I haven't been updating lately because after six
months rural living has
settled into a predictable pattern: feed birds,
collect eggs, cut grass, look
into beehives, build stuff, fix stuff, watch grass
grow and paint dry. Every
day the sky finds a new way to surprise. All of
which is intensely engaging,
but not much of it sends me scurrying to my laptop
to churn one out.
But today felt a little different. Had a good
morning working on novel #2,
then I received an email from an art student who had
a slew of questions.
It's nice to be asked, mainly because it gave me
cause to reflect a while.
Somehow it feels fitting to share it here against
tonight's sideways sunset....
Whatís your background (something thatís not
on your website)?
My parents were immigrants from Prague (used to be
Czechoslovakia, now Czech Republic) and I was the
first to be born in USA. My father died when I was 3
and my childhood was financially precarious and
unstable with lots of moving around. My mother
remarried but my step-father split when I was 12. I
was always a top student but that wasn't necessarily
a good thing because I got used to coasting through
the educational system with very little effort, all
the way up through getting a degree in English from
an Ivy League university (Cornell). But the "real
world" does not work like school so after graduation
I didn't know what to do.
Were you influenced by art as a child?
The first art which really spoke to me was
music--especially the lyrics. I was about 12 and
listening to New York City radio stations in the
early 1980s when punk rock and new wave were getting
popular and hip-hop was being born. I liked it all
and got into each one deeply in phases; one year I
was in a breakdance crew, then later a punk band in
In college I studied literature but didn't really
feel inspired until I read Howl
by Allen Ginsberg, which opened my eyes to the power
of poetry. Not knowing what else to do with myself,
I applied and was accepted to an MFA Poetry program
at Brooklyn College where he became my mentor.
I'd had an interest in photography since I was 8.
Before digital came along in the late 1990s, you
weren't a "real" photographer unless you did
darkroom work but that part of it didn't interest
me. One surprise of studying with Allen was he encouraged me
to pursue photography; he too was an avid
photographer who said it was ok to have someone else
print the work. Sometimes it helps when someone
gives you permission.
My parents were cultured but I wasn't into the stuff
they liked--classical music, opera, and paintings
which were pretty but dull. I liked TV and movies
more, especially weird stuff such as The Twilight Zone
series, which to this day I consider a masterpiece
of cinematic art.
The first art which really spoke to me as a teenager
was punk rock--the aggressive music, political
lyrics, and satirical visuals that added up to a
total statement. So basically early on I rejected
mainstream ideas about art as commodity and sought
means of expression with no particular end in mind.
Whatís your strongest memory of
Despite the tragic elements of parental loss it was
good. I had many friends and we had a freedom of
movement and exploration which seems lacking today.
As soon as I could ride a bike at age 5 I was
allowed to range around the neighborhood with a pack
of friends, a jolly gang ranging in age from 4-13. I
played some organized sports--baseball and
basketball--but for the most part I didn't have a
schedule and all our parents just turned us loose.
As long as we were home in time for dinner they
didn't care what we did. There was so much
imaginative play and adventure in our lives I never
wanted childhood to end. Now it seems kids are
treated as miniature adults with tight schedules and
electronic leashes, all of which I think inhibits
creativity and critical thinking in the long run.
What jobs have you done other
than being an artist?
I started working when I was 14. Roughly in order
(some jobs recurred) here are the part-time and
full-time jobs I have held in the past 30 years:
library page (prepping, shelving, and repairing
books), lifeguard, swim coach/instructor, book store
employee, non-profit canvasser, college English
teacher, administrative assistant, communications
coordinator for a Wash DC non-profit, web and editorial assistant
at Children's Television Workshop (Sesame Street),
freelance web designer, human
statue, landscaper, model, actor,
architectural salvage specialist, carpenter,
painter, waiter, magazine editor, nightclub
booker/promoter, bartender, DJ, and now, my present
occupation, caretaker for a 65-acre off-grid
agricultural property on Maui where duties include
chicken care, beekeeping, and running loud greasy
I never really wanted a career and rarely have I
worked fulltime. I've always enjoyed acquiring new
skills, especially those which enhance my ability to
be self-sufficient--the building trades and
agricultural work, especially. Jobs were just
something I did to buy time for art, leisure, and
learning. My mantra has been work minimally, live
frugally, and enjoy life. Key to that: AVOID DEBT.
I would say that I don't view "being an artist" as a
job. I don't expect to make money at it. I'd like
to, sure, and a little comes in from time to time
from book and DVD
royalties, but I'm more a believer in the day job
that supports the creative work. I've picked up a
lot of skills via day jobs and find it beneficial to
separate money-getting from creative expression.
Theoretically, art is humanizing. Personally, it
makes me feel good. It's a scratch I have to itch.
My memories of childhood tell me all kids are
creative and expressive but those impulses are
ground out of them by rigid educational systems,
social pressure to conform, and pop culture consumer
brainwash. Art is an antidote to all that but very
few make it through with creative capacity intact.
Describe a real-life
situation that inspired you?
Being at events which shake me up and take me out of
myself--Iraq war protests, Critical Mass bikerides,
and most recently the Occupy movement. I've been
blessed with a pretty comfortable life. Seeing
people get together en masse is an important
reminder that I should be working towards something
other than my own comfort and complacency.
What work do you most enjoying
It varies. One quote which I carry close to the
surface at all times comes from the zen poet Gary
Snyder: "Comparison are odious." Superlatives such
as "most" imply a comparison, and any time we
compare we are weighing one thing against another,
which ultimately leads to oversimplification and/or
negation (I'm this, not that). It's why I don't
necessarily define myself as a writer, photographer,
videographer, or artist. I do all those things at
different times and have made choices in life which
give me the freedom to follow my interest of the
moment, more or less. Overspecialization, whether in
the workplace or art market, is the bane of our
present social set-up.
But come to think of it, the most exalting work I do
is collaborating with friends to make improvised
music. There's something about ego submersion
and the whole being greater than the sum of its
parts. Also, it's just fun to rock.
What role does the
artist have in society?
Many roles, often overlapping. To be a canary in the
coalmine, to sound the alarm. To show new ways of
looking at old things. To reveal what is already
there but hidden. To lift people's spirits through
moments of shared awareness or aesthetic bliss.
Bottom line: art is a service, and artists have a
responsibility at least as great as that of doctors
What art do you most
Again that word most. Again it varies. I like
provocateurs such as Wafaa
Bilal who manage to make damning statements in
painfully elegant ways. I like anonymous street art
because it reaches beyond gallery walls and
transcends ego and remuneration. I'm inspired by Hundertwasser
whose art is superficially pretty but is built on a
foundation of metaphysics and environmentalism.
Simpson (who for some reason doesn't even have
a wikipedia entry). Ditto David
Cerny for his provocative sense of humor. I
also love Andre
Kertesz, a very early influence, because his
perfectly composed candid photos bespeak an enduring
fascination and affection for ordinary people and
situations. And in the same vein, the recently
Maier, who worked in obscurity simply for her
own satisfaction. I'm continually impressed and kept
on point by my wife Sarah Kavage,
whose selfless ambition is making non-commercial art
on a grand scale to build and empower communities.
So basically I guess you can say I admire artists
who transcend themselves and their own petty
striving to take human consciousness to a more
humane and empathetic level. (Reading over the above
list reminds me I need to step up my game!)
do you pursue?
Ambiguity. On some level we are all perfect,
interconnected parts of a totality we can only
comprehend in snatches. In other ways we are
personally flawed, limited by perception, intellect,
and our ability to feel. I don't consciously try to
do this, but in looking back at my work I see a mix
of pragmatism and idealism, a desire to celebrate
the beautiful while simultaneously calling attention
to the ugly in hopes of improving it.
Has your practice changed over time?
It changes like the seasons but the basic principles
seem to be the same--aggregation, selection,
distribution. But in general I think author Kurt
Vonnegut made a useful distinction about the
two types of artists: those who respond to the
tradition of their art so far versus those who
respond to life as it is. I'm definitely in the
latter camp and though the media I use vary over
time the essence is pretty much the same--observe
What memorable responses have you had to
I've sold some work, gotten some press, and been
invited to lecture but the most memorable response
was to a poem I performed at the height of Bush II
fear mongering hysteria. After I was done a woman in
the audience gave me a hug and said thank you. That
was the best.
What do you like about
I hope it has integrity. My biggest work is the
a kind of web diary started in 1997 and now almost
2,000 pages. It's helpful to me to go back and look
over the various ways I've thought and felt over the
years. Sometimes I'm embarrassed but other times it
serves as a reminder to adhere to certain values and
ideals I might have let slip in the interim.
What is your dream
Right now I'm working on my second novel. My dream
is to finish it. My most ambitious idea to date was
the launching of a kind of art satellite. My
proposal made it to the second round of Creative
Capital grant process. I still have hope for it.
Maybe some day if I make enough of a name for myself
someone will take the proposal more seriously.
Favourite or most
community event? ( you really do a lot!)
My wife and I organized North
America's first carfree day in 2001. The
enthusiasm and cooperation of volunteers was
amazing. Then, as fortune would have it, 9/11 struck
just 5 days before the event. But instead of putting
a damper on the event people embraced it in
unexpected ways because it gave them a chance to
express solidarity as a community. The specific
message of the event turned out to be less important
than the opportunity it gave for people to come
together. I learned a lot from that.
best piece of advice youíve been given?
Whatís your goal?
To leave the world a better place than I found it
and inspire others to do the same.