Art, Craft, and the Meandering Path
Though I am not a professional artist, I take creative practice seriously, and consider it a basic part of my life and work. But the path I followed to this practice has been a strange and meandering one. Like most people, I am not a gifted artist, so I pursue creative outlets however I can; I am a firm believer in vernacular creativity and in everyone’s right to pursue an aesthetic calling, wherever it leads.
I’ve had a compulsion to make things since an early age, probably influenced by my family. My grandmother was a painter, and most of my aunts and uncles played instruments. My parents had a groovy record collection, and played piano (mom) and guitar (dad). I started drawing at an early age, and on some days it was all that I did (which got me into a lot of trouble in school). So we had a creative vibe in the family. When I was 12, my father taught me how to use his Mamiya Sekor 500TL (shown at left), a manual 35mm SLR camera manufactured in 1967 and used by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
In the mid-1980s my friends and I were heavily influenced by the artistic culture of hip-hop, religiously carting around our phat markers, notebooks, boom boxes, and spray can nozzles. We even tried our hands at burners like our heroes Futura 2000, Lady Pink, and Zephyr, with predictably poor results. When I was 15, I took a cartooning class with Garfield creator Jim Davis (yes, I realize how improbable that sounds), and wound up as the cartoonist for my high school newspaper.
For many years I dabbled with the idea of radio and music as career. I had played trumpet and trombone since I was a kid, and in high school I collected and repaired audio equipment, which I used to DJ parties and hustle mix tapes. In college I spent two years on air at the campus radio station, DJ’ing embarrassingly pretentious jazz and freeform shows. In graduate school I worked for the Indiana University public radio station, where I produced several serial programs.
Ultimately, my love of the visual won out over the auditory—another way of saying I was never really great at music. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s I continued shooting photographs, and in college, I took as many art courses as I could cram into my schedule. In addition to 2D design (which I hated), I learned large format photography, black + white process, and color printing. I took film and video courses from the experimental artist Van McElwee, and learned several printmaking techniques, including intaglio, lithography, screen, and woodcut.
After college I spent time in NYC, where I was influenced by the agitprop work of Lower East Side squatters and artists such as Seth Tobacman. I learned the tricks of the trade in xerography, stenciling, wheat pasting, screen printing, and other street art tactics. With a loose collective of artists and politicos, I spent a good part of the 1990s creating agitprop in the form of posters, t-shirts, and ‘zines. We were even featured in a 1992 interview in Maximum Rock ’n Roll.
Once in graduate school, I had a lot less time to make art. For one reason or another, it seemed that becoming a scholar meant putting aside artistic pursuits--a separation that I regret today. The one exception came in my studies of Architectural History with Henry Glassie, who encouraged us to draw buildings in order to know them better. Over the years I integrated the methods of architectural drawing and site analysis into my work.
In any case, once I finished my Ph.D. in 2001, I slowly got back in to the practice of making things. The switch to digital technology made photography far more accessible, and once more I found myself in the groove of taking pictures, making collages, creating agitprop, and other work.
So while I love to make things, my path has been meandering to say the least. This is partly due to a native deficit of attention, partly to buffeting influences over the years, and partly to my inability to settle on any one pursuit. Maybe this is why I’ve always been drawn to artistic outliers, like Adolf Wölfli, Ray Johnson, Weegee, Judith Scott, Tyree Guyton, Joseph Cornell, Grandma Moses, and the Gees Bend quilters. And while I do not consider myself a fine artist by any stretch of the imagination, I do work very hard at the visual craft.