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Picture of the Day

April 11, 2014

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....

What’s your background (something that’s 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 high school.

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.

What’s your strongest memory of your childhood?

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 machines.

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.

Why art?

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 doing?

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 or diplomats.

What art do you most identify with?

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. Ditto Buster 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 discovered Vivian 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!)

What themes 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 and report.

What memorable responses have you had to your work?

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 your work?

I hope it has integrity. My biggest work is the ongoing, 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 project?

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 inspirational photo/video/sculpture/song/ 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.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Make mistakes.

What’s your goal?

To leave the world a better place than I found it and inspire others to do the same.