Artist / Sculptor / Painter
Randy Regier is an agent of intelligence, meticulously crafting works of art into folklore. Known for his toy store installations, his works have been shown in museums, art galleries, and pop-up destinations all across America.
Avid reader, family man, and storyteller.
Randy's identity is imagination.
Please introduce yourself.
Well, my name is Randy Regier I'm a full time artist. That being said not full-time to the extent that I'm always in my studio. I'll take whatever gig comes along as a satellite thing just to keep this studio here and ready to go. I've come to find that I'm nothing if not an artist, for better and worse... or both.
You worked for years in the automotive industry, what triggered you to leave an established career?
I grew up in Oregon, my Dad was an artistic man but he lived in an agrarian and automobile world. What I think I intuited as a kid was that cars where the most aestheic thing I knew, not understanding that I wanted to be an artist I pursued automobiles. My Dad got me started on body work and paint and I pursued that industry. It took a few years to understand that I would only work on the cars that I wanted to own, even though they were owned by somebody else. I had help from some very burnt out body men/painters who all joking aside where kind and concerned enough to say "If you aren’t happy now, get out. 'Cause you aren't going to be happier when you're 50—in the same industry things don't change. I couldn't unring that bell, because I've always trusted elders. Somewhere around the mid 90's living in Oregon, literally making a living then that I haven't made sense, I became very depressed—really angry and I was trying to internalize it all, which of course is bad.
In 1997 my family and I went out to Abilene, KS for a wedding. I was so happy, I thought I had found paradise. This little town with thick trees and old houses, I couldn't shake it. A year later I had a waking dream moment after a really tough night of soul-searching, I had a vision that I needed to move to Kansas to start over. I asked my wife Vicki if she'd do it and she said yes—she’s very supportive. About half way through the day I literally starting packing. Getting rid of shit I'd owned for up to then my whole life. She said "You're serious? I'll go if you think it will make things alright." So in 1998 we moved to Abilene, Kansas, I gave up the body shop, I got rid of cars and parts... I got rid of everything except a few things.
"I had a waking dream moment after a really tough night of soul-searching, I had a vision that I needed to move to Kansas to start over."
A corner of Randy's workspace in his downtown Wichita studio.
Did you fear leaving the automotive industry?
I had it about as good as it could be had at age 33. We weren't living large, but I was respected. I was good at what I did and it wasn't displeasing work. Yet, I was so unhappy, I was terrified not to change. About 6-8 months after moving to Abilene, it occurred to me, I either go back to that or we aren't going to make a living. That's when I kind of got the bill. There was a lot of trepidation and fear along the way, but it was more the fear of absence of change.
What decisions allowed you to stay in Abilene?
I was working at a furniture store making $8 an hour and Vicki said "Maybe now's the time to go to college." I had always wanted to go but I never knew how, it wasn't part of my lineage. We figured out that Kansas State was the closest. We drove up on a long weekend, walked around campus and I signed up. Didn't intend to be an art major or study art, I was going to be an English major because I like books. So I was a 35 year old freshman and a couple semesters in I was taking a 3D design class. I made this thing I was crazy about, carrying it around campus like a mother with a new infant, showing it to professors I had made friends with and a friend of mine who was a graduate art student stopped me and said "I really don't think you're aware of what you taped into with this thing, do you know what you've done? ...This is a serious piece of art." I had art faculty start telling me the same thing so I declared an art major and finished things at K-State by having a show at the Beach Museum. My arrival was just as unpretentious or unaware as it could have been. Then off to grad school in Portland, Maine because I wasn't done learning.
Looking back do you feel your experience in the auto body industry developed your skills and craftsmanship?
I value it more than I ever did in the industry. Take away 10-15 years of that arc, and I wouldn't have my art practice. It's not that people look at my work and see automotive finishes, it's that they don’t see it. In any industry that people work rigorously in, you can't bullshit the other makers. I'm not nearly as good of a painter as the guys across the street at Devlin. I know how it's done and I could do it if my life is at stake, but that's not the kind of work I do. I don't consider myself at a top tier of the automobile industry, but without that vocabulary I wouldn't have my practice and I wouldn't be in the shows I'm in.
"It's not that people look at my work and see automotive finishes, it's that they don't see it."
An assemblage of scraps and materials inside Randy's studio.
Where did your love for literature begin?
That started with "Spot the Pocket Puppy." We never owned a television, it wasn't a religious thing, my Dad just didn't think we needed one, turns out he was right. We just read, we had books and National Geographic. I was always flipping through some sort of volume of something to get information. JC Penny's catalog or Hardy Boys—whatever. We spent our nights in the house reading. The radio might have been on, but if it was we were probably listening to someone read.
I grew up in a Garden of Eden, yeah we lived in a single-wide mobile home as a hired man on a farm, but you'd walk out of the home and it was fields, flowers, and fruit baring trees. Mount Hood in the distance, but that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted toy stores and spaceships and race cars. I grew up with dirt clods and books. So books were where I could get what I wanted. My mind would have to 3D model those things. I still get that from books, it's never gone away. I'll have a rare three day run where I can be out here in my studio and the emails are caught up and I don't have any day gigs …it's the thing most artists fantasize about. Vicki says "Yeah, we're caught up just enough, book it out there." I'm not short of materials you can see that. What I'll do is start in the morning by reading a little bit. It doesn't matter what I'm reading. I can be reading philosophy, world religions, a Hardy Boys book just to see how bad they really were and I'll be 6 pages in and I won't even be able to stand it, I'll have to make something out of it. When I was 8 or 10 years old reading a book I would get the same exact rush, everything I made then looked like the same thing though, kinda shitty, never looked like what was in my mind's eye. I couldn't do it, I was working with a piece of 2x4 and corn or something. Years later, it still starts with books, I get stuck for a little bit I go read. It doesn’t seem to matter what I read, but it gets me out of my own way sometimes. My thoughts start talking over each other, things get muddled and I have to stop. I go back to a book and it’s someone else's voice, the noise drops down, and I find my way back to center… hopefully.
Your Wichita Installation of "NuPenny" is no longer on display, describe the transition to your latest project "NuPenny's Last Stand"?
The NuPenny storefront was the way I had always envisioned it being, which in Wichita was the fourth iteration of it. NuPenny was a way to use vacant spaces to make them appear as if they had been something magical at one time and we just sort of missed it. NuPenny hit Wichita about the same time I got offered my first solo show in New York. In the course of that New York show the current CEO of Nike Mark Parker discovered my work. He bought the shit out of it, "I'll take, that, that, and that, just bill me." Suddenly I had half of NuPenny which means I don't have NuPenny anymore. There is no way I’m going to recreate those pieces, I never make the same thing twice. It was good money, the bills were all caught up for a bit, I thought "Ok we’ve got money to live, holy shit, now what? I'm out of work." I was literally out of work, Mark creamed the crop, he bought the six I would have kept.
So I thought "What can I do with what’s left? …well, a much smaller space." Which is interesting because he did me a favor in the sense that my original concept of NuPenny was this little toy store that would show up in a field. Back to my childhood, you walk out of a mobile home on a foggy Oregon morning and there's a toy store in the middle of an alfalfa field and you alone have the key to it. It's a dream state, it gives me goosebumps. One day while jogging I went under 135, came back under Murdock and stumbled across Hall Equipment Salvage. There I found this old industrial metal cabinet and thought "Oh, I can just build that into it’s own toy stand." So that's how it happened. I can use a lot less toys, but the whole thing becomes a toy. It's a toy store and it's a toy, store.
So you're essentially making dreams a reality.
I'm trying to recreate the desires of my childhood as shared experiences now. Partly because that's a kid thing to do, you make something out of Lego while your parents have company and you realize you have to walk through everybody with it, just in the off chance your parents friends notice it and try to talk about it. I'm still trying to do that. I'm perpetually trying to show people how cool the things I saw in my mind are. Thank god for art other wise it would look very selfish.
"I'll take, that, that, and that, just bill me."
Finished pieces lay on a table
Does commerce effect your art?
I read a quote recently that said "When artists get together they talk about money, when bankers get together they talk about art."
My fantasy is that my world would look such a way that I don't think about money so much. When we have enough Vicki says "No, you're good, everything is covered" and I'm explosively productive. I don't even know what enough is. I'm that out of tune with how much we need.
I don't have a model in mind that I know we will work, I think I've tried every model there is or dabbled in it. I'm no business man, I have good friends that will tell you that. They see my work through the lens of business and they say "if you would just do this thing repeatedly you could be at home all the time in your studio." But, I will say this, I know myself better creatively. I'm healthier at WAM, on my knees helping the artists work going in with a level and a hammer than I am here, doing something I wish I wasn't doing. Because if my studio gets a bad energy, I'm in a lot of trouble. When I'm gone from this place, it's like having a lover at home, you just want to get back. I would rather be absent from my love then screw it up. If I can keep the commercial intentions or realities of my work just at arm's length from the work so they don't become one and the same, the work has the chance to be genuine. It's always going to have commercial implications. I can't work on anything anymore without thinking, "Well if someone does want this, where will it land," but if that drives the work, I'm in trouble.
What about commissions where the buyer may drive the work?
I've had people come to me with commissions and say "well, whatever you want." That's not really true, we all know that. It's what they want that looks like something I would do anyway. It's not really whatever I want, it's what they are willing to spend for their house or their aesthetic or how they perceive me. So commissions can be really troubling. This one I’m currently working on is an exception because I had already begun and all I was doing was talking about how excited I was and it found a home by virtue of that. Still, there is always a little asterisk when I work on this piece. It can't go to a radically new place now, it's destination is already what I spoke of in the past and doesn't allow me to reinvent it. All these things, what they have to do with commerce is incredibly tenuous and unpredictable. One of the grants I probably most crave and fantasize about is the MacArthur Genius, the reality of it is that it's a half a million dollars that says "yeah, just do your thing, we appreciate what you're doing, heres a little bit of money, you do that." That's pretty fantastic, otherwise everything has an asterisk by it.
If there is a balance that I seek. There are these little fantasy lives that we live or seek to live. I'm fascinated with cold-war spy techniques and espionage, archeology, and good robust science fiction where everything is not as we thought, which is really what espionage is about. How do you propose to be someone you're not and pull it off? And in the process discover something that no one thinks you're supposed to have. My work is laced in all that. That being said, I wouldn't make the work if I thought it was completely irrelevant to the world. Because I want to be conversant, but I want to make it all private and secret and then spring it, because I think that’s exciting.
"When I'm gone from this place, it's like having a lover at home, you just want to get back. I would rather be absent from my love then screw it up."
A lone "Post-it Note" securely fastened to an unfinished project.
Once the piece has sprung how do you introduce it to the world?
I have to be pretty precise and sober about it. I have to move into a world that I can navigate pretty well but isn't my world, which is the white cube. Making sure the publications are tight, that the font is right, that the grammar is correct, that I show up, I'm sober, I'm clean, I'm articulate. I recognize that person is the buyer for that museum and this person represents this collector. That's a very artificial environment for me, but man if I don't play that role too I'm not being holistic about my practice. Never is that outside of my creative process anymore. It used to be, "Space Tractor" that very first piece, none of that conversation was on the table. It was just like "Blah! How cool is this?!." I can't unring those bells, because if I did, I wouldn't know what to do with this work anymore and that's not a healthy place to be either. I don't really want to have a website, but clearly I need to have one and it better look good. Because that’s how people find information, I do it all the time.
What originally brought you to Wichita?
In 2009 I had a visiting artist gig at Emporia State. Larry Schwarm was living in Wichita and teaching at Emporia State and said "Hey, crash with us." It was on a 7 degree Januarary day in Wichita, and Larry and I were sitting at the Anchor because they had cancelled classes at Emporia State. He says "Well let's just drive around" and as we're driving down Douglas he goes "Hey, that place is for sale," I say "No way!" so he called the realtor and we look at it, "Oh yeah, this is my dream space, full productivity, living quarters, Kansas... Oh yeah, I could never touch this" and I asked the realtor the price and he said $160,000. Vicki and I didn't have any money but we didn't have a great deal of debt. Since we had been up in Portland, Maine for a few years we were starting to look for a place up there. A $160,000 there could buy you, oh, nothing… and I mean nothing.
I just couldn't get over it so started calling Vicki and we found a way, sold some shit, friends came out of the blue "How about I commission you for this amount." I did a piece called "Earnest Money" which was surprisingly just the amount of money we needed. People just came out of the wood-work. We didn't know anything about Wichita. We didn't come back here because we had left the little tree lined Eisenhower hometown thing, Wichita's not that, it's a different animal really. Wichita caught us largely by surprise, we just found a place.
"REGIER STUDIO" proclaimed slightly above eyesight.
Do you feel supported by the community in Wichita?
Friends or visiting artists come through and they want me to show them Wichita and I'm like "You gotta understand, a lot of the city you've got to get inside to see the beauty of it. It's the people and it's the way they choose to live inside." The overall response… I'm embarrassed at the amount of sort of admiration and affection that are thrown my way, because it's not disingenuous. Unequivocally, yes, I've gotten to know a community of people that express profound admiration for my work and for Vicki and I as a couple. Creatively it's taken four years but l've gotten to know a pretty core group of what would be considered Wichita's active visual artists. There's a great degree of respect and conversation amongst us. Overall the response is yes, respect, admiration, encouragement, materials... I've got half a dozen people or more in my phone right now that I can call and say "Look, I need help with this thing, where can I find this thing, I need a $100 bad - I’m at a flea market.” I’ve those people in my phone all over this city.
Does Wichita as a city supply you with the materials you need to create?
This whole city is a dream studio. My studio is like my cubicle in the Wichita studio. What do I want for my work? Well I need tools, bolts, ephemera, used books, catch a movie, get a cup of coffee, it's all here… Central Park? no. Clear running water? no… not so much. Douglas firs? no—Well, you can't have it all, and if we lived in that place I wouldn't have all this. Chrome do-dads, stuff that's been sitting out for 30 years and isn't rusted out. That's midwest, baby. Oregon where I grew up this shit would have been rained on so long it'd be gone. I get it, it's no accident to be here.
The key to Wichita is to find work meaningful. If you're not a person who finds work meaningful there are a lot more lush places to live. The people I know, respect, and can hang with here are people who find work meaningful. Define work however you want. There is no coasting here, if I was going to coast I'd go to southern California or Salem, Oregon. Work doesn't sound very sexy, but man it's meaningful. Wichita's a hard working place. I didn't want to move somewhere I could dabble in it. I don’t want to camp here, this is not a campground. There may come a time where I'm just gassed, but somehow or another this community keeps feeding back just enough. God, I love Kansas, I really do.
"Wichita's a hard working place. I didn't want to move somewhere I could dabble in it."
A sliver of Randy's book and magazine collection.
With such an imagination, does fantasy ever inspire your work?
I don't read fantasy, I don't watch it. I fantasize, but in genres even as a kid it didn't work for me. It never felt like there was a place for me there. It happens in places that I'm pretty sure don't exist with creatures that probably don't exist and in times that are indeterminate. I never felt that there was a seat for me.
About 2002 I was in Abilene. The kids where in school, we had this beautiful little bungalow, leaded glass windows,1907 house, unmolested, dream house. It was one of those perfect Kansas days when the sun is coming in the windows with all the little prisms. I was doing homework for classes in the afternoon. Sitting at the kitchen table getting ready for a test or something. Very clear headed, really good spirits, and I kept getting this summons to the front room. That was our reading room, no TV, the kids understood that room was chairs, books, art, and light. I kept getting this "come on, come on, come on" whatever that force is, which I didn't even recognize. Finally it got so strong, I put all my shit down, and sat on the couch. "Alright, I'm sitting in this room because that's what I'm supposed to be doing," I sat up and just Vroom! I travel up let's say a mile high, crazy experience, really terrifying and cool. So my body, just as you can fill your butt on the chair, I could feel that …but my torso just felt like it was a column. Kind of weightless but I could feel my weight very clearly. I can remember this like it just happened. I can see my lap, I can see the living room, the couch, the lamps, the books, but I was in this ether. Then everything stopped and it became clear as day to me that I could continue this acceleration or rise, or I could pull back in. I got spooked, I thought "Well if I continue, do I get to come back?," that answer was not forthcoming—I wasn't given the reassurance that I could return, and as soon as I gave that some weight, some consideration, I was back down. I went "Oh shit, I wonder where that would have gone," I called my Dad a couple days later, because my Dad was a real spiritual man who did a lot of soul-searching. He journaled his whole life, for decades. He says "It was terrifying wasn't it" and I go "You son of a bitch, you know?" and he says "Yeah, it happened to me once too," different sort of thing, and I asked him what would have happened if we kept going and he said "I dunno, cause I didn't go either, I came back, but it's enough to know it can happen." It was completely unpremeditated, I didn't try to medicate my way to get there, didn't take anything. That for me gave me a sense of the genuineness of it. Any rate, I just put that together with the same thing as my fantasies, they are pretty pragmatic. I want to know I can come back with a story to tell someone. My work, my life, it's really about stories, what is the best story we can tell ourselves, what is the best quality of dream we can have. If it's a good one then we on some level should give that away and not keep it for ourselves.
To learn more about Randy please visit his website at RandyRegier.com