Charles Sommer





My Time in Wassaic


I currently live and work in Brooklyn, NY, but I was born and raised in a beach town on the central coast of New Jersey until I was about 16. After that, I moved to southwest Florida with my family, where I ended up attending the University of South Florida. In 2014, I moved to New York City where I attended Brooklyn College to receive an MFA. Since then, I've been showing as much as I can around New York as well as in several other cities across the country. I wanted to come to Wassaic after being included in last year’s summer show. The sense of community I felt after being involved with the show, in addition to the positive relationships I've since built with people that circulate around Wassaic was really the driving force for me wanting to attend the residency.

I have always primarily worked in graphite drawing and view all my work rooted in drawing, despite having also worked in paint, collage, animation, and installation. The body of work I am making while at Wassaic is part of a series of graphite drawings on paper that I began a little over a year and a half ago while attending another residency in Vermont. My time here is primarily being used to complete this body of work for a solo at NSCAD University in Halifax, Nova Scotia in June, immediately following the residency here.




with Joe Brommel, May 2019

Several pieces from your Horizon series were in last year’s summer exhibition here. Can you talk about that series and how, if at all, it’s influenced what you wanted to do here in your residency?

That body of work was based on a 15-inch square sheet of paper with a half-inch grid. The project was to create a horizon line at every half inch up and down the page, and then two including no horizons: one with just sky and one with just the ground. In each study a different event would happen. I’d take older drawings I had cut up — occasionally manipulated in a 3D program — and collage them on top as a still life.

After about 20, the grid started to fall apart in the background. So I started bending it, and just trying to change the space a little bit more. I turned some of them into oil and gouache paintings, too — I’d just scale it up while keeping the half-inch grid consistent, no matter if it were 30” x 30”, 45” x 45”, or 60” x 60”.

That project took me about a year and a half — that’s usually how I break up my bodies of work. There was a short transition period, and then I gave myself a different set of rules to work with.

Can you talk about that new body of that work and, specifically, what you’ve been working on in Wassaic?

Well, I'm hoping this is the end of this body of work.

I was at another residency in Vermont when they became more cohesive. I wanted to remove all the color and think about a more specific topic — I felt like I was relying too much on the shock value of intense colors to describe light. But I still wanted to talk about light, so I started incorporating more of these gradients. The way that the graphite actually reacts to physical light was super interesting to me, because the light in the studio where I started really figuring this work out was so great. I started to notice, like, how the light would reflect differently depending on the direction of the mark that I was making, how it created this subtle value scale that was always changing depending on how the light was. So I started playing around with that, and trying to give a sense of dimension on a purely two-dimensional surface. Which is what drawing is, but I want everything to be fairly flat on these and let the shifting of the light just hint at that perspective or dimensionality.

The horizon drawings were all very internal, too — I wasn't using any references other than things generated by a previous drawing. I'm still not using any references with these, but the research I'm doing is a little bit more focused. These started right after I started reading about World War II UFO sightings. They're called “foo fighters,” and they would talk about them in official reports that were eventually declassified by the FBI after the war. I've always been really interested in the paranormal and UFOs and space, and I just love the name “foo fighter.” So all the little dots in the landscapes are foo fighters. I had also read 2001: A Space Odyssey, and started fantasizing about monolithic architecture, about what kinds of shapes I could create.

It all comes out of trying to balance an image. I start with a symmetry usually, throw it off a little bit, and then just play around — going back and forth in the initial sketching stage until I'm relatively happy with it. If something's getting too dark, then I try to erase some lines out to reinforce the balance. And the foo fighters have become a way to not have everything so rigid. With some of the earlier work I would have these cave shapes inside of the larger geometric shapes — I was thinking the foo fighters would live in there, or they were trapped, or they had teleported there.

We've talked around this a little bit, but what draws you to graphite in particular as a material? Why is that the one constant throughout your practice?

I think I just have the best understanding of it. I like how versatile it can be, but that it only has so much it can do. And I like being able to exploit those limitations as much as I can. I use a drafting pencil for high polish, powder for the matte-ness, and I use a normal drawing pencil for mark-making and to blend with. And then I have the gradient and the white of the paper.

With these pieces in particular, I'm more interested in the complexity of the shapes that I'm making rather than getting bogged down in painting technique.

We’ve talked a bit about this as well, but can you say more about the role of science, science fiction in your work?

I became really deliberate about letting science fiction influence my work when I was reading the Dune series. I just love the description of these worlds. And in all my work, I'm not necessarily interested in whether anything is true or false — but more so thinking of the drawings as portals into that space. They're not representing anything. The drawings are the thing. They are the world.


It all comes out of trying to balance an image.
— Charles Sommer

Photos by Jeff Barnett-Winsby