Artist Statement

I use portraiture to discuss the connection between someone's physical and spiritual identities. The physical self is often represented by a face, while the spiritual self utilizes more complex identifiers. These identifiers include such things as thoughts in the form of words or sound, emotions and personalities in the form of facial expressions or gestural brushstrokes, memories and ideas in the form of video inlays and projections, histories and relationships in the form of openable books and boxes, and numerous other intangible scenarios via metaphor and material.

I became interested in the self/self relationship because I didn't fully understand it. Who am I? What is my purpose? Where did I come from? Would the world be the same without me? How is it possible that I am alive? What does it mean to be human, and so on.

Article II

Your Life In Art
Written By: Fred Camper (Art Critic)
Published in: Arte Al Limite (6 and 7/2007)

Some are said to wear their hearts on their sleeves; in Craig Paul Nowak's diptych Divided (2007), his heart literally floats above his sleeves, in the form of two handwritten letters, one to his mother and the other to his father, that fill the black space on either side of his sad-looking face. The letters, full of conflicting emotions toward his parents, describe a troubled family history that includes inattention to him, a drug raid, his father's jail time, and finally divorce. His hand printed words surround his bald head as he stares, directly, at the viewer. While many artists incorporate their feelings about their families, Nowak does it with such engaging and bold directness that it's hard not to feel involved in his life story — and in the way this narrative inscribes itself on his soul.

Nowak was born on April 5, 1983, in Farmington Hills, Michigan; a few years later, his family moved to Brighton, roughly equidistant from Detroit, Lansing, and Flint. He grew up in a house on a dirt road, "on a lake with a beautiful backyard," in an area he likes to call "the 'hood of Brighton." He was the first in his family to attend college; his dad worked most of Craig's childhood in a tool and die company, and his mom's jobs included factory and retail work. His parents had met when his dad was 16 and his mom 13, and had his older sister (and only sibling) when his mom was about 18.

In childhood, Nowak was teased relentlessly on the school bus. "It was a daily event," he recalls. "I couldn't figure out why I was picked on." A nine-panel piece, Scream (2006), places an image of Nowak as an adult, screaming, in the center of images of his childhood tormentors. He became afraid to attend school, eventually was kicked out of eighth grade, and later dropped out of ninth, working for a few years. "I felt I was a bad kid," he says. "The teachers wouldn't make any effort toward me." At home, he played videogames and watched a lot of TV with his dad. But "the main memory throughout my childhood" is that after his dad came home from work, his parents had friends over, and they all smoked marijuana together. His dad also dealt, and some of these friends were his customers. "They'd play scrabble and card games," Nowak says. "I felt left out. I was introverted and isolated." Learning of the negative health effects of smoking, he asked his parents to stop, to no avail. He considered "divorcing" his parents. "I would scar up my arms," he recalls, using various methods. While talking to a school counselor, he pressed ridges into the tip of a plastic spoon with a fingernail and used it to scratch himself — "I was bleeding and we were talking about it while I was doing it." The way he surrounds his head with autobiographical texts that include his confusion and pain in Divided and some similar paintings can be taken as an aestheticized version of this act of early adolescence — symbolically instead of literally inscribing his feelings on his body.

By the time he left ninth grade for home schooling, Nowak had found some friends that he would skateboard and smoke cigarettes with, and with he made and recorded music with friends — "hip hop, talking about my problems and stuff." But also, "I wanted to have parents, wanted to be around them. I didn't feel neglected; I did feel like no one was listening to me. I figured, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." And so when Nowak was about 16, his parents, in response to his repeated requests, let him join their group and smoke with them. He worked as a stock clerk, and eventually went back to school, finally graduating from a community education high school in 2001.

The way Nowak's paintings use his face and text to address the viewer directly arguably reenact, on an aesthetic level, the communication problems he had in his youth. "I was against telephones. I wouldn't know how to go from one point in the conversation to another if I couldn't see the person's face. One time I was talking with a girlfriend and I went completely silent. She kept telling me, 'Say something,' and I didn't know what was wrong or what to say."

When Nowak was 18, and living in the family basement, he was awakened by knocking. Answering the front door, he was thrown against the wall by officers in a narcotics raid. His dad was eventually sentenced to a month in jail, his parents' marriage soon dissolved — and Nowak, who was already planning to quit smoking ("it wasn't fun anymore"), now did. After jail, his dad stopped dealing.

Nowak's parents sometimes put up friends in their basement. When Nowak was around ten, a Native American named Stonehorse stayed there. "He carved life-size portrait busts out of stone, so lifelike. He'd do them in such a short amount of time." Nowak, who had not yet been to a museum or gallery, was awed. He had been drawing from early childhood, but started to take it more seriously after he began smoking and hanging around with friends. His friends were impressed by his drawings, "and I started to understand that if you're good at something people would start to pay attention to you, so I got these sketchbooks and everyone would be looking over my shoulder. I was using my doodling to help me make friends, and wasn't intending to have an art career." His dad took him to the Detroit Institute of Arts for the first time, and "I was impressed by one of the large lifelike European painting." At the Cranbrook Art Museum, he was drawn to a hyper-realist Duane Hanson sculpture. In a community college painting class, he did still-life drawings and a copy of a painting by Van Gogh. A metal arts teacher in his last year of high school told him that he could "go to college for art," something he hadn't realized before, and he won an award for a necklace he made in her class. He began making drawings for his application portfolio — "one of a guy blowing his brains out" — and enrolled in Detroit's College for Creative Studies in the fall of 2002.

Nowak didn't much care for the foundation courses, but acquired an interest in Caravaggio and chiaroscuro, and in summer 2003, he painted portraits of others, and two self-portraits, "for fun." His second year he began a relationship with his partner, LaKela Brown, and they moved in together. But "we weren't exactly a perfect couple at first; there were communication issues that put the relationship in jeopardy." He was "mostly trying to figure out who I was, who was who, what was what." His art school work was "all over the place," he says; it included Influence (2005), a room-sized installation of wall portraits in laundry detergent of instructors who had affected him, visible only in black light. "There was a desk to symbolize me and a podium to symbolize the instructors; it was like exposing my internal self. Without them I wouldn't have grown as an artist and been able to do what I wanted to do."

LaKela broke up with him at the end of his third year, precipitating a crisis. "There was something wrong with me, and I had to figure it out. I started looking inward, trying to find out what the deal is with me, and looking at her and trying to find out what the deal is with her." That summer, 2005, while he was writing to her attempting to reconnect, he worked on his "Who Am I?" series, 10 30"x40" blue and white paintings. "That's where it all started," he says. Based on photos of his face from infancy to high school graduation, it portrays someone whose look changes so much that it's not always certain it's the same person. Seeking acceptance in school, Nowak had tried out different "looks" in school , and now he was reflecting on the consequent instability of his identity, and on who he really was. Having found so many judging him for superficial reasons, he had started "turning inward — because I didn't understand myself. Doing these paintings helped me understand more, about how I grew up, why it was a good thing for me to go through the mamma's boy phase, the drug phase, the jock phase, the goth phase, why they're a part of me." Now he began to find his true subject — "the relationship between inner and outer self," the outer self represented by his face and the inner, sometimes, by his writing. For “Who Am I?” II (2005), he wrote an autobiographical text over a painting of himself as a baby. "I was also doing urban graffiti" — he wrote the word "Lost," in large letters, in several places near Brighton and Detroit. Identity Crisis (2006) shows his face in abstracted drips — "because I couldn't recognize myself." By then, he and LaKela were together again.

For Things (2006), he installed prized possessions — comics, baseball cards, Edgar Allen Poe books, awards he had won — in glass cases along with silhouettes of himself, probing the nature of his identity in relationship to objects. "People can be defined by their things," Nowak says. A related series, "Prized Possessions," includes a nine-panel work in progress, juxtaposing Nowak's face with the covers of comic books from his childhood. For Alike and Part Of (2006), Nowak juxtaposes a painting of his adult face with scans of the faces of 35 childhood friends in a six-by-six panel grid. "It's about these poeple being a part of me," he says, and they seem to function similarly to the way his writing around his face does, surrounding and circumscribing him. For Piece of Me (2006), he took the art market into account, doing a self-portrait on 192 four-inch canvas squares. His idea was that if sold individually, they would represent "the way that when you meet people, they take away a piece of you, not physically but mentally" — but one collector bought the whole piece. Different (2006) arranges 36 drip paintings of his face in a grid, each with a different degree of abstraction. Each of the ten self-portraits in You, Me, Everybody II (2006) has a differently colored background, reflecting on how "we're all made up of the same stuff; different backgrounds is one of the main differences between people." For a current project, Envisioning My Self Within... (Art Forum) (2007), Nowak paints his face into art works by Lucien Freud, Andy Warhol, and others featured in Artforum ads. Imagining a more famous future, he once again depicts his own identity in terms of his visage, and implicitly asks how else he might be defined. "I always figured that the reason I started looking inward was that I didn't understand myself," but the terms of understanding that his search has yielded thus far, with the free-floating relationships he constructs between his face and its surroundings, might be described as more questions. But "it's never only about me," Nowak writes. "My self and my work are just catalysts for viewers to consider themselves as I do in my work."