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JOHN DAY: JOURNEYS IN WILDERNESS

John Day is a New York City-based artist who creates very intriguing paintings and sculptures inspired by nature www.johnwday.com.  When I saw his work, I thought he was actually experimenting with paint in an organic way.  I got it half right.  Here’s John to explain the other half and much more …

 “… Regardless of whether you are “successful” in terms of exhibitions or sales, the path you take in the development and evolution of your own work determines how really successful you are ...”   

MICHAEL: Hello John, let's start with your very cool paintings.  When I look at them, I see organic experiments with paint.  It's almost as if the paint itself is an organism that you're playing with to see what it may or may not do.  How do you see it?

JOHN: The paintings do have an organic connection in that they are derived from wilderness. I encounter phenomena there, such as ponds, roots, boulders, trees, moss and begin a process of abstraction that uses experimentation with paint. This process is intuitive, and involves many layers where underlying forms are obscured. Some of the works are influenced by movement through wilderness space, where memorable things are encountered, then recede into the distance or into memory. Other works, such as the Glacial Ponds series, are inspired by specific conditions in the ponds that change dramatically with the seasons. I develop a painting approach that depends on the phenomena observed in the ponds.

MICHAEL: And so, as you're painting, are you recreating what you're seeing or creating something on canvas that's inspired by it?  For me, that's where it looks like you're experimenting with paint.

JOHN: Yes. It's the latter. The phenomena that I see are the points of departure for the painting. The painting develops into something else.

MICHAEL: Your use of color is very interesting.  Even the colors seem organic.  Are you deliberate in your use of color or is it experimental?

JOHN: Sometimes the color is reminiscent of what I see in nature, but more often I improvise with color. Colors are chosen in response to what is already on the surface. There is a lot of mixing and testing. I call this searching for color. I also use color to move back and forth in pictorial space.

In the Glacial Ponds and the more recent Wilderness series, the color scheme is simpler, with two to six hues or values based on what was seen. For example, duckweed on the surface of ponds is a wonderful pale yellow green, which I used in some of the works, with some improvisation.

MICHAEL: Your installations are very intriguing.  I like the fact that you create some of them in their native environments and that most of them are nature-inspired.  Is there a statement you're making here?

JOHN: In the installations, I am making a statement about the natural world and communicating my thoughts and feelings about wilderness to viewers. Often, they are inspired by the characteristics of the setting, whether indoors or outdoors. The natural materials are usually gathered from the area where the installation is done. In Heliotrope, the gallery space had only one natural light source in the corner of the room, a large window. The piece began in the center of the floor and spiraled upward until it reached the height of the window. The piece was also about plants seeking light. For Portal, the Brooklyn waterfront park had spectacular views of the river, and my thought was to create an opening to the opposite shore by constructing a large circular form tied to a fence that framed the skyline.

MICHAEL: When you're involved in the actual process of creating art, what's the dominant the driver for you?  Is the process emotional, intellectual or spiritual?

JOHN: If you mean following the idea or inspiration, which is primarily spiritual/emotional, the actual art making process involves a lot of intellectual activity - decisions about design, construction, logistics in the installations, which also gains momentum in terms of emotional energy as the projects near completion. The painting process also involves intellectual decisions, such as composition, choosing lines and shapes, thinking about color and being acutely aware of what is happening in the painting. Momentum also occurs here, which becomes more intense as the painting nears resolution.

MICHAEL: When did you first become aware of your potential as an artist? What happened?

JOHN: I was about four or five years old and early one morning, I saw a creature outside my bedroom window. It had huge eyes and four legs. Eager to show my parents, I made a detailed drawing of it to convince them it was real.

MICHAEL: What was it?  And this all led to what?

JOHN: I thought it was an alien creature, but it was probably a cat. Later, in elementary school and junior high school, I was put in classes for gifted kids. I remember painting a large, detailed picture of the Grand Canyon from a postcard in 5th grade. I went to the High School of Music & Art and at one point, became obsessed with Surrealism, even making a pilgrimage to see Salvador Dali at the St. Regis Hotel.

Anyway, I did meet Dali - he was very nice and signed a book about him that I brought. Through all those years, I was always drawing and painting and was certain that I would become an artist. Later, I went to Cornell University and was exposed to the best teacher I ever had - Robert Richenburg, an Abstract Expressionist. He was truly inspirational and coached us to be vanguard artists.

MICHAEL: Robert Rauschenberg?

JOHN: Actually, it was Richenburg not Rauschenberg.  He was a first generation ab-ex artist who was in the 9th Street exhibition that launched Abstract Expressionism. In his classes, he opened up the door to the full potential of what art could be, and for the first time, I began to see the range of possibilities in contemporary art. He said that if you are not a vanguard artist, you are not really an artist. To me, this means being an artist of your own time and exploring one's full potential, always challenging yourself, not repeating yourself for the sake of being safe, and trying to push the envelope.

MICHAEL:  He taught you and you’ve just taught me.  What do you think about the art world/art market today and how they function?  What needs changing?

JOHN: Back then, we were not taught anything about how to "survive" as an artist regarding day jobs, part time work, grants, etc. There were no computers, resume coaching or marketing advice, no social media. Just telephones and slides. The atmosphere was very purposeful and not very commercial, at least from my perspective.

In my opinion, the art world has always been a difficult place to navigate, with barriers and locked doors. Currently, there is a great deal of pluralism and variety, with some exciting and good work being done. However, the scene appears to me to be excessively fashion-driven, with an emphasis on marketing and careerism. Artists are encouraged to develop business plans and become entrepreneurs. Museums have become theme parks, with boutiques, retail outlets and high admission fees. The art “world,” although always business-focused, would do well to focus more on nurturing the process of making art and avoiding the trendiness of the fashion world. I disagree with Warhol, who said that good business is the best art. Great art is the best art.

MICHAEL: Yes, but isn't it necessary for artists today to know the business side if they want to succeed as artists?  It's that way with everything now. If you don't know the business side, you can't sustain the creative side, No?

JOHN: Yes, it is important to have some business knowledge and skills to maintain an art career. I wish they had taught us some of this back then so that we had some foundation to survive as artists. I have learned this on my own. But creativity must be driven and sustained by an overwhelming internal imperative, independent from the business side. Knowledge of the art business, in my opinion, cannot sustain your creativity as an artist. That has to come from inside, no matter what happens. Most artists do not make a living entirely from their work; they teach, do part time work, etc. Regardless of whether you are “successful” in terms of exhibitions or sales, the path you take in the development and evolution of your own work determines how really successful you are.  

MICHAEL: What do you think needs to change in the art world?  What's holding artists back from selling more?  What's keeping everyday people from truly connecting with contemporary art ... if anything?

JOHN: There seems to be a lot of interest in contemporary art.  There are throngs in the museums and galleries. Maybe much of that interest is superficial; people are curious or going because they heard something was “cool.” I think it is good that lots of people are looking at art. I recall the crowds of people who stood on line to interact with Marina Abramovic at MOMA. Something important was going on there. But I also see many posing next to a provocative piece and having their friend take a picture as a souvenir.

To connect, people need to know more (myself included) about what the artist is thinking. I was in Paris once touring the museums, and every 20 minutes, a museum guide was taking a group through the galleries, explaining things. This is done here as well, but it could be done more. You also see groups doing the galleries in Chelsea, led by a guide, which is good.

MICHAEL: Finally John, What would you like your work to say about you or for you long after you're gone?  Rather than have an art historian speak for you, what would you say for yourself?

JOHN: I would like to think that my work speaks about my life and how I perceive the world, especially wilderness, which has been the focus of my work for the past 30 years. Also that I have created a body of work that speaks to others, that reflects my own time and shows a path of personal discovery and artistic evolution, of pushing my own boundaries, of taking on challenges and pursuing artistic innovation. Plus, of making a contribution to the art of the 20th and 21st centuries.

My work has developed along several parallel paths, while remaining focused on ideas based on journeys in wilderness. The installations, constructed with natural materials, are ephemeral. After being exhibited, they are usually “recycled.”  I am planning to self-publish a book with a DVD to document these works. The concept of “permanence” or artistic legacy is debatable. What works really last? How long will the solar system last? Perhaps my paintings and drawings will find a place in public or private collections, whether sold or given away. I am working on this, but right now, I am focused on all the works and projects in progress that are lined up on the runway, ready to take off.

MICHAEL: Fantastic.  Thanks John.  Nice chat.

Check out John Day at www.johnwday.com.  



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