Scott Gartner

[This story is from Volume III]

Interview by Claire Davis and Carly Landers
Essay by Carly Landers
Collages by Scott Gartner

Scott Gartner has taught at Virginia Tech since 1989, after studying at the University of Houston and HarvarD.

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At a young age, Scott Gartner started collecting materials and putting them together in surprising ways. He had stumbled onto the art of collaging, and he was quite good at it. He understood early on that there was something very compelling about turning objects everyone recognizes into something they could not have imagined. The spirit of giving familiar things a new life has stayed with Gartner. “Early on I realized that if I collaged from my own photographs I would start predetermining the outcome, so I find it’s more challenging and I get
much more interesting results by working with just the things I can find because I have to make do.” When he says he finds objects, he’s serious. He will search far and wide for the perfect one, and Gartner has been seen lurking in some questionable places. “I don’t know what the weirdest one is, but I’ve been in some pretty dicey places; looking in the trash, back alleys, getting into dumpsters.”

In order to keep that spirit of giving old things a new home, his collages consist of everything from colorful National Geographic magazines to old incandescent light bulbs. The strangest items have created the most intriguing and thought-provoking collages. One of his pieces uses discarded cigarettes found outside a Houston hospital. He tells the story of how each cigarette was smoked by the same nurse, who wore bright magenta lipstick. As he lined up the old cigarettes, there was the straight edge, the broken edge, and along the middle—a bright wavering line of magenta—a nod to an influence of his, Mark Rothko. “You get to look at things completely differently. You don’t look at it and think, ‘that’s a cigarette butt.’ You start thinking about it as being a color, texture, or something in combination with something else and it completely changes the way you perceive things.”

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Perception plays a key role in Gartner’s collages. He does not want them to be easily understood for what they are. He believes they should mean something different to everyone—in fact, if the story becomes too apparent, he’ll leave the collage unfinished. “It’s that constant off-balance that keeps something from being discovered, that to me, is the most enjoyable
thing about it.” 

To make things even more dynamic, Gartner will often hide images in his work. “It may sound crazy, but one of the things I do with the collages, typically the larger ones, is introduce a kind of static into them. When you turn up the radio and it’s got a lot of static on it, and you really have to listen hard to what’s being said or what music is playing. I want that to happen so it’s not just there at the first glance. There’s some resistance in the image in front of you that hopefully draws your attention even more.” It is this type of layering which Gartner delves into to make the work dramatic and successful.

When a viewer sees one tiny hidden detail and has to stray away from their preconceived notion of what that collage is to find the rest—that’s Gartner’s goal. Stirring up the imagination and seeing things in a different light. He touched on this a bit when comparing artwork and play, “It’s the way, for example, when we were children and we wanted to play a game. We could pick up anything and it became a part of the game. If I didn’t have a toy gun, I’d just get a broom and point the broom and go “bang,” or get under the table and it’s my house.” In the way that children can create anything in their minds, imaginatively transforming things is something that he finds inspirational and necessary. To Gartner, this necessity is not limited to the world of design or art; it exists in every avenue of life. 

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An imaginative disposition can expand your mind more than any amount of linear focus could. It adds depth and character to your person. In his collages, sometimes a layer will include the miscellaneous items he finds, other times it’s one of those small hidden details only some will be perceptive enough to uncover. The layers are what bring life to his collages, and he believes that this kind of ambiguity has the ability to bring life to design as a whole. A passion for design is just one of many overlapping layers. Pursuing other avenues is often what makes quality design work.

“This happens both in architectural design and collaging, even with problems while teaching. I’ll be working with a student and I’ll really want to make a suggestion or help them see a certain direction that would be very valuable, but the answer will come. Your consciousness puts such a pressure on the solution of the problem that often times it just flattens under the weight of your focus, and you can’t really see other possibilities.” Collaging is Gartner’s outlet outside of architecture, and he believes it is beneficial for designers to be curious and keenly observant in other mediums. “I think one of the healthiest things that young designers can do is to build in that opportunity—to rest and allow the mind to bring forth possibilities that are overborne by the immediacy of the problems that we have. Take advantage of what life offers you, or what the university offers. Take a class that’s utterly irrelevant to your major because it’s interesting.
Maybe you want to go out and study geology because you like rocks, whatever it might be. It’s got nothing to do with the design or the immediate project, it has everything to do with cultivating yourself, and giving yourself a world that’s large enough to grow in.”

Not only does he preach the advice of experiencing other things to better yourself—he lives it. Concerts, books, music, art. He enjoys all type of music; he mentioned that he was taking faculty Bill Green to a ZZ Top concert. The two are great friends who met when they taught in the same architecture studio. “He changed the way I taught. I was a lot more serious. He has helped me a lot because I want my students to not only take their designs seriously but to have fun doing it. You want to be pushing yourself further because it becomes something
you really want to enjoy. It’s about creating an atmosphere that allows people to trust themselves, to take risks. Do it seriously, do it in a way that is simultaneously challenging and rewarding and wonderfully enjoyable.” 

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