FORWARD: Introducing Milwaukee Artist John Waite

For the Forward exhibition, Kelsey sent our participating artists a list of questions so that we can get to know them all a little better. Rather than send back written answers, John Waite chose to have a sit-down chat while the gallery was closed on a Monday. We’re glad we did, because we’ve gotten to know him so much better, and it’s a great introduction to the Milwaukee artist and his work. Scroll down to keep reading!

John Waite in his Riverwest home studio.

Kelsey Soya: My first question for you is about the title of the exhibition. ‘Forward’ is taken from the Wisconsin State motto. How does that word relate to your art practice?

John Waite: You know, I thought about that. As I was working on my current painting, I came across some roadblocks. There were some things where I had to stop, rethink it, and based on what I had done so far, it’s often that they give me clues on how to move forward. So, I thought of that word in relation to problem solving and getting things to the next level. It’s not often, you know, that I don’t know what I’m going to do or I’m not confident about but, you know. I try my best. 

K: How did you get your start and painting? 

J: I took commercial art and MATC [Milwaukee Area Technical College], and then I never got a job in it. But I started doing drawings and I took an intro painting at UWM [University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee], and then I took a painting course at MIAD [Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design]. I guess what I noticed was that I was kind of good at realism. I had taken a photograph of a parking lot. I wanted to do something really dry with no motion, just cars and a parking lot, and I realized that there’s just so much subtlety to every color. That gave me a way into realism to just look deeper and go, ‘that gray [on the car] is actually the parking lot shooting up onto the back and bottom of the car. So the gray is turning that blue car grayish-blue. And it’s exactly that tone, next to this darker tone.’ I just got smarter at seeing colors and that prompted me to do oil painting.

K: Do you want to tell the story of why you didn’t go into commercial art? I think it’s a fun story. 

J: Oh, yeah! We were about to graduate and we went on a field trip to the [Milwaukee] Journal. This was in the 70s, probably the last decade before the computers kind of took over and I was just a young hip hippie—more like a fashion guy—and there were a couple guys stooped over their drawing tables. Old guys. One of them had really thick glasses, and they were drawing these beautiful [advertisements]. One was a woman with a fur coat—just beautiful. Beautifully talented illustrators and I couldn’t even reach that level. I never even thought of being that good. I was kind of freaked out and frightened that these guys were like donkeys hitched to the Journal wagon and just worn out old and this is what they did. They were so good, but in a way, it seemed like a waste to me. So that was part of why I never became a commercial artist, maybe, but also it seemed like there were all these deadlines and constant work, and at the time, I think I just needed something—I think I was like 20 years old—I just needed a quiet little job and to read some books and think about things.

Park View Mosaics III | John Waite | 40 x 60 in | Oil on canvas | Milwaukee

K: Do you have any artists that you look to as inspiration?

J: I’m not very good at names; I don’t have that kind of mind that collects artists, but there was a gentleman in Chicago I saw, and he was brilliant with his use of light and color and the relaxed, masterful way he applied paint to the canvas. He was a master. There’s a guy named Bill Nichols at the Tory Folliard Gallery. He does stuff with brilliant light and I’m always amazed when I see his stuff. It’s just—Oh my god, how much farther I could go, you know? Let me think. There’s a lot of really good artists. Sometimes I like artists that present ideas. I like things that are not only a masterful painting but also a masterful idea. Something different. 

K: What do you enjoy most about your work?

J: Who’s that singer that just passed away? Tony, Tony…

K: Bennett?

J: Yeah, yeah, Tony Bennett. Okay, you know, he was an artist and I saw some of his stuff. It’s really simple stuff in Chicago, but when they announced that he died, they had a film clip and it showed him painting and he said, “When you do something, when you do a painting you like, there’s just this quiet feeling of happiness in you.” I heard that, and yeah, that’s true, you know? There’s just a satisfaction.

I heard another artist, Dave Niec, the other day, say he’s not patient at all, but when he’s doing his artwork, he’s infinitely patient. I feel that way too because when I’m just trying to get the white off my fresh canvas, I just try to get some form and color on it. I’m nervous, but once it starts developing, I don’t mind if I paint something over six times to get it right. To get it right gives me the patience because I know I’m gonna get that hit of satisfaction. I also like compliments, too! (laughs)

John Waite - Stars of Heaven and Earth, oil painting on canvas of light shining through the leaves of bushes, mirroring the stars in the sky.
Stars of Heaven and Earth | John Waite | 30 x 32 in | Oil on canvas | Milwaukee

K: Are there parts you don’t enjoy about painting?

J: I think the thing I don’t enjoy is not being as good as I’d like to be. I really don’t like challenges that take me to a place where I don’t know how to fix it. So, no, I don’t enjoy that, but sometimes I think “hey, I fixed this, I’m good, I’m good enough, I can fix this.” Also sometimes hunting for new ideas, because I need my camera and there’s work involved, you know? You got to get out there and do it. But if I had more time, I think I could relax into a place where there’s some devoted time to find those images. 

K: And what do you find the most challenging?

J: Hmm. Well, I guess the overall big thing of “idea, execution, finished product.” It’s all challenging. And now, being in this gallery, interfacing with people and seeing that there is a market here, but that it’s difficult, that there’s so many artists that have great pieces. I think at this point “challenging” would be that not only am I excited about an idea and a finished painting, but does someone want that? So I have to think a little more about that, maybe.

K: Can you describe your process for creating a work of art? Where does it start, and how do you know when you’re done?

J: Well, recently, I’ve noticed how interesting street-lighted trees are at night because it’s not natural. You’ll see a dark blue sky and then you’ll see a lit tree and against that sky, so it’s not nature, it’s something else. But I had thought, that’s interesting. Something could be done with that: take that element of a lit tree and put it up against an unlit landscape. So it creates a surrealism. 

Park View Mosaics II | John Waite | 40 x 60 in | Oil on canvas | Milwaukee

K: So you have this idea and then, where would you go with it from there? 

J: Yeah, so, okay, now you’re gonna drive around and you’re gonna see what kind of branches look the best. You’re gonna drive around and look at trees that are lit up. And decide which ones do I want? Okay, so I would photograph them, which means a tripod or some faster film—or I might, you know, when I was in school—I mean, this is so old—teachers used to say, “Oh, get a portfolio in your desk drawer and have any kind of picture that you like. Collect them, and you put them in, label them,” and now we have the internet. Whenever I find images that I can appropriate into a painting, they’re just jumping off points that are often manipulated into an aesthetic that hopefully resonates with the viewer’s own aesthetic intelligence.

K: Okay. And so, once you’ve got your composition, how do you get that on the canvas? Where does that go from there? 

J: I might do some tracing. Maybe I hate to admit that, but some things are very complicated. And I might do a drawing, I might take a snapshot of something I see on my computer on my phone and take it over and it’s easy enough for me to just look at it and draw it on the painting because a lot of times I’m adding stuff. Right now, I’m doing some factories on the lower half of a canvas and I wanted a couple water towers in there, so I took the Harley water tower and took some pictures of that. Sometimes, you know, something’s good, it looks good. You can get away with doing it again, so you repeat the better stuff. I thought there’s room, there’s this land; this urban industrialism could use two water towers. I put another one in—that one I found on the internet. …So what was the question? 

The Lost Horizon | John Waite | 24 x 38 in | Oil on canvas | Artist’s studio

K: So, talking about getting your composition down, you know, where does that go from there? So, how do you know when you’re done? People ask me that and to tell all the time in the gallery, how do artists know when they’re done?

J: A lot of times, there are paintings that I think are done. I have a painting now—it’s all blue urban and it’s a little too blue. A year ago, I thought it was great, but I’m sitting looking at it. I’m thinking, maybe if I put some reds in to match the neon sign? It took a year to see that, and I had already varnished it, so I’m going to go in and un-varnish it and put some other colors in.

For me to get rid of a painting too quick is probably not a good idea because you can look at something, and maybe you have to look at it for a long time, you know? At the time, you’re excited and you have this anticipation that it’s done because you have a goal in mind. And then when it’s done, when you reach that goal, you think it’s done. You can’t find any things that you would call a mistake or overlooking something, but sometimes, it’s just some seasoned hours of looking, 

K: (Laughing)So you don’t always know when it’s done! 

J: No.

K: I think that’s pretty common.

J: Yeah, you know when you’re finished but you don’t know that it’s done. 

Wetland Carnival | John Waite | 34 x 40 in | Oil on canvas | Artist’s studio

K: Yeah. That those are two different things, maybe, sometimes. So, do you have a favorite work of art? Either yours or someone else’s from history or that you’ve seen lately. Just something that sticks in your mind?

J: Well, I can’t recall anything at the moment, but there’s a lot of beautiful paintings that I love and a lot of really good ideas that I’m happy people come up with. I do like—I think I would call it a magical realism—but I did see an artist show just over the weekend and I forget his name, but it was at House of RAD. He had one piece—he was a print maker—and he had these bargain basement crayons he had turned into missiles, and he had a boy coming out of a box with a stumped leg and no fingers, and it was an ad for “big boy fireworks.” To me, it was like an instant iconic image, like a national instant iconic image. This guy wasn’t a painter, but the idea was so wonderful. So, sometimes it’s ideas and sometimes it’s execution.

K: Is there a place that you go to over and over for inspiration?

J: Lynden Gardens. It’s Lynden Gardens that I’ll go to. And Mauthe Lake, I’ll  walk around that lake. I’ve gotten some really good photos in the fall, when the lily pads are kind of dying and the leaves have fallen off. And I will go there again. But any place where there’s parks and water, I tend to gravitate to. 

K: Yeah, what about it do you think draws you in? 

J: Success from the past. There’s just so much like that, the celestial painting, Autumn  Constellation. There’s just so much beauty and depth to water. It’s a meeting placer between heaven and earth. The water reflects the sky, so I like the idea that it’s taking two elements and making it one.

John Waite - Autumn Constellation, and oil painting of leaves and moss in a puddle, reflecting the sky.
Autumn Constellation | John Waite | 24 x 36 | Oil on canvas | Milwaukee

K: Well, one of the other questions I had was about recurring themes in your work. So, depth and water would be?

J:  I would say, yeah. I think I’m a water guy. And you know, I’m familiar with it too. I’m satisfied with what it can offer, if I can find it. I know that it’s there and I’m very satisfied with what it can present to me. 

K: What time of day do you like painting? Are there times of day that you like in your work, or that you like to do your work? 

J: Well. I do my work anytime around my schedule, but sometimes I don’t feel like doing it. But when I feel like doing it, I’m happy that I’ve got the urge. From this show, I realized just how much more potential there is in the dusk and the dawn, but that’s never been anything I’ve figured on. When you’re in the woods and there’s a puddle or a creek, there’s so much shade and sometimes you almost want noon because the light is so strong and you’ve got so much shade going on, so it’s a different kind of lighting. I think that’s what’s been happening with me. And also, the season is important to me. 

K: Yeah. Do you have a favorite season?

J: I think it would be Fall, just before the Thanksgiving, just before the snow. I’ve done a lot of leafy things and the lily pads are interesting, then.

K: What kind of changes have you seen in your artwork and the time you’ve been painting?

J: Well, 20-25 years ago, I was painting urban scenes very realistically, and I wanted them to be like nobody was in them and they were kind of—I’m a Scorpio. So death and dying. I liked kind of gritty scenes, okay? Some of my best paintings were at night, like gas stations at night. So, the big change is that I wanted to bring nature into people’s consciousness because I think a good painting speaks in a subconscious way. I mean, there’s like a subtle transfer of initiation into the vibe of that location. And I think people love nature on their walls and I do too.

Park View Mosaics I | John Waite | 40 x 60 in | Oil on canvas | Milwaukee

K: Are there any techniques or subjects you’d like to tackle in the future for your artwork? 

J: Well. I’m always going back to trying to be a little looser because I like tight realism. I have been successful with that, and I hope I can reach back and continue to do that. And I bought this crow. This black crow, it was supposed to hold up a light cord with a light bulb. But when I got it, I couldn’t find a use where I wanted it, but I like the crow so much, I went and bought like five more. They weren’t that expensive, you know? So now I have like five crows, and I have to find a place in the painting for those.

K: So I have my silly question. What color do you run out of most often?

J: I thought of this question the most because It might be revealing my Sophomoric approach or something. But I looked in my drawer, and the biggest tubes that I have are whites. Zinc white. And I use a raw umber and ultramarine blue to create my blacks. And then that’s on the palette, so a lot of times I will use what I’ve already mixed in the dark color,  I’ll take some of that and put it in the other colors, so there’s a lot of that in my paintings. That gives the paintings—you can tell they’re related blood, in their DNA or something. Recently Someone said that, if you mix alizarin crimson and phthalo green, you get a black, so I have to pull those paints out. But yeah, those three are mine. 

John Waite’s work table in his studio.

K: And then my last question. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

J: Well, I always remember something from—I kind of collect gurus—one teacher, one of the things he said often was truth, simplicity and love. So that maybe isn’t connected to painting, but it’s a piece of advice that can help me. When it comes to artistic advice, I can’t remember who said it, but, “you don’t paint a painting, you build a painting.” For me, you’re not just painting layers of color, you’re building an image that is mutual aesthetic experience between artist and viewer. It’s a road, or a process of discovery as you move “Forward.” A lot of artistic advice for me is nonverbal; I get a lot from just looking at an artist’s work.

John’s work will be on view in “Forward” at Lily Pad | West through August 27, 2023. Other exhibiting artists include Marc AndersonAllison B. Cooke, Steve GerhartzBruce NiemiKen Schneider, and Diane Washa, as well as newly invited artists Robert M. Girsh and Antwan Ramar.