Outsider/Insider: An interview with Ric Haynes

David Powell:  Can you talk to me about your childhood?

Ric Haynes: I was born and lived in York, Pennsylvania until I left for art school at The Maryland Institute College of Art in 1964. 

My mother was a child portrait sculptor, trained at the Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA. My father was an athlete at the University of Pennsylvania during the 1930’s. During the depression he worked with his identical twin brother as theatre tap dancers in Vaudeville to pay for his college tuition. Later, during WWII my father was in the commissary units of the U.S. Army where he distributed blankets and other supplies to the survivors of Nagasaki. These events impacted him for the rest of his life. 

As children, my younger and only brother and I spent a lot of time together drawing and painting people and scenes on brown wrapping paper. We would debate which part of the drawing we each would draw to make a complete image. Those were my first collaborative works. We mostly drew what we knew—the farmlands in Pennsylvania where we lived, the Civil War battlefields of neighboring Gettysburg, the circus that we often joyfully attended. Together we loved epics of all sorts, both real and imagined.

My youth was enriched by the stories and presence of colorful characters, who were regulars at our home. At various times and frequencies there were farmers, veterans, drifters, religious fanatics, moonshiners and storytellers to observe, listen to and nourish my imagination and humanity.  Memories of these people or aspects of them regularly are reborn in my paintings and drawings. 

Later in my life I discovered groupings of similar characters from other times and places in the paintings of Pieter Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch, and Albrecht Durer. That list expanded to include the compositions of James Ensor, Edvard Munch, Vincent Van Gogh, Peter Milton and David Park whose works revealed varied relationships between the characters. 

DP:  Let’s talk about your current work. You seem to be nostalgic about your childhood and much of your work as an adult is permeated by these memories.

RH:  Yes, my new works relate to nostalgia, memory and loss. For a birthday present when I was eight years old, my mother took me to Gettysburg and when we arrived I discovered that she had hired a personal guide for us. That guide had been a Boy Scout assisting at the last reunion of veterans of the Union and the South and had been a personal witness to the stories and memories told by the soldiers at the reunion. 

On our trip together through the battlefield, our guide relayed some of those stories by pointing out things we were seeing in relationship to a previous time and the space before us. That was when I learned to consider empty space and how to fill it with a story.

Today I record and paste in my many sketchbooks references of paintings, miscellaneous ephemera, my written thoughts and poetry, drawings, and actual “blueprints” for future compositions. Those sketchbooks along with real and fantastical memories help me to create and develop my work.

When I was studying to be a therapist, I had a wonderful older therapy teacher who told me, “Nostalgia is a thing that will bring people into their sense of who they are today.”  For example, I may think of a toy that I had when I was five, and maybe I even still have it, or I find something similar to that toy, and then when I have it, I can remember what I was trying to be all along. This is a very beautiful thing, but then memory, loss and heartbreak are different aspects of nostalgia.

My work today is always formed in compositions by sacred numbers. For example, I balance everything into structures of relationships of one thing to another, and I am always interested in crowd scenes and the relationships between characters. This comes both from my paintings created with my brother, but also through art history. 

DP:  I’m interested to hear about your time at The Maryland Institute College of Art. I believe there were several professors there who made important contributions to your art practice.

RH:  When I entered The Maryland Institute College of Art in 1964, the school was transitioning from a traditional drafting format to a fine arts curriculum. I had outstanding Professors in both the academic, as well as within the Fine Arts curriculums. These artists and educators encouraged and pointed me in the direction I continue to pursue sixty years later. Professors who are notable in their own right and who profoundly influenced me were teacher and poet Dr. William Kinter, who at times invited Alan Ginsburg to join us in class; teacher and social advocate, Lenora Foerstel, who had once served as a field assistant to the legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead; passionate learner and teacher, Sherman Merrill; robust artist and a great character and race car enthusiast Salvatore Scarpitta, known for his wrapped sculptural work contemplating life, death and healing; post-war painter Reba Stewart; and Babe Shapiro, an artist widely known for his abstract and Op Art paintings.  

One important aspect of my work has always been use of color. The structure of color was one of the subjects taught to me by Reba Stewart. Reba had learned color theory at Yale under Josef Albers. With her my color education extended beyond the classroom. One day when we were outside discussing color, Reba asked me if I knew about the color of a giraffe’s tongue. I said, “no” and that was enough for her to spark a plan. Off we went to the Baltimore Zoo where she led me to the giraffe house. She ordered me to grab and rip off some willow branches with fresh leaves. Then she told me to climb the fourteen-foot iron cage surrounding the giraffe enclosure. Up I went carrying the branches until, at her prompting, I reached the very top where she instructed me to wave the branches. I did.  A huge giraffe lumbered over to me and wrapped its blue/black tongue down my arm and took the leaves. Reba had shown me the color indigo. 

While student at MICA I attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and was a member of that community during the summer of 1967. While there I was privileged to study under the tutelage of the experienced and talented sculptor Peter Agostini, as well as American painters Ben Shahn and Walter Murch. 

DP:  Can you tell me something about your history with performance art and your relationship with American Indians?

RH: I first encountered performance art through an assignment given by Lenora Foerstal to her students in her anthropology class. The final student project was to create a unique presentation in front of a live audience. The audience for each performance included both students and faculty. One student presented a tableau in which she brought together a large cast of nude individuals who threw multiple blueberry pies at each other and the audience. Although I was generally intrigued by performance art and at times found it humorous, I later became aware of the scary possibility of crossover from creative art into the potential of lunacy and violence disguised within the boundaries of this art form. 

My relationship with American Indians comes from many sources. My father’s ancestors came from the Mohawk Valley in New York state. He often told my brother and I we were descended from Mohawk Indians. That tale planted a seed of interest in American Indians that has influenced my thinking ever since. 

Years later, due in part to my studies in Anthropology at Maryland Institute, I began to think about and research symbolism within the cultures of the American Indians. At that time, I began a quest to try to understand how symbols relate to the spiritual relationship between water, earth, wind and sky and man. 

I have traveled to Montana and the Southwest many times and witnessed the cosmological connections between man and his symbols. Everything is linked together by nature, the spirit, ceremony, and humankind and how they each relate to one another. Once when I was sitting with an elder of the Crow Nation in Montana, I looked toward the sky and pointed out the Pegasus constellation. He responded by saying, “We don’t have that Greek stuff up there. We have our own constellations. We have the alligator, the water serpent, the faceless twins, the seven bears, and the red witch.”  These stories always have a mythical turn at the end of the story and a lesson of morality and ethics. The stories are passed down from one generation to the next by the tradition of oral storytelling. As I continue to travel to Montana and reconnect each time with the relationships I have made over the years, great enrichment enters my own art making and storytelling.

Ric Haynes was born in 1945 in York, Pennsylvania. He received a BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art and later studied at the University of Pennsylvania.  In 1967 he attended Skowhegan School of Sculpture and Painting, Skowhegan, Maine.  At Vermont College at Norwich University, Montpelier, Vermont he earned a Masters in Visual Literacy in 2002.  In 2006 Ric studied printmaking at Il Bisonte, in Florence, Italy, and in 2012 he attended the residency program at UCross Foundation in Ucross, Wyoming. Ric presently lives and has his studio in Mashpee, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts with his wife, Lorraine, who is a fiber artist.