March 21, 2013
There must be something in the water that supplies the 46807 zip code. The area is a spring of artistic talent. Once again I found myself rolling slowly down Nuttman Avenue, trying to eyeball the house number that matched the address on my notepad. The house I parked in front of had no numbers, but my gut told me it was the right place. The piles of canvas creeping up the walls of the screened porch gave it away; this was an artist’s lair. I carefully stepped around paintings and rapped at the door. A bearded man with wrinkles of experience alluding to a wise soul opened the door.
“Hello,” he said, offering a hand. “I’m Gregg.” We sat down to chat, but to be honest, I was a bit distracted by all the work. Like toddlers hovering around a new visitor, Coffey’s creations filled the space around us. Paintings on the floor stared up at the ceiling. Groups of etchings stood propped in doorways. Dozens of pieces hung proudly on the walls while smaller pieces rested at odd angles in odd places, as if waiting to be acknowledged for their individuality and striking personalities.
Stacked on the floor, binders filled with thousands of slides tell the history and progression of Coffey’s work. He has a firm grasp on several techniques, including monotype print, etching, oil painting and drawing. He has lived his life studying philosophy, religion, ancient cultures, meditation techniques, and spirituality. His work reflects the layers of insight he has collected in his mind. Graphite, paint and ink externalize the life experiences Coffey has absorbed.
As a young BFA candidate, Coffey realized he didn’t quite jive with the professors at Indiana University. According to Coffey, his professors and instructors didn’t give him much feedback because they didn’t know how to feel about his work. I will admit, he lost me at “circular biomorphic canvases,” which I’m sure refers to something incredible, while appearing round and morphed.
Coffey describes his technique as “automatic painting,” stating the process is similar to jazz improvisation. “I might have a sketch of an idea, but I know when I start working I have to relinquish myself because another power takes over,” says Coffey. He begins with a thought and lets his mind twist and turn as the painting changes. He strives to connect with the spiritual world and then welcomes that world to guide his hand.
Coffey adds layers of paint, sometimes covering up early ideas completely and other times allowing shadows of the inner layers of a painting to show through, like images behind a sheer curtain. Coffey’s creative process involves tedious and meticulous attention to detail, combined with the application of thin layers of oil paint. He begins with subtle lines sketched in blue pencil then begins to apply oil paint thinned to a translucent consistency. He has no systemic technique. His paintings have no top or bottom, and he frequently rotates the canvas as he works which allows for finished pieces to be viewed at any angle.
Coffey explains his work doesn’t always reach the point of completion. To him, some pieces never feel finished. He may quit working but years later pick up his brush again and change a canvas completely. Coffey starts more work than he finishes and says he could spend the next two years just finishing paintings, drawings and etchings that aren’t ready for his signature.
Coffey has a brain that doesn’t quit, which is one reason he has amassed such a large collection of stalled canvases.
“New ideas are exhilarating,” he says. “It’s hard to step away from a thought that inspires a new piece.”
He also struggles with spending too much time on a single work, so much so that he states he sometimes “kills the spirit of the piece. I work hard to revive it, but sometimes a canvas just stays dead.” He is quick to add, “I am anal fixated, detail oriented; no apologies.”
After earning his BFA, Coffey wanted to take a deep dive into the art world. He was drawn to San Francisco State University where he studied under instructor John Ihle. Coffey was an admirer of Ihle’s work and considered him a highly respectable artist. While there, Ihle made a strong comment toward Coffey’s work. Ihle said to him, “Gregg, I think you have a problem with the artist label. You aren’t an artist; you are a visual poet.”
Surprisingly, Coffey did not take offense to hearing his respected mentor say the potentially crippling words, “You are not an artist.” Instead the comment triggered a realization that helped Coffey understand his own work. Even today he prefers to be thought of as a visual poet.
Coffey often feels frustrated with the art world. He doesn’t agree with the labels placed on people and the art they create. He feels art magazines are filled with “pretension and b.s.”
Nevertheless, he has learned to play the game. Coffey will often rework a painting just to fit a show, or he may simply change the title and write an artist statement to make the work fit the prospectus. Coffey doesn’t feel like he’s selling out when he makes adjustments to his work. I would guess he feels like he is pulling one over on the establishment.
Coffey explains that the titles of his works are jabs at society that include a punch of humor. His paintings’ titles are meant to be vague and often cynical. He recently showed two pieces at Wunderkammer’s Piecemeal show. As a pair, he named the paintings “Oriental and Accidental Bovine Persuasion.” No surprise, the subject was a cow, a sweet and matronly cow that Coffey describes as the incarnation of Mother Earth.
Wunderkammer was actually a factor in Coffey’s decision to stake claim to his new home on Nuttman. He wanted to be close to the gallery because he feels it is going to play a key role in Fort Wayne’s art scene. After living in Chicago for the past several years, Coffey recently returned to Fort Wayne. He needed a house that was quiet in a neighborhood with no distractions. For Coffey “getting into the zone is a courtship; it can take days.” His new place allows him to have three studios in his home. He has set up an etching studio in the basement, a drawing room on the main floor and an oil painting studio on the second floor.
Coffey explains he has always loved Fort Wayne. But he does think it is important for people to go out and live a little. “People should leave and bring something back with them,” he says. He feels that in this insular community it is good for people to go out and experience the world, then bring back some of the culture they soaked up on their adventure.
Happily, Coffey has returned to Fort Wayne where he can continue to let his spirit guide him through adventures on new canvases.