Smile Politely

WorkSpace: Charles Wisseman

Art form: Mixed media art 

Influences: complex objects with pattern, layers, interaction, motion, light. Joseph Cornell boxes, folk art, funky musical instruments, steampunk art, cabinets of curiosity, Lee Bontecou.

WorkSpace: He occupied almost all his home as a studio workshop

Recommended movie: Martian 

Favorite spot in C-U: CU Woodshop, Parkland Art gallery

Thoughts on art scene in C-U: “As an outsider, it has taken time to develop contacts, but people are very open and welcoming.”

Where to see his work: Check the website here.

Smile Politely: When and how did you decide to become an artist?

Charles Wisseman: I have always like to make things. I don’t have much drawing or painting training, but I have had a darkroom since my teens. Taking workshops and collecting tools while I working gave me a welcome mental break, but I did not have a lot of time to make art until I retired.  Making things is what gets me out of bed in the morning, and I try to do something every day.

SP: What or who are your influences?

Wisseman: I like complex objects with pattern, layers, interaction, motion, light.
I like Joseph Cornell boxes, folk art, funky musical instruments, steampunk art, cabinets of curiosity, Lee Bontecou.

SP: Who would you like to collaborate with and why?

Wisseman: I mostly work alone, and don’t like my workflow interrupted. My wife paints and writes, so we have talked about doing a book art collaboration.

SP: Tell us about your WorkSpace.

Wisseman: I have gradually taken over much of my house, except for the room my wife uses for writing and painting. I thought about renting another space, but I don’t want to have my tools and materials in multiple locations. I like to be able to wander out late at night when I can’t sleep and get an idea to make something, which I do a lot since my nightowl habits have reasserted themselves since I retired from medicine.

I made the decision to live within the space that I have, but I have filled much of my space with tools and materials after my children left home. I am collecting less found materials and flea market materials as my house fills and I get older, and one of my goals is to use up more than I collect. There are limits on how much noise and smoke I can make in a residential neighborhood, but I am doing less blacksmithing and steel as I get older and after injuries in an auto accident. I need to plan ahead and do some things seasonally.

Blacksmithing in the backyard and papermaking in the garage are warm weather activities. Darkroom work is best in the cold months when I don’t want to be outside. Larger woodworking is best when I can open up and let the dust blow out. I have workstations for various media all over the house, and I like being able to quickly shift media when a project needs a different material. I expect to stay in this location until I am unable to physically manage. I have begun to give larger equipment to younger friends — like heavy blacksmith power hammer and larger papermaking things. Working a bit smaller and complex could last me a long time without filling up the house.

SP: Choose a piece of your artwork and explain it in detail.

Wisseman: A couple of winters ago I decided to make a “cubic foot of art”. I made 27 4 inch plywood cubes, with 3.5 inch internal diameter. Art works best when you select some parameters and limitations to work within for a given project. A larger container fits snugly over this, and there is a carrier. I then filled each box with a themed piece. This related to my interest in cabinets of curiosity. 10 cm is also the size of the cubesat microsatellites, which I thought of as a way to disperse art.  There are wearables, books, small sculptures, paper arts, photos and quilt in many media. Themes of pattern, my draft experience, gun violence, the illogic of homeopathy and other medical themes of life and death, palindromes, religion, cabinets of curiosity. I posted each on facebook as I finished it like a serial story. The whole piece is difficult to display because of the many small components which need to be handled, so it is more like a performance piece to show it to friends.

SP: What movie would you recommend to watch and why?

Wisseman: I like science and read things like New Scientist every week, so I really enjoyed the “Martian” as a science fiction movie which mostly got the science right.  Reality is mostly stranger and more interesting than much of what people imagine. The book is also good, though a bit geekier than the movie.

SP: What is your favorite spot in C-U?

Wisseman: I like to go to the C-U Woodshop and drool over the tools. Parkland Art gallery has been consistently good at bringing in art that is both interesting and well-crafted. I have little interest in art which has only an idea without some care in the physical execution of that idea. When I go to an art museum, I often just walk down the middle of the room first. A bit of physical visual art should call me from a distance on its physical visual merits before I bother to approach and engage. There is a lot of bad art out there, including things I have made. I have become ruthless in recent years about purging old art projects which don’t stand the test of time on my walls. Many things look better when cut up and re-used in another projects. I came from the east coast and have gradually come to love the sparse horizon, agricultural fields, and big sky. I like prairie plants, and got some plantings for my yard form Dave Monk 30 years ago.

SP: What do you think about the art scene in C-U?

Wisseman: The art scene here is very active. As an outsider, it has taken time to develop contacts, but people are very open and welcoming. There are not that many galleries — I have had work at Wind, Water, and Light, in Indigo, Figure One. I do art for fun, so selling is not very important to me except to keep my house less cluttered. I trade art work, give to art organizations for fundraisers, gift work to family. I have been in the Craft League, but do not participate in their sales. I would like a book and paper center here, but there are lots of good workshops around the country, which has become a focus for family vacations. Opportunities come and go. The U of I used to offer more outreach art classes for adults. I try to take advantage of new opportunities

SP: Where, when and how can we see your work?

Wisseman: I don’t have anything in a gallery since Wind, Water, and Light closed.  There are some wall pieces currently at the 40 North office on Neil just below University into early May. I have a cyanotype piece in the GSLIS building.  My website is I post things I make in the gallery. I did the CSA program for 40 North this year, so some small pieces are in the community through that program.

About Jimena:

Jimena is a photographer at Smile Politely. Find more of her work and photographs online:


Related Articles