Central Nowhere: Ethan Caflisch in conversation with Isaac Nugent

Introduction by Isaac Nugent

Photographs by Ethan Caflisch

For many artists who grew up in rural communities, the countryside retains an allure long after they’ve left, enticed to more centralised urban areas for work or education. My friend, the artist Ethan Caflisch, and I are no different in this regard. We both received small-town upbringings: Ethan’s formative years were spent in the university town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and mine were in the village of Elveden, Norfolk. And we both left to attend art college in large cities; Ethan studied at California College of the Arts, with campuses in Oakland and San Francisco, whilst I went to the University of Edinburgh, situated in the centre of Scotland’s capital city. I recently met Ethan at his studio in north west London, which he’s occupied since he moved to London almost a year ago, to weigh the advantages of city life against the space and tranquillity of rural places.

Isaac Nugent: Back in Wisconsin, what attitudes do local people have towards contemporary art? 

Ethan Caflisch: It’s one side or the other.  Either people are interested and drive to see art in museums in Milwaukee or Chicago, or they’re not. With the people who aren’t interested, they’re not judgmental. In the Midwest, people are generally conservative, but still thoughtful and open-minded.

IN: They’re not a cliché. People in urban centres often have this vision of the uncultured backwoodsman.

EC: Right: the caricature of teeth missing, overalls, drunk and not speaking coherently. 

IN: But in your experience — and my experience as well — they’re much more sympathetic. They maybe just don’t have access to contemporary art, and no experience of it.

EC: That’s it. If you have no access, you have no education. 

IN: That’s why it’s important to travel.

EC: Yeah, it’s all about exposure. As kids, we didn’t feel like we had enough exposure. The glimpses we had of Chicago or London made us feel like that’s where we needed to go.

IN: That’s true, but at one point, radical art was made outside urban centres. We’ve spoken before about St. Ives. In the 1950s, a group of talented young artists left London for rural Cornwall. Probably, they were priced out of the capital, but also looking for somewhere where they could develop without the Royal Academy breathing down their necks, because at the time it was a very conservative organisation.

EC: That push-pull movement is happening again. Living in London or Los Angeles isn’t nearly as relevant now as it was 20 years ago. In the next 5-10 years, it’s going to be much easier to be an artist and not live in a metropolitan area. You can exist online and still make gallery connections. Galleries and museums have opened in rural settings, like Hauser & Wirth in Somerset or DIA:Beacon in Upstate New York. We could survive as twenty-something artists living in the middle of nowhere.

IN: Leaving has become a necessity because cities are so expensive to live in. It doesn’t make any sense for people to work more than part-time to pay for a studio space that they never have a chance to go to. How can you make your best work if your living situation is precarious?

EC: At the same time, artists in the past took advantage of that. Even if they didn’t know where their next meal would come from, they still made really good work. But I’m not sure if that sort of thing happens any more. Poverty looks so different now.

IN: In early 20th century Paris, bohemian artists completely reinvented what art was about, surviving on very little money in squats.

EC: But why can’t we do that anymore?

IN: The artist’s role in society is different. You’ve got to be more professional. Technology makes it possible to be an artist wherever you are, but you still need access to expensive equipment like an iPhone or computer. A while back, you went off-grid in rural Scotland for a week or so, I remember.

EC: Yeah, I rented a cottage on the coast, without any electricity, which was super deliberate. When I was in California, outside of San Francisco, it was rural. Then moving to London, a transatlantic move, was such a whirlwind. After 6 months of all of that, I needed to recalibrate. 

IN: Being out of the loop helped you to refocus. A change always opens things up. That’s why people go on residencies.

EC: There’s more space, mentally and physically. Before I went away, I felt like I was in the ocean, being hit by waves. It can be fun, because you can ride a wave for a bit, but then you get hit by another one. You start drinking salt water and stop having so much fun. 

IN: Although, if I lived outside an urban centre full time, I don’t think I’d make much progress with my work. If I didn’t ‘ride the waves’ and face up to the reality of what other people think, I’d just keep making the same thing. I’d just live in my own bubble.

EC: But I’m the contrast of that. If I was living in my own bubble, my work would look different. 

IN: So, living in a city forces you to conform? 

EC: Yeah, maybe. Or, at least, the feeling that I needed to make work that looks like my work, utilising the same ideas, would lessen. I’m trying to get over that feeling. Being in London, we feel pressure to be super productive. 

IN: Yeah, but I think pressure is sometimes positive. Obviously, there are downsides to the pace of city life. 

EC: Well, what’s the solution? How can you live in both places at the same time?

IN: I think you probably can. You could live within a couple of hours of a city, but visit regularly, either in person or virtually. It’s more possible now. That said, for the time being, I’m still committed to London.

EC: I could live somewhere else, but I want to live here. I’m not done growing, I’m not done learning. If you’re self-disciplined, you can be an artist anywhere.


Artists Ethan Caflisch and Isaac Nugent are both currently based in London, UK.


ethancaflisch.com / @ethancaflisch

isaacnugent.info / @isaac.nugent

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