchar, Absalon, Forrest Bess, Chris Martin, Paul Thek, Joanne Greenbaume, David Wojnarowicz, William E. Jones, all the artists who show at Lump…
Who or what are your influences when it comes to making work?
Since I left grad school, I only follow projects, hunches, theories or ideas that interest me. I’m not really looking to make a living off my work, so I try to keep my work as pure as possible. I am a pretty restless person and I like to always be moving forward.
Do you read often?
Yes, I am always reading a variety of media; journals, blogs, magazines, novels, and theory… I jump back and forth from high to low. Currently, I am pretty obsessed with Leo Bersani and Kevin Dean. I am hoping it will develop into a project with my friend John Neff. In terms of my work, I have a half written novel that has reached a dead end, a couple blogs and I am reediting the Joe Orton diaries for a Kenneth Halliwell project I am working on. Always reading and writing.
Before you begin creating images, how do you come up with your ideas? Do you draw from personal iconography, or do you just start putting ideas on paper?
Things happen pretty organically with me. Usually, everything I do starts with drawing. Then to expand it into bigger idea or project I usually recognize that a drawing is not going to be enough and find other strategies to make the work. I don’t have loyalty to any medium or technique.
You use a wide variety of media and strategies. How are your sculptures, paintings, drawings, and video connected? Are they linked by an idea or theme, or are they something completely different?
Well, as a result of running Lump (teamlump.org) for the past 17 years, my curatorial practice has crept into my work. When I think about my own exhibitions I approach it from an editorial perspective, and this also comes from my background in film and video. I like to fill holes.
Your portraits are really engaging. Who are these people featured in your wallpaintings and paintings?
For the past 15 years I have been drawing bald guys. I just like to imagine their personal economies within our culture. Sometimes I turn my quick 1-2 minute sketches into these large laborious paintings and wall paintings. I’ve made portraits of Perry Rubenstein, Barry Diller, Stanley Tucci, Michel Foucault, Lloyd Blankfein, and random bald guys I see in the street or at the gym. Recently I invited everyone I knew to draw Lloyd Blankfein for a book project. I heard he is interested in contemporary art and I was hoping he would take notice and let me photograph the toilets at Goldmann Sachs. Sadly, it never was printed, maybe some day.
Although I don’t like using the term “naive,” why do you intentionally use naive mark making in your paintings and drawings?
I was thinking about this the other day in my drawing class when we were having a discussion about mark making. I was telling my students I went through a very technical phase in high school and college but have drifted very far away from that. The style you see now is really a reflection of me in this phase of my life. I love gesture. The crummier the better, the less I do the more I like it. I also told them that you have to know the rules before you can break the rules so they wouldn’t all show up with shitty drawings.
Your work appears to contain a sense of dry cryptic humor. Do you feel that is accurate?
Yes, I believe I have a pretty dark sense of humor. I usually let it all hang out in the studio and then edit what gets to seen. Some work is just not right for certain audiences. I am revealing hints about what the work means to me, but in no way am expecting the viewer to follow my trajectory.
You mentioned in an earlier email you were working on a book and solo show. What is the book you are working on? Where will this solo show take place?
I recently went to China and bought a bunch of brushes and ink when I was there. The handling of the brush has completely loosened up my style even more. It is welcome change. I am in no ways trying to work in a traditional Chinese technique, but I like the materials. Anyways, I started using the brushes and ink to make drawings. After I had about two hundred I started editing them and “films” started to emerge. I store all my drawings in portfolios and when you look at them and they read like a film. I am trying to release them as a book. The show I am working on right now will include some of these drawings or a “film” called “Low Hanging Fruit.” I am also working on a bunch of other pieces as well. It is going to be at Spectre Arts in Durham next year.
What are your feelings on academia?
Well, I teach and I have gone through two programs (BFA/MFA) so I think it’s pretty important to me, but not necessary for everyone. It really is a personal choice. If an academic setting interests you I say follow that path, if not try other approaches. I know plenty of artists who learned from immersing themselves in the art world and have been very successful.
Any advice to young and emerging artists who want to get their work out there?
I guess the most important thing is don’t waste time. Don’t wait for galleries come to you. Put on your own shows, get involved with your community, volunteer at a place you would want your work to be shown, follow your instincts, and make the world a better place.
Bill Thelen is an artist, curator , and educator. He currently lives and works in Raleigh, NC. He earned his MFA from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has exhibited nationally and internationally. He currently runs Lump Gallery and Projects. A contemporary art gallery, collective, and alternative space in Raleigh, NC.
to view more of his work please visit
To learn more about Lump Gallery and Projects please visit
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