Artist Trystan Bates Talks Birdsong, Iconography and Creating Community | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Artist Trystan Bates Talks Birdsong, Iconography and Creating Community


Published October 25, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

"The Northern Conference" by Trystan Bates - COURTESY OF PHOENIX GALLERY
  • Courtesy Of Phoenix Gallery
  • "The Northern Conference" by Trystan Bates

Multidisciplinary artist Trystan Bates, 46, started out making figurative work. Originally from New York City, he trained in illustration at Parsons School of Design at the New School and studied traditional printmaking and graphics at Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, Netherlands. His first exhibition in Vermont, in the Phoenix gallery in Waterbury, contains something very different.

"The Starling Symphony" begins with grids of precisely rendered abstract symbols — like a key to personal hieroglyphics. The graphic shapes become the colorful building blocks of fantastical-looking constructions. Curved bars enclose half circles, drops fit inside triangles, and dots punctuate assemblages of curves and rectilinear shapes.

Bates' exhibition progresses through five "movements," as he calls them, along with a range of materials: mixed-media collage on paper, laser-cut acrylic and wood, etched acrylic layered on sparkly paper.

"Hungry Snakes Feast on the Eggs of Distracted Birds" - COURTESY OF PHOENIX GALLERY
  • Courtesy Of Phoenix Gallery
  • "Hungry Snakes Feast on the Eggs of Distracted Birds"

The artist likens this iterative creative process to the starling's unique birdsong, created from bits of sound it encounters throughout its day. Humans are similar, Bates proposes in an artist statement, in the way we "process, assimilate and store information," both emotional and experiential.

His own experiences are as far-flung as those of starlings, whose migration routes can span 2,000 miles. After running a Japanese-owned gallery in New York for two years, Bates fled the city after 9/11 by taking a vacation in Buenos Aires with a friend. (His lineage is Cuban, Puerto Rican and Spanish.) He ended up staying in Argentina for 17 years and founded an artists' collective and storefront gallery called Honeycomb Arts.

Despite landing a commercial collaboration with Coca-Cola for himself and one with Adidas for the collective, Bates found that the weak Argentine economy eventually rendered Honeycomb unsustainable. An only child, Bates returned to the U.S. with his husband to care for his aging mother. While driving around upstate New York in 2018, the couple crossed into Vermont on a whim and found a perfect house. They bought it.

"I kind of go where the flow takes me," Bates said during a phone call from his Weston home. In addition to making art, he works as collections manager of the Londonderry Arts and Historical Society. Seven Days asked the relatively new Vermonter about his personal symbolic vocabulary, the power of collecting valued objects and more.

  • Courtesy Of Phoenix Gallery
  • "Crowded Cities"

You seem to have put an emphasis on community in all you've done — for example, creating that artists' collective in Argentina, figuring out ways for them to interact with Indigenous communities and bringing American artists over to collaborate with them. Have you continued to create your own art throughout?

For me, I feel like there's a balance between creating art and creating opportunity for others. Both are always present. I started Honeycomb in response to a lack of opportunity for artists over there. I thought, Let me try to unite these people, get to know who's here, see how they're working. Through that, I was able to build my community over there as an immigrant and also create opportunities for others. [Honeycomb] went from seven people to 100-plus.

I never had a solo show there. In our street-front gallery shows, we would always pair an artist with someone from outside the country, and they'd work on pieces together as well as show their own.

I'm reworking Honeycomb now, with a goal of reopening [in Argentina, working remotely from Vermont] in 2025, creating thematic shows dealing with social issues and sending them to underserved areas. As I'm getting older, I'm leaning more towards the social and community power of a project rather than income. My income can come from my personal artwork, but to go back to that balance: How can we make a difference and unite people through what we're doing?

"Radio Signals From Alternate Realms" - COURTESY OF PHOENIX GALLERY
  • Courtesy Of Phoenix Gallery
  • "Radio Signals From Alternate Realms"

How does "The Starling Symphony" relate to those efforts? Or is it more about working out your own iconography?

The idea came about when I started this job in this [Londonderry] arts and historical society, housed in the home of [Works Progress Administration artist] Bernadine Custer Sharp. She came up from New York with her husband and built this organization that is pretty important here. A lot of their collections belonged to her, but they also have Londonderry residents' stuff relating to the history of the town.

So, this year, sorting through those things, I started thinking about the things we carry with us through our life. How do the things we hold on to shape us? For me it was a treasure trove; my head was going wild. It made me think about my life. I've traveled a lot; what do I have from when I was 17 that I'm still carrying?

How does that define us as individuals but also as a community? How do certain things become iconic and valued? How do we take a raw element that begins embedding itself in our life, and how does that element end up shaping us and our personality?

Can you talk about what some of the symbols in the show's first movement mean to you?

The drops are a moment of sadness or a heavy moment. Wavy lines together are something that would require me to go with the flow. Things that look like a scribble are a moment of confusion. An asterisk is a moment of revelation. Discs or circles have to do with the closure of a cycle. Three lines together relate to my family — myself, my husband and my mother.

They mean something to me, but they don't need to be that for everybody else. I used to work figuratively; I switched over to abstraction because I like the flexibility it gives viewers. I don't want them to negate what they're seeing in the work. There's a lot of white, negative space in my work and elements that are suggestive of figurative elements but not completely fleshed out. That's because I want people to see what they see. Individual interpretation is one of the most beautiful aspects of creating this work. I'm a firm believer that there's no right or wrong way of approaching art.

"In a While Crocodile" by Trystan Bates - COURTESY OF PHOENIX GALLERY
  • Courtesy Of Phoenix Gallery
  • "In a While Crocodile" by Trystan Bates

The work in the show is very controlled and precise. Where does that come from?

All the organic stuff, spilling stuff, making textures, experimenting comes in the first month. Then I refine it into whatever the final images are going to be. My prior work was heavily focused on micro work — pieces the size of a postage stamp. I'd work with a triple-zero one-hair brush, use needle-nosed tweezers to place a collage piece. The precision comes from that. I loved working that way. People have to get close in order to view what they're looking at. You can play with that, guide the experience of the viewer. It's intimate. For me, the closer a person has to get to my work, the more successful it is.

The fifth-movement works are monoprints with dry-point etchings printed over them, but they look like blueprints. Why did you want them to look that way?

The fifth movement is about what you do with the knowledge you gain from what you collect. The idea of a blueprint is being able to form a primary plan for something based on the elements you gather.

It's about preparation through past experience. I think all my experience has kind of set me up. Even a terrible experience — there's value in it. For me, anything I go through, good and bad, becomes something that I can use later. So that, if I come across an opportunity or situation or moment, I'm better prepared to process it because I have that blueprint that's internal already.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Things We Carry | Artist Trystan Bates on birdsong, iconography and creating community"

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