Clive Knights


Clive Knights - Channeling

D: We’re back again with our second featured artist interview of the year! This time around I got to talk to one of our fellow cut and pasters, Clive Knights!

As always, to start things off, I’d like to ask you to briefly introduce yourself to our audience, Clive. Who are you, where are you from, what’s your artistic medium of choice and how long have you been active as an artist?

C: My name is Clive Knights and I am an Englishman living in the western United States. These days I see myself as a collage artist and printmaker, though my professional career has been teaching architecture in universities in Sheffield, UK, and in Portland, Oregon, USA. I moved here in the 1990s to create a new school of architecture at Portland State University, which I founded and directed for 12 years until just before the pandemic when I stepped down to focus on my studio art. I’ve been making collages for as long as I can remember, teaching collage to architecture students for over 3 decades, and monotype printmaking since 2010.


D: Sounds like you’ve been in the art game for quite some time in that case! What was it about collage as a medium that originally caught your eye, and how has it managed to keep you hooked all this time?

C: I used to make ransom note style collages as publicity posters for student organization events at college, often with an absurdist, comic message using juxtapositions of words and images, and it was very freeing, a way to break established conventions. I loved the fact that you never really have to start from scratch with a collage, there’s no struggle with the blank sheet of paper or canvas. There is always something there at the start to break apart. Collages are already on their way somewhere visually, and there’s a liberating power in being able to redirect, skew, distort, bend, shift, change emphasis, modify hierarchy, test incongruities and so on, all with the choices and placements you make with each new image fragment. I have always been a bit of an iconoclast. If something is conventional my first instinct is to break it apart. If something is popular I respond by engaging its antithesis. I guess I don’t want to be where everybody else is. Anyway, the spirit of iconoclasm lives on in collage for me and until that fades it’s got me hooked.


D: A bit of a contrarian streak is a very healthy trait to have, I’d say.. Never leave home without it. Who/what are some of your main influences when it comes to your work as a collage artist (and in general)?

C: It is hard to identify a single artist. There are so many whose work I find mesmerizing, inspirational and deeply profound, most of whom are not collage artists. For instance, the monotypes of American painter Nathan Oliveira have been a huge influence on my printmaking in their engagement with the earth, the horizon and the bestial, as have the drawings of the British sculptor Antony Gormley that seem to have oozed from his body. I am also fascinated by the contorted, carnal figures of Francis Bacon’s paintings that conjure the chiasmic intertwining of body and world in a common flesh, an idea that is spoken of in the final, unfinished essays of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. The later work of the British sculptor Anthony Caro, especially the Trojan War series where character and myth infuse his inimitable spatial and material sensibility with a whole other level of meaning, is especially powerful.
And then there is the incomparable Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu whose recent retrospective at the New Museum in New York had many utterly mesmerizing collages.

As an architect, I should also mention the unbuilt projects of the American architect and teacher John Hejduk which engage deep existential questions within the exquisite drawings, sketchbooks and poems through which they are explored.

I have been deeply inspired by the architectural philosophy of my professor at Cambridge, Dalibor Vesely, who has articulated the most erudite commentary on the creative potential of collage. He introduced me to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body, as well as the great hermeneutic philosophers Gadamer and Ricoeur who taught me the truth value of metaphor and story-telling.

Clive Knights - Paysage charnel

D: Your collage work is often quite abstract, very heavy on the textures. It imbues your pieces with a certain ambiguity, kind of like the viewer’s looking at visual poems. Speaking as a collage artist myself, I personally find that I sometimes struggle when things become too abstract. The collaborative pieces we worked on together over the last Christmas break were a nice change of pace as far as that goes, they really forced me out of the cosy prison of my comfort zone. Has your approach to your work always been the same, or is the style of your current works one you slowly arrived at over time? Would you say that your approach to the medium has undergone any significant changes over the years?

C: Quite often my collages are described by others as abstract and yet I see them as concrete, the opposite of abstract. To me, a collage that poses an immediately recognizable image (a face, a cat, a house, a butterfly, etc.) leads the viewer away from a concrete engagement with the experiential effects of a work towards that referent. In such instances our mind abstracts us from a direct, bodily encounter with the work too quickly such that we can easily, and literally, overlook the flesh of a collage, seeing it as a mere visual signpost to some other, more ethereal place where the blatant subject matter resides. I want those who encounter my collages to wrestle with the work, to embrace all the ambiguities and contradictions it offers that trigger both visceral and intellectual responses, and all things in between. Nobody wants to be judged solely by the way they look. Just imagine if one’s visual attributes alone provoked a viewer to jump to conclusions about your identity before they put in the effort to spend time to get to know you, to interact with your idiosyncrasies, with your foibles, with your inconsistencies and eccentricities. It’s the same with collage, stay close to its concrete presence, embrace it, caress it, let eros get involved. A viewer’s glance seems to demand instant recognition, I aim to delay that, tantalizingly so, when a collage works well.

So, yes, I employ textures of things only partially recognizable, preferably misrecognized. Poetry is a good parallel and I recommend Octavio Paz’s exquisite essays on poetry in The Bow and the Lyre, where you could substitute the word ‘collage’ for ‘poem’ in his text and it still makes fabulous sense. I also wish the paper fragments to act as gestures beyond themselves. For instance, for me to point in the direction of the moon is not an abstract action, it is corporeal, both my body and the moon are involved and implicated in the communication of meaning. Both the gesture and that which is gestured towards are required for a fullness of experience. Upon reflection, that’s what I aim for in my work, though I’m never thinking about all this when I’m working. As far as changes in my approach over the years, I’d say I have spent much time learning how to not be in control. I was educated as an architect and taught to control every last detail. So, it’s taken some time to unlearn this role, to relinquish my authority to the voice of the collective, that is, to the gathered fragments. I’m still involved, obviously, but now more as a collaborator, not as the master or leader. I like to be led by the fragments, surprised by them, cajoled by them. It’s a beautiful feeling to be raised up and pulled along by the sheer impetus of a work as it unfolds in your hands, right before your eyes.

D: Funny you brought that last part up – I wanted to ask you about that. Aside from what you’ve already mentioned regarding having to unlearn constantly being in control, have there been any other areas of tension between Clive as collage artist and Clive as architect, or are there any ways in which you’ve found the two fields complement each other?
C: I have taught collage in my architectural pedagogy ever since I started teaching in the 1980s. It’s an excellent genre for engaging all those aspects of architectural experience that can’t be measured or delineated, in particular spatial qualities such as light and shadow, materiality, scale, depth, layering, the paraphernalia that gathers around human actions and human actions themselves. So it has never been in conflict with my own priorities for architecture, but for the profession of architecture as a whole, collage is seen as an irrelevant pastime, except in a very few cases where enlightened practicing architects understand its relevance.

Clive Knights - Mortal Reach

D: Collage being an irrelevant pastime sadly still seems to be an all too commonly held view.
You yourself are quite an active participant in lots of collage-related events and respond to open calls from all over the world, but what’s the local collage scene like over on your side of the pond? I reckon it surely must be livelier than over here in Estonia considering you’re based in Portland, but was there already something cooking when you settled in? Have you done any community building yourself?

C: Much has changed regarding a popular interest in collage in the last decade or so, globally I’d say, and this transformation has been reflected in the establishment and growth of a collage community here in Portland. I’ve known a handful of collage artists over the years who were parents of my kids’ classmates as they went through arts focussed public schools but, as you say, the art community does not typically take the genre seriously (unless you are Hannah Hoch or Robert Rauschenberg, lol). I discovered Kolaj Magazine about 10 years ago at a small gallery here that specialized in collage and assemblage but which lasted only about a year. That was a game changer in terms of finding a connection to the voices and work of collage makers from all over the world. That and getting onto Instagram at about the same time. Then the first KolajFest happened in New Orleans in the summer of 2018 and I met other Portland-based collage artists there, as well as a whole host of national and international collagists. Odd that we locals had to leave Portland in order to find each other. Then during the pandemic the Pacific Northwest Collage Collective was founded by two good friends and we held the first open call and public exhibition at the open-air Fencework Gallery that I’d just built at my house. They’ve had multiple group shows and gatherings since then, here and in Seattle, and the local collage community has grown exponentially. It’s wonderful. We’ve just merged with the Seattle-based collective and so now we are bigger than ever.

D: I’m very glad to hear the local scene appears to be healthy! Here’s to hoping it will manage to keep on trucking! And, ah, yes – the Fencework Gallery! I remember seeing you post about it. Would you be willing to share a few words about your reason for setting it up and what you’ve done with the space so far?

C: Fencework Gallery I describe as ‘an outward facing neighborhood gallery for collage’ and it was very much a pandemic project. We demolished a tree house that I’d built for my older son when he was 3 or 4 (he’s now 27!) and an old garage that was sitting on part of our property. This opened up a 10m or so strip of unobstructed street facing property line and it needed a fence. With my youngest son, who was at high school in his bedroom during the pandemic, we used much of the cedar from the old tree house to fabricate the structure of the fence and then added cedar strips that would provide a visual barrier but also a very simple and easy hanging system for artwork. The tail end of the pandemic saw the founding of the Pacific Northwest Collage Collective by my good friends Kellette Elliott and Laura Weiler and we decided to inaugurate both the collective and the Fencework Gallery with an international juried show of collage work reproduced on weather resistant panels and coincident with World Collage Day in May 2021. Before that show I mounted a test exhibition of my own work to see how the panels held up. Since then I’ve shown collages from my pandemic journals. It’s time for a new show, for sure, but finding the time has been tricky.

Clive Knights - Départ

D: I hope you’ll be able to put together a new show for the Fencework Gallery! It’s always sounded like an incredibly fun concept to us. But yeah.. it sadly often feels like there’s not enough time to get to everything one would like to do. Talking about that, is there anything else that’s still on your artistic bucket list? Any future projects that are secretly cooking in the background? Any other artistic medium you’ve secretly always wished to have a go at?

C: Thanks to the incredible flourishing of the global collage community over recent years it seems I’ve always got an ‘open call’ pending that keeps my imagination ticking over. The solo shows are obviously heavy lifts and I hope to have my next one in the early part of 2025, so plenty of time to procrastinate on what that new body of work will consist of.
I am also slowly figuring out how to make bigger pieces, over 1 square meter in size, on both wood panel and canvas, and this has me experimenting with paint and collage hybrids. I am nervous but hoping this will proffer pieces suitable for a solo show at the gallery where I’m represented here in Portland – Laura Vincent Design and Gallery.

I love cross-disciplinary collaborations and have a book that’s been brewing over the past two years with a Canadian poet in which we pair poems with collages. We are nearly done with the content and now need to design it and find a publisher.

On my bucket list is the dream of running my own modest little collage-focused gallery, with a studio attached, in a small town somewhere in England or Scotland. We’ll see how that pans out.


D: I definitely hope you’ll be able to realize that dream of running a gallery focusing on collage art. The world needs more of those!

Let’s travel back in time a little bit for this next one. Your latest solo show, The Wholeness of Fragments, closed in December of last year. Would you be willing to share a little bit about the general concept behind the show’s body of work?

C: This show was my 4th solo show in a commercial gallery since 2021, and the 3rd in Portland at the gallery of Laura Vincent. The over-arching presumption of my creative endeavours is of a singular, shared cosmos of which we humans are ineluctably ensconced, and which claims us. By virtue of our bodily participation, and confronted by the common limitations of our body’s perceptual capacities, their limited reach, we are destined to represent that originary oneness to each other through the intermediary language of gathered fragments, shards of a broken vessel, the full nature of which our human imaginations anxiously attempt to recreate by bringing the pieces back together in new and elaborate ways, meeting places for a diversity of contributors. In making the new work for this latest show I hoped, at least, to incant by analogical gesture a sense of the common whole, even while accepting, with an all-too-human melancholic joy, the futility of that task.

The show included new larger scale works on wood panels that engaged with the city and civic space; paper collages from my summer artist residency in Noyers sur Serein, France, using materials found in various flea markets; and new accordion-style books. These books reflect on the possibility of recovering shared civic space from its stultifying subservience to the banal orders of consumption and profit. Instead, they ponder a hope that, as the architectural philosopher Peter Carl insists, the city might rediscover its role as “a framework for the ethical interpretation of the natural conditions.”

Clive Knights - When the earth breathed out a cloud

D: Do you think it’ll indeed be possible for civic space to be freed from the demon known as the profit incentive some day in the future, or were the accordion-style books more of an exercise in utopian thinking? I definitely lack the proper vocabulary and know-how to engage in an architectural debate, but just from looking around myself over here I must say that I rather skew towards the pessimistic side of things as far as that goes.. Would you care to share some of your thoughts on the matter?

C: True civic space doesn’t really exist here in the USA. It’s all a capitalist landscape, a topography of consumption. I get very depressed in the suburbs, driving down the classic ‘strip’ that every town and city here has several of, with all exactly the same businesses repeating over and over and over like a labyrinth of incessant signage and mass-produced dross calculated by an army of data-analysts to generate maximum profit with minimum imagination. Yes, even Portlandia, “where young people come to retire,” is surrounded by the same accumulation of ubiquitous street names, curvy streets, cul de sacs, and thousands upon thousands of thoughtless pattern-book houses, offices and big-box retail units. True civic space is a place where people come together and are encouraged to gather and hang, to stay a while without predetermined agenda, to loiter, to dwell, in order to interact with others doing the same thing and to speak openly with them about human affairs such that we might discover commonalities between us. Everything, even open space in our cities, has become the domain of private experience, a transactional space of exchange, monetized. If not, it’s somehow seen as wasted space, if it remains unprogrammed, so to speak. Any society that places the accumulation of private wealth over and above the accumulation of collective meaning is a diminishing one. I don’t imagine my accordion-style books will make any difference whatsoever but at least they are an opportunity to ruminate on the issue while making an artefact that can be shared and possibly become the trigger for an expanded conversation amongst those who, like me, love city-life and don’t want to see it lose connection with either the orders of nature that ultimately sustain it, or the friendship of fellow humans that enable it all to be shared.


D: That initial pessimistic picture you paint there doesn’t sound entirely dissimilar to what’s happening over here on our side of the world, albeit on a smaller scale of course. Can’t escape the hunger for profit, I guess. Either way, let’s stick to the topic of cities for a little while longer – in a bit more of a positive light this time, hopefully. What are some of your favorite haunts in/around Portland? Is there anything in particular you would recommend to fans of Semioculus’ dark and weird aesthetic?

C: I recently had 4 pieces in a collage group show at Brassworks Gallery on the eastside of Portland and discovered that it specializes in dark arts and other weird and fantastical arts. Other than that I know very little about a dark arts scene in Portland, although I’m sure there most certainly is one; it’s Portland after all. We have a stellar comic and graphic novel reputation here, such as the famous Dark Horse Comics. As far as favorite haunts, I’m an espresso addict and Portland is coffee nirvana so I gravitate to various artisanal roasters across town. My favorite is the aptly named Good Coffee. Dark roast, but not dark arts, lol.

Clive Knights - Corps

D: You’ve been active in the art world for quite some time, and you already have quite a lot of exhibitions, residencies, etc. under your belt, so this one should be especially interesting – what is, so far, your proudest moment as an artist?

C: Gosh, proudest moment as an artist…. that’s a tricky one. Probably my first solo exhibition in a gallery, which, interestingly, was a very recent event, September 2021. Even though I have very little interest in the art market per se (I prefer not to get involved in the gallery pricing of my work and leave that process to Laura Vincent, my gallerist) or in seeing my work valued in dollars, it remains something of a personal milestone, that incidentally I never sought out, to have been recognized in the commercial gallery setting. The real bonuses of being represented by a gallery for me is getting my work seen and experienced by the community, having a deadline to work to, and knowing that the work will get some public attention when it’s all done, whether they love it or not. Of course, Instagram can get work out there more speedily and with far greater reach (well, it used to before the recent crappy algorithms) but there is no substitute for being present with the artefacts of art, especially collage with all its glorious materiality, alongside conversing directly, in-person with gallery visitors. I have many other proud moments that relate to my other roles in life, such as being a Dad to two boys, now grown men; and to being a teacher for many years and witnessing so much success by my students. These both outweigh any pride I may have in my own artistic accomplishments, as it happens.


D: Those are both absolutely things you ought to be proud of! I asked one of your fellow British collage artists, Jodie Day, a similar question in one of our earlier interviews – what do your kids think about their dad’s artistic endeavours? Did you ever try to get them into collaging? And last, but not least, how’d you manage to balance being a dad, being a teacher and being an artist all at once?

C: Right before the pandemic I took a sabbatical from my teaching job and spent everyday in my studio working on collages. My youngest son would get home from high school and come up to the studio to say hi and every time I could see in his facial expression a kind of incredulity that I, an intelligent grown man, would spend my days sticking little bits of paper on top of other bits of paper. Having said that, my wife and I are both creative beings so both boys have not been able to escape the joy of art making as they grew up until they developed their own interests, typically to counter any parental influence, as kids do. So one is an historian and the other a budding astro-physicist. They nevertheless have a very discerning eye and can spot bullshit in an art museum when they come across it. What they actually think about my art you’ll have to ask them. I have always collaged and both my sons went through the same arts focussed elementary school which had a massive fundraising art sale weekend every year with a school-wide exhibition of 120 local artists. So, for about ten years this prompted me to make collages consistently to sell at this event, typically for $20 or $30. I never sold that much, I mean, who buys collages, but it was a great excuse to make new work.

Being an academic at a public institution means my schedule has been well synchronized with my kids’ schooling so holidays and such always coincided conveniently. Also, apart from the classes I teach and their schedules, much of my working week is flexible so school runs, after school events, soccer practice and the like weren’t too much of a strain on work life. That said, my kids spent a lot of time in the School of Architecture interacting with my students, attending guest lectures, helping me hang exhibitions and so on. They also had to follow their Mum and I all over the world seeking out great architecture so they now, as adults, love to travel and can recognize the beauty of great cities and great works of architecture.

Clive Knights - Descendancy

D: Speaking as a veteran of the medium, what is the TOUGHEST part of working as a collage artist in your opinion?

C: Getting to a point of both saturation and diversity in the paper fragments that one is surrounded by in the studio. This is a predicament that takes time, patience and a hoarding sensibility to accumulate. Then, as one gets to work, it’s the avoidance of pre-planning and the relinquishment of control that takes time to re-learn. Having spent a career in architecture where every last detail is controlled through pre-planning before any fabrication begins this sensibility has taken me time to embody. In the act of making a collage it is imperative to give oneself over to the unforeseen dynamics of the play of fragments, to put yourself alive in the midst of the unfolding circumstance, so to speak.


D: Ah, yes – the endless piles of books and paper fragments.. Both a blessing and a curse. Do you have some kind of system when it comes to how your source material is organized, or do you just let chaos reign free?

C: No system, unless ‘find a free spot and shove the new stuff in’ is a system 🙂 I have several work desks and layout spaces in my studio and each has an array of small plastic trays filled with fragments that have gathered over the past decade and a half since I built the studio and moved in. Almost all the space under the desks is filled with books and magazines collected over the years, as well as stacked archive boxes with hundreds of finished collages inside them. I probably have more source material than I could ever use if I lived to be 100, so I should really stop collecting, but… you know, it’s an affliction I can’t shake off and that I’ve learned to bear. I can work for days with just the material that’s at arm’s length so it’s important that I move around the studio from desk to desk or the visual diversity of the collages starts to diminish.


D: If you had to give just one piece of advice to someone who’d like to take their first baby steps into the world of collage art but isn’t quite sure how to get started, what would it be?

C: The first thing would be to get on Instagram and search ‘collage’ to see the incredible variety of what’s possible. Then acquire a square sketchbook with decent weight paper, a glue stick (I use Avery brand), some scissors and some pointy-nose tweezers. Gather any and all paper products from junk mail to lifestyle magazines to used picture books. Then simply play by cutting, ripping, tearing, glueing and placing. The collage should tell you when it’s done, so listen carefully, it’s a silent call. Then, make the next one…


D: … And the next one, and the one after that, and so on…

So, we’ve just about reached the end of this interview. We usually end these things with a ‘shout-out section’ where our interviewees get to talk about what they’ve been into lately or plug their friends, and this time’s no different! Sooo, read any good books lately? Discover (or rediscover) any good music, movies or anything like that? Any artists you personally know who you’d like to draw people’s attention to? Now is your chance to share!

C: The modest, recently published book Touch by the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney is a beautiful reflection on what he argues is the primary sense, over vision, which is typically given that rank. The book is very accessible but connects to a realm of more hardcore philosophical thinking called ‘carnal hermeneutics’ that address the ways we communicate with each other and the world beyond with our bodies first, and only secondarily with our minds. It’s fascinating because so much of our relationship with the content of the world is corporeal, it is shaped by what our bodies make available to us through their capacities of perception. There is a truth in this predicament that transcends the individual and addresses the communal, since we are all embodied beings and share the body’s capacities regardless of our partisan thoughts and ideologies. It is this carnal truth that is inexhaustible and which art attempts to bring us into some kind of proximity with. Beauty is the image of success in this endeavour, yet always to be refigured, to be renewed over and over because it’s irresistible, like Eurydice was to Orpheus. As he learned the hard way, if you try to look beauty directly in the face, it disappears, so instead we have to look through intermediaries that we call works of art.

I was recently included in the collage mixtape series on Instagram by Franz Samsa and got to list my top 15 songs ever. It was hard to narrow down my choices but the bands I listen to most often when I’m in the studio collaging are Pere Ubu, The Birthday Party, Dirty Three, PJ Harvey, CocoRosie, Wild Beasts, Portishead and Nick Cave. However, the band that has had the most profound influence on my life is Van der Graaf Generator including the solo output of its lead singer, Peter Hammill. Nobody matches this utterly unique embodiment of music, poetry and deep, deep insight into being human.


D: Thank you very much for taking the time to have a chat with us, Clive!

Clive Knights - Laid bare