Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

Pulling art from chaos with Ken Little



My wife and I moved to San Antonio from Denver in 1994. I had achieved a small degree of success as an artist in Denver and was confident that I would quickly establish myself as a major art player in my new hometown. That cockiness lasted about a week — until I saw an exhibit of Ken Little’s work at Blue Star Art Center. It was clear that the bar was set a little higher than I’d expected. I met Ken shortly after that and even though our backgrounds couldn’t have been more dissimilar (country-music playing Texan from the Panhandle meets displaced punk-loving SoCal surfer) we hit it off, and I’m proud to call Ken one of my closest friends. As a Professor of Art at UTSA, Ken has also spawned several generations of the top art talent coming through the college system, and he continues to inspire and influence San Antonio’s fledgling art community. He’s also surrounded by some stiff competition: his wife, Cathy Cunningham Little, and daughter Claire are both major art forces.

You grew up in Amarillo, Texas, in the 1950s. I’m trying to imagine what kind of art you were exposed to. What was your first taste of modern art?

Modern art in Amarillo during the ’50s was pretty much Walt Disney, Norman Rockwell, Winky Dink, Howdy Doody, Charlie Russell, Bob Wills, and Buddy Holly. I painted china with my grandmother earlier than I can remember. The Amarillo High School art program I went to was set up by Georgia O’Keefe in the ’40s when she taught there, but I began to brush up to the more modern stuff at Texas Tech during the late ’60s. At the time, I was a painter in the tradition of Nicholas de Stael and Richard Diebenkorn.

What was the first artwork that made an impression on you?

In the ’70s, I remember running across Joseph Bueys and his How to Explain Pictures to a Dea Hare. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but I still really like rabbits and use them in my work. I also had a visceral experience with an African totem figure covered in cowrie shells in Philadelphia at an NCECA Conference at about the same time.

You’ve taught art for — well, how long have you taught? From your perspective, is there any such thing as talent? And do you think you’ve developed an ability to spot it?

I’ve been teaching college for 38 years now (with a couple of years off to live in New York in the mid-’80s). Yes, I’ve seen a lot of talent, and a lot of not. That’s what I get paid for — to spot talent and push it as hard as I can.

In your opinion, what percentage of art students go on to successful careers in art?

It depends on what you call success. If it means living a good, meaningful life and supporting your artwork somehow, I think a good portion. If you mean becoming wealthy on your artwork, probably less than one percent.

When I see what passes for cutting-edge art these days, I’m often left disheartened. The art world seems to be as shallow and fleeting as the fashion industry. What do you think caused this obsession with youth and freshness?

It’s all the same rebranding strategy that goes into marketing anything — figuring a way to overcome the old and build a market for the new. Critic Dave Hickey articulated it pretty well in an essay called “The Birth of the Big Beautiful Art Market” in his 1997 book, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy.

What’s the best piece of advice you can offer younger artists?

Follow your passion, and develop a disciplined work ethic about what you do. At the same time, cultivate some good, smart friends who will speak the truth to you. And grow a thick skin.

Taking money out of the equation, what one piece of artwork would you own if you could have any?

Any work by Marcel Duchamp. Bicycle Wheel, Fountain ... but that was by R. Mutt!

If you had to choose between making art or music, how would you choose?

Visual artists usually work alone in quiet places (studios) and gently install their artworks in large, quiet places (museums or galleries) where a few people stroll by over a period of a month or two, whispering refined, educated, and sensitive truths. Musicians work together in groups in noisy places. They want to attract the biggest, noisiest audiences in a one-night stand. And you can dance to it. What kind of choice is that?

Wow. Thanks for putting things in perspective. I think I’ve just decided to quit making art! What are the recurring themes in your music?

Autobiography. Songs about my brothers, my mother, growing up in Amarillo in the ’50s, coming of age in America in the ’60s, living in Alamo Heights, death, Jesus, drugs, Baby Boomers ... whew!

Richard Thompson scored the music for Werner Herzog for the film Grizzly Man. Herzog said of Thompson’s guitar playing, “I would easily give 10 years of my life to be able to play guitar like Richard Thompson.” Would you?

You’d have to. I just read about a guy who studied this. It’s the “10,000-hour Rule”: you have to practice anything like guitar or painting for 10,000 hours before you have a chance to be recognized as a master of that thing.

You’re right, of course, but you’re only dealing with technical ability. You and I are both big fans of Richard Thompson, and I think we’d both agree that his creative ability is otherworldly. Let me ask this way: suppose a genie could instantly give you the power to play guitar like Richard Thompson, but your life would be shortened by 10 years. Would you say yes?

No, I wouldn’t give up 10 years. I’d rather experience those 10 years learning to play the guitar. Learning is most of the fun.

You’re probably right, but I’m an “instant gratification”-kind of guy. I would give 10 years of my life to be able to instantly do any number of things well. This is probably because I’m under the impression that the last 10 years of my life are going to involve a slow, downhill descent into feebleness! You’ve mentioned that you’ve become less serious as you’ve grown older. To what do you attribute this change?

I don’t know. I was just a very serious child and young man. I’ve met some wonderful people like you and my old friend Rudy Autio who have shown me that life can be a lot more fun.

Hey, thanks! If I can get people to act immaturely, then my life is complete — with or without those last 10 years.

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