What are you working on right now? We’re in Charlottesville about a third of the year, and when we’re here my wife [Ann Beattie] is teaching and I’m working exclusively on the mural at Old Cabell Hall. I’ve still got another staircase-and-a-half to paint. It’s expected to take about four more years. It’s a full-time job for me while I’m here. When I’m away, we go to Maine, and I have painting going on up there, but also a lot of terra cotta sculpture, which is a great interest of mine. It’s playing with mud.
No, it’s not the Bodo’s on the Corner. Lincoln Perry stands among the characters from his giant mural in Old Cabell Hall.
What were you doing when we called? I was crawling around on the ladders. I’ve got a big stepladder and an extension ladder that is about 23 feet long, and that doesn’t get up to the top of this piece. From bottom to top it’s about 25 feet, so it’s a tricky space…and to get up there, I crawl around on these ladders. I don’t like it particularly, but it has to be done. And then the next step is to put up scaffolding, which I find is much safer and more secure. But it’s great exercise, sort of like going to the gym.
Locally, who would you like to collaborate with? The friends I have who are painters are such different painters, it would be interesting to do, almost as an experiment, something with [landscape painter] Dick Crozier and [figure artist] Phillip Geiger. There used to be collaborations in the 17th century between, say, Rubens and Franz Snyders. Snyders would do one aspect of the painting and Rubens would do another. So we could do something with a landscape person, a still-life person and a figure person. But it probably won’t happen, because we’re all doing our own thing for the most part.
What music are you listening to lately? I’ve got an iPod with 60 gigs of space for music, and I’ve filled it up with half classical and half contemporary stuff. It always depends on what occurs to you that day. I also listen to a lot of books on tape, which are great for when I’m not actively planning a painting. I just finished listening to “Deerslayer” by James Fenimore Cooper.
What is your first artistic memory from childhood? When I was a kid I used to draw all the time. A friend of mine used to come over a lot and we’d draw together. It was sort of like a form of play, and my work still feels that way, really.
Do you have a favorite building? There are churches in Italy I’m tremendously fond of, but here in town, every part of Jefferson’s campus just continues to amaze me. And I’m not just saying that because this is Charlottesville and you’re supposed to be pious about Mr. Jefferson. If you’ve spent any time here, it just feels secure—it feels comforting and thought-provoking.
Is there a piece of art you wish was in your private collection? I’m not much of a collector, but when I find a piece that I respond to in such a way, I don’t covet it, but I find myself wanting to do something that makes me feel the way that piece of artwork makes me feel. There are individual pieces that I adore and would love to be in the presence of, like the Belvedere Torso in the Vatican, but I can’t keep going off to the Vatican. So it isn’t so much that I’d like to be the custodian of these pieces as I’d like to do something that has the kind of influence and power that that does.
If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who and why? I’d need a translator, but I’d love to have dinner with Michelangelo, although I guess he wouldn’t be the most communicative guy on the block. I suppose there are some people that you’d like to be friends with, because of their personal qualities, and then there are the people who might just be very engaging and fun to have dinner with. Degas was apparently a great conversationalist.
Outside of your medium, who is your favorite creative artist? The obvious answer to that would be Shakespeare, who was inconceivably brilliant. It’s hard to imagine that anyone now would have a greater quiver of arrows than Shakespeare. In music there are people that I’m fascinated by, like Shostakovich. In architecture, Palladio. In each field, there are people who I can’t imagine how they did what they did.