How to Make an Art Book When All Else Fails
Musician Tim Presley of White Fence and DRINKS discusses his art book, Under the Banner of Concern, with GARAGE.
Tim Presley has been painting for as long as he’s been making music, but he’s probably known best for the latter. Performing solo as White Fence for nearly a decade, and together with longtime collaborator and partner Cate le Bon as DRINKS for five years, Presley is an esoteric songwriter who has a tendency towards post-punk and psychedelia. A few years ago, after struggling with an opiates addiction for seven years, he moved from Los Angeles to his hometown in the Bay Area, got sober, and along the way his desire to make music changed. Part of his recovery involved getting back into painting and drawing. He’d draw pictures of the human body from memory, mostly in black and white but sometimes brilliantly in color. Around this time he started writing urgent, free-associative prose poems that helped him empty and refigure the contents of his head. He showed all of this to le Bon, who encouraged him to keep making art, and eventually put him in touch with friends at the record label Mexican Summer, who put him in contact with the small press Anthology, to work on an art book.
That book is Under the Banner of Concern, a collection of sketches and prose poems spanning four years of artmaking following Presley’s recovery from drugs. The book features an intro from academic, artist, and author Trinie Dalton, which describes Presley’s work as synonymous with Cubists and Grace Jones. “You remind me I’m human, portraying actual people, being together, with haptic pencil and ink,” says Dalton of Presley’s work. Indeed, spending an hour gazing at these sketches and drinking in Presley’s prose is a life affirming, surreal experience. It feels like walking through the inside of his brain, like sitting in a room with him, asking him to describe in his own words how it all felt. GARAGE talked to Presley on the phone about what it means to release an art book, and how it is both radically different and shockingly similar to being a musician.
What led you to want to release a book?
I had been living in Los Angeles for ten [or] eleven years, and I wasn't doing good, personally. I was addicted to opiates for seven years and I thought that if I didn't stop, I would die, but if I stopped, I would lose my creative juices. And sure enough, when went to rehab, I lost this ability to want to make music, and I was really scared about that. All of a sudden [I] had anxiety for the first time in my life, all my personal relationships were terrible. And so I started painting.
I've always [looked at] art as a way out of reality since I was a kid. I started painting in lieu of playing guitar and making music, writing songs, and then it just kind of stuck and I realized it was this calming way to be creative and also keep my mind off of things. I did it as more of a practice, or as an expression to myself and not for any other reason. It wasn't [after] a couple of years where I was like, "Oh my God, I have so much of this." Slowly my confidence started to come back, and I started playing music again and taking the art stuff really seriously. In a way, [art] kind of weaned me back into the world.
What did you learn about yourself from developing a painting practice?
I think I learned a lot about myself, and that even though so many things seem impossible—like getting off of drugs or being good to myself—this kind of set me straight in a weird way. I mean, it sounds so cliché. All of this is so cliché: musician gets hooked on drugs and develops [an artistic practice]. But art was just completely healing, more than doctors or therapists. For me, at least.
There's also a lot of poetry in this book. Does it feel like an extension of your songwriting or does it feel like something completely different?
It kind of feels like something different, but I know that it's in the same family. My brain knows that. A song is so structured, there's syllables and lines that can only fit. [Poetry] is kind of more freeing because I'm able to explain without worrying about if it rhymes or if there's syllables or something that needs to be in order. That was another thing that really helped me free up my mind and soul, I suppose, just kind of writing every day. I kept a journal. It was almost like I was trying every other creative means because I could not pick up a guitar and write a song. I couldn't play music. So I was kind of going to my default things.
What kind of head space do you have to be into to write your weird prose poetry?
It comes out of intense emotion, either total sadness, happiness, frustration, stress. It's kind of the red alert mode for me. I just have to get something out, I'm not going to punch a wall or scream at the wall. I feel like that's my out. Sometimes it can be real spiky and pointed, those are kind of the ones I have to keep a little more personal, I think, to the world. Like a diary or something. It's the high emotion, red alert style for me. I could go out under a tree and write how beautiful the landscape is. That could happen too. But most of the time I write under duress.
How did you figure out how to whittle down all of this work you’ve amassed?
I came back to the Bay Area, in 2015. So all this art and writing is from 2015 to 2019. So it's this significant chunk of time where I was probably doing my worst, which is so funny because you would think my worst would be while I was using drugs, but it's actually the opposite I was doing amazing, or I thought I was. It wasn't till I stopped where I was like, "I don't know even who the fuck I am.” Fortunately I had a handful of people who are really supportive and good with me. And Cate Le Bon was one of those people, the one who would help me. She nurtured this and was one of the first people to see the art and was like, "This is really good. You should keep continuing to do it." So little things like that really helps someone, especially when they're feeling really insignificant and feeling bad and, I don't know, guilty and shitty.
Cate plays a huge role in so many ways. It's hard to kind of pin that down, same with my mom. I think what's important about [encouragement] is, it makes me feel—or someone else, when someone does that for someone else—it makes them feel confident and good and loved. Sometimes that's just enough. Some people don't accept it and that's fine, but I really needed it. I wasn't like, "Fuck the world. Fuck it all. I give up.” So I accepted it and I was able to continue making art.