Artful Dodger

Aspiring artist paints his own reality

NT: Like, "Get out of here; you don't qualify"?

Tonnesen: I was speaking in Tucson, and the audience was 100 percent artists and art industry professionals. Halfway through my remarks, a woman who had been staring at me with the most insulted body language stood up and said, "I think you're boring, and you disrespect legitimate artists." And she walked out.

NT: So what are you? An illegitimate artist?

Arts and crafty: Architect-turned-artist Bill Tonnesen is devising his own 15 minutes of fame.
Kevin Scanlon
Arts and crafty: Architect-turned-artist Bill Tonnesen is devising his own 15 minutes of fame.

Tonnesen: Thank you. One of the things I'd like to be able to accomplish is to tell people what an enriched art experience I'm having by doing a little bit of research into what I'm seeing.

NT: Sounds like an artist's statement. But you hate artists' statements.

Tonnesen: The artist's statement is typically a pathetic document. They're written by people who imagine they have something to say. I never remember any of them, even moments after I read them. And when is the last time you read a funny artist's statement?

NT: Well, I thought it was pretty funny when you wrote in your book about seeing people at galleries who "weren't rich-looking."

Tonnesen: Oh! No no no no! I was talking about two different armory shows I went to in New York. At one, people were dressed sloppily, so it was easy to distinguish between the artists and the collector-type people. That's something specific to the high-end world of modern art, where dead artists play a big role, where the galleries are all carpeted, and the price of the work is very, very high, and the gallery people are dressed in a jacket and tie. I felt out of place in that rarefied air.

NT: Amazing. Okay. What's the difference between art and architecture?

Tonnesen: Art is easier. No life safety issues, no constantly focusing on costs, no municipal tampering, no design review boards. And you don't have to go through endless meetings with people who are trying to influence your design.

NT: What, besides fame, is the purpose of your work?

Tonnesen: This is work that I'm good at. The skills that I bring to the table are strong enough to be on a world stage. But if I do not address dirty words like marketing, money, promotion, representation, I'll never have that opportunity.

NT: You keep coming back to money. Is that the compelling, driving force behind your work?

Tonnesen: People have accused me of being motivated by greed. I can tell you that it's essentially the opposite, because I never want to sell any of my work. I went to the gallery and proposed a plan in which all the work I had done would remain mine, and clients would look at it and say, "Yes, I'll have one of those," and I would make a piece similar to that one. Because I didn't want to give up my stuff. I am not making work to suit the tastes of my audience; I'm doing work that I believe in personally. I then got a dose of reality from the gallery director, who said, "It's hard enough to sell artwork off the wall, we're not going to tell people they can't have it." Even now, giving up one of my pieces leaves me with mixed feelings.

NT: I still can't tell: Are you an artist, an anti-artist or a snooty wanna-be?

Tonnesen: I've never even thought about whether I am an artist or whether people think of me as one. It's such an easy term to throw around. Because I don't think people really have much insight into what is art and what is not art.

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