Artist Scott Teplin enjoys the minutiae, which is a good thing considering his intensely-detailed stacked room drawings require a dedicated curiosity to create, as well as to enjoy. Teplin describes his ink and watercolor works on paper as a way to categorize his curiosity about the unseen areas of life. We can trace Teplin’s creative path from the times he was sequestered in his room as a childhood punishment to his early days in New York, when he would try to draw his neighbors’ apartments from memory. From these moments, his highly entertaining and elaborate “Rooms” series was born.
Working from a studio overlooking the historic Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown, Manhattan, the artist is currently putting the final touches on his latest masterpiece. Entitled Big Hospital, the massive 52-by-62-inch ink and watercolor drawing represents a culmination of all the hours spent imagining what could be in there beyond those walls. Read our exclusive interview with Teplin below to learn more about his left-field ideas and laborious creative process.
Thanks for taking a few moments to chat, Scott. We’d love to hear a little about you. Where is your studio and where are you from?
I grew up in a small, boring suburban town just north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, called Mequon. My current studio is in Midtown, Manhattan, next to the beautiful Port Authority Bus Terminal. The view out my window looks in on a parole office just 15 feet away in an alleyway.
Tell us a little about your artistic background. Can you recall any of your earliest influences to be creative? Was there a moment that led to you eventually become a full-time artist?
I just visited my parents for a family vacation and got a refresher on the history of my creative energies. I got into a lot of trouble when I was young and my folks enjoyed filling my kids’ heads with stories about what, in my parents’ minds, was troubling and destructive behavior, but what I’ve come to consider as how I learned to be creative. I used my imagination most when I was supposed to be up in my room doing homework (I was a terrible student). I loved fireworks. Before I figured out how to make my own by either cutting apart existing fireworks or buying bottles of KNO3 from the drug store, I would modify existing fireworks. Combining my pyromania and obsession with ninja weaponry, I would take scalpel blades and carefully tie them to the business ends of bottle rockets. The idea was that they would fly out and stick to the target before exploding. But I never had a chance to use those because my dad discovered them — and not realizing there were scalpel blades tied to the end of each one — attempted to even them out on his chest as he was yelling at me for having fireworks. They sliced right though his crisp white work shirt and into his skin further ruining his shirt as his blood soaked into it. Fast forward to me miraculously getting accepted into UW-Madison for college. When I was a junior there, I spent the year abroad and while in Florence, Italy and took a watercolor class. I fell in love with the medium and to this day I still use the same brand of paper, paint and brushes that I used for that first class. I guess I was a(n unsuccessful) full-time artist right after I graduated from college in 1995 and I moved to NYC.
I’m specifically enamored with your “Rooms.” Where did these ideas begin? Do you plan these out extensively or is their emergence more of an automatic process?
I have always had trouble seeing the big picture in just about everything. I tend to focus on the minutia, and as such I used to just concentrate on (obsess over) a set singular set of objects: chairs, beds, glasses of water, nipples. While I liked the challenge of thinking of new ways to represent them (if I ever get bored with a subject I can’t help but abandon it immediately), I thought they needed to be contextualized into some sort of a setting. At the same time I was living/working in the same railroad apartment in Brooklyn for 7 years with a 45 year-old heroin addict next to me living with his shut-in mother, and another 40-something heroin addict living above me — also with his shut-in mother. I would hear them moaning in the hallways occasionally— and about every two months they would take a lawn mower and mow over the hypodermic syringes that accumulated in the back yard after they tossed them out the window. The moaning, though — so much moaning! I would draw every night lying in bed listening to them moaning, wondering what the fuck is going on in their places. So I just started drawing an overhead view of what I imagined their apartment looked like. Soon after that, I drew a portrait of my then-girlfriend’s (now-wife’s) apartment from memory, with another overhead view. These drawings were a new way to contextualize my objects. Once I got bored with one series of room drawings I would try a new take on the series. And I now think that these rooms are a callback to my time in middle/high school when I was sequestered in my bedroom learning to make things from my own head. I stopped drawing them for a few years but them thought of a new way to draw them and I’m still excited about that today with BIG CANAL and now as I work on BIG HOSPITAL.
Do you feel there is a specific narrative to the room series, or is it enough that they challenge you and must become more intricate each time?
I’m not that concerned with topping myself with detail each time, though that can be a fun thing to try. In fact one thing I’m playing with now is forcing them to not make any sense in a very regimented way. When composing the “BIG” series it takes a lot of erasing and figuring to make the structure make sense visually. What I’m playing with now is controlled confusion: seeing where — anywhere — that takes me.
What is life like in your studio? You must dedicate quite a bit of time to these works. We’re curious what your schedule must be like, and if you enjoy music or podcasts or silence while you create?
I have two kids, so I can’t be in my studio as much as I’d like. So because my studio time is limited and I have such a strong desire to make stuff, I somehow convinced my wife to allow me to install a huge drafting table in our apartment living room. So I work on smaller stuff at home (while the kids are busy, when they’re in bed, etc.) and I work on larger, messier stuff in my studio.
When I really need to concentrate on things, I can listen to music because for some reason I’m able to block it out when I need to. But there are so many tedious little things that take time that I tend to listen to podcasts a ton. A list of favorites would be:
1. The Best Show with Tom Scharpling
2. The Skeptics Guide to the Universe
3. WTF with Marc Maron
4. This American Life
5. Radio Lab
6. Whaddy’a Know with Michael Feldman (for my Wisconsin ROOTS)
7. On the Media
8. Comedy Bang Bang
9. Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast
10. The Atheist Experience
I can’t tolerate silence.
Do you feel like you’d like to bring these rooms into a 3D space, like a multi-tiered sculpture or installation?
I’m working on something that may turn into that in the future, but I can’t say much about it just yet.
Do you feel like the availability of 3D printing will ever merge with your skills as a dimensional draftsman and concepts with your 2D art?
That’s not really interesting to me. So much of what I do revolved around the love and practice of drawing. I’m especially not interested in digital drawing. I love looking at lines, seeing how simple, efficient lines imply and crate new ideas, sometimes spaces. I love being able to control that and manipulate it. I love seeing a Dan Clowes drawing and studying his ridiculously thick gestural lines next to his tiny thin lines and then there are all these straight ruler lines. I don’t know how he makes it work together but he does and it’s so beautiful to me. The dimensionality in my work is a fun trick that I enjoy learning about and exploring. It’s fun for me to take a flat piece of paper and imply all these ideas of with these lines. It’s enjoyable to set rules (as you have to do when composing an isometric drawing) and then try to figure out where and when to break those rules, how far to break them and where to go back to following them again.
What artists have made an impact on you or helped shape your views or your work?
Dan Clowes, Renee French, George Grosz, Tom Sachs, Caravaggio, Georgio Morandi, Philip Guston, Gober, Sue Williams, Inka Essenhigh, Van Gogh, Chuck Close, Jim Woodring, Geoff Darrow, Al Columbia, Chris Ware, Raymond Pettibone, Frank Netter, Walton Ford…
Before we go, the readers will want to find out where to see your work in person. What can you tell us about any upcoming events that feature your work?
I’ll have work at Ryan-Lee Gallery in Manhattan coming up. And soon I’ll offer custom-drawn donuts for people on my next Kickstarter. That will be to make a print for BIG HOSPITAL. I’m working with Kayrock Screen Printing to publish a dozen donuts prints — so I’ll have those on hand soon — and my letterpress book Alphabet City published by x-ing books is available too.