Monday, July 25, 2011

Art and Spirituality Interview - #2 "How did you know you wanted to be an artist?"

E: How did you know you wanted to be an artist?

A: I had this trio of friends we went to high school together and we all ended up at the University of Massachusetts together and we all were artists. Beyond people who liked to draw, we all just had that feeling that art is important and it's real and it's stitched into our lives in a way that we're not going to get it out.

E: Like you couldn't separate your art life from the rest of your life.

A: Exactly, and that felt exactly right, you know? It felt comfortable to be identifying with that. I am a creator. I am someone who loves to make, someone who loves to observe, record, tell stories, things like that. And so the three of us really worked off each other. We all had our own things going in different directions, but I know we really took strength from having the other two around us whose presence said, “There are really other people in the world like this.” And at one point, Pasqualina (one of these friends) painted a mural. It just put something in my mind that that is something people can do. At the end of college I had to make a body of work to graduate. I had been thinking about what to do and it just sort of dawned on me, that the way to make work that you don't have to submit to this gallery culture, is to skip the gallery and put it in a place where everyone can see it. And I thought "Murals! It's brilliant!" As long as I can find someone who will allow me to paint on their wall, there is then nothing that can keep me from taking my best ideas and putting them in front of the whole world. That was incredible! That was an amazing new thought to have, and then when I did find a wall that was available to me, it was a beginning of an adventure that was the next twelve years of my life. That really felt like a new step because murals are very different in that they're public art. I didn't know this at the time but I began to learn very quickly that public art is very different than private art.

E: In what way?

A: Oh there's so much. Prior to my first mural, when I heard people talking about "community" events or "community" art, I had sort of a negative connotation with those words. I felt like “community” in that context meant it was going to be watered down, that it wasn't going to be as good as something that was made by someone working in their studio being real, making something wonderful. I had this notion that it meant it would be forced and a little superficial. That's the idea that I had. When I went to paint my mural, my first one, (It is in Northamption, MA) I went sort of imagining that I'm just in my studio, making another painting. I'm not thinking of the people around me or anything like that, I'm just making a good painting. But when that happened, when I first started, I became so terrified because I realized there were hundreds of people driving past me, watching me, every hour.

I thought, "What if I mess up?" Because I mess up in paintings all the time, you know, like I'm in my studio and I mess up on paintings constantly and you correct them and whatever. It's a completely different thing to make a 16 foot tall painting and your working in public. In a studio, you're working in private and you don't have to worry about anyone looking over your shoulder, correcting you, saying your idea is stupid, all these different things...whereas in public, you have no idea what people are going to say. Anyway, I was feeling really, really afraid about what people were going to say and I couldn't proceed. I was there at the wall and I could not physically proceed because I was too scared.

So I stood there at the wall and prayed. Inwardly I was like, "I know I'm supposed to be here and this feels exactly right but, how do I do it? The idea that came as I listened in my thought was, "This is your opportunity to give a gift." It was so simple, yet it floored me. That thought changed everything. Prior to that, I had thought this was about me expressing myself, but after that I realized this is not about "expressing myself" as such. Rather, this is about giving something that is going to make the community better. Someone who is walking home from work and they've had a rotten day will feel “Oh that's beautiful!” or the kids are walking by and they just have it in their head that there is a beautiful picture over there. This mural can silently influence people's lives just by being beautiful.

That was a complete change to the lens through which I was seeing this event. It stopped being about how I felt, and instead it was about sharing something good. Immediately I had a new feeling of, “Oh man I really want to give a good gift! I want so badly for this to work!”

I find that when I have power, when I have the ability to make a difference, I want so badly to use it well. Whereas when I don't feel like I have power to make a difference, I may be a whole lot less motivated. So, feeling the power to give a beautiful gift was very invigorating.

E: I see your hand pulling almost from your heart.

A: Yeah, it feels that way. Realizing it was a gift to the people of that neighborhood helped me feel more of the power that I have as an artist. I had the power to actually help peoples' hearts. That's when I began to feel a real love for that community, that neighborhood. The word “community” stopped being something that I was skeptical of and started being something that I believed in deeply. It was just about loving people.

E: It wasn't some ideal out in the clouds.

A: Right, and it didn’t mean (like I had thought it would mean) something watered down or insincere. But I knew that this mural isn't watered down at all. I was feeling, "I want this more than anything! I really believe that art can help people." Now, I have come to see that art can influence and even save lives and that's what my art is about. So that was the first step and then the next many years after that were about continuing to explore "How does this actually work? How do I actually influence lives with pictures and poetry and images?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Art and Spirituality Interview - #1 "Where does your art come from?"

Last year my friend Ellen Hammond interviewed me about my career, art, and spirituality. Over a series of 9 posts, I will be sharing the interview here. It contains a lot of ideas and explanations that are central to my approach to art, expression, and life in general.

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Ellen: Where does your art come from?

Alex: Where it all comes from is something that I have learned over the years. When I was beginning, maybe in my early twenties, my art and my music felt like they came from different places. I would generally make art about what seemed like fantasy and visionary sorts of themes, whereas music was about my feelings and emotions and relationships - they seemed very, very different. And then over the years as I explored them both pretty equally, as they both became more spiritualized, as I dug deeper and deeper because I loved them so much, they became closer, and closer, until it was clear that their source was not different. At some point, it dawned on me that all the ideas that I'm having and loving are coming from a source that is not me, because I'm not making up a thought. It's more like I'm receiving a thought. Even if I'm the first person ever in the world to think it, it's not that I made it up. Rather, I innocently received it. Things became much simpler when I realized that they weren't separated, the music, the art, the poetry, whatever - making jokes in a conversation – I began to see that it is all coming from the same good place. And it works best when I'm not afraid, when I'm not concerned about how I appear to others, when I'm just working, just listening. And that felt really profound to see that all my favorite ideas came from the same place. At that point I started to feel like making a song is effectively the same thing as making a painting except I'm using a different way to express an idea. Outwardly they're different but at the point I see that I'm just dealing with ideas, it's all sort of the same.

E: Can you pinpoint why you were initially drawn to making pictures?

A: Well I had never painted a mural until I was 23 years old and I was making stuff years before that. As a kid I was drawing. I started to feel like something really wonderful was happening around the age of 17. I remember walking around my little suburban hometown late at night. I started going on walks and it just seemed like the whole world was beautiful. You know, the street lights coming through the leaves in the summer. That's one of the first images in the world that I noticed was beautiful - electric street lights illuminating these green leaves in the summer night. And to my little 17 year old high school heart, I was like “Wow that was beautiful!” and so I started making drawings of it, and of myself walking underneath them. It was really an exploration of “Who am I?” I liked depicting my own life and thinking about my own life, and making a record of it in drawings and paintings, marker sketches and such. I had just started playing guitar a few years before that. The exciting thing was to explore what my life is about – "Who am I?" and "What are these feelings that I'm having?" And so that was sort of the beginning of the path. Art was very important to me long before I ever made a mural.

Then, years later, when I started making murals it was for no better reason than that I didn’t like the idea of pleading with a gallery to show my work.

E: Like for the process of being approved or rejected? Like trying to conform to what you think that gallery is looking for?

A: Exactly.

To me, this creation, this creativity is the purest thing I know of in my life. At that point, there is nothing I love more than that. I thought there's got to be a way for me to do this and have it remain completely pure and not immediately submit to this thing to commerce and what felt like impurity. I knew nothing - nothing about galleries or anything like that, but it certainly has a reputation of being not the most supportive community in the world. It's obviously a really broad community and there are good experiences and bad experiences. My thought at that time was, if you put your stuff in a gallery you may get a show, and you may get a smattering of people who come and see your work, but how many people actually go to a gallery on any given day? How many people actually go to a museum? It's not really that many!