Art All Night

Security guard V.F. Wolf patrols the RISD Museum while the city sleeps — and then he paints


Of all the silent galleries he patrols late at night as a security guard at the RISD Museum, the antiquities sections – Egyptian, Greek, and Roman – speak to V.F. Wolf the most. The meticulously excavated and restored treasures of the past remind Wolf of the way he approaches his own paintings: a figurative dig into the secret recesses of his psyche, which he then brings into light, color, and form on the canvas.

When his job lets out at 4am, Wolf will often head straight for his small, bright studio in the historic Pawtucket Armory, which he views as a type of “dig site – a psychological dig site.”

Like an archaeologist, “sometimes I feel like I’m unearthing things,” he says. “It just feels like there are little mysteries inside each [painting].” He hopes viewers will use their imagination to explore each one and envision the story behind it – “to fill in the missing pieces.”

For someone with so much on his mind, Wolf converses in an approachable, down-to-earth manner. Raised in Providence, he discovered his interest in art fairly young; at 10 years old, he made a weekly cartoon strip for his classmates to enjoy. During junior high and high school, he took several painting and drawing classes, and would even spend his free time “hanging out in art classes” and visiting art museums – including his future workplace.

Wolf considers the military to be his first art school. “It taught me discipline and humility: two traits I consider essential to making art.” Unsurprisingly, much of his work as a professional painter has “excavated” themes from his time overseas – especially his earlier work. His paintings run the gamut of subject matter, sometimes extremely dark and abstract, and at other times using vibrant colors and irreverent takes on pop culture. Anything that pops into Wolf’s consciousness is fair game for his paintbrush to explore.

In terms of technique, he uses oil on panels or canvas, building up one layer after the next, “creating various densities of opacity and transparency. One sees traces of color buried beneath layers, suggestive either of the passage of time or the evidence of previous actions.” The layers are like memories, “creat[ing] resonance” on top of one another. In line with his love for ancient history, Wolf strives to create an effect of time passing, of weather-worn relics like he sees in the museum. “Most of those things had tons of color, and time just wore it away... Most of my stuff’s just like that – some parts of it are missing color, or it’s just raw canvas or linen.”

His “fragmented” approach to life and art is an intrinsic part of his character. Of his studio, he says, “I love clutter – for me, chaos breeds ideas.” He’ll often look around at the dozens – if not hundreds – of paintings filling his studio, all different shapes and sizes, and feel inspired to paint more. His works tend to be on the smaller side: “There’s no big manifesto, no declaration. It’s kind of fragmented because that’s how I see the world,” he says. “It’s all fragmented into pieces because I think everything’s subject to change.”

Wolf finds both RISD’s collections and its artistic community to be a source of inspiration, and has found a great “home” for his career at ArtProv on Chestnut Street, where he is a featured painter with regular shows and work for sale. His next show will take place from June 6 to July 21 of this year.