Chris Duncan

Artist/Painter, San Francisco // August 2011
I try to be patient with opportunity and how it arises, and I’ve also come to terms with the possibility that I might never make money off of any of the creative projects or work I do, and that’s okay.

Chris’s studio is in the very same converted garage in the Mission District as Imin Yeh’s was, except that his is at the far end of the garage, beyond all the other studio spaces, and he’s got quite a bit more room to move about in. There are also two big semi-opaque skylights right above his space, so a fair amount of natural light filters in. On the day of our visit, a construction crew was out in front working on the street. We could barely hear our own voices over the pounding jackhammers, but as Chris lead us to his studio, the din of machinery quickly gave way to a welcomed silence. I was amazed we couldn’t hear the noise through the walls, and I thought how lucky Chris was to be closed off from that racket in his quiet little haven. Klea and I wandered about, checking things out, asking questions, and then Chris and I sat at his table and chatted. Chris is warm and effusive and really easy to talk to— we discussed his upcoming nuptials, the ways in which fatherhood has influenced his creative work, and how much his daughter has taught him, especially the importance of simplicity in both life and work. While talking I noticed all the bright shades of color that inhabit so much of his space: the assortment of Crayola markers, splashes of paint on the floor and walls, multi-colored embroidery string, used strips of blue and yellow painter tape, and much like the scattering of color throughout his studio, Chris’s speech pops with vibrancy— he often uses the adjective “magical” and his words, full of enthusiasm, move at a brisk, confident pace. Chris is clearly a man of many creative passions and interests, who seems to embrace all the arbitrariness and polarities of daily life in the varied and complex work he does.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I say I’m an artist.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I did until recently. I will be starting grad school in the fall and thought it would be best for my work if I took the summerto be in the studio. My day job was art handling, and I worked for the same company for about seven years. The job was great because I had access to a full shop, use of scrap wood and other materials, and the time off when I needed it. I had a very supportive boss. So basically, it meant I had a lot of freedom with a paycheck and insurance.

What mediums do you work with? How would you describe your subject matter? What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
I work with a wide array of materials. Photos, string, sewing, paint, wood paper, time, mirrors, light and space. I’m all over the place. But if I were to describe my work in a couple of sentences it would be something like this: I am interested in using color, line, shape, repetition and reflection to investigate perception and balance. Fake/perceived vs. real, darkness and light, positive and negative.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Reading: Malcolm X by Manning Marable.
Listening: The new Vetiver, Arthur Russell, Boys Life, new Thurston Moore, Superchunk, Echo and The Bunnymen, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Liturgy, Zomes, Sam Cooke…
Looking at: I tend to look at quilts, and I try to see what my daughter sees for visual inspiration.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them? How do you
navigate the art world?

Money and time are my biggest challenges. I navigate the art world with a lot of help from friends, family and collaborators. I rely a lot on a community that has organically come together over the years—it takes a village as they say. I try to be patient with opportunity and how it arises, and I’ve also come to terms with the possibility that I might never make money off of any of the creative projects or work I do, and that’s okay.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
Well, it means I can leave a mess and come back to it, rather than making art coffee table style at my house. In this way I’m able to keep myself wide open in the studio all the time. My spot is small…so there’s a lot of stacking and shuffling that occurs…and it’s a perpetual mess, as you can see.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now?
The first major shift would be seven years ago when my daughter was born. Her coming brought a new level of seriousness. Having a child makes you take stock— it makes you really think about what kind of life you want, and what kind of person you want to be. It’s important to me to lead by example and I decided I wanted to work hard at being an artist. I began to take myself more seriously as a “maker”, and began to focus more. The second shift would be almost two years ago. I received a fellowship from Kala Institute in Berkeley. Though traditionally a printmaking fellowship, I challenged the idea of printmaking by proposing to buy a drum set and use their space to have improv jam sessions once a week for a couple months with other artists and musicians and friends. I would then record the sessions, teach myself garage band, and create a song that combined moments from all the sessions and make a record. I would then use the print shop to make the covers. They accepted my proposal. I had never played drums before. It was a fucking blast. I made a record and it changed my art making in an amazing wide-open way. The project is called “THE SUN”.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
I think it reflects who I am.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell
us about?

I will be beginning the MFA program at Stanford this fall. I am honored and thrilled to have been accepted into such a prestigious university, and plan on taking full advantage of the time and space (both physically and mentally) the program will provide. This past spring I worked with a fellow artist named Jason Leggiere on a sound sculpture that we exhibited at Guerrero Gallery in SF. The project was very satisfying, and has planted a seed for where I would like to take my work. That will be one of several things I’ll be working on at Stanford. Also, I am interested in pushing “THE SUN” project to new heights.

What are you most proud of?
My family.

What do you want your work to do?
Invoke some sort of feeling, be it positive or negative.

What advice has influenced you?
Be aware of your influences and how you respond to them. It’s always better to give than take.

How will you know when you have arrived?
When I get there?

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I just had a solo exhibition up at:
I was very happy with the show.

To see more of Chris’s work: