10. TROY SCULLY - May 10 & June 13, 2018
We’ve had a cold spring, one that seemed to drag on for far too long. But it’s finally begun to warm up, and it’s evident on my drive through Northside to meet Troy, the air thickening with moisture as the afternoon draws to a close. There’s a group of dark clouds beginning to gather on the horizon, sapping the sky of light and tinging the air a strange, yellowy gray.
I get out of my car a few houses down from Troy’s, catching sight of him through a break in the bushes, and waving to him as he steps onto the porch of his large, gray, stucco-ed bungalow. He sits down in one of the red-and-white-striped lawn chairs that occupy the porch, greeting me and inviting me to sit in the chair opposite him. He is quiet, his voice soft and low and thoughtful. His long brown hair is tied back in a loose bun, and he sits and smokes easily, casually. This is only the second time I’ve spoken to Troy in person, although I’ve followed his work on Instagram for a while. We exchange pleasantries and comment on the weather, on the clouds that are rolling in, his roommates, our jobs.
He tells me that he graduated from VCU’s painting and printmaking program almost a year ago, and has just returned from a two-month residency at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. When I ask him about his time there, he describes it as a “fantasy land.” “You essentially just get to live in the mountains and make art all day,” he says, smiling slightly before putting out his cigarette in a broken ceramic teapot-turned-ashtray. He explains that he was there on a grant, and spent some of his time teaching high school students how to do image transfers as part of the agreement. “When I saw that I was eligible for the grant, I knew I would do it if I got it, and would set my job aside to go,” he tells me. He explains that he spent most days in the studio from 9-5, and used the remaining time to continue to work or to meander around and see what other people were doing. “It was kind of like being on vacation,” he says. “I watched a lot of movies.”
Troy stands up to go inside, and two dark eyes peek through the window-paned front door below us as he pushes it open. “This is Chief,” Troy says, as a large, black lab mix begins to sniff me excitedly, hopping up on his hind legs and bounding around the room in his slow, heavy way. Monster Jam, a pup I’ve met before, lounges on the carpeted floor a few feet away, uninterested in my arrival.
Troy leads me back through the living room to a small dining room area that has been converted into his studio space. Clear, plastic sheeting lines the one corner of the room, a large white tarp covers the carpet. A few of the pieces he’s working on hang on the walls, with his paintbrushes and buckets of paint and tape and glue stored in a milk crate and a toolbox on the floor. A drum throne sits in the center of the small space, lit up slightly by the small amount of light that filters in from the east-facing window. It’s dim and dark this time of day, the approaching clouds obscuring any light we may have caught. “I mostly paint at night with a lamp,” he tells me, when I ask him about how he works with the way the light is coming in, flat and gray. I’m worried about the limited light in the space, but I make do, and mention the possibility of having to re-shoot later on.
I start to photograph his space, the tangle of wires that spills over onto the edge of the tarp, the small paintings strewn on the glass desktop, the drawings tacked up on the walls, canvases stacked in corners, a mint-green sewing machine and bundles of yarn that occupy a short, handmade wooden table. Troy begins to pull paintings from a large bookshelf, laying them out on the dining room table one by one. “I have hundreds of drawings and paintings that have started to pile up,” he tells me. “I’m a bit of a prolific creator, though that’s a pretty stupid thing to say about yourself,” he says, looking down at his work and laughing a little. He speaks slowly and softly, seeming to think out and plan each of his words.
He tells me that he’s made more in the past year than he ever did while in school, and is trying to figure out the next move for his work. “I’d like to start on projects that have a specific goal and life to them,” he says. “The stack of work just keeps going and going, but I’d like a way to make work that has a life outside of my dining room.” Troy continues to shift through the stack, explaining how he’s not sure of how to go about cataloguing or organizing the massive amount of work he has. “Producing has never been a problem for me,” he explains. “The problem for me is more about what to do with it, how to build a series out of it. I want to start collaborating with others more, so the work has a definitive end, a place to be.”
I ask him about his experience at VCU, how or why he ended up there. “I actually went to SAIC for my freshman year,” Troy says, as he shuffles his paintings and drawings into a more manageable pile. “But my dad explained how much it was going to cost me to do all four years there,” he says, telling me that he ended up transferring to VCU because it was a more affordable option. I ask if that was a hard transition, if he wishes he hadn’t left, and he tells me, “I try not to bother to compare — it’s not useful.” He explains that at the time, he “didn’t worry very much.” Troy tells me that he ended up spending 4 years at VCU, forced to play catch-up as a transfer student. About his time there, he says, “It was good to focus on a thing, and I met people in the painting program that I now live with and collaborate with.” But goes on to say that “everyone has gripes with wherever they graduate from.”
Troy tells me that he grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, describing it as rural, small, and “kinda pretty.” He tells me that he was a “classic Ritalin child,” explaining that he was completely unable to focus in school, holed up in the back of the classroom with a Deer Park water bottle, sneaking in his watercolors so he could paint during class. “I always drew as a kid,” he says, reminiscing on the drawings he would make for his friends, writing their names in heavy metal script. “But didn’t think an artist was something you could be,” he explains, “I was pretty unenthused in high school.”
He tells me that before his senior year, his parents encouraged him to enroll in a high school program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he lived on campus and studied in their Visual Arts program. He explains how that experience gave him direct exposure to the art world, opening the door for him to apply to arts colleges, and pushing him forward in his practice. He tells me that he met the admissions counselor for SAIC at a college information meeting and felt drawn to it, ending up applying and eventually attending.
“Moving here was weird,” he says, of his relocation to Richmond, “and coming out here has been nice,” he says, gesturing to the room around him, seeming to expand his reach to the quiet, somewhat secluded Northside neighborhood. “It’s definitely influenced what I paint,” Troy says, shuffling the stack of paintings again, pulling a few new ones to the top. “I’m really interested in urban imagery, how ubiquitous it is,” he says, mentioning the anonymity and universality of cinder blocks, pallets, parking lots. “I worked as a valet for a while, which is pretty much the most urban job you could have,” he tells me, describing all the time he spent in parking lots and running through alleyways.
Troy moves to the opposite corner of the room, where more paintings are stored in the space between a small storage bin and the wall. He pulls out three wooden panels and lays them on the floor, all of them painted with bright red and yellow logos and mottos contrasted against deep blue-black urban scenes; the salvaged box for a bottle of Tylenol Extra Strength is pasted on top of the dim image of a convenience store; the word “blame” is surrounded in red on top of the image of a very recent car crash — two black sedans, crunched and burning. “I’ve been painting a lot of convenience stores lately,” he says, looking down at his work. “I also really love scratcher tickets,” he says, pointing to three large numbers outlined in yellow that run down the side of one of the pieces, reminiscent of a lotto ticket that’s been scratched. “They represent this idea of hoping for something — hope and reward and failure.”
Troy does a small lap around the space, looking at the in-progress pieces that hang on the walls, the pile that still sits on the table, the few pieces on the desk. “I’ve also been interested in the language of cartoons,” Troy says, as he sifts through the comic books and comic strips in plastic sheet protectors on his desk. He mentions the inherent abstraction of cartoons, how they serve as a cultural reference point, as well as how they deal with very adult emotions, abjection, and failure. “I use text as a way to lead a painting, and it’s interesting to have characters in paintings who speak,” he says, mentioning the frequency of car crashes, “oh no” moments, and talking inanimate objects in his work. “I can’t paint the figure, so why not paint cartoons?” Troy says, smiling a little.
He steps back from the pieces on the floor, pulling a large canvas from the same cache in the corner, balancing it on top of his rolling desk chair. This one is lighter, the background is just pencil outlines at the moment, with neon orange letters spelling out the words “deep breaths” above the outlined image of a figure choking—leaning forward, clutching its neck. Broken pallets line the bottom of the piece, cartoon-style flames dispersed among them. “I’m also interested in the ways that people lately are so open about speaking about self-help,” Troy says, looking up at me as he holds the canvas in place. “Ideas surrounding mindfulness and self-improvement are getting a lot of airplay these days. I’ve been making some work that’s concerned with self-preservation and self-care, and the idea people propagate that you can breathe deeply and your problems will go away.” He looks down at the piece and shakes his head a little, “It’s pretty ridiculous.”
Troy puts the canvas back in its place, carefully leaning it up against the wall. He sits down in the rolling desk chair, crossing one leg over the other and taking a sip from his coffee mug. Chief ambles into the room and takes a seat beside him on the floor. I take a few photos of Troy and Chief together until Chief becomes curious, moving toward me and leaving Troy looking a little concerned and unsure what to do with his hands.
I ask him more about his work, about how his education helped inform it, and I photograph him while he talks. “In arts school, you learn to be concise with what you’re doing. You’re being held accountable and your work can’t exist in a vacuum,” he says. “So many people seemed to decide that they were ‘this’ artist with ‘this’ particular theme, but I’m too lateral of a thinker to work that way.”
Troy mentions his desire to make a quilt, the beginnings of which hang on one of the walls. “I also want to make a comic book at some point. I’m juggling all these things that relate to each other and inform one another. I want to keep producing more, and producing new things. I’ve never been one to exercise an equation that’s already been solved—it’s just not generative.” He tells me about the difficulty in selling his work, which has to be priced fairly to account for the sometimes hundreds of hours he spends building and priming a painting. “Sometimes I think about making work that I know would sell — a polite, tactful, minimal painting,” he says. “I’d have a living, but then I’d have the most boring practice ever — that’s just so sad.”
The light is fading quickly, and we head out into his backyard to try and catch the last of it, although the previously blue skies have been entirely obscured with a coat of dense gray. He smokes a cigarette in the center of the overgrown lawn while a take a few photos of him, as he points out some sculpture pieces that his roommate, who’s a welder, has recently made, some weeds that Troy potted, the collection of items on the back porch. It’s crowded with a smattering of random objects —a large bag of charcoal, a side-view mirror with wires dangling from its severed end, a can of spray paint, an empty Miller Lite can, a handful of half-finished sculpture pieces, a bottle of Dawn soap — bringing up Troy’s commentary on the strange sort of suburban leisure culture that’s so prevalent in the south, specifically in Richmond.
The wind begins to pick up, the threat of rain looming above us. We walk back through the house, Troy putting out his cigarette momentarily to carry it out onto the front porch. As we step back outside, a thick, heavy rain begins to fall in dense sheets, coming down in visible waves, turning everything a grim sort of gray. We say our goodbyes, and I run out into the storm, getting completely soaked before I make it to my car.
A month and three days pass before I’m able to make it out to Troy’s house again, to catch the morning light that comes in through the dining room windows. We spend a short amount of time together while I photograph the space again, noticing the changes that have already occurred. His roommate Cam has moved his desk into the living room, so the two of them share the space, making the room feel smaller but fuller. Troy tells me about a zine he’s trying to put together, working through the kinks of printing it in color. He tells me about the zine he made last fall that was printed in black and white, describing it as an “unhelpful self-help book.” He explains how nice it was to have a product that he could easily sell and distribute, which felt more “accessible, more egalitarian.”
We head into the backyard before I have to go to work, taking advantage of the warmth, of the bright morning light. The grass has been mowed, Troy’s roommate’s welding unit — painted by Cam — has taken reign over the yard, a layer of mulberries scattered atop it. Troy tells me about his plans to work his old job as a valet again, though he wants to limit his time working, and make sure he spends at least 20 hours a week painting. “I’m concerned that I’d go into the work force and stop creating. I’d rather be broke,” he says.
He seems more talkative, more comfortable this time around, elaborating for a while on each answer he gives me, asking about my plans, where I work, looking straight into the camera for stretches of time. Chief follows us around, ambling beside us, anxious for attention. Troy checks his phone a few times, double-checking that I’ll make it to work on time and we head out onto the front porch so I can take a few last photos of him, while Chief peeks through the window panes in the door, watching us from inside. The morning light coats everything in warmth, and it gets in my eyes as I say goodbye, heading down the front path and back into my car.