I was surprised when I met Eric Thomas Wolever. His paintings bear PVC wicker lawn chairs, white picket fences, and 1976 Ford Sedans. I expected a man 30 years his senior since I read those images as reflections of a literal past, a youth belonging to a time dead now for 40 years. What I found was a younger man—a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a Master’s in Fine Arts—whose shoulders bear the places that have grown him as if they are his bones themselves.
Eric grew up in Coal Valley, Illinois, a blue-collar town of 3,000 sitting beside the Mississippi River. His interaction with art began in seventh grade when his teacher instructed the class to collect trash, hot-glue it together, and spray paint the product. Processing the assignment instantaneously, as if it was by instinct, he stepped outside and evenly coated his shoes in silver spray paint. Today, Eric maintains that in the following moments as he sat in detention, he knew that he was an artist and would be for the rest of his life.
Admitted to art school for both undergraduate (Kansas City Art Institute) and graduate studies as a ceramics student, Eric struggled with “the medium defining titles” of the academic art world. “I feel like I never fit into that arena of the art world,” he explains. Not only did Eric wrestle with the academy’s necessity in categorizing him within a department, there were indicators early on that Eric, in fact, was engaged with a discipline that did not resonate with who he is.
Eric had heard from artistic peers and teachers his whole life that he was a painter. “People were constantly telling me, ‘Your ceramics are paintings. Your work is so painterly.’” Infatuated with the concept of layering from an early stage, Eric spent his time outside of the studio taking notes of colors, sounds, and words and absorbing whole albums of music. As he grew, Eric found that his approach to art was inherently reactionary, demanding access to quicker production and completion, options that painting could provide him. Even once he left Arizona State University, after a brief stint with a graduate program there that was too heavy in ceramic study, Eric didn’t embrace his identity as a painter. He went on still to pursue a ceramics program at UW–Madison.
After some time, Eric couldn’t ignore the signs that his pursuits were not in line with his essence. Despite committing to the study of ceramics on paper, Eric readily accepted his calling as a painter in graduate school here in Madison and has entirely immersed himself in the practice in recent years.
When viewing Eric’s paintings, one can’t help but think back to his comments about the academia’s pressure to fit him into one discipline, one department. Though his creations these days are painterly work, Eric’s paintings recall his days with ceramics. Both in imagery and material, they are structural and layered. This is in part because Eric, both due to a lack of resources and an ardent desire to do so, habitually incorporates his physical environment into his work.
When I interviewed Eric, he offered a laundry list of mundane behaviors that, with and without intention, ultimately translate into drastically poignant work. “It’s pretty spontaneous. This most recent piece is from a love letter. I also recently began working with fabrics. It sounds crazy, but I started using old socks.” He collects a pen or pencil at every school, restaurant, and hotel he visits and uses it in his work. Lately, he has been making his paintings on paper plates in the kitchen in his apartment because, since leaving the university, he lacks the studio space needed to make larger work. The recent symbol of lettered birthday candles happened after a trip to Party City.
These methods aren’t those of an artist belonging to the elite. When interacting with Eric, it becomes clear that he and his work are more natural refractions of life in his environment than they are contrived efforts to deliver the drama of human experience. What is miraculous is that he manages to capture that drama nonetheless, but does so with the goods in our lives that are the most ignored. He turns paddleboats and toothpicks into a vocabulary equipped to offer “the haunted, complex, loaded, confused, and yet hopeful.” He retells our stories with a tenderness that we didn’t know they deserved.
These images are not so much literal reflections of his time in Coal Valley as they are icons of themes, such as memory and loss. Even so, Eric’s hometown and the places he’s lived in since carry his pieces as the blue-gray haze that pervades them. This combination of specific place and placelessness, of lived experience with objects and iconography, is entirely emblematic of Eric. To that, he says, “I think I put it all out there, but I could not care less if it’s easily accessible for someone because deep down I know where it came from. I know what’s going on. That’s more important to me than for someone to have exactly what they ordered off the menu. And the combination of abstraction and representation does that better than any other way I’ve found it to work in other art forms.”
Having recently returned from a six-month stay in Coal Valley to recenter, Eric has kept himself out of the art scene to make new work in solitude in pursuit of a solo show. Nonetheless, Eric uploads new work to his website, ericthomaswolever.com , regularly.
Elissa Koppel is a freelance writer and a local artist.