Thursday Spotlight: Nathaniel Barlam

Tell us about your background.
I grew up in MA, although I’m the only member of my family born in the state. Most of my family is from NYC, where my great grandparents settled to escape persecution in Europe for being Jewish. Everyone in my family is talented at something (except sports, go figure) but only a few of my relatives have pursued artistic endeavours. My brother Jonny is a great artist, but found his real passion in music. My parents divorced when I was young and I’ve had a dog for twelve years. My interest in art really stems from my brothers, my parents knowledge and love of art, and my childhood obsession with legos. I am going to be going into my second year at RISD and plan to major in Architecture.
 Name some people, artists, artistic genres, etc. that have been influential in your work.
It’s hard to list off all the things that have influenced me, but first and foremost is my family. Their interests in many ways became my interests, and as I grew up I used what I learned from them as a base to create my own interests from. For example, my parents love classic rock (Beatles, The Who, etc) so I grew up listening to them. I love classic rock still, but now I also love a lot of groups that I discovered on my own as tangents from their influence, like The Band, which has become one of my favorite groups recently. In terms of artists and genres I’ve always been more interested in modern art and American art than old European art. Renaissance art is nice, but I’d take Van Gogh or Winslow Homer over Donatello or Caravaggio (no offense to Tom Mills). I also find influence in animation, especially Hayao Miyazaki and the Batman animated series from the 1990’s. While in high school I found a love for comics and try to learn from their unique storytelling ability. I incorporate everything I can into my work, so books I’ve read recently or TV shows I’ve seen or songs I’ve heard will have an influence in my projects.
Where and how do you get your ideas?
I’m not sure where I get my ideas. It’s hard to pinpoint where inspiration will hit, but usually it is catalyzed by either a personal event or one or more of my influences. I might get an idea after listening to a song I like or I might get one after playing with my dog. You just have to be ready to pounce on inspiration when it strikes and try to do it justice in a work.
What materials do you work with? Describe your technical process.
I try to vary my materials because I feel I’m not old enough to settle on one method. I like to work with wet media like ink and watercolor, but also love to use dry media like charcoal or graphite. I also love to work with three dimensional art like origami and kirigami. So as I work, I’ll often get struck with the idea to try something different, and I’ll just do it. I want to make clear that I feel art should never be experimental, because that implies that an artistic experiment could fail. I believe art should be organically open to new techniques, and if I try a technique that doesn’t fit my current work, I’ll just retry it on a later piece. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy art school so much. Each of my teachers has different approaches to art, and teaches different techniques that I may have never thought of trying. Clara showed us how to use wet charcoal. Tom showed us how to use sandpaper and the importance of pentimenti. These techniques are by no means new, but my incorporation of them has dramatically changed my technical process. In general, I try to stay open to new techniques in hopes of better results.
What do you find to be the most challenging part of being creative? What is the best part of being creative?
 The most challenging part of being creative is using it in a way that others can relate to. It is easy for an academic to show they got every answer right on a test, but much harder to explain why your latest work is so important. It seems as if the more I learn about art, the less people understand my art. Creativity leads to a pitfall of isolation that is hard to avoid completely, but can be mitigated through the occasional creation of art that everyone gets, like a still life or self portrait. This kind of art may not be the most meaningful or truest art, but it helps keep me down to earth. The nice part of being creative is knowing you can express yourself in a way that no one has ever done before. Anyone who studies hard enough can get a perfect SAT score, but it is truly special to be able to think in a way no one else can. The best thing is that among other creative people you’ll find others who think as creatively as you, but in a totally different way that has the potential to mutually enhance both of your outlooks on life, love, and clouds.
What advice would you give to someone seeking advice about being an artist?
Being an artist means whatever you want it to mean. You don’t have to dress weird or watch Dr. Who or see Wes Anderson movies to be an artist (although many people will claim it helps). You just have to do whatever you feel is necessary for you to make art. If figure drawing is what you must do, then do it. If painting roadkill is what you feel like doing, then do it. If watching Dr. Who is what you must do, I still don’t think you need to do that because there are so many better things you could watch but do it anyways because my opinion doesn’t matter. Art comes from within. You just have to set your own goals and stuff.
I have uploaded a lot of my art on RISD’s portfolio page and plan to upload more as I make it. If you want to talk commissions, I’m all ears at nbarlam@risd.edu.
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