Trent Morse: Ballpoint Pens as a Serious Art-Making Medium

 New York  |  27 December 2016  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Featuring 30 artists from around the globe, Ballpoint Art, the first compendium of art made with ballpoint pens was published in 2016. These artists are producing amazing masterpieces with this humble tool, from densely layered portraits to abstract scribbles. AMA spoke with the author, Trent Morse, who lives in Brooklyn.


What is your background?

I have always been very interested in art. I liked to draw little stick figures, war scenes and desert islands when I was a child growing up in Tacoma, Washington. I studied graphic design in high school and at the University of Washington, where I really got into art history and changed my major, even though a bachelor’s degree in art history has no real career prospects. I studied pretty diverse subjects there, from tribal art to contemporary West Coast art. After university, I spent a year in Guangzhou, China, teaching English and wrote my first magazine piece, for That’s Guangzhou. After returning to the United States, I worked in a Seattle art gallery and later at a professional photo lab in Portland, Oregon. Then, I moved to New York City for my master’s degree in nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College, where I wrote my journalistic thesis on New York artists who focus on celebrities. After that, I started to write reviews for Saatchi Online Magazine, now called Saatchi Art. I also became the arts editor of a Brooklyn newspaper called WG News+Arts that eventually led me to become an editor of ARTnews.

How was your experience working for ARTnews?

It was a great experience. I really learned a lot about journalism and writing, such as how to open a paragraph, how to tell a story, which quotes are worth using etcetera. The editor in chief gave me helpful feedback. And I enjoyed working with all the junior and senior editors. Also, it allowed me to meet a lot of art writers. And it’s how I met the publisher for my book.

Why did you decide to make a book especially on art made with ballpoint pen?

It started at ARTnews as an article in 2013 when my editor, Robin Cembalest, asked me to do a story about contemporary ink art. I was a bit overwhelmed by the breadth of the subject since ink art can include Indian ink, tattoo art or many different things. Soon I realised that many of the ink artists I was looking at were using ballpoint pens, so I found my focus. The piece ended up as the cover story in January 2014 and was published online, where it had a ton of clicks. Then, a publisher contacted me about making a book, but they wanted to make a “how-to” publication. Since I am not an artist, I ended up going to Laurence King, who makes books with beautiful graphic design at affordable prices. I wanted the book to reach a wide audience beyond the art world, since ballpoint pens are so common and everyone uses them.

How did you select these 30 artists in your book?

It was really an intense process. The publisher and I wanted an international scope, so there are a lot of good American artists whom I was not able to include. Also, I wanted to include famous artists, mid-career makers and outsiders. Then, with the structure of the book being split into two sections — “Spaces & Structure” and “Creatures & Characters” — I had to balance the number of artists between the two categories. I already had a lot of artists I wanted to include from my ARTnews article, but then I added several more to the list. Some of them were recommended by Richard Klein, who curated “Ballpoint Pen Drawing Since 1950” in 2013 at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut, which was the first – possibly the only – big museum show on this subject. Besides, the New York gallerist Kerry Schuss, who put up a group show “Ballpoint Inklings” in his gallery in 2003, gave me some artists’ names. And artists offered recommendations too, such as Lori Ellison, whom so many artists in New York told me about. Another is Butt Johnson, who does surrealistic and technical drawings incorporating algorithms and abstraction.

Why do you divide ballpoint art into two main categories in your book?

Obviously, everyone in the book uses the same medium. So I decided to categorise it by subject matter: a figurative category comprising people, animals, and monsters could appeal to the larger audience (under “Creatures & Characters”). The other section, “Spaces & Structures,” is more fluid, with abstract art coexisting alongside architectural and landscape drawings. And the two categories seem to echo what regular people naturally doodle with their ballpoint pens. Originally, I had three sections. However, the third section was “Outsider Artists”, and I did not want to place them in a separate category. I decided to put them next to blue-chip artists, so that people can compare various artists together, either professional or nonprofessional, and see how they relate to each other.

What was the largest difficulty in making this book? How did you overcome it?

There were two issues that came up. One difficulty was getting to speak to some outsider artists, such as Beverly Baker and Melvin Way, who were not very available or stable. So I talked to people who have witnessed them in their creation process. Melvin Way worked with people at an art-therapy centre in New York, where people helped him out while he made drawings for therapy. For Beverly Baker, I talked to her sister and mother and also someone who did art therapy with her. Another difficulty was trying to get hold of the more famous artists, such as the Chapman brothers and Rita Ackermann, who at the beginning were reluctant to be part of the book. But after we told them it would have an overview of the history of ballpoint art and gave them a list of artists to be included, they were happy to participate. Jake Chapman was especially hard to track down because he was engaging in lots of projects at the time, but he came through at the very last minute.

What was the most memorable moment during the process?

There was one moment when I got to go to Il Lee’s show at Art Projects International. I finally saw his art in person and understood how epic and beautiful his works were and what was behind them – that was memorable. I hope my book, which reproduces the artwork with close-up images, can help readers get that feeling, too.

What is your vision for ballpoint art or ballpoint artists in the contemporary art world?

The artists are all going in different directions. For instance, Rebecca E. Chamberlain told me she would not use the ink from ballpoint pens anymore because it was unstable even though she loved BIC ink. But then there are purists, like Dawn Clements and Marlene McCarty who still use ballpoint pens and see them very much as conceptual devices in their hands. My vision for ballpoint art is that greater variety will be produced as artists continue to use the pen in unique ways — and that ballpoint will be more widely accepted as a serious medium. Eventually, people will become nostalgic for handmade lines, pictures or notes, as well as for ballpoint because smartphones are now so widely used and are replacing pens. Hopefully, the pens can also become more stable because what is inside ballpoint pens is actually not ink, but a dye-based solution. Now there are archival inks in some ballpoints that more artists are starting to use.

What do you want your book to express? What, in one sentence, do you hope readers will take away from your publication?

In general, I hoped to give the artists their own voices in the book. That is why I did so many interviews and used lots of quotes. I want to capture their ideas as much as possible and in their own words. In one sentence: I hope readers can see that the silly little ballpoint pen is a serious medium for art-making.

How has your experience at Introspective magazine been so far?

I love it here since this is broadening my knowledge about interior design and furniture design. The magazine is part of the company 1stdibs, which aims to digitally reproduce the famous antique flea market in Paris, basically mixing high-end antiques with art and, increasingly, contemporary furniture. It has been fascinating for me to concentrate on furniture and its history, since I come from the art-publishing world. Also, I love the experience of collaborating with lots of top journalists, who also write for The New York Times and Architectural Digest. It is a weekly digital online publication, but we treat it like a print magazine. Our working process is very intense and focused. The company is also interesting because it’s a tech company that looks into aesthetics, antiques, design and contemporary art.

What are your upcoming projects?

I am excited to have a little break after the book. The next big thing would be planning a ballpoint-art show in real life, bringing the artists from the book onto walls – I am super excited about that! This should be a challenge, as I have curated only one art show so far in my life. I also want to keep writing reviews for ARTnews. And I hope to write more stories about contemporary furniture, and then possibly make a furniture book at some point soon.




Trent Morse has written art criticism and journalistic articles for ARTnewsArt+Auction, Saatchi Art and other publications for years. He is now the managing editor of Introspective magazine.

Ballpoint Art by Trent Morse. Laurence King Publishing, 2016, 176 pages.

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