It’s strange when you have known someone for years and suddenly realize that you didn’t know him at all. That happened to me this week when I interviewed my friend John, who does not want me to share his last name. Recently while at their home his wife showed me out past an area of their home I had not explored, and I noticed John’s studio for the first time. When we stepped inside and I was first exposed to the studio, it was as if a light flipped on in my brain. I had known John for twenty years, had spent lots of time with him and his wife, but here was a brand new world he has created that I wanted to explore and understand. I made an appointment with him and asked if I could come over and have him show me around and talk with me about his work.
John is from the midwest but spent many years of his childhood living in Africa with his family. They lived out in the bush far from any city and he was free to explore on his own, and perhaps that is why he has become a person so unlike anyone else I know. First, he really sees what he is looking at, and he creates records of what he sees that have become the hieroglyphs of his world. He showed me tubs full of neatly arranged 3-4 inch drawings he has made over the years documenting his visions of people, places, and things. The walls of his studio hold portraits of people he has found interesting, images of ideas from the Kabbalah, and shapes and forms inspired by nature.
He has masses of found objects arranged artistically in old wooden boxes, on shelves, and on top of surfaces. He searches junk shops, flea markets, on hikes, and in villages around the world, and sees value in ancient artifacts, old tools, interesting stones, and assorted fragments of things. He showed me some flat wood containers with scooped depressions in which he had placed very old bones and artifacts, and he explained that he had seen the containers being used for merchandise in a market in Africa and purchased them from the vendors on the spot. The bookshelves lining the room contain old books on subjects in which he is interested, including the first book ever written about investing and ancient texts from the east and Africa. Along the top is a line-up of cowboy boots worn over the years by their son, a visual representation of his growing up.
John uses mainly pencil for his art and carries a small metal box with mechanical pencils with him at all times. I have never seen pencils like his before: old metal holders for the many thicknesses of lead that he uses for his sketches. He also creates some of his own drawing materials from graphite and other minerals that he grinds and applies to paper. He uses paper of various surface textures and he adjusts his work to the “teeth” of the paper surface, exploring what the medium does with the surface texture. Sometimes he adds texture to the surface to observe what will happen when he draws over it. He normally draws without a preconception of what will arise from the paper, and any color in his work comes from natural stones he has rubbed.
He draws and collects for himself and rarely shows other people what he is working on. He has no interest in selling or even giving away his work and is constantly drawing at home and on his travels. It is what he does. He is his art.