Our conversation with Ryan Scails traveled in multiple directions steering us beyond his mere creative output. In the end, we get somewhat of a sustained portrait. So much so we are splitting our conversation with Scails into a two-part post.
Above all, we learn how most of Scails' experiences outside of his creative work implicitly weaves itself into his object making. Throughout our exchange, Scails remains casual and candid as he shares bits of his upbringing in Bethel, Connecticut with a social justice activist mother, a father brought up during Jim Crow and how their individual influences continue to be windows through which he interacts with his surroundings.
As you read through our chat Scails is cunningly self-aware as he highlights his views on the inescapable race relations he finds himself situated in, guilt on fulfilling stereotypes, and his newfound social justice perspective especially after being the subject of a police brutality case (which we discuss in a future post). All the while, his sculptural objects, and installation remains minimal and cerebral yet present a poking embodied rigidity. A result of which is attributed to his personal philosophy and experiences.
Conventions are just a starting point but it doesn’t end there. I’m interested in where I fall into pre-existing brackets and where I don’t and the histories associated with that.
Was pursuing a career in the arts a for sure thing you after high school?
Yep! That was it. It was the only thing.
There wasn’t anything else?
I think, mentally I didn’t really have a fall back of anything besides art. I knew my path was going to be something within the arts. At first, when I went to Pratt, it was for Industrial Design for a few semesters then, I later went to Cooper to finish up in fine arts. All of the work that I do now is art-related more or less. I have like three lives where I work at the museum and then I go to the studio to work there as well. And in between that, I’ve been focusing my energy towards design and the practical side of things that can help me sustain my fine arts practice. So I’ve been working with textiles and sewing. And I’ve been making these neckties that I’ve been designing for a while now. I’m also working on a suit for a friend’s wedding which is a challenge but it’s been so fun and it takes a lot of trust. I’ve been sewing since I was young and I have three machines now which has helped me use the medium in ways I didn’t expect.
Making artwork involves experiencing and trying other things and having those other things come into your work. The fact that you have a mother working in social justice, you formally tried out a bit of design work, you’ve traveled quite a bit, you're working at a museum now, and you are sewing…that all comes together and manifests itself into objects and paintings…
Yeah, that’s it! It’s really so cool. I’m lucky in those ways. I think when you get to a certain level of comfort in what you are doing and your identity as an artist, your work gains a visual language. For a while there, between Pratt and Cooper working with a sculptor, I learned how to weld, I worked very hard to get into Cooper. That place is so dedicated to artists building what they want to do and building from within. There’s a dedication that their students have to their craft that’s unrivalled. You spend a lot of time reading and writing. When I was finally in there, it was so inspiring and overwhelming because everyone was so impressive. In a lot of ways, I was playing catch up. It wasn’t until my last year that I was like this work says something about me and it indicates where I want my practice to go.
You’ve been really lucky to have had the prior background at Pratt before going to Cooper
Yes, in my work now I incorporate a lot of industrial objects. The way I use the house paint or sew the way I sew comes from this institutional way of creating things for utility and strength as opposed to aesthetic value. And I feel most comfortable working this way. There’s a sincerity in it now. I realize now that product design is this funny thing that we’ve created. Making things for as long as we have been, is in a way; humorous, tragic, romantic, and anthropomorphic. All this stuff that we make are all examples of us. Each thing is this placeholder for how we are and how we interact. That got me thinking that I could make some industrial design-like work but it doesn’t have to have a practical use.
I can use drawings. Drawing is probably the biggest thing I got from my Pratt education. I learned how to draw traditionally at Pratt. Now I incorporate it in my work so much. I draw on grid paper because a lot of the time I can attribute dimensions to the grid so I can build things easier and there’s value to that. It’s a really nice opportune afterthought.
I quite like how you outline your ideas through sketches along with your thought process through the notes
Yeah, notation is very important to me. I keep a sketchbook with me in my back pocket and I go through about four a year. I just fill them up with text and drawings. I think the moment when I realized there was empowerment in drawing is when I realized I wanted to make art for the rest of my life. When I was young and I wasn’t great at drawing something I’d get frustrated. I wanted to become so good at drawing that I could render anything I imagined. It makes me happy that I’m able to convey my ideas through any sort of drawing utensil.
You grew up in Connecticut what’s the demographics like in the town you grew up in?
Bethel is the median of everything. It’s a very Connecticut town. It’s working to middle class. Connecticut as a whole is very bizarre because the county I live in is not very indicative of how I grew up. Fairfield County is the richest in the country. At least the last time I checked. People in other towns all work in finance. Finance people commute to New York for the day; they either drive their fancy cars or use their monthly Metro-North tickets and they flood the city into the financial district. Our small towns, the per capita income is higher than our major cities. But they don’t accurately represent where I’m from. My town is pretty modest.
Did you go to high school in the same town? What was the environment like growing up in Bethel?
As you can imagine, Connecticut is a pretty homogenized place. In a lot of ways, my upbringing could’ve been banal except for the fact that I was a minority in that setting. I was brought up by really strong characters in both of my parents; my dad was an educator and administrator and my mom has always worked in non-profit--when I was really young she worked for the NAACP—so in that way I was really lucky because socially I could not relate to most of the kids around me. In my graduating class, I was one of two black kids. I grew up understanding insular and intimate things about myself in certain ways. I have been revisiting a lot on my childhood, looking back and thinking about certain encounters I had with people, moments where I was uncomfortable but didn’t really understand why—a lot of why I’m an artist is because of those relationships. I’m a social person but I found myself having to understand my approach to being social. It took me longer than some kids.
Can you talk a bit more about what your way to being social was?
I think there are mechanisms that we all develop. At a young age, you have ice-breakers and for me, it involved humour as a way of becoming more personable because I had to be that way. It made me more comfortable to make people laugh. As an unaware black kid, there’s a lot of risk with that because you can fall into this pitfall of becoming a trope. To be funny is to be the entertainment for people around you. I grew up singing in choirs, I had a good voice, I was athletic and looking back now I realize how I was ticking all the boxes for all these unwilling stereotypes that I didn’t think about fulfilling but did accidentally. I got so used to maybe being looked at as different or just looked at in general, that there was a normalcy to it. I normalized having this relationship to notoriety more than other people in my school. I got used to being a person of interest.
How did your parents get to Connecticut?
My mom was born and raised in Connecticut. My dad is from the Midwest. He grew up in St. Louis. He became a teacher straight out of school, worked on a reservation in New Mexico and later found a job in Connecticut and then he met my mom soon after.
What were their personalities as people when you were growing up?
I’ve always been really close to my mom and they were both influential in how different they were when I was growing up. My dad’s point of view came from his encounters with Jim Crow racism. And that was basically his upbringing. He didn’t really interact with white people at all until he got to the east coast. His first job was shining shoes at a golf course in St. Louis. When I found his birth certificate, he was listed as negro. It wasn’t that long ago.
Yeah! But mom is certainly different. Racism doesn’t stop at cultural borders. It's not like she never experienced these things but it was very different for my dad in the Midwest. My mom grew up in this area, she went to a private boarding school, she had a typical Connecticut upbringing in some ways. It's what you’d expect. But she didn’t go right to college right after high school. She went into social justice work and now she’s the Executive Director of the Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut as an arts facilitator.
But back on track to their differences, my dad grew up basically as a skeptic. He met my mom and was maybe shocked by how accepting she was of her white friends or just general equality. Because my dad had never experienced the niceties that can happen between people. And that’s not to say people in the Northeast are not bigots and racists just like any other place. It happens. But it’s different. The approach is different. There were these moments I can still remember where he’d tell me when an older man especially a white man calls you ‘boy’ in a particular way you have to watch out. Because it happens and he knew what it meant to him growing up. So my dad was the one to keep me on my toes.
My mom on the other hand because she was explicitly involved in the resistance and the general care of the black community, I had this different perspective from her. So with both of them, I had an opportunity to understand how other people saw me. This was a huge benefit. Because where I was geographically, there was a risk that I wouldn’t grasp these things.
You and your mom seem to have had a similar upbringing in a way. Do you guys relate on what it was like in the environment you guys grew up in?
Yes, it is totally similar. We can relate on a lot of levels in that way. Often we find that we relate but almost too much. We often have candid conversations about our current times and where we go from here [socially]. And this is a common theme of working within the bubble, often we are talking to ourselves but we find that we also need to talk to people who don’t share our perspectives. She was with the NAACP for 10 years and she found that things became a little cutthroat and political for her. And I don’t think she wanted to be a politician. She just wanted to help people.
I am finding myself being more comfortable with integrating my views on social justice into my work. Not necessarily the most explicit use of those themes but I’m finding my voice for it. And it’s great to have conversations with her on that to see if those topics can be taken at face value when you look at anything I make, which I think is important.
[...]making things for as long as we have been, is in a way humorous, tragic, romantic, and anthropomorphic. All this stuff that we make are all examples of us. Each thing is this placeholder for how we are and how we interact.
What led you to the body of work you created like the standing broom piece--in your last year at Cooper?
I think I was interested in the work that goes into creating the most mundane things we use and thinking about what they have evolved from, how products have manifested into these huge examples of our own ideas yet somethings can’t really change all that much at all. This idea of the rock tool in the Neolithic age is basically the same thing as a claw hammer—it’s shifted in form but not necessarily intent.
Brooms and hammers are tools I’m pretty obsessed with. I think I’m drawn to these types of objects as examples of people. I made the standing broom as though I were making a figurative sculpture. That is why I wanted to make that broom stand by itself. It’s an impractical and absurd means for making it. The broom doesn’t sweep well but it does stand perfectly. The way I made it wasn’t the best design, but that sort of trial and error was so refreshing to me. Part of the appeal to create is the sort of the mess along the way. The built world is only as interesting as all the other stuff that didn’t make it through the cutting room - all the prototypes. I like prototypes. I think a lot of the things that I make are prototypes.
How did you get interested in equating these objects to people and the human condition?
There’s an appeal to the stuff in between and it’s also a human thing. The inherent imperfection. There are these unique qualities that come out whenever I try a new method. With the paintings I’m making, I’m using paint as a structural material; for its adhesive qualities. I use a whole gallon of paint to see how I can make something integral. There’s this potential for them to buckle so I’m not opposed to creating extra supports that adapt to the work as I’m making it. Maybe an architect can explain a building in the same way. I think it's all about the engineering difficulties.
It's almost like I’m preparing these things to break down into another desirable object so it can have a second life and evolve into something else. It can be a different shape or different form. In these ways, the work is activated and humanized via material conflict. Human bodies over time can develop combative elements to them. Tissue and organs at odds with each other; and general health depending on the harmony between them. I think in this way the things I’m building are vulnerable in an obvious way, yet no more at risk than something painted traditionally. My goals are just different.
I’ve been calling it a No-Bake approach. I used to have access to sculpture facilities, but since I no longer have those resources, I’m having fun developing ways to erect the same imagined forms. If I can’t weld a frame for something, the piece becomes a composite. I use hardware, and often times it can break down into smaller pieces. It’s a compromise in technique, some real hodge-podge, but I maintain my standards. I use hand tools when applicable, over-sew everything, and apply paint like glue all as a means to an end.
Can you talk a bit about your piece (Gardens) Of Feeling and Fervor? You've said you were thinking about three characters when you made it.
Robert Johnson, John Henry, and Bo Jackson are three occupiers within this canon of black male tropes. They are people that succinctly embody stereotypes to me. Depending on your perspective, they are ones that have been romanticized in their professions or interests. I’d been thinking about my place in the world and how it might compare to other Black men in this country. Race relations is something that is densely apparent to me and inescapable. I’ve been battling with how I see it and how others see it and how we kind of fulfill these roles all the time. I’ve been thinking about how in the past I’ve had moments of guilt when it comes to identity. Or thinking of fulfilling stereotypes accidentally which of course is never fair. It's nothing to be ashamed of but it is fascinating when you satisfy those assumptions for people or for yourself.
I was thinking about these characters after I read “Invisible Man”. There’s this chapter that had to do with the protagonist being solicited by this white woman that was forcing him to comply with her sexual urges. And in that moment, she had a lot of power over him. I was fascinated with that tragic duality. She admired him in a self-serving way and he was compromised by the societal norms that gave her leverage. I feel like this particular sense of entrapment is something that follows black men in this country.
Bo Jackson was an incredible athlete and there’s no one that could perform the way he did. I am gleaning parts of his story that I identify with but there’s this sad truth where Bo was used for his marketing worth and gave everything he had to sports, including his body. And you have Robert Johnson selling his soul to entertain, or at least building up this mystic persona because he knew people would believe it. But then John Henry is my favourite, such an obvious metaphor. Steel driving black man of American folklore that built the railroads. It was such a revelation for me when I thought about his place amongst other mythological beings in early America. He’s really the only one that dies, and he dies while working. Paul Bunyon, Pacos Bill; they’re afforded these ambiguous happily-ever-after stories, but John Henry is absolute. It's this asymmetrical relationship that I obsess over. The exploitation and the giving.
What I wanted to do with the sinks was to give these people a place to converse, refresh, and begin again. I think it’s a place that settles and grounds you. It’s a neutral place—washing your hands and hygienics. There shouldn’t be hierarchy or class in terms of when or how people clean themselves. I think it’s a way to gather yourself and move forward while still paying homage to pain.
It’s very hard to disassociate stereotypes with something negative because the stereotypes are usually used strategically against others. Watermelon, for example, is a thing that blacks would sell in the south during Reconstruction. Because watermelon was pretty easy to grow, you could cultivate and have a profit very easily. Out of resentment, it became a thing that was used against Blacks. Associating us with watermelon, for its efficiency to grow and sell, was used to kind of belittle; it was used negatively against the African American character. The reason it sustained was that people have an interest in stifling progress.
How do all these ideas and your thinking processes formulate through the objects you make?
I think in a lot of ways, displaying the obvious comes through materially. It manifests as layering, attrition, and what happens to the body during labour. That’s what I’d like to come through when I’m making a painting or sculpture. I’ve almost streamlined what I know about industrial design as a kind of as-need methodology; my idea of craft is to kind of edit and clean up what I’m doing but I don’t need things to be pristine. I value honesty more than anything and my sculptures are reflective of my capabilities at any given time.
Because I make formally minimal work, I take from these sections of my own psyche but they are not always explicit. It is almost on an interpretive level whenever I use this stuff. I have a high capacity for recycling my resources. I can use my supplies or found objects in varied ways and do things by hand that is usually done mechanically is something that is fulfilling for me. It’s how I think about problem-solving or being highly productive with materials that wouldn’t normally warrant a stable outcome. In my mind, I think it is another way these objects take a stance. Conventions are just a starting point but it doesn’t end there. I’m interested in where I fall into pre-existing brackets and where I don’t and the histories associated with that.
Photos of Scails by Arthur Hauser