“Making Is Thinking:” A Conversation Between Artists Sam Messer (F’96), Mark Thomas Gibson (F’22), and Chie Fueki (F’22)

sam messer, mark thomas gibson, chie fueki

From left: Sam Messer, Mark Thomas Gibson, and Chie Fueki.


Earlier this month, Chie Fueki (2022 Fellow), Mark Thomas Gibson (2022 Fellow), and Sam Messer (1996 Fellow) came together to speak on Zoom. Fueki and Gibson were students of Messer’s at the Yale School of Art, where they received their MFAs, and taught alongside him at Yale Norfolk School of Art, a summer program for undergraduates.  

Fueki was born in Yokohama, Japan, and grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She now lives in Beacon, NY. Her work rarely depends on any one medium: rather, she incorporates drawing, painting, collage, and more for her dynamic, colorful work. She teaches at Hunter College. Gibson grew up in Miami, FL and attended Cooper Union for his BFA. His multimedia work, which takes cues from comics, tends to comment on American history and current events. He’s currently an assistant professor at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Messer was raised in Long Island, NY. In his paintings, sculptures, and drawings, he is known for his use of color, active lines, and an eye towards humor and the macabre. He is a professor emeritus at Yale.  


Chie Fueki: I didn’t come to consciously thinking that art was something that I was going to be pursuing for my life until much later in life. But growing up in Brazil, my sister and I would draw together. And we would visit the Sao Paulo art museum. But art wasn’t something I thought about pursuing until my senior year of high school when I met my art teacher Mrs. Reichert. She really encouraged me to draw.  

Mark Thomas Gibson: Wait—you started in high school? 

CF: Yeah, like senior year of high school. I had one more credit I needed to fill and art was available for that time period. So I signed up for art.  

Sam Messer: So, that’s pretty young, Mark. I mean, considering Matisse started much older.  

CF: How old was Matisse? 

SM: I think in his 30s.  

MTG: What about you, Sam?  

SM: I always remember drawing, but there was no artist in my family. I had no idea that being an artist was actually anything you could do. Growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, when people would ask me what I wanted to be I would always say “retired” because I knew I didn’t want to get on the Long Island Railroad and go to a job wearing a tie. My parents were very supportive. They would send me to drawing classes. I used to go to the Art Students League as a kid, but I still didn’t know it could lead to anything. My art teacher, Mr. Flood, told me about Cooper Union. I looked into, applied, and applied nowhere else. And I actually purposely didn’t take the SATs so I couldn’t go anywhere else. Back then, Cooper didn’t require it, and it was the only school that didn’t. But I still didn’t really know what it meant to be an artist, other than I was always making things and drawing. It really wasn’t until Cooper, when I actually met living artists who actually had studios and were making work.  

MTG: So what did it do for you? Was there a moment? Was it profound? 

SM: Yeah, it was really profound. I remember exactly, actually. Mr. Flood was so important to me—I think I’ve talked about him with you before. He was my track coach and I learned recently that he was the man who integrated the Nassau County School District in the 1960s. I remember being in art class. I had this painting and I was working on it—I was using spray paint like I do now. I was about to cut the painting, and Mr. Flood came by and said, “Well, you can do that. But I know you actually could make it work.” And at that point I realized there was more to making things that just making something right: you could make decisions. That was probably 10th or 11th grade. It was a big moment for me. It took me 20 years to realize that it would have been okay to cut the painting, right? That you don’t actually have to make it work with the board you happen to pick up at first.  

MTG: Yeah, I think that’s a strange moment when it just kind of dawns on you—speaking for myself, at least. That your choices matter and your choices are valid. Those two things are one in the same for me. I started art school in the fifth grade. I always drew and didn’t really want to do anything else. 

CF: Art school? In fifth grade?  

“The Boys” by Mark Thomas Gibson (2023). Ink on canvas, 67″x89 3/4″.

MTG: Yeah, I started in elementary school. I grew up in Miami. In South Florida, they created this magnet art school program where they would bus kids into school and they would test in. You had to test every year to stay in. I just loved it. I had hated school up until that point, but then all of a sudden I could do the one thing I really wanted to do. They taught us photography. We worked with linocuts and making prints. We got to do some etching. It was amazing. We had teachers who were really just artists who weren’t afraid to see what we could do. They were really, really open to the fact that we were intelligent people and that we didn’t need a lot of protection. We just needed to be shepherded rather than corralled. We all got to have our own voices. So I went on to an art high school, then eventually I applied to Cooper. I think I had figured out—being in art school for so long—that it was a way to maybe dodge being in the stiff world that I didn’t want to be in. But at Cooper was the first time I actually had someone call me out. Like: “Hey, that’s all fine and good that you can do that, but what else?” That changed a lot for me. That changed everything for me. Where I came from, the focus was all about the physical—how you articulate something visually. It wasn’t about your thinking. And when I got to Cooper, people were like, “No, use your mind.” And I started thinking: maybe I can do this. Maybe I can actually do this.  

CF: In the first drawing class I was ever in in high school, I had no idea how to draw. I remember clearly that one of the first assignments was, “draw using your other hand.” I remember going back home and staring at my left hand and trying to draw with my right hand. Something really shifted in my mind. I didn’t really understand what that meant at that moment. Even though I didn’t know how to make anything, or even how to draw, I kind of made up in my mind that’s what I wanted to pursue.  

MTG: Yeah. After Cooper, I quit making art for around seven years. Then I applied to grad school, where I met Sam. That first summer, he asked me to be a TA at Norfolk, where he was running the program and Chie was the visiting artist. An amazing thing to have as a young artist is to have access to an artist who’s there not just to give you instruction but to make work alongside you. To your point, Chie, meeting Sam and meeting you and working with both of you that summer, things were said to me that helped me to rethink the way I was perceiving the world. Those are the things that are valuable about an art school or an urban art program—when it isn’t just a production system, but it’s a place of real higher learning, where people just offer pieces of wisdom to you. You choose to do what you want with them, but you get offered.  

SM: All three of us met because of Yale. I got to Yale because of my Guggenheim. I got hired the same year I got the Guggenheim—the prestige of it went a long way. But I was thinking, all three of us really came to making art because of a need, an innate necessity, not knowing why. And I think things have changed—there are questions about how one’s art interacts with the world or make you want to change the world. These were issues that were always there, but they weren’t the paramount questions.  

All three of us really came to making art because of a need, an innate necessity, not knowing why.

MTG: Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about how don’t I plug in. I’ve always thought that what we do is a tool of communication. I want to plug in and I want to offer my thoughts and my opinion. This time with the Guggenheim is the first time in my adult life I’ve actually been able to really focus in on my practice—to actually really work. I started seeing something similar to what you’re saying, Sam. There’s a certain type of conversation that people want to have: How does your work function? I was thinking about this because I think the art school I went to in Dade County was only able to exist because it was sort of a utilitarian thing in that era: it would beautify the space, it would change the space. Miami would no longer be a backwater. So now, I think about how my words or my objects are sometimes asked to facilitate a conversation or stand in as something that is not my actual intention in a way that I’m not that comfortable with lately. Sometimes I think that artists are asked to solve some really heavy duty issues. I don’t have a PhD in that. I don’t have a degree in economics. I don’t understand the social politics of every nation on earth. And so maybe I don’t have to say something about that, or at least not through my art.  

SM: Yeah, it could be the subtext, but I think lately it’s made to be the subject.  

I’m curious abut how you got your Guggenheim. I love how I got mine: I had applied for I think six years in a row and I kept getting turned down. And then finally it was that time of year again, and Eleanor—my wife—said, “it’s time, are you going to apply?” And I said, “I can’t do it. If you want to do it, you do it.” So she wrote a proposal and she picked the slides and she sent it in. And that was the year I got it. The proposal was something that I had already started doing: I had been driving back and forth across the country at least twice a year because I was teaching part time jobs, and I used to stop and meet people and paint their portraits. I made these 11×16 inch paintings that would be like the front page of their local town newspaper. What did you two get yours for? 

“True” by Sam Messer (2021). Oil on canvas, 80″ x 70″. 

MTG: Sometimes you need a strong editor, you know?  

Mine was the Town Crier. I started the project during the pandemic, trying to catalog in some way what was happening in our American politics. That’s what I am always kind of thinking about. At the time, it was the only thing I felt like I could do—it made the most sense for me. When I applied for the Guggenheim, I applied to continue making them and to maybe at some point make a book with them. And so that’s what I’ve been doing. It has changed a lot. Having the time to actually sit there and look at the project has changed my thinking. It was necessary. If I didn’t have that time, I would be at the same level of engagement as I was in my 20s. I’ve had the chance to stop, look, think, read—to see patterns, places where I maybe don’t need to interject or where I’m expected to interject and make choices around that. It was beneficial—we’ll see what it means for my brain in 20, 30 years.  

Chie, what about you? 

CF: I’m actually about to start mine. I had to wrap up my last project. I’m basically going to be casting low-relief objects as a painting. Just recently though, I’ve also been thinking that I would like to cast parts of surfaces that are going to adhere to the surface of more traditional paintings. This isn’t quite what I wrote about in my project plan, but I have always been interested in sculpturalized light—that’s what I call it. The light in color that happens within the material, and therefore have interest in metallic color. I’ve never felt satisfied looking at the color gold or gold leaf. I thought that I just needed to cast parts of it to somehow make it work. That’s not what I wrote about though: I wrote about icons.  

SM: At least you wrote it.  

CF: [Laughs] It’s an idea I’ve had for maybe 20 years. I just never thought I could do it—and I never brought myself to pursue it—because casting metal is just too expensive. So it was just an imaginary idea that was floating around my head, but then the Guggenheim was a great opportunity to write it down. And now that the Guggenheim has funded this project, I’m actually going to be able to do this without, you know— help me, Sam! 

MTG: Without limitation! 

CF: Yes, yes.  

SM: You’re going to be able to do it! 

CF: Yeah. I can do it now. It may have taken another couple decades before I acted on it otherwise. It set things up.  

SM: It’s interesting because the way you describe it I feel like I could be standing in your studio on Park Street in New Haven when you were starting to use metallic powder and you were making giant drawings of your grandmother in heaven, imagining what that light was like. We’re all doing the same thing! 

CF: Yes! It’s interesting—you mention Park Street, and I was just there a few weeks ago. And I realized that the ideas I had then are the things I’m actually able to work on now.  

MTG: I think a similar thing happened to me. In the time off, I started working on what I proposed, and as I was starting to clunk at it, all these other thoughts started popping in. And I started coming back to the questions I was asking and to the stuff that I was doing a decade ago, at the end of grad school. I think there was something about that period in my life where I was constructing and building beyond my reach. Then I left school and kind of had to figure out what I could really do.  

CF: How big were the drawings you were making then? 

MTG: Sometimes they were 9×12 feet. The biggest one I made was 12×14. I couldn’t move it. I was at a point where I was willing to dream bigger than the worry of whether or not it could work. I just wanted to see it. I haven’t returned to that fully, but there’s something I’m working on now that will maybe be of the same ilk… I don’t think, though, that I would even be able to have that conversation, to come back to speaking the language of that work without the support of the Guggenheim. It takes money. It takes time. We’re imaginative people with big dreams.  

Sam, did you bend away from your Guggenheim proposal?  

Bigger than the momentary financial support the Guggenheim gives you is that you can use that time and have it extend to the rest of your life.

SM: No. I did it. I have paintings from it. And I made one big painting which was an accumulation of a lot of those portraits together. And I made a couple of these American paintings. I think bigger than the momentary financial support the Guggenheim gives you is that you can use that time and have it extend to the rest of your life. There’s prestige with the Guggenheim and you get to meet people who are thinking similarly. Mark, this was probably different for you since you started art in school much earlier, but there was this subliminal knowledge that there are other people like you.  

I started teaching basically because I was desperate for a job—I never wanted to be back in school again, but I didn’t know what else to do. But it turned out to be an amazing experience, mainly because of people like the two of you. I found it incredibly invigorating and challenging. You know, I don’t think I really ever taught anyone anything other than like, pointing people in a direction or leaving them materials by the door—you know, encouraging them to continue to work. I’d be curious to hear about teaching from you two. You both started teaching—and I know Chie started doing it hesitantly. But now you’re both doing it and I think you’re both amazing teachers. And I hear from people how inspiring you are.  

CF: What are you talking about?! For me, whenever I think about teaching, I think about how you run the Yale Norfolk program, Sam. You know, I’m a little bit shy when it comes to teaching, and what Sam did is that he gave space. Not just the physical space that Norfolk gave to students but this sense of openness. I know it sounds simple when I say it. Of course, I’ve seen Sam critique work in a really formal kind of way, as well, but I learned even more when I saw him just letting the magic happen. I don’t know if that kind of situation can happen everywhere, but that’s what I aspire to. 

“Petal Storm Memory” (2023) by Chie Fueki. Acrylic and colored pencil on mulberry paper on wood, 60″x48″.

MTG: For me, it was very similar. When you brought me on to be a TA at Norfolk, at first I was just helping out, moving stuff, laboring. And then one day, you came into the office and you said, “You’re going to teach a class tomorrow.” So I go and develop something and I do it. You were in the wings. And when I came out, you asked how it felt and I said, “I really liked it.” And you said, “You’re a teacher.”  

I don’t know if you know this, Sam, but sometimes the energy of the classroom could feel a bit seat-of-the-pants, but you are so consistent in certain language and certain messaging. And I would see throughout the years that you would use the same language and the same messaging. You would always say that it was a time for everyone to go back to the practice of making art and to question where you are in it. And if you decide that this is not what you want to do or to participate in, you can stop. That’s a choice. I think so much of our culture says, whatever you said you wanted to do when you were four years old is what you’re supposed to do until you die. And that’s insane. And you took us out of that loop and said, “No. You can choose. You can think.” I don’t know if you know that, but for a lot of people, no one ever gives them that. Because if someone gives people that, they may not choose to be in your school or be in your program or to participate.  

That’s affected my teaching and the way I became a teacher. When I talk to people, I say: “This is big, what you’re choosing to do.” You’ve chosen to make objects on rectilinear surfaces that no one asked you to make and people will demand that you give them something that will support their existence. So the questions become: Are you so dedicated? Are you so in love with it? Are you so entranced that that’s what you want to continue doing?  

SM: Well, I really appreciate that. What do you think you two are trying to provide as a teacher?  

MTG: I think I want to see people get a little bit out in front of themselves, get a little bit strange in a way they aren’t exactly comfortable with. Most of my drawing assignments basically just call people out very directly to kind of show themselves who they are.  

CF: I just want to mention that one of the things that I always admired about you guys is how you both are always drawing nonstop in any kind of situation. Like right now. Because you all were drawing all the time, no matter what—if we were having a meeting, or just hanging out. It rubbed off on me, and I started to draw.

[Everyone shows each other the drawings that they’d been doing during the Zoom.] 

three sketches from mark, chie, and sam
Clockwise from top left: Sketches by Fueki, Messer, and Gibson.

CF: What were you saying earlier, Mark? “Seeing is thinking?” We can also think through our hands and materials.  

SM: Making is thinking! 

MTG: Yeah! That’s what that teacher did for you when she got you to switch the hand you were using to draw.  

With what you were saying about seeing Sam and I draw—I think that’s a thing for drawers. When they see another drawer drawing, it’s like you realize it’s a safe space to draw.  

CF: I read somewhere that when people do that, they remember the content of, like, a meeting much better.  

SM: I think not everyone, but definitely for certain people. I’m one of those people. Mark, I’m sure, is, too. I was always scolded in elementary school for drawing during class.  

CF: You got in trouble?  

SM: Yeah, because people thought I wasn’t paying attention. But that was the way I actually could pay attention. 

MTG: When Sam and I were working together, we’d be in meetings and I’d be drawing. But when I’m drawing, I’m sometimes also dropping in language and phrases or whatever. And then after the meeting, I know exactly what happened. If I were to hold up the drawing to Sam, he’d think it was a complete scribble. It would make no sense. But I can decode it because I’m looking at the way the drawing was built. It’s a joy. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do.  

I’m making my first monograph this year. And I also have a solo exhibition at the Berman Museum at Ursinus College where I’m making my first large-scale animation. And what are you doing now, Sam?  

SM: After 25 years of teaching, I’m going back to things I was thinking about 40 years ago. Over the years, you make things, then you move on, and then you think: you know, maybe there was actually more there to look at. I’m curating a show that I’m really excited about. In 1989, I was on this road trip meeting self-taught artists and I met this guy, John Serl, who I have been trying to promote since. And in September, we’re going to do a show of his work, my own portraits from back then, and a group of contemporary artists that I feel think the same way as John. I’m really excited about it. Again, it’s like my future is bringing back my past and looking at it. It’s interesting—when you get the Guggenheim, it’s like everything is in front of you. And all of a sudden, I have maybe 25 more years if I’m lucky. So it’s a really interesting way to think about making work—so that’s where I am now. I want to make sure I didn’t leave any stone unturned.   


This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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