Mar 21st  2016 RISD Hot Seat IV



David Frazer

is the current head of Painting department at RISD. He is a RISD alum with a BFA in Painting and has been part of RISD’s faculty for 38 years. He has traveled all over the world as a visiting artist and lecturer. For him, “painting is the conflict between analysis and emotion, control and surrender.” His use of symbolic imagery is abstract improvisation and draws on the influences of his life and geo-political events.


            My interests in the last number of years has been to create very packed and complicated paintings that require visual clarity, a kind of organized chaos. The conflict that interests me is a kind of tension between pure abstract concerns when mixed with representational clues that are controlled and simultaneously accidental. Even though the paintings are landscape like and spatial, there is a great deal of intentional contradiction that is built into the painting. Things that appear to be printed transfers for example, are not. They are painted and blotted to look like printmaking elements. If I have an image like an egg or apple, I will create a template for those things, and I’ll use that same shape over and over in many paintings but always painted uniquely, a perverse game of visual trickery. I want the way they are painted to range in different stylistic ways so that the paintings raise more questions than answers. The desire most people have with imagery is to put an explanation or meaning to what they see, often in too literal a way.  I accept these motifs as symbols of birth and vulnerability while I can’t help think about life, death, sex, and all things that are part a complex life and lives that are often at risk in a relatively dangerous world. Politically, geo-politically, environmentally, all of these come into play for me as a teacher, parent, and grandparent and find a place in my paintings. 

            I think a lot about collateral damage. Not only in war but in everyday actions. We can hide and avoid or participate.  I choose to participate.  A couple of years ago I did a large body of paintings that were titled Hubris. They were done during the period of the BP Gulf oil spill, Iraq War and the Big Branch Mine disaster. I was listening to NPR every day in the studio and watching CNN at night.  On the TV there were images of the collapsed oil rig a mile under the ocean, gushing crude into the Gulf.  I’m old enough to remember when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska. It was greed and hubris for the oil companies  to develop technology that drills a mile under the sea and not create safety procedures for the protection of the environment, not any new systems since the Exxon incident. Whatever the issues are in the news, whatever they are in my life, my family, my teaching, these issues have a direct impact on what I’m making.  

            Comments on Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol was full of irony, very cynical. The beauty of Warhol was his opacity. He was able to just say the most profound things by almost saying absolutely nothing.


            RISD students know how to work. They know that art isn’t about looking the part but about being it and making it. I go around to many other schools and places, and I always find some students that could do very well here, but I rarely ever go to a place where everybody is as completely engaged and committed to their work as we have here at RISD. It’s been a slow, strong, evolutional growth in the quality of this institution and I think that it goes back to the idea that a very long time ago RISD decided that not only should a student interested in art and design be talented and skillful, but also smart and a good student.  As a teacher, I’ve been pleased and amazed that no matter where a person is from, they come to RISD to be with people that take things seriously and work very hard and everyone benefits.

            I am constantly learning new things, being asked new questions, and challenged about the possibilities of reconsidering what we do, now and in the future. Teaching and learning are two codependent activities. The more energy your students have the more energy you have as a teacher. The more demanding students are the more focused and knowledgeable you have to be about those things as well. There is this tremendous back and forth between teacher and student. As teachers, we work very hard because the students are worth it. We have a philosophy that we want our students to be exposed to as much as possible. We bring in lots of visiting artists, have open review sessions that involve all students and faculty. These public discussions elevate the quality of critical discourse. There is nothing hidden.  I am so grateful that my graduate students really like each other. Where else does that happen? I’d like to think that the way we treat each other with honest respect is the reason our grads treat each other so well.  The Fletcher building enables all our students to be on two floors, the ability for them to be in each other’s studios, faces, ears, 24/7.   This is a tremendous advantage. They learn to help each other with their work and careers. They stay in touch after graduation.  They have more than 30 people, now professional friends.  Ten people before them, nine people in their year, and ten coming in their last year.  These peers and where they settle in the world, become very important in helping each other build their career and enrich their lives.  


            RISD has an opportunity right now to redistribute our grad courses within our divisions, to create more interdisciplinary studies. We are looking at all the courses that have been offered at the graduate level. The best of the current classes will be kept and others, more studio based graduate courses, will allow departments to interact with each other and generate more interdisciplinary work. There should be more options on the graduate level with studio courses as electives.

            As I tell everyone upon graduation. Develop a thick skin. Apply for opportunities, be prepared for rejection. Make it a habit to apply every year. It’s incredibly time consuming searching for grants, residencies, group shows, galleries, but if you want your career to develop you have to do it. You can’t take rejection as a reflection on your work or yourself. You need to just apply and reapply. That’s how you move forward. We never know how many rejections someone has gotten, we only know about the ones they get.  Get tough, work hard and get up every day and do it. Learn to love this work and you won’t regret it.


         Question from Roseanne Somerson: “What does a fine artist need to learn in graduate school now that differs from a decade ago? Though technology is an obvious factor of change, what beyond technology is crucial to thrive as a practicing artist today?

            I don’t think it’s really possible for artists any longer to live in isolation, if it ever really was. We are in the digital age. What gets people excited in the US is often what gets people in China excited as well. It will be done slightly differently but at the same time there is a kind of internationalization across the board. Right now young artists are working with each other, curating shows together, a lot more than they did ten years ago, certainly more than twenty years ago. You need to be better at talking about your work, better about recognizing that there is a business to art that is necessary, if you want a career. You can be good, you can be lucky, but if you are not smart in the business of the contemporary market, it’s unlikely that you will be successful. Not impossible, but this understanding is needed. There is no single business model that’s appropriate for an artist. Keeping in touch with people, writing thank you notes, being seen, going to openings, talking and meeting other artists, networking. All of this stuff becomes very important and this can be taught in school. How to apply for grants, write resumes, how to work and meet other artists to see how they are going about their practice, what their experience is and then gravitate towards some of these ideas that you may want to do.

            Genius is often as much the collective as it is the individual. People all benefit from each other. Group communication can’t happen in isolation. They happen in these weird pods of cultural communities and scientific ones where the free exchange of ideas happen. The free access to each other’s work is incredibly important. New York is not the only game in town, but if anyone thinks that they can just move out at a young age and work in a barn, as beautiful and big as it may be, they are really naïve.  If they think somebody is going to come and find them then they are still naïve.  It’s about who you know and the connections you make that help you move your career and your work. I know the students that come here do well not only out of their own efforts but out of their association with others that are also trying, thinking, and making. It is this constructive competition that is wonderful stuff for any artist or designer.


        Question for Charles Cannon

1.  What challenges do you anticipate for the future of your discipline (Industrial Design) and is your department able to anticipate and meet these challenges?

2.  Do you and/or your students have any fun or is it all work and no play?


Hosted and edited by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio



read RISD Hot Seat with Charles Cannon 



Weekly RISD Hot Seat delivered to your mailbox


RISD Hot Seat Homepage



RISD Hot Seat is a new, student-led interview getting to know individuals at RISD found by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio in Graduate Student Alliance.

Through understanding the unique perspectives and interests each individual contributes, and asking about the ins and outs of different programs, our goal is to bridge conversations between graduate students, faculty, and staff to build a stronger, interdisciplinary graduate community in RISD.