• Video: Bill Hoover paints without sight.
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Bill Hoover needed a risk. An artist for 20 years, Hoover had been thinking about his career, a successful one by most measures. He kept a downtown studio, where he made and presented his paintings and hosted gallery shows for other artists. He had a following and a reputation. He felt comfortable, and he didn't like it. Not entirely.
Earlier this year, Hoover found himself thinking about risks when he came across a Psychology Today article suggesting that people who take risks are happier than those who don't, even in failure.
Hoover had a solo show coming up in the fall. In planning for it, he thought about his greatest strength as an artist. He could visualize a painting; he could see what he wanted before he began and where he needed to go as he painted. He could see.
So for his fall show, he decided he'd remove his eyes. He painted blindfolded. He forced himself to rely on intuition and muscle memory. He decided he wouldn't see the paintings until opening night, until they were revealed to the public.
That show, “Fenestratro,” opens tonight at Hoover Studios. At some point during the reception, Hoover will walk into the room and see all nine paintings for the first time, a moment he anticipates with apprehension and humor. “A disguise sounds good,” he said.
It is the type of conceptual show that raises all sorts of heady questions: What becomes of visual art when you take away the artist's vision? Where does intent end and happy accident begin? Is it still a “Bill Hoover” work if the faculties behind all prior “Bill Hoover” works are suspended?
But it also strikes at a more fundamental question: What if it's bad?
“What if it's the best stuff I've ever done?” Hoover said, and laughed nervously.
Hoover didn't pick just any show for what he calls his “experiment.” He picked his 20th anniversary show, at once wrapping his arms around the occasion and making it as difficult as possible.
“Because I've been doing this so long, I feel confident that it won't be a total wreck,” he said. “It won't be bright yellow colors. I think it will be the choices I've made, if you can call them choices.”
Hoover considers 1993 the beginning of his painting career. At the time, he was living in an apartment across the street from the old Kilgore's sandwich shop near 33rd and California Streets, a semi-legendary venue in the annals of Omaha's indie rock history, and making his name through music. He considered art a side pursuit, until he hung a painting at Lisa's Radial Cafe, and it sold.
In the years that followed, the painter in Hoover eclipsed the musician. His signature work — colorful, scene-driven folk art — became recognizable. Patrons collected his paintings, customers commissioned new work. He painted murals around the city.
In 2009, Hoover left his teacher's assistant gig at Liberty Elementary School downtown (and the steady paycheck and health insurance it provided) to make art full time. His “leap,” as he calls it, led to a prolific period in which he staged multiple shows a year at his home.
The hard work paid off. Last year, Hoover moved his studio into the Mastercraft building. At 46, he is actively making it as an artist, in the sense that it's his livelihood.
Whatever the experiment's outcome, Hoover estimates that a third of his income for the year will come from “Fenestrato.” Creatively, it is the strangest show of his art career, but in other ways it's like any other. It needs to be presented well. It needs to be promoted. It is an experiment with consequences.
“That's why I needed Jody,” he said.
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Jody Kocsis is the eyes behind “Fenestrato,” the self-described “support staff” for the show. Kocsis was working down the hall at the Mastercraft when Hoover told her his idea for the series. Kocsis, already fascinated by the intersection of art and intuition, signed on to help Hoover behind the scenes.
Immediately, the project introduced unusual questions. How, for example, do you know when a painting is finished?
The pair set an early benchmark. Kocsis showed Hoover a photo of “a few roughs of first paintings,” the only glimpse he received throughout the process. The more he worked, the more Hoover developed a sense of when to move on to a new piece.
Meanwhile, Kocsis took the finished paintings away, storing the pieces in her home and feeling the weight of her role as the series grew. It wasn't enough that the show come together; the paintings needed to feel like pieces of a whole. They needed to coalesce. They needed to sell.
It wasn't until October, when she photographed all nine paintings together — Hoover painted 11, but Kocsis and Jean Incontro, who framed and co-curated the show, eliminated two that felt unfinished — that Kocsis felt she could exhale. The paintings are abstract, bound together by Hoover's use of circles, squares and triangles, but “they look like Hoovers,” Kocsis said. “They look like Bill's work.”
The title of the show, “Fenestrato,” comes from the Latin word meaning window. Sarah McKinstry-Brown, a poet who has known and collaborated with Hoover for years, came up with the name.
“I was struck by this idea that Bill, in blindfolding himself and painting these works, has given us a kind of window into his mind,” she said. “I also love how strong the word sounds. I think Bill is taking a real risk with this show, and I wanted to honor this idea that there's such strength in his vulnerability, his willingness to give up his sight and let his hands guide him.”
The idea came to her after she received a message from Hoover. A peculiar word had been occupying his thoughts.
The word “defenestration” — the act of throwing someone from a window — carries an odd history. The passage relevant to Hoover involves a 1618 incident in Prague, when a group of Protestants threw two Catholic noblemen from a window as punishment for alleged wrongdoings. In the Catholic telling, angels caught the men before they hit the ground. Protestants say the men were saved by a pile of manure.
It should be noted that Hoover was raised Catholic, a graduate of Creighton Prep and Creighton University, with a brother who's a Jesuit priest. If defenestration is a metaphor for his latest show, the significance of angels cannot be overstated.
“Support staff,” Kocsis said. “Support staff.”
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One day late this past summer, Hoover biked to his studio and resumed work on a “Fenestrato” painting. The piece sat on a drafting table near the center of the room, covered by two tattered yoga mats. Typically, Hoover turns on a radio while working, but for this series he listened only to his own inner monologue. Sometimes he spoke to himself as he painted blind, assuring himself there was no such thing as right or wrong.
He wore a black, paint-spattered apron over his clothes and approached the draft table with a bandanna pushed up around his forehead. He set his wristwatch for five minutes, to give himself an end in sight. Eyes toward the ceiling, he removed the yoga mats, placed them on the floor and pulled the bandanna over his eyes. He groped the edges of the painting and began to work with charcoal. He drew two squares, one like a shadow of the other, then a circle, then an inverted triangle and a series of squiggly lines across the top and another triangle in the middle. He picked up a scraping tool and dragged it the length of the painting, smearing what he'd just done.
When he wanted to paint, he lifted his bandanna for a moment, grabbed three tubes of paint and dropped them. Blindfolded again, he picked one off the floor, squeezed it onto his palette and felt around for the glob with his brush.
His movements came quick and assured but not haphazard. As he painted, he tried to remember the placement of objects. A circle here, a red rectangle there. He thought about an artist who once attached paint brushes to the branches of trees and let the wind guide the work. He tried to adopt the attitude of the tree limbs.
“Don't worry about it,” he told himself, and pressed on.
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Back in August, around the time he started to work on the paintings that make up “Fenestrato,” Hoover entered a triathlon.
To Hoover's friends, this might not have seemed too risky. Hoover bikes everywhere. He runs all the time. He has competed in marathons and ran two 50k races in the past year.
But he does not swim.
The opening leg of the triathlon — a 500-yard swim into a lake and 500 yards back — was the only part that concerned Hoover. “If I don't drown,” he told his wife before the contest, “I will have won.”
Early in the swim, his body started to give. Water thrashed around him. He panicked, exhausted. He was close to flagging a rescue boat when an image appeared in his head. It wasn't Jesus or Mary or any other traditional spiritual figure delivering a message of hope and resilience. It was Seth Bornstein. The best man in Hoover's wedding and an old marathon buddy with whom he'd run the New York marathon 20 years earlier, Bornstein appeared phantom-like, urging him to keep on, fight through, persevere.
Hoover turned onto his back to lessen the strain on his limbs and brushed the water along his sides. He made it to the halfway point and turned around and slowly made it back to land. His wife led him to a bike corral. Only his ride remained. Everyone else was long gone, far ahead. But all Hoover cared about was that he'd made it.
He was on familiar ground again, alive and happy.