Trender: Painter Pete Hocking

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


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Who are the Rhode Islanders leading in arts, fashion, food, and style? They're Trenders, and GoLocalProv offers glimpses of the people you most want to know on the scene. Today, painter Pete Hocking, a central leader in the local arts and education scene whose latest project, 100 Queer Men, is about to open this month at TNC Gallery in New York.
Homegrown factor: Lived in Providence since 1984.
Age: 45
1. How'd you get your start as an artist? 
I’m a big fan of Ellen Dissanayake’s definition of art: the process of making special that which is important. As an anthropologist, she argues that the impulse toward making art – or bringing to focus the special parts of the world we perceive and encounter -- is as deeply human as the impulse toward using language.  I think I was just lucky that school and society didn’t beat art out of me, as is the case with so many people.
In terms of willfully deciding that art would be a big part of my life, my start probably was making the case to my parents that I was going to art school instead of conventional college. Going to RISD was probably a huge step forward, but learning to become an artist happened outside of the rules and limitations of art school.

2. Talk about 100 Queer Men, both as a project and about the upcoming exhibition in New York...

I started this project because the queer men with whom I was hanging out didn’t match the pervasive cultural stereotypes. I wanted to show queerness in a more complicated way.  The first group of portraits came from an on-line writing group of which I was a member – and we looked more like metalheads, bikers, and punks than anything else. 

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Once I started to post images on my Web site, and later on Facebook, I started to get volunteers who wanted to have their portrait painted. I started to have friends introduce me to friends who we willing to be painted.  This expanded the project from a subculture of guys I found intriguing to a network of folks who identify as queer.

I think the project now is about networks – and the limitation of social networks.  While there is some variety and diversity in the mix of portraits, it hardly looks like the world. This is probably true of most social networks. I’m interested, more and more, about the way we perceive the world through our incredibly limited lens and how we delude ourselves into thinking that our lens is broader than it really is. This isn’t a project about representation; it’s about showing those to whom I’m present. While it’s 100 portraits right now, I suspect I’ll keeping making these paintings for a while because I keep meeting new people.

I’m really excited that the piece will be exhibited at the TNC Gallery in New York this summer.  It’s part of an exhibition called "Queer From Zero to One Hundred," opening on June 21. The best part is being in a show with some really spectacular artists, including Julie Shelton Smith from Newport!

3. How has RI played a role in your work?

I have two parts of my creative practice. There is what I do in my studio, which is largely a solitary endeavor; and there is what I do as an educator, which by its nature is a social practice.  For many years I was the director of Brown University’s Swearer Center for Public Service and had the amazing opportunity to help create community spaces for creativity, like New Urban Arts and Community Music Works. In working with an array of communities across the city, I’ve developed a language for creative practice and a philosophy about the importance of art and creativity in our lives.

The philosopher Maxine Greene has taught us that without the skills of imagination, which the arts most effectively cultivate, we recreate the limitations of our childhood.  If we grow up in poverty of some kind – economic, relational, spiritual, ethical, et cetera – we will reproduce that poverty as adults unless we can imagine a different way of living. So, as the old cliché goes, you can be terrifically wealthy, but have an impoverished soul or spend you life hurting others. You can also move past your limitations by building your imagination. Living and working in Rhode Island has helped me to see the ways that young people supported in the arts can positively establish their sense of place and understand the possibilities of their lives. Art can, literally, make us better.

I’m also an amateur Rhode Island historian, and the brilliance, transgressions, and foibles of Rhode Island’s past are like Aesop’s Fables, Brothers Grimm, and Shakespeare all rolled into one for me. Rhode Island’s example has helped me imagine a life of deeper freedom and greater complexity. Not to mention, kookiness.

4. You've had your issues with RISD in recent months... what would you like to say about that?

For almost four years I was the interim director of RISD’s Office of Public Engagement. I took the job because I believe that private institutions like RISD have a public purpose and certain obligations to the community in which they reside.  

RISD has, historically, been an insular place and prided itself on its individualism and solitary work ethic.  My definition of art, as well as my work with community programs like New Urban Arts, leads me to believe that there are many ways to become an artist. In my own life, as well in the lives of hundreds of RISD students and alums with whom I’ve worked, we had to leave RISD’s campus to have the conversations about art that we needed to find our creative voice.  It doesn’t have to be that way; RISD could become more open to creative learning that happens outside the conventional studio model. 

The leadership crisis at RISD has a lot to do with values. While it’s been spun to be some kind of battle between traditionalists and a “visionary president,” I didn’t experience it that way. I experienced a relationship crisis. The people I know at RISD want to see the school grow and evolve. Most fervently, they also want to have a conversation about what they value, how they work, and how the school might be in the future. This doesn’t happen through tightly controlled planning or ten-minute office hour sessions. It happens by deepening and growing relationships.

You can’t just repeatedly say that you have relationships or conversations, or that you’re listening. When people have interactions with you, they need to feel like they’ve been heard and valued; like they are known a little better and cared about. The building of deep, mutual relationships is a value in which RISD’s leadership hasn’t shown much facility. Relationships signify a value that’s critical to the kind of public work that I do, so working in RISD’s administration eventually became an untenable situation and I resigned as director of the Office of Public Engagement. 

I still have some hope for RISD and continue to teach there on a part-time basis.  This past spring I taught a mural painting course with Hasbro Children’s Hospital and a course on leadership and social change. In the fall I’ll teach a courses on queer ecology and social practices in illustration. After that I’m working with a colleague to develop a course that visualizes climate change data in relation to Narragansett Bay, so that we can see what’s happening to our ecology in Rhode Island.

5. What's the best thing about living/working as an artist in RI? The worst thing?

I love the human scale of Rhode Island. If I’m interested in knowing something or meeting someone, I can usually get an introduction very easily and have a real conversation. I love that I sometimes stand in line with the Governor as he buys coffee in the morning. I also love that I can walk and bike across the city so easily and rarely have to start up my truck. The fact that we have vibrant and interconnected neighborhoods, that have most of what we need for daily life, makes this an amazing place to live.

My biggest gripe about Rhode Island is that after living 27 years in the city, after being involved in a ton of community work, and in spite of knowing way too much about the state’s history, I sometimes still get the “you’re not really a Rhode Islander” thing. Get a grip, people. I’m a Rhode Islander.


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