Artists on Coping: Bill Travis

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.


Bill Travis, self portrait as a young man

Bill Travis is a photo-based artist, working in alternative techniques around such themes as desire, nostalgia, and impossible worlds that exist only in the imagination. He earned a Ph.D. in art history and was a tenured professor before turning full-time to creating art. He has had over sixty shows in museums, galleries, universities, and public institutions from New York City (where he lives) to San Francisco, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and others. His work was featured in two monographs published in Italy and he recently co-curated an exhibition on Photography After Stonewall for Soho Photo Gallery in New York. He has lectured on his photography at Columbia University and was interviewed on Italian television. His work has been collected by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, The Kinsey Institute, Yale and Harvard Universities, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The New York Public Library, and national collections of photography in Russia, Japan, Portugal, and Hungary.

AS: How are you coping?

BT: Creating work is cathartic for me, now more than ever. Even before the pandemic broke out, I worked on my art most of the day and the only silver lining now is that I am finally getting around to organizing my home studio. I could shelter in place for years and still not finish. One result of reviewing older work is that I see it in a different way and am making changes based on everything I’ve learned over the years. I put “COV.XIX” on the back of each piece I’ve retouched as a reminder of this terrible time.


From The Planets series, no. 4, acrylic lift with mixed media, 15 1/2 X 17 1/2 in., 2020, courtesy the artist.

AS: Has your routine changed?

BT: Getting outside for a brisk walk has always been important to my routine. I get my best ideas with a rush of oxygen and miss not being able to get out more these days to see friends. On the plus side, I can spend more time with my husband, Roma, whose playful antics always put me in a good mood.

In terms of my creative approach, I find that my work is becoming more luminous. I love playing with translucent surfaces and backlighting and anything that will give an image the appearance of being lit from within. I think that is very powerful emotionally. One way to bring out light is to enhance the darkness around it, since we can only see light when there’s also dark. Could this be a metaphor for a time of plague?


From The Planets series, no. 2, acrylic lift with mixed media, 17 1/2 X 16 1/2 in., 2020, courtesy the artist.

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

BT: I keep thinking about what’s happening to our sense of time. To be in lockdown is to see time collapse on itself. Days flow into each other. Hours rush by, slowly. This strangeness is interesting to me because so much of my work already engages an imagined time—a past that never existed, perhaps, or a future anchored in a dream. The virus opens up another way of thinking about time that resonates with the work I’ve been doing for years.

I had almost forgotten about this, but over two decades ago, in my years as an art historian, I published an article on a Romanesque sculpture in Burgundy, where I argued that the main theme expressed the scriptural verse, “The time is near.” So I guess I’ve been thinking about time for a while.


From The Planets series, no. 6, acrylic lift with mixed media, 13 X 17 1/2 in., 2020, courtesy the artist.

AS: Have you had a show or other creative opportunities canceled?

BT: I was supposed to be in a group show in Madrid this summer. There was also a planned solo show in April at a branch of The New York Public Library, which was three years in the making.


From The Planets series, no. 1, acrylic lift with mixed media,16 X 18 in., 2020, courtesy the artist.

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

BT: I’m not too good at predicting the future; my specialty has always been unsolicited advice. But if I had to hazard a guess, I think that art will become increasingly virtual and that museums and galleries, if they are to survive, will have to adapt to this new given. After all, museums are artifacts of the modern age and may one day become “museum pieces” themselves.

I grew up in a world where the uniqueness of a work of art and its tactile qualities were important parts of the aesthetic experience and this background extends to the type of work I make: each piece is a unique edition and is designed to be touched. If this type of experience passes, so be it. Art reinvents itself. In the meantime, I will stay true to what remains important to me.


From The Planets series, no. 5, acrylic lift with mixed media,15 X 13 in., 2020, courtesy the artist.

I would like to hope that the generosity and kindness that so many people have shown during the crisis will lead to positive changes down the line, but I worry that economic decline and the experiment with confinement are ripe for exploitation. While no one could have stopped the virus, a competent White House could have done a lot to mitigate it. All the more reason to vote in November.


From The Planets series, no. 3, acrylic lift with mixed media, 14 X 17 1/2 in., 2020, courtesy the artist.
Catherine Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer based in New York. She wrote the introductions to Meryl Meisler’s two books, and is currently working on an oral history about recent changes in photography.