Samuel T. Adams always wanted to be an artist. As member of the ever-growing Bushwick crew, he is hacking out a living with his paintings and collages that display his evolving style. Adams' latest technique involves transferring paint from plastic to canvas. But we'll let him explain. On a brutally hot day in late June, we sat in his studio, drank Budweiser out of American flag cans, and discussed making it in NYC.
You could be in your studio all day and all night creating masterpieces, but if no one sees them, then there's no point.
Did you always want to be an artist?
Yeah, always. When I was a little kid, I would take pottery classes and draw. By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was on my way to being an artist. In 12th grade I was in the AP class. I knew I wanted to study art.
What does success look like?
For me, success is the ability to just keep making work. I work a couple days a week at a gallery on the Upper East Side, but I'm able to support myself by making art as well. To me, that's success. It would be great to have a bunch of shows lined up, but I don't. Being in [Bushwick] is a privilege as well because there are so many artists living in this building. I have a lot of good friends. We are able to go to each other's studios and shoot around ideas. I feel pretty good about that.
Is that sharing a formal thing or an informal one?
Definitely informal. Sometimes it's just someone stopping by to say hello and they will see something that starts a conversation. Or sometimes I'll have a group of five artists over. It's still informal, but that's even more of a conversation.
How much time do you spend making art?
On my three days off, I'm in my studio all day, and I'm usually working during the evenings as well. But being an artist is basically a full-time job. If I'm not in my studio, I'm going to openings, seeing stuff, or doing research online. A really important part of being an artist is getting out there, meeting people, and seeing what's going on. That's how you create a community and how you get people to know you and your work. You could be in your studio all day and all night creating masterpieces, but if no one sees them, then there's no point.
How did you develop your style?
My newest painting are made indirectly. I'm painting on plastic, and then the paint is transferred on to the canvas. I studied printmaking as an undergrad, so this is an indirect way of mark-making. I make paper collages on the side. That's my vacation project, but it's something I really enjoy. Aspects of collage are creeping into my new work as well.
The plastic idea is interesting. How did you think that up?
I had this body of work that I had made before I left for a month to go to Holland. I thought they were awesome before I left, but when I came back, I thought they were really cold and really design-y. I had a group coming up in a few weeks, and I didn't want to show them. I started wet-sanding them down, basically slowly destroying them until the paint was bleeding through the back of the canvas. I re-stretched them, turned them inside out, and they became their own thing. But what was left on the plastic was all the residue of the paint and the carborundum from the sand paper. I thought it was so beautiful. I wanted that to be on the canvas. I put some acrylic medium down a few times and transferred it on. Destroying all my paintings led to the next step.
I like doing these very specific projects, because they allow me to step out of my usual process.
Painting on plastic and this indirect way of making paintings is less precious. Two years ago, I was making paintings where I would put a brush stroke down, sit back, and ponder my next move. Here, if I don't like something, I can cut it off or do something else. It's a lot less precious, which I like. It allows me to be more playful.
How do you decide when a piece is done?
With some pieces, I will work on them and then let them sit around in my studio for a week or two. Sometimes it has to look at the wall for awhile, then I turn it back around to get a fresh eye. Some pieces take a lot of time. With other pieces, I have a very specific idea and I carry out that idea.
What do you say when people ask you to describe your style?
Process, material-driven work. [Laughs]
You graduated from undergraduate in 2002, took some time away, and then got an MFA. Why take time off from school?
I wanted live life for awhile. For a visual artist, going to grad school right out of undergrad is too soon. You need some experience. I went to San Francisco and worked at a printmaking press. Then, I moved to North Adams, Massachusetts. At the time, there were a lot of artists hanging out there. That totally opened me up as a person. I was introverted before. I had to go there and make friends. I lived there for three years in a huge studio for dirt cheap, overlooking the forest and a river. But at a certain point, a lot of people left and were moving to New York. I had taken five years off, and I had reached a certain point in my work. I needed to step it up and go to grad school. It was also an excuse to move to New York. I would always drive down and visit, but it was slightly intimidating. I needed to get here.
What did you learn in grad school? Was it being forced to make art all the time?
No, because that was never a problem for me. I was making work all the time in the five years I took off. I think the greatest thing about grad school, quite frankly, was the location. I was in East Chelsea. I was able to go to shows every week, then go straight back to my studio and keep working. I created a core group of peers that wanted to talk about work and trade ideas. A lot of people I went to grad school with are in this building or around the corner. It was the start of my New York-based experience.
The Bushwick scene is interesting. It seems like you're collectively making something here.
A buddy of mine who I went to grad school with opened a gallery in the 56 Bogart building that's doing great. All these galleries keep popping up. I think it's really fantastic. Five years ago, you weren't seeing hordes of people off the Jefferson stop, you know? Now when there are openings, there are so many people out. I think it's quite nice. Some people are starting to be anti-The Bushwick Blowup. Even today, there's another grocery store opening up on Flushing. I mean, really? [Laughs] But I think it's great. The food offerings could certainly be better around here.
What's next for you?
My friend Matt Craven is doing a pop-up show in Chinatown at the end of the month. He has a specific vision for the show. It's called "Black Foliage." He has 30 artists lined up for the show, and we're each doing a piece in black and white or grayscale to go along with the mural he paints. I really like doing these very specific projects because they allow me to step out of my usual process. I'm making a drawing and collage together. It's this symbiosis where he has a vision and everyone else is playing along with it. It's my favorite thing to do.