A CONVERSATION ABOUT TIME WITH: 

TED THIRLBY

  Ted Thirlby is a New York City-based artist and co-owner of Top Drawer Construction. He moved to the Lower East side of New York in the late 70's as an artist, and his work as a contractor has influenced his idiosyncratic and unusual approach to painting. He often begins with a found piece of wood (usually discarded on a job site and headed for the garbage) and then begins an intuitive and rather zen-like process of adding lines and color where he feels they are most needed.  In this interview he discusses the relationship between life as a general contractor, time, and this unusual approach to art.  Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Ted Thirlby is a New York City-based artist and co-owner of Top Drawer Construction. He moved to the Lower East side of New York in the late 70's as an artist, and his work as a contractor has influenced his idiosyncratic and unusual approach to painting. He often begins with a found piece of wood (usually discarded on a job site and headed for the garbage) and then begins an intuitive and rather zen-like process of adding lines and color where he feels they are most needed.  In this interview he discusses the relationship between life as a general contractor, time, and this unusual approach to art.  Photo courtesy of the artist. 

 

Name:   Ted Thirlby

Age:  65

Occupation:  Contractor, carpenter, artist

 

1. What are the first five words that come to mind when you think about time?

Waves. Air blowing. Decay. Sunrise. Deterioration.

2. Do you have any early memories of time or time measurement?

I don’t think I can really say. I used to – well, I guess everybody used to – wear watches before cell-phones. I used to carry a big pocket-watch that needed winding when I was in high school. But I had no particular memories or fascination with it or anything.

3. In your daily life, how often do you think about the times of the day?

Do you mean about what time it is? I am very conscious of time. And very aware of it. Partly because it’s my work-day and certain things need to be done. But if I just stop for a minute and think – I don’t lose track of time. If I think to myself ‘what time is it’, and I haven’t looked at a clock in an hour, two hours, I usually can sort of guess within a very few minutes bout what time it actually is.

Have you always had that ability?

Yeah, I think so. And I’m very – [my wife] Sherry will tell you – over-punctual. (laughs)

Oh, really?

I’m one of those people if I have a meeting at 1:30, I’ll be a little early. I’m always worried about being late.

The same with my Dad! Always 10 minutes early to everything. It’s the family joke.

Yes, and why is that? I don’t know. In my day-to-day, or minute-to-minute, I am very conscious of time passing.

4. How does your profession influence your measurement of time?

Well, not really on a daily basis, but I am constantly – in my business, have to think about how long things are going to take, or what sequence things are going to happen in. I have to be able to look at architectural plans and say it will take two guys seven days to do this. And of course, over the years, I have learned how to get a feel for that. I mean, you’re always wrong one way or the other, so it’s constant. And also, how long is a job going to take? Three months, four months?  It’s really a very seat of the pants process … you cant really calculate it very effectively, you just have to feel it.

 

  Cracked , 2014. Plywood, oil paint: 16 x 32 in. 

Cracked, 2014. Plywood, oil paint: 16 x 32 in. 

And, if not in your profession – since I know that the art you make lies out of your profession – do you have a different relationship with time either when you are painting or you are sculpting?

When I’m making artwork, [long pause] I stop thinking about other things. I listen to music – that’s a very important part of the process. And that’s related to time, largely about time. Its probably one of the few times - actually, I’ve never really thought about this before - that I’m not sort of constantly aware of what time it is. It is one of the few times when my punctuality leaves me. When I’m making artwork. And I might find myself drifting late into the night or something like that. So, that’s interesting.

5. How does your profession affect your experience of time? 

When you’re a general contractor, you are coordinating a lot of different people and processes, so it is a constant part of my work life. When are these materials going to arrive on site? When do I have to make this phone call? A lot of it is judgment. Building of time and people and materials, you get to understand not only how long things are going to take, but also, in the sequence of time, how all of these thing are going to happen. And maybe that’s why I’m like your dad, because such a big part of what I have to do every day is try to get people to be as punctual as possible. (laughs)

 

 

6. Yes, that is him to a T. We were always like ducklings trailing behind him, always late, always late. So, do you lose track of time? And if so, why?

Well, not very often. But, one of the few times, one of the only times I can really think of, is when I’m making artwork. I don’t really care about time then. I might drift into the studio for 10 minutes, and drift back out, drift in an hour later, and just stay. It’s not really a planned process. At least not the way I work now.

Did you work differently at one point?

Yes, when I was working more, and showing and things like that, I would set aside days or weekends to work, There were times in my life when I had jobs that were just three or four full days a week, so I had long stretches of time to make artwork. But I think for the way I work, its more effective to have it a little less programmed, because the insights and the creative moments are a little unpredictable. So you have to be able to work this kind of flow. I walk into the studio and I don’t have any ideas, or I start to have ideas but I don’t like the, I just walk back out. That’s one thing. But if I go off on some kind of adventure of making art or doing something, I have to be open to that.

That makes sense. And I remember at dinner you were talking about the marks you make, you often take them off again, remove them. Is it a matter of locating this sort of intangible moment, when you know it’s the right mark?

Yeah, and sometimes I get the right mark and I erase it! Or I think I can improve it or make it different. But you know, there was a period when I was doing a lot of these things (gestures to the painting above the table)  , ripping up large pieces of paper into smaller ones and they would be all over the studio and I would be making marks on them and they started to assemble in groups. This kind of very simple mark-making have always been something that I do.

  Red Knot , 2017. Plywood, cement, oil paint:  48 x 54   in. 

Red Knot, 2017. Plywood, cement, oil paint:  48 x 54   in. 

  Pink Knots , 2016. Plywood, cement, oil paint:  48 x 66 in. 

Pink Knots, 2016. Plywood, cement, oil paint:  48 x 66 in. 

  Two Knots , 2016. Plywood, cement, oil paint:  48 x 54   in.    

Two Knots, 2016. Plywood, cement, oil paint:  48 x 54   in. 

 

 

  Dark Red ,  2017 . Plywood, cement, oil paint:  56 x 48 in. 

Dark Red, 2017. Plywood, cement, oil paint:  56 x 48 in. 

7. Have you ever experienced time as faster or slower than ‘normal’?

That’s really interesting. My theory is that as you get older, time goes faster.

You’re not the only one who thinks that. That’s been a consistent answer in my interviews. Tell me, what does that feel like?

I guess it has to do with, at 65, the beginnings of understanding my mortality. Of thinking ‘Gee, I’m more than halfway through.’ (laughs) And, time elapses so quickly. When you’re a child, the summer vacation is forever. Your whole life is ahead of you. Now, I can’t believe it’s already late July – it seems like we hardly finished the spring! I don’t know what that phenomenon is, but I think that as you get older your experience of days for some reason speeds up. Maybe that changes when you get to another stage. Maybe if you retire and you have a little more of a leisurely life, maybe that perception changes.

8. How do you measure time? Are you a counter? Do you count up, do you count down, do you not count at all? And how much do you focus on the past, present, and future, respectively? 

Hmm. I’m not sure how I measure time. I mean, there’s a visual image of a clock. Interestingly enough, there are a lot of circles in my paintings. At a certain point there were a lot of balls and globes in my sculptures. And you know, circles as a symbol refer to time or timelessness …

Somehow both.

Yes. But I don’t think I really visualize time. I more feel it. You know, as I told you, I can usually just feel what time it is, even if I haven’t looked at a clock in a couple hours. I don’t know why that is. Probably your Dad can too (laughs).

Yeah, it’s a contractor thing.

It may be that it is an acquired characteristic, because of what we do. Construction is so sequence oriented. 

9. The last question I have is the most open one: What would you say is your general relationship with time, if we haven’t covered it already?

I guess I haven’t really thought about it much, but it is a big part of my life because of my work, and I never realized before that doing the artwork was an escape from that. I can really feel that now. And the work is interesting in it’s relationship to time, in that it is objects that have existed before me – it’s not like an artist who makes a sculpture or painting from scratch. I am sort of picking up something that has already existed, interacting with it, and sort of sending it on its way. And I think that’s kind of an approach to artwork that is somehow more integrated. A little more Zen-like than what most artists do, which is to make discreet objects out of new materials.

Even though you could arguably say that those materials are also passing through those artists in the same way.

Yes, yes, true.

But to agree with you, I do think in your work the idea of material transience is manifested much more clearly.

I don’t do everything to them. They come to me whole and I comment back.

  Wu Wei , 2015. Plywood, oil paint: 36 x 32 in. 

Wu Wei, 2015. Plywood, oil paint: 36 x 32 in. 

  Moon Arc , 2016. Plywood, oil paint: 28 x 22 in. 

Moon Arc, 2016. Plywood, oil paint: 28 x 22 in. 


This interview was conducted on July 28, 2013. Any errors in transcription are entirely of the author. More information about Ted's construction company can be found at: http://www.topdrawerconstruction.com/ and more information about his artwork can be found at: https://www.tedthirlbystudio.com/