Stickin' it to the man since 1927.
Clark student establishes himself as an artist
By Bill Janson
A blank canvas is intimidating. It’s a mistake waiting to happen. Once that first drop of paint hits the pristine white sheet, the artist becomes responsible for it. The fear of making a mistake can paralyze an artist. In art and in life, visions of failure can make one give up before they even begin.
Local artist and Clark senior Scott Coffrin has a method to deal with the difficulties of getting started.
“When [the canvas] is finally ready to paint on I usually just leave it hanging on the wall for a while because I love to look at its purity,” says the Studio Art major, set to graduate in May.
“The thing with canvas is you can always make another one. Worst-case scenario: you ‘waste’ a perfect canvas on a bad painting. So you make another canvas and another painting for it. Then you’re left with two pieces.”
Coffrin is an abstract painter working mostly with inks. Ink painting is the process of diluting ink with different amounts of water and using that solution to stain the paper in different ways. A stroke cannot be changed or erased once it is painted, which Coffrin views as an advantage.
“With oil paint one can cover mistakes, fix a line or a color that didn’t come out right,” Coffrin says, who started painting primarily with ink in 2009.
“When working with ink I forfeit this luxury, and I could not be happier [to do so]. Once I could not fix the ‘mistakes’ in my painting, I felt completely free.”
This sense of freedom is not the only thing that draws him to ink painting. Having spent his junior year in Japan, Coffrin is heavily influenced by Japanese art and culture.
Ink painting was developed in ancient China and spread throughout Eastern Asia, before becoming a major influence on the European expressionists nearly one thousand years later. In Japan, it is known as sumi-e and emphasizes the artist’s need to capture the soul or essence of his subject, not just its appearance.
“To say that I’m influenced by Japanese ink painting is an understatement,” he says. “The abstract expressionists are very important to me because they accomplished that which I am currently trying to do, some kind of adaptation of Eastern mark-making into Western art.”
The concept of “mark-making” is important to the ink painting tradition and to Coffrin’s own work. Because each stroke is permanent, it must be carefully planned and executed.
According to him, “Japanese ink painting starts with the mark. Every mark has purpose.”
In his work, however, Coffrin embraces his “mistakes,” which can often lead the painting in a new and interesting direction. “I love this because there is no going back, it’s truthful.”
He is not only intrigued by the permanence of his brushstrokes, but by their very presence.
“All I need to do is put one mark on top of another, and suddenly there is space,” explains Coffrin, paraphrasing one of his favorite contemporary artists, Iva Gueorguiva. “The two shapes are suddenly vibrating, together they are greater than the sum of their parts.” He puts great emphasis on the way his strokes work in confluence to create a balanced piece.
A piece begins with an image or form that exists in nature. He then tries to reduce these forms to basic shapes in such a way that allows the strokes on the canvas to speak for them.
“I try to limit my vocabulary of shapes such that the mark-making and expression can come to the forefront,” he says.
One of the images that he finds himself working with most is that of a bamboo shoot, but few of his works are immediately identifiable as a bamboo shoot. Instead, he hopes that the work invokes many images, while still maintaining the essence of the bamboo shoot.
Recently, Coffrin was invited to Waltham, MA, to the house of one of his favorite contemporary artists, Ma Quingxiong, with whom he has kept an email correspondence for the past few months.
Like Coffrin, Quingxiong paints using ink and watercolors in the tradition of his native China. He teaches art workshops in and around Boston and has been exhibited internationally, so naturally he has become something of a mentor to Coffrin.
“I told him I was worried about my abilities as painter,” Coffrin recounts. “He told me something to the effect of, don’t worry about ability; it’s like digging a well. As long as you stand in the right place and dig, eventually the water, like your abilities, will come gushing out.”
Coffrin’s work has been featured in group exhibitions four times in his young career and has two shows on the horizon. In addition to his upcoming senior thesis show at Clark, he has been accepted to the Roots exhibition, which will open at the Goddard House and Art Gallery on April 10th.
As for plans after graduation, Coffrin views it as a blank canvas.
“I’m excited by what I don’t know,” he says. “I never know how a painting will end up just as I don’t know where my life will end up taking me.” Then, as though wary of potential mistakes, mindful of their permanence, yet optimistic they will have their purpose, he adds, “I’m pretty sure I’m better at painting than I am at supporting myself. Hopefully I’ll figure it out.”