It has always been about looking out the window. For more than 20 years now, much of my painting and drawing time has been occupied with watching what goes on outside myself. My day job is driving a cab, which provides ever-changing views. I’ve done dozens of drawings while waiting for passengers. A couple years ago, I did a series of gouaches at O’Hare and Midway airports. These paintings had a built-in time limit, because when cabs in the queue would move out to go to the terminals, my subjects would be gone. This added an urgency to the process and forced a sustained effort, knowing as I did that there would be no second chance.
My pictures will never be mistaken for photographs. They can be rough and seem unfinished-looking to some. There are perspectival distortions, which aren’t consistent with the way that a camera lens sees the world. At their best though, they show the way your eyes might see the world, changing focal points as you look around. First-hand experience is what it’s all about. Trusting what I see—and finding marks that correspond or echo that—is all I do. Unlike photographs, which appear to freeze time, paintings have the potential to show its passage, to collect many moments and present them all at once. So, even with the cab paintings (which only took a few hours to complete), I was acutely aware that bits and pieces of time went into making them, rather than a single moment. The sunlight would have moved across one vehicle’s hood and hit its neighbor’s side panel before I finished painting, so in my picture, parts of both might be illuminated. It’s a never-ending negotiation with the elements; theoretically, you can keep changing the picture forever, but since forever isn’t yet available, you stop when you must.
Mood enters into it too, getting in the way of getting work done. I do best with a blank mind; the fewer thoughts, the better my concentration. It’s nearly impossible for the cares of the day not to creep in, however, so they probably leave their mark on the pictures. I’ve never been one to plumb the depths of my soul for subject matter. The world outside has always seemed so much more interesting. It’s a battle to set one’s personal baggage aside to appreciate all that is out there. Aging doesn’t help either, because we tend to think that we know more the further we go, but to paint a true picture it’s best to start from nothing. All the old paintings I’ve finished need to be forgotten in order to do new ones. Don’t get me wrong, without experience and failure nothing of worth gets done, but all that must be banished to some darkened corner of the psyche in order to give attention to the task at hand.
Many artists start with an idea or a notion of what they want to do and then do it. I’ve never had an inkling of why one subject pulled at me rather than another. The most I can say is that the views I’m drawn to are ones I’ve seen many times before attempting a picture. If I could pinpoint it, there would be no reason to paint it. When my pictures work, a viewer will recognize their world in them, not mine. My part is just painting them, then they’ve got to live in the world or die unnoticed. I have little attachment to them after the final brushstroke. It’s often a relief to be able to start over with a blank slate, to look out the window as if I’ve never seen those buildings across the street before, to put a couple marks down, then a couple more. Pretty soon those smears on the canvas are dictating the terms, and I just do my best to cede to their demands.
Dmitry Samarov was born in the Soviet Union in 1970. His family immigrated to the US in 1978, and Dmitry graduated with a BFA in painting and printmaking from the School of the Art Institute in 1993. He drives a cab and paints pictures in Chicago, Illinois. His book, Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab, is scheduled to be published by the University of Chicago Press in October 2011. He has a website and a cab blog.