See my online artist portfolio and interview at http://dashboardco-op.org/live/portfolio/475/ or keep reading below for the unexpurgated version. Craig Cameron of Dashboard Co-op draws me out of my shell:
How has your educational experience altered or enhanced how you approach and develop your work, ideas, and concepts?
In college, my intro painting professor took us to the country. The fall foliage was ablaze. We’d been painting for a few weeks using only white, black, and his patented “paper bag” brown so we were salivating at the autumn colors. He gave us and our quivering, reverent imaginations a few minutes to soak in the beauty before telling us to turn around and choose among the rocks and crags behind us in the dim shady glen. This would be our rock and the only thing we’d paint for the next 48 hours. We had piles of paper of all sizes, and he had a stop watch which he wielded like a drill sergeant. We’d have 20 minutes for a 4 ft painting or an hour for a 5 inch one or 5 minutes for a 16 inch one or 1 minute. It was impossible to get into any kind of meditative zone. We painted without stopping, ripping down one and starting the next; we were disgusted by our work. It was a tossup between sledgehammering our respective rocks into gravel or ripping our paintings into confetti. But each night when we hung them on the wall, we saw unexpected things. We began to understand raw process versus the platonic vision.
It was an object lesson in how to look at a rock and lose control. He drove us hard. If you could paint like an athlete, a trench warrior, and a mud wrestler rolled into one, you might one day make a decent painting.
Writing grad school taught me that if you’re a morning person, you should write in the mornings, no matter what. Preserve your best self for your work, keep a faithful daily routine; this is how you squeeze water from the proverbial stone. Grapple with your gorgeous visions and don’t let the striving get in the way of making.
In high school, my calculus teacher told me I had no three-dimensional perception. Within the first week of college classes, courtesy of the revelatory Erwin Hauer and an elephant’s femur, I knew I wanted to be a sculptor, just try and stop me. He really taught me how to see– in fundamental, Road to Damascus ways, even as, in his role as academic adviser, he kept saying, “Don’t be an artist, it’s an awful life.” Sculptors are like engineers, concerned with the bearing of loads and sizes of doorways (both real and imaginary). They have to consider outcomes.
I was so lucky to get a great education, to study a lot of subjects in relative depth. Schools are systems that tend to reward a student’s even-handed conscientiousness. Being an artist is anti-systemic; you have to crack the mold your early schooling pours you into. You can’t be too responsive to external prompts. The mix of obsession and inspiration can feel like waving your hands in clouds. Every day, one way or another, I am practicing how to paint a rock or sculpt a bone. And I am still trying to syncopate my rhythms of ideas and actions.
I have an affinity with your tree drawing, I used to draw trees all the time when I really young, and I’m curious about your story, what spawned your fascination?
My mother says my twin brother and I tried to climb the magnolia in the yard as naked toddlers. So you could say I’m a tree hugger from the earliest of days.
Looking at trees, they are impossible to understand. To lie on the ground looking up into the canopy of a tree is to meditate. Fractal attenuation after fractal attenuation, they are endlessly complex. To draw a tree is to consider its posture, its movements, how with light and shade it draws its reciprocal forms on the ground.
As a lifelong blurter, I’m also pretty fascinated by trees as silent witnesses. The storms and droughts they weather incise a written record into their core.
You are currently living in New Orleans. How has the city influenced your work and what about the region captured your imagination?
My emotional access to New Orleans began with its old trees. I walked my dogs every morning under oaks where duels had been fought 350 years ago. Trees inspire me to take the long view.
I lost my studio to Hurricane Katrina along with years of work and all the tools I’d accumulated over years. Starting over is demoralizing and exhausting, but the inevitable streamlining- of process and material- contains possibilities. I remembered my calligraphy tutor and colleague in Hong Kong who, opening his desk drawer with his brushes and ink pots, would announce how he’d tidied his “studio.” I didn’t want to be defeated by loss. Repeat evacuations for hurricanes definitely affect what you make and how you make it; drawings on paper– you can roll those up and flee with them! The portable and replicable properties of photography and digital art grew even more alluring. I had been making photographs and shooting videos. I had also been drawing, but I had been thinking of myself as primarily a sculptor. The hurricanes, you could say, broadened my sense of identity.
Katrina was a great leveler in all senses. There was a lot of tragedy. Disasters like it either scorch the earth like Agent Orange or char it, encouraging new growth like a forest fire. After Katrina, some extraordinary artists and optimists saw opportunities in the flooded abandoned buildings and made galleries from them and formed artist collectives to curate them and run them. Dan Cameron hosted great artists for Prospect 1, New Orleans’ first biennial and invited the international art world to pay attention. We benefitted from national sympathy and invaluable support from all over.
Visitors to New Orleans from New York sometimes fret about big money corrupting the art scene. This is not a problem we have! I go to art shows and just feel amazed that any of us manage to do this. My fellow artists’ commitment to Doing-It-Yourself, Doing-It-Anyway against some long odds has been really inspiring. How long we can all keep going as art air ferns is an important question, but I feel optimistic.
The breadth of mediums in your work is amazing; do you have a favorite or “go to” medium?
It varies. Drawing is always, one way or another, part of even my digital and photographic work. In much of my formative art training, you were defined by your discipline. You became an artist through rigorous and deep specialization, intimate understanding of your materials and tools. Dabbling was sort of frowned upon. Now it is more okay to be an artist who works in many media.
It’s weird. Every day in the studio, I feel like an untrained artist. I like to learn new processes. It’s not that I’m not trying to attain mastery, it’s that in service of ideas and authenticity, I feel the blankness of the slate before me more than its inherent familiarity. My various bodies of work are each part of long term investigations into form and content. They conceptually interrelate and cross pollinate.
What advice can you give to young bucks out there?
Don’t be suspicious of that lurking woman in the woods with her camera. She means well.
Or this: when your elders tell you how young you are, that there’s plenty of time and you should steep and age in your green wood cask before decanting yourself, don’t listen.
However, don’t spill everything, keep your own counsel. Otherwise your neuroses can’t proliferate, and there won’t be anything to reap come art harvest time.
How did you get so close to those deer?
I said, hi young buck, c’mere.
Real answer? Making my nocturnal portraits of animals involves a combination of hand held techniques and motion detection. I work primarily on farmland among a familiar population of animals. They watch me from a distance and track me in turn. I am interested in what happens when they choose to interact with the camera. I don’t want to habituate them to my presence or impinge too much on their autonomy.