William T. Vollmann appears at the door just as I turn in to his driveway. It's raining, so he helps me carry my camera bags in. I offer up a Christmas cactus and a box of tangerines. Vollmann has a Christmas cactus story, and after he first checks that I've locked my car, he tells it: as a child he saved one segment of a Christmas cactus, and it lived, soon to germinate in his rooftop garden.
Although Vollmann is best known for his writing, I am here to see his visual artwork. I'm prepared to talk art all day long, but with Vollmann the divide between the arts is always fluid: our conversation ranges from Noh theater to contemporary music to his novels and everything in between.
Once inside Vollmann's studio I'm confronted with walls that are covered, salon style, with art. Just past women's and men's restrooms painted in rough strokes of bold color (in the restrooms hang longtime Vollmann collaborator Ken Miller's prostitute photos) there's a dark bedroom/library complete with Vollmann's oft-mentioned meat-locker closet. After that an art-lined corridor where art hangs on blonde wood runners, ready to be critiqued. Over the studio entrance is a collection of Soviet propaganda posters. It appears that Vollmann's prodigious writings are matched by his capacity to produce and collect visual art.
Inside the studio there's art equipment everywhere, much of it looking like art itself--vintage, accordion-shaped view cameras, vacuum powered printing machines, an ultraviolet cyanotype exposure unit, darkroom trays, an enlarger, baker's trays lined with drying prints, and a work bench as long as a strip mall parking lot.
Vollmann says everything should be displayed in the studio. "I figure, if you don't see things, all the things that you have, all your watercolors together, your engraving tools and everything else together, you're not going to use them all. When they're all out there, you can get inspired and say, 'oh, I'd like to do this right now.'"
It's an embattled sense of art one is tempted to link to his gun collection. If it's not used regularly, ink will dry up, watercolors will crack, wood cuts will gather dust. Vollmann has even made his workbench modular so that if he were ever forced to downsize he could take smaller pieces of it along with him.
His daughter has her own drawing space in the main room, her notes to daddy and sketches pinned up near low-lying tables. Vollmann tells me that he's struggling with the creative parent's dilemma, how to have the freedom of a studio, a place where his individual (often explicit) work can germinate unhampered, without shame, but also provide a place for his daughter to grow up, where her friends and their parents will feel comfortable. How would it feel to be the daughter of William T. Vollmann? The conservative parents in his area aren't necessarily fond of his photos of prostitutes, even though in most of the photos the prostitutes are not acting particularly risqu�, sometimes wearing everyday clothing, or simply posed facing the camera straight-on. Still, the subject matter is taboo. He's a good father, he says. Having a child has been the most fulfilling part of his life. He enjoys having her around in the studio.
As an artist Vollmann is completely self-taught. He's never taken a class in printmaking or photography. Everything he does with paper and images he's learned about in books. A purist who never considers his audience, he makes the art for himself only; he says he doesn't care about showing his work in galleries. His interactions with his daughter's classmates and their families may be the only time he's really had to weigh how his work might be perceived.
Once we're in the studio, Vollmann shows me around, starting with a row of Oak Park photos he took while following Sacramento prostitutes. Most are platinum, but others are gum over cyanotype. I'm struck by one haunting portrait.
WTVWTV: This is a palladium-toned printing-out-paper print, and it's been sitting out here for a couple of years without any change, so the palladium seems to really make it pretty stable. This is gum over platinum, and this is just straight gum. The gum is really, really hard. I don't know if you understand the process. It's one of the first photographic processes. Basically you take Gum Arabic, with watercolor in it, and you make it photosensitive, and so it's as permanent as the watercolor itself. Artist's grade watercolors will last for hundreds of years, presumably. But, each time you print it, you get a very, very thin print. So you have to print over and over. So, this has about 12 or 13 printings in register on it. So you get this special kind of look to it. You can't get great detail with gum. It's just more of a moody thing.
TS: It looks like a ghost.
WTV: Yeah it does. And, she is a ghost. She's dead now.
We stand in the hallway silently staring at the photo of a ghost, together admiring her strong visage. He tells me about another prostitute friend of his, a grandmother, who used his tube of Cadmium red paint as lipstick. Cadmium is used to get the most brilliant hues of red, but is a heavy metal, highly toxic, even in minute doses.
WTV: When she was posing for me here she was talking about one of her customers who was really, really nice to her and she said she didn't know what she would do if he died. And then I was told later that she was strangled. I haven't seen her since. But I knew her for probably about three years, and every time I would get a hotel room and I would see her, I would say, "you know, you can come in, and you can sleep here." Sometimes she would. If I wasn't around she would steal my cadmium red watercolor and use it for lipstick. I said, "you know, that's kind of bad for you." But, seeing as how she died from being strangled, well, I guess it didn't do her any harm. Poor thing.
TS: You've really gotten to see a different side of prostitutes.
WTV: There's another. This was a very, very nice woman. Usually, they say, "Oh, can you give me a little bit of money to 'get well' before I pose for you?" And, you know, maybe 25 percent of the time they just run away when they have the money. But, I always think, that's ok.
So, this woman went, and got her crack, and she really wanted to share it with me. You know, she wanted to be really nice. I thought that was so generous, it was giving me the thing that she most valued.
He shows me more platinum, more gum. We look at photographs of prostitutes posing any way they want, more of the women Vollmann met in Oak Park, and then at another set of photos. There seems to be no end to Vollmann's photo collection. He tells me that he's working hard to make lots of prints from his--you guessed it--prodigious negative archive, taken around the world over many years.
WTV: These I'm just flattening. I just printed them yesterday. This one is 35mm. It's from Columbia from about 1999. This is a child prostitute. I think this is her mother, the procuress. I said, "Well, how about instead of paying for sex, how about if I pay for a picture?"
We view another Columbia photo. Two besieged policeman sit apprehensively in their station.
WTV: These two police had one machine pistol between them, but they felt relatively safe in their police station because they had a picture of Christ. I will say, they didn't really want to get in trouble with the criminals, so they tried to stay in their police stations. It was very bad for them, Terri.
I notice that Vollmann uses a medieval-looking soapstone WTV stamp as his signature, with the W on the right side, the V on the left side, and the T in the middle. At that point, Vollmann offers me some tea. Putting on some Tchaikovsky, he takes some kind of medicinal tea from a metal tin box he'd decorated with one of his etchings of a grasshopper. The incised metal is rubbed over with printer's ink.
TS: Do you live here in the studio?
WTV: Sometimes, yeah. It all depends on my mood, but I also have a home, and I spend some time there. It's unclear which space I'll spend more time in, in the future.
TS: Where do you do most of your writing?
WTV: It depends on what I'm working on. I do a lot of poetry and stuff here, and if there's some current fiction or non-fiction then I tend to work in the other house for that because it's my preference to have no phone here. No one can reach me here at all, so I can get a lot done and have a lot of peace. But a lot of the time I need to be near the phone, so the other place, where there's a phone, is a good place to be when I'm working on some of the books with deadlines.
I point to a door-sized table filled with hefty, upright, over-sized books, balanced like a domino rally and covered in plastic sheeting.
TS: Tell me about this.
WTV: It's called The Book of Candles and it's a folio. There are 10 of them. Let's see, I started it in 1995, and I've finished most of them this year. I finally sent one off to my dealer [Priscilla Juvelis] and one off to the Lilly Library.
Priscilla Juvelis's rare books site describes The Book of Candles as
A suite of eight religious and blasphemous love-poems to prostitutes . . . housed in a sailcloth-covered basswood clamshell box which the artist/author has painted, collaged with hand-painted woodblock prints, and suitably adorned with gewgaws. . . .
The woodcut image on the underside of each box is different. Four Japanese "doughnut hold" [sic] coins have been screwed in to the underside of the box to comprise protective feet. Inside each box, a narrow channel, collaged with painted paper, runs around three edges, leaving the spine side open. Within this are set two wooden corner blocks mounted with selenium-splotched flower-engraved brass plates, a strip of painted walnut engraved with a print of a female nude, two engraved beeswax candles on engraved brass supports wrapped round with brass wire. Even the brass screws of these assemblies are engraved and rubbed with oil-based ink.
On the inside of the spine are one engraved and inked aluminum plate and one engraved and inked brass plate which is signed and numbered.
Vollmann unwraps some boxes and books covered with more plastic sheeting. It's used, he tells me, to protect the art from his leaky roof. The box is a folio edition of The Book of Candles, hand engraved on two blocks of wood. Inside a hinged door is a set of loose prints.
WTV: There are the candles that I've engraved. See, even the screws I've engraved, and these little things. Each one of these is different. I decided not to bind them, but just to present them in a box. You can flip through if you want.
TS: Do you think the sentiments in your letter, "Crabbed Cautions of a Bleeding-hearted Un-deleter," would apply to your art too?
WTV; With the visual art, I'm probably a little more selective. Actually, you know, I do throw away. I don't use a lot of the stuff that I write--I might keep it, but I don't use it, necessarily. And with the visual art, often I'll produce a print or an image, and I'll realize it's just not good enough.
TS: Do your works show in a gallery space before being sold?
WTV: Usually they go straight to collectors. The editions are really small, and I'm not sure that it really makes sense to have shows. I could change my mind on that, but it seems like if you do that you spend a lot of money, probably more than you're going to get.
TS: On airfare, hotels, framing . . .
WTV: Yeah, that's right, Terri. And, I'm not really a vain person--I couldn't care less if people look at my stuff--I'm just happy to make it and if I can sell enough visual art and writing to get by and do more, that's all I care about.
Vollmann takes me to his fully stocked wood engraving area where I see a block of wood covered with a breathtaking sketch of a snow-capped mountain.
WTV: Back in February or March, I spent about an hour and a half in one place, standing in the snow on top of this truck, drawing this--the mountain. Here's a bunch of pine trees, and so on and so forth. I've just started engraving this sketch.
TS: Those illustrations in your novels, like in the Seven Dreams series, are they engravings?
WTV: Most of those are pen and ink drawings, but sometimes I'll use them as masters for engravings. So, in Butterfly Stories for instance, I did a bunch of drawings, which I then made into magnesium plates that I printed by hand.
TS: Do you prefer printmaking or your drawings with pen, where you're drawing the figure more loosely?
WTV: Well Terri, I think, probably, if I had to choose, I would choose printmaking because I love the crispness of the line, and then it's great to watercolor afterwards. But what you gain with a print you loose in spontaneity. And with a drawing it's really nice if someone is posing for you, and you can just go to town with a handful of watercolors. That's very, very relaxing.
Vollmann shows me how the engraver works. It's hooked up to a very loud air compressor, so he pulls me over to him and places some headphones over my ears. I turn off the recorder while he engraves. After the motor whirs to a stop, we take off for the island of tables in the center of the studio.
WTV: I was in Norway and did some illustrations of some of the Norse Eddas. The ancient Norse myths are best preserved in the Eddas, so they found me some professional models and cut me some Norwegian pine wood, to get it just right.
TS: Norwegian wood.
WTV: That's right. This is one of them, the goddess, Freya. It says her name in Runes--carved backwards obviously so it'll be right-reading--and then there were these petroglyphs that my editor showed me from the Sami people, the Laplanders. So, I did some drawings of some of those and put these ancient petroglyphs in too.
This woman [Freya in the engraving] is actually an anthropologist who was excavating some Norse stuff at the time that she modeled for me. I just drew her. This woman was like the perfect woman for it. She could actually recite some of this poem, the seeress's sayings to Odin, you know, in Old Norse. I did a bunch of drawings of her.
We move on to a set of prints Vollmann is doing in conjunction with a book he's writing on Japanese Noh theater. He shows me one. As I inspect a gum print of Yoroboshi, the blind priest's song, I ask him who his favorite artists are.
WTV: I like William Blake very much.
TS: His work is really ecstatic, the blue and yellow . . .
WTV: Yeah, it's beautiful. Absolutely. Then there are overlooked artists, like Andrew Wyeth, passed over because he wants to paint every pine needle, or every single blade of grass.
TS: I wanted to ask you about the Shostakovich passages in the "Palm Tree of Deborah" from Europe Central. I read them over and over again.
WTV: Oh, you like Shostakovich?
TS: I like Shostakovich. But I liked more the metaphors about the chromatic scale, the "transgressive harmonies of the chromatic scale."
WTV: Oh, that was fun. Yeah. I really, really enjoy listening to Shostakovich now. It was a little hard for him to live the life he did. Actually, it took me a lot of work to get to the point where I could understand him a little bit. It wasn't natural for me to appreciate those harmonies. I'm sure it isn't for most people. It was a good stretch of self-improvement.
TS: Do you think that's what people need to do when they see your work, or when they read your work, that they need to be open to the transgressive harmonies?
WTV: If they want to, but I think that if they don't like my work, or don't want to ever study it, or enjoy it, that's okay with me. That doesn't hurt my feelings.
Our time up, Vollmann asks me to shuttle him from Sacramento to Berkeley. Before we step out into the pouring rain, however, Vollmann turns the tables and asks me a question.
WTV: So, if I were going to draw you, how would you want to be drawn?
TS: I think I'd let you decide, since you're the artist.
WTV: Oh, that sounds good.
TS: How would you want to draw me?
WTV: It depends on whether you'd want to be drawn with or without clothes.
TS: I could think about being a model. Would you pay me anything?
Driving to Berkeley through water that covers my windshield in sheets, we talk about parenting, and then about criminal justice. Vollmann is passionate about the need to have a more lenient judicial system in place; he thinks that that the overly harsh punishment of criminals--the stretching of the three-strikes law and lengthy prison stays for drug crimes--is taking away the basic rights of people who require at most a slap on the wrist for petty crimes. He tells me about the research he's doing on a book about the court system's response to men accused of rape.
Hydroplaning in my Cutter on Interstate 80 in a flood zone, I learn that the old standby of removing pressure from the gas and the brakes, while not attempting to steer, works wonders and impresses a veteran of foreign wars.
Before we pull in to Berkeley Vollmann tells me that, like his anti-hero from The Royal Family, he's taken to hopping freight trains on weekends. He's even discovered an atlas, originating in Portland, for freight train hoppers. I recommend the photo journalism of the Polaroid Kid, and he offers me the chance to be a box-car warmer, or to arrive via train on my next visit. When we reach Berkeley Vollmann says I'm a good driver, because we're still alive. He is indeed a genius.
© 2006 Scott Esposito
Photos © Terri Saul