Radio Maine Episode 22

William "Bill" Crosby: The Power of Being Oneself and More

Bill Crosby exemplifies the dualistic nature of many artists. He is both a photographer and a painter, who worked for decades as an art professor, while actively practicing his own craft. Bill reminds us that, as the poet Charles Baudelaire suggests, “An artist is only an artist on condition that he neglects no aspect of his dual nature…the power of being oneself and someone else at the same time.” Bill has enjoyed a longstanding personal and professional partnership with his wife, Pat. They divide their time between homes in Plattsburgh, New York and South Thomaston, Maine. Bill and Pat are passionate about kayaking the St. George River from his home in Maine. These frequent summer excursions, as well as travels throughout New England, continue to inform and inspire Bill’s signature abstract painting. Hear more about Bill’s rich and complex life and art as you join in his conversation with Dr. Lisa Belisle on Radio Maine.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello, I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching, Radio Maine. Today I have with me artist, William Crosby, also known as Bill who is represented by the Portland Art Gallery. He has,  I think about four, no, six decades worth of art experience at this point. So we have a lot to talk about today. Thank you for joining us and thank you for being here today, Bill.

William “Bill” Crosby:

Well, thank you. Pleasure to be here. I'm not quite sure where to start, but that's something that I face all the time. When I look at an empty canvas, where to start, how to begin. And for me, it's more abstraction and a degree of realism, but unlike many artists, they know exactly what they want to paint before they put anything on the canvas–I don't. I may suggest as well, let's say in this one, a horizon line in some canvases, others, it's just a few brush strokes or pencil strokes, and then I get into it, but I don't know where it's going. And this goes back to my roots in abstract expressionism which was just coming into commonplace in the sixties when I was at a student at the University of Michigan, 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, let's start with this painting that is behind us. It is called Spring. And for those who are listening on the podcast, would you describe that for us? 

William “Bill” Crosby:

I have a hard horizon line of water, which represents probably the ocean more than anything else, because we spend a lot of time here on the coast of Maine. And then I was really taken back, especially this spring. We were over here in Maine. We live in Northern New York at the foothills of the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain. And it's really hard, both places are so beautiful, but in any case, we were here and watching spring, take fold with colors coming out and the light greens and the pinks and things blossoming up. So this is very light painting compared to many of my more summer or even winter paintings which can be a different palette. And some people are surprised at some of the lighter, brighter colors, but it came from this spring and it was a nice slow spring this year. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

 I'm very suggestive. This the most you have, the horizon line suggests the landscape. Yes. And everything else just happens. That was the first thing put down, that line, but then everything else just happens as I go. And it goes back to my roots in abstraction and abstract expressionism, and one brush stroke leads to another and leads to another. I often work with a very wet palette and canvas, so things can run and drip. And then I go back and rework things and tighten up things. And there's always the suggestion and here the suggestion of trees and new foliage, but not really detailed that much. Suggestion of water and maybe tides, and fields that are just starting to turn, or are maybe still kind of brownish from the winter too, so it's open to interpretation. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

What about the pinks? That's not something that I think many people see in the work that you do. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

That's true. And it's just the fresh blooms of spring and apple trees or new buds are often very pink. And so I picked up on that in this series of paintings. I tend to do more than one of a kind. I have to, otherwise I get too bogged down in the details, and I try to leave a lot of the painting open and free, the sky, especially the foreground can be just vague and allow the viewer to enter it, enter the composition themselves and finish it in a way. And I can't tell you what a painting is going to look like when I start it.  Things happen. And then I see what is happening, then I change it. I move it around, or I develop it a little bit more, or if it's not working or I don't feel right about it. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

It's an emotional thing. Something that has a lot of, I hope a lot of energy that can be realized from it. And I find it emotional and it's like a, some people refer to it as jazz to a quality of jazz. I'm not a musician, so I don't want to get into that too much, but some people have seen that because I improvise a lot and I develop things as it goes, but it's not planned out ahead of time. And it just allows it to happen and invites the viewer to let it happen to them too. So a painting might grow on them a little bit until they have to finish it. It becomes their own. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Tell me how you went from an early focus on photography, which you ended up not only getting a degree in, in, you said 1961 from Michigan and being a teacher for 35 years at SUNY Plattsburgh, to moving into more of the painting. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

Well, the photography started, actually I started at Cornell in architecture, and in fact, I feel like even my paintings have a degree of structure to them. Very abstract structure, asymmetrical balance, not real balance, but an asymmetrical balance. But when I decided to transfer to the University of Michigan and concentrate in firstly photography, which was a love of mine from high school, actually, I never took formal painting or art courses or anything like that in high school. But I did get involved in an extracurricular photography program mainly because I was dating someone and she went into the photo club and I went in, but it turned out I really got hooked on photography, working in black and white with a four by five view camera and learned the basics. And then as soon as I had my own 35 millimeter and twin lens reflex, and especially black and white photography. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

So the photography also, Michigan they had a program at the time and they still do, and Cornell did not. So that was another reason why Michigan was a draw. And at the same time, I started taking some painting courses and was hit with total abstraction. Now, at the same time, I had done some realistic paintings.  I never took them into the classroom. This was on my own, but it was in the tradition of Andrew Wyeth. But when I look back on things, my need for realism is easily satisfied or more than satisfied by the realism of photography. And that's probably somewhat in the tradition of Ansell Adams and Edward Weston and photographers like that, Dorothea Lange. And it became a parallel thing, but it acted as a balance. And it allowed me to go abstract in the paintings. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

And because at first I resisted total abstraction and all the things that were happening in the fifties and sixties and in art coming out minimal art and abstract art and abstract expressionism, and who knows what, there were a lot of things going on. And it wasn't what I knew when I was a little kid coming up. My parents did expose me to the Butler Art Museum in Youngstown, Ohio, which was my hometown. And, but that was more representational art. And I saw the work of Winslow Homer and other artists there. But I can never be perfect. And that was another thing about photography. It gave that perfection, but it also then freed me up to go loose, free, explode with abstraction. And I look back now at some of my paintings in the sixties, and they're almost more contemporary today than they were then. And they still inspire me in the work that I do now. I see where my roots were and they come out again too. So it's a balance in my life and maybe we need some balance.  I get off on tangents at times when I talk that way, but I think it does make some sense. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You met your wife, Pat, when you were at the University of Michigan, because she was also doing something artistic. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

Oh yes. She was a student. We turned out to be finally in the same class of 61. She was an interior design major and took a number of courses in architecture and architecture design and drafting. And we had courses together in various studio courses and art history, but we really got to know each other in stagecraft, over in the theater department, we both took basic stagecraft, worked in the shop. And that's where we both started using power tools and hand tools and cutting and building and making things. And that's a key to our whole relationship. We love making things and we support, we make different things. And she went on to rebuild and design. It was called design build, she’d design houses or rebuild old houses. And she's still doing that today, but not as a business just for ourselves, but she took that very seriously and has done a wonderful job. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

And with her roots in design and background, she's a good critic for me too. She doesn't go into detail, but I can get a sense of how a painting is going just by showing it to her and hearing her immediate reaction. And it's just a few words like “Yeah I like that” or “Eh that's not,” you know, she’ll shake her head, “that's not working.” And it makes me question an area before it's done and I have to get back from my paintings. And she's been a real support. I think we work as a team very well. And it has worked through our whole marriage with children and everything else, but we can work as a team and we have common interests in the arts and all forms of art. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I know that she is pretty much always with you wherever you go. So if you're at an art gallery opening in Portland, she's there, you know, she's here with you today, for your interview. You really are a team. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

Yes we are. And we have a team of dogs too, with us today.  We've always had dogs and we've got a couple older Huskies, Siberian Huskies, that were once sled dogs and retired.  So she's caring for those two dogs right now, and we kayak a lot now, too. Ever since we came to Maine, we quickly picked up kayaking and that has been a source of inspiration. I go out in the mornings. We're right on the Saint George River in Thomaston, but we've kayaked a lot of places. Our home is in Northern New York, in the Adirondacks, Lake Champlain area. We have actually traveled several times to Alaska and rented kayaks up there. I wouldn't say we're pros, but we're probably somewhat experienced. And we go out all the time. We're still using kayaks that we originally bought in the early nineties and long seaworthy kayaks. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

And I'll go out on the Saint George in the morning. In fact, the other morning I was out there, what am I going to say today? And I sorta did a rehearsal to myself, but I like being out on the water quiet mornings especially, as depends on the tides, because it's mudflats otherwise, if the tide's out, there's no kayaking, it's all mud flat, but when the tide comes in and we can go out, it's nice. And we often kayak together, but I also go out by myself. And I like isolation and early mornings are good. It's a good inspiration. I go along the Riverside and you see all the rock formations. Light quality is so important to me. And that comes from my photography too. I think I was very sensitive to the light quality in photography. My paintings are a little more opaque and it doesn't necessarily have one single light source. I kind of bounce back and forth a lot between painting and photography, how that influences me. And as I said earlier, it's a balance too. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

There's another piece that you brought with you today that's actually behind you which we’ll show to the people who are watching, but there's a lot of blues in it. I can actually, as you're talking about your kayaking, I could actually see you being inspired to create these lines that almost look like inlets or as you've described rock formations.  Tell me about that piece. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

Well, that's Winter Feelings actually, has some dark forms in there. And some lights, it's more black and white, but even there there'll be some color in it mixed in.  And it doesn't take a sharp focus to be in any one place. It's interesting because some people will look at some of my paintings they'll know, I know exactly where that is, and it isn't, it's just that it relates to their own history, their own memories of where they've been. But this suggests rocks, formations, cloud formations, water, light off the water, different things like that. And it's called winter moods, or Winter Feelings really. And I'll even kayak on the river on certain times I can get out there in the winter too. The ice formations are wonderful along the shore. And it reminds me of being in Alaska when we actually did kayak around chunks of ice and icebergs as such, and took a lot of pictures up there. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

And those pictures didn't necessarily transform in the paintings. I will sometimes use a photograph as a reference. There’s a couple of other paintings I brought in. That one's of Monhegan Island, and another one is of Katahdin and those profiles are pretty accurate. And I sometimes will maybe refer back to photographs for the profile shapes, but the foregrounds and the skies are as free and open and energetic as what you might see in a painting. We were just talking about in Spring and often very undeveloped areas so that I don't try to complete a painting. I don't get caught up in every little branch and every little detail. Now I can respect realism by others, but I just find that for me, I’d rather be a little more interpretive, expressive, a little less concrete and allow a little more for the imagination to complete it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you were telling me earlier that you will go back and forth between things that are more representational and things that are more abstract, and that it's not really that you've left one area forever, it's just that you're gonna kind of circle back around to it at some point. Is there something that triggers your need to go from one to the other to maintain that balance or as our feeling that you have?

William “Bill” Crosby:

Yeah, I don't know quite how to answer that. Partly I don't paint every day. I do it in spurts and I paint both here, I have a studio at our place here in South Thomaston, and I have a studio back in New York in one of the houses that my wife's rebuilding now. Anything can be a studio. I've painted in the basement, I've painted in the kitchen. So I'm pretty flexible on that. I don't have to have, quote “a studio”, and if someone wants to see my studio, it's probably going to be a disappointment.  I work a lot with makeshift, but I don't paint every day. And I think it's important for me not to, because then I can come back to a fresh approach. I don't get caught up in it, I'll do a whole series of paintings that are similar and have some of the same feelings, but different size compositions. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

I work sometimes very small and other times I can go up to four feet by five feet, or put them together for a diptych or a triptych, so they can become quite large too, major pieces.  I also like some of the little ones because they're done almost as gesture drawings, gesture paintings. They come very quickly and very spontaneously and I don't get caught up in details at all. And then I may go back and press, bring out a little section of it, just enough to suggest all this is a landscape. And often that is what's going on. I think I brought one of those in today.  I brought a couple of little paintings and one is very abstract, and it came out of the last year and a half of the virus. I got caught up in doing some very abstract work that reflected not only the virus, but social and political issues too. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

And I've called them chaos and turmoil. And I did another one and I think it was a little premature maybe, but I call it, it was in January, I called it And a New Day Begins and it didn't quite begin then, but I had had hope, and it's just a slice of sunrise with a very dark sky, a very dark foreground, but we were coming out of a dark period. So that seemed appropriate at the time. It can be read or interpreted.  I don't get into a lot of trying to have hidden meanings in my paintings. I don't intentionally do that. It just happens. And so to me, painting is an emotional thing. It's almost like a dance to, well, I'd like to move around when I'm painting even little ones and I'll do several at a time. I think I mentioned that before, and some of them have become little triptychs, two or three small paintings together.  Three paintings together become a triptych. Or I just keep several canvases going so I don't overwork one canvas over another. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It sounds like the photography maybe satisfies the more technical aspects of your mind that maybe gravitated towards architecture, perhaps originally. And then the painting satisfies the kind of the other side of your mind that needs more freedom and more spontaneity.

William “Bill” Crosby:

To some extent, photography has always been, well not when I was a student, I took all sorts of things, people, places.  It's interesting. Early on, we went to Europe, I think on our second summer of marriage or  third summer. And before that we went out west. I didn't even take a lot of pictures out west. I took some, I didn't take much. We experienced just being out there. And that was fine. And the same thing when I went to Europe. When we went to Europe, I had a camera, but I realized I wasn't taking a lot of pictures. I think I had the attitude and I look back now and I kind of laugh at myself. I don't want to be a typical tourist with a camera. But I realize, and then in teaching photography, you see a lot more when you have a camera in your hand and you have to make a decision, this is the composition, or this is the composition. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

And you actually look a lot closer at things than you would if you're just out there, oh,  that's beautiful, that's marvelous or whatever. You start looking and composing. And the camera has taught me that. And it's a discipline, I guess I would say. And then, as I said, I really liked black and white. Now more recently doing digital work, but I'm more serious about my black and white photography, which was done early on. I still have a dark room here in Maine. I haven't used it a lot yet, but I still have black and white prints that are negatives that need to be printed. There's always something more to do. And I think that's true with Pat and I. We both have projects to do, way too many. The other day I was gathering up birch bark that I had saved. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

I got six bags of birch bark. Well, I'll use it for kindling, but I think gee could that be made into something, how can I use this? And I've got a whole bunch of birch logs sitting to make furniture. But then at home, we've got a barn full of old parts of houses that Pat's collected and she's recycled a lot of that. And it's something we believe in recycling as much as possible. A lot of our place in Maine, our little cottage, there is recycled wood that we brought over here, large pieces of lumber and windows and doors. And now she's taking  old wood and making new cabinets out of them and making use of what's here. But it's always a challenge to us and exciting, and that's how we support each other too. And we communicate a lot, which I think my paintings are a form of communication. I hope they are. And we found in our marriage that's important to is so important is communication keeps things going, 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Pat was contracting it sounds like on whatever level it was, back at a time where the lumber yards didn't see a lot of women. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

That's right.  She had to overcome some salespeople or counter people that just did the “are you serious” type of thing, you know, but she was, and she knew what she was doing. And often she knew more than they knew how to do it. And she's tackled learning how to do things. And she's taking courses at the workshop here in Maine, in West Rockport, a school for craftsmanship, furniture craftsmanship, and she can do really fine work, but she's also done some, you know, basic construction work too. And I get involved in that as labor.  It's not very often my design, although I could design, I have enough other things going on because I did have a background in architecture and we both really liked to see architecture and see different ways, how people live, how buildings exist and, the whole world of the architectural environment. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

But in my paintings you'll notice it's natural landscape. And same with the photography. In my painting of Whiteface Mountain, a big ski area in New York, I never put the ski slopes in and just kind of painted before that ever happened. I leave out highways and telephone poles and everything like that. It's the natural landscape that I'm really drawn to and including the greenery and the wildlife, the light, the quality of light, the setting sun. I like to see sunrises and sunsets. They're exciting. I don't paint them very often, but I like to see a new day coming and the end of the day, too, 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Have your children in any way been influenced to engage in artistic activities? 

William “Bill” Crosby:

I think so.  We have three, our daughter is I think more inclined to being involved in decorating and landscaping her yard and decorating her house and painting. Very sensitive to it and very tasteful. And our son, the middle of the three kids, he actually takes very good photographs, but I have yet to get him to take it a step or two further, but I like his eye, his vision, what he sees and how he photographs it. And the third has got into all sorts of projects from sculpture and abstract paintings to photo collages. And he works out of Burlington, Vermont as a freelance artist. And he has probably more of the way of producing art than the other two, but they all have a creative bend to them. Put it that way, I guess it's in their DNA. Is that how you'd put it?

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That sounds about right, yes. Did you see art education shift in any way over the course of time that you spent working at SUNY Plattsburgh? 

William “Bill” Crosby:

Ooh, I don't know quite how to answer that one. I can't say, looking back, maybe it did and maybe it has. What I liked about it was the one-on-one, but I was teaching studio courses and no one else in the department had a background in photography. So I was pretty free to handle things the way I saw fit to do. And I really liked working with students on a one-to-one basis or we'd have group critiques of works.  And my goal was really to bring out the creativity in the students. I didn't want them doing things like I was doing necessarily. Black and white photography, they had to learn the basic skills of making a print in the dark room. Nowadays, it's just using the camera, the digital cameras, but I really was retired before we got into much digital work. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

Although I saw that coming and that was good. And they still, where I taught, they still teach black and white wet photography, which I think is great, tremendous, but it was nice to work with students that maybe they only took one course, but they discovered something in themselves that they could do. And they got the, it was somewhat not as immediate as digital now, but it was an immediate result compared to painting or something like that. It didn't take days and days to make a painting, in a few hours or an hour they could actually make a print and have a fine piece, but to help them see the possibilities in their work. And it was exciting and it still is. And students get back to me at various times and some have gone on professionally too, but many of them, it was just the liberal arts course that opened up their minds and a way of being accepting. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You've been a very important part of the Portland Art Gallery community for quite a few years now. And I think you, you bring something special to that group of artists. Do you find benefit in being part of this community and in taking part in the openings and connecting with people? 

William “Bill” Crosby:

We were down there just the other day to the last opening, and I've gotten to know, I don't know them all personally or anything like that. I really need to, well, it's been hard the last year to have gatherings, but I like seeing the work and it's so diverse.  And that, to me, is a real plus too. I’m  probably one of the more abstract artists, but there's some that are even far more abstract, totally abstract than my work. And then some that are very representational. And I like that diversity. And I think people seeing all that art work. But it's been really a gift to be part of that environment. And I've had other galleries too throughout the years, there was one in Harvest Square in Rockland. And I had a gallery in Charleston, South Carolina that was very successful, but then they closed not because of the virus, but they closed after many years. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

But someone from there went out to California and opened one. So I'm out there now too. Well, a lot of my paintings, I think appeal or have a coastal feeling to them, but I can turn around and there's other paintings that I show that in New York, although well, like Lake Placid now is showing my work in a gallery there. And therefore some of them are a little more representational, let's say Whiteface Mountain or the Green Mountains of Vermont. And then I had a show here in Portland of my Alaskan work, which was a nice opportunity to bring that all out again. And that included photography as well as paintings. That was one of the first shows I've had since leaving college. Because I work at a college, we'd have faculty shows and I'd always show both. Some people got to know me as a painter, others as a photographer, and they didn't realize I did both. But here I had a chance in the Alaskan show at Portland to have a whole series of photographs, black and white photographs, as well as my paintings. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, we're very fortunate to have you working with us and I've enjoyed all the conversations that you and I have had over the years regarding your art and also your life. I've also enjoyed my conversations with Pat. You are really kind of an inspiration when it comes to teamwork and relationships. And I think that's not something that we see all the time, these days. 

William “Bill” Crosby:

Thank you. Thank you. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've been speaking with artist William “Bill” Crosby who's represented by the Portland Art Gallery. I really encourage you to come to some of our openings because there's a good chance he'll be there. You can meet him and Pat. Also look online for his work and see his work in person at the gallery. I've appreciated the time that I've spent with you today. Bill, thank you for coming in and talking with us.

William “Bill” Crosby:

Well, thank you very much. I've enjoyed it. It's fun. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And thank you for joining us on Radio Maine. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle.