Jonathan Stein is a young artist who I met at Art Basel Miami Beach 2008. He recalls that we first met at Art Basel Miami Beach 2007. When I saw him one year later, it was his work that jogged my memory. As of this writing, Jonathan is creating cake installations and pop art based on celebrities of the day. His work is fun, satirical and very well done. I asked him for an interview and he agreed. His answer to my first question about how he was surviving as an artist was long and riveting. He answered many of my questions in one fell swoop so with his consent, I turned his single response into an entire conversation that we would’ve had anyway. You can see some of his work on his website at www.steinseye.com. However, Stein remains larger than his art. Read on and find out why.
MICHAEL: Hey Jonathan. Thanks for chatting. You seemed to be a hit at Art Basel Miami and I saw your work at a couple of satellite fairs. How do you describe yourself and where exactly do you live in Florida?
JONATHAN: Well ... I am an artist living in Coral Springs, Florida. I describe Coral Springs as a blur on most maps. It is suburbia like most Floridian cities lined with strip malls, 24-hour Walgreens and churches on alternating blocks. Unfortunately, it's 50 or more miles away from Miami, so to save face I say I am an artist working in Miami. Coral Springs just doesn't have that luster.
MICHAEL: How did you end up becoming a full-time artist?
JONATHAN: Five years ago I had a cushy job working as a digital lab technician and staff photographer for a leading national newspaper. I made a great salary, had health benefits, wonderful perks and limited responsibilities. It would be heaven for most, but I hated it dearly. I worked in an environment that asked little of me and actually reprimanded me for the "added effort" that I put into in-house photographs that would "only appear in black and white" the size of a postage stamp. Under the confines of this two-year descent into hell, I produced art heavily in between coffee breaks. When I finally quit to pursue art full-time, I was envied by a few and mocked by most. I never missed a day of work. I hated my life, dreaded the two-hour commute and almost developed stomach disorders and severe bleeding ulcers because having a "real job" was what every "decent, God-fearing American must do!" Or so I trusted that mentality.
MICHAEL: Let me guess. You quit your day job.
JONATHAN: For the past five years, I have been working full time as an artist, photographer and filmmaker. I have lived off the savings I acquired working "for the man" and devoted every waking moment to art that is not only conceptual, but tries to bring voice to marginalized people in our society.
MICHAEL: As of this conversation, we're dealing with a very troubled economy. So many people are getting laid off from their jobs. How are you doing? Has this changed your work?
JONATHAN: Before the crash of this dismal economy, my work was raw and not influenced by commercial success. I have worked hard to plan and execute socially-conscious exhibitions that shed light on injustice, herald the need for human rights equality and bolster an appreciation for the diversity of our communities. But as time has left its smear upon my life's canvas, I have had to make "concessions." I have had to split my art making in two. I have commercial (yet still highly conceptual) art that I showcase in galleries AND "art for profit’s sake" venues. This body of work takes up most of my 12-14 hour work day. The other work has been filed in my "pending grant assistance" bin and if it weren't for this incessant gnawing inner hunger to return to this art, I might be able to forget I once was propelled solely to create for the betterment of humanity.
MICHAEL: It really sounds like your struggle forced you to get creative. When I met you again at Art Basel Miami Beach recently, you seemed to be in a great mood. Was something else actually happening?
JONATHAN: Art Basel Miami Beach 2008, came with forewarnings of gloom. Being a "Miami" based artist, universally we all died a week ahead of time when The Miami Herald illustrated Basel as a balloon that was seconds away from bursting. It painted a pre-determined outcome that "no one would be buying art this year" and that a self-financial preservation tactic was the only way to go until this ever-downward spiraling economy changed its position. Despite this statement, collectively, as artists we forged on. Personally I pushed harder, worked longer, devoted every ounce I could muster as if the sheer adrenalin I had inside could change what was in print. Having assembled a 3000 square foot gallery art installation in Wynwood at Hardcore Contemporary Art Space two months before and then erected two other art installations at Scope Miami (HACS) and Art Now Art Fair (Zoe Heineman Meyers Gallery D.C), all that was left now was the waiting and seeing.
MICHAEL: I've always thought that artists tend to be in a state of near panic as they prepare for big shows. So what happened?
JONATHAN: I watched as gallery owners became "MEAN." I saw disappointment and alienation in the eyes of hopeful curators and artists who just needed a break. I saw apathy turn to disdain and inevitably desperation (especially toward the end) when art prices were being slashed in hopes that someone would at least buy something to cover the cost of a plane ticket. I listened to a couple debate for more than five minutes over whether or not to spend $30.00 on a limited edition t-shirt which would have been signed by the artist. They finally decided not to cough up the money and go out to dinner instead. I felt sick, sad and numb that what was initially foreshadowed was actually manifesting rapidly around me.
MICHAEL: This is not the story that galleries, artists and certainly not art fair administrators like to tell. It's very discouraging, yet it’s often reality.
JONATHAN: In all fairness, there were sales. Art galleries weren't ALL crumbling. Art collectors (though few that I’ve had contact with) feed their addictions. Still, I have suffered. It was my worst year yet, which few will ever honestly admit to. We wear our brave boy and girl smiles. We try as best as we can to wrap ourselves up in whatever emotionally protective armor we can to shield our hearts from the harsh realities that come with donning the title of "artist." We all sink into what I have termed the "Post Basel Depression" which happens each year and leaves one promising never to do this again. That's until mid next year when we "simply must" prepare for another season!
MICHAEL: Your story really represents what SO MANY artists face all the time. I don't think people realize what it's like for even super-talented people like you who eat, sleep and breathe art. I could have this same conversation with many artists even when the economy is great. Obviously, you're not going back to your old job. What will you do?
JONATHAN: I am left unsure. I can't give this up. I fight for so many artists who I know and believe in, but am now realizing without support from those who can give, we stand to fizzle away. My art for the past two and a half years has been about food. I make inedible, one of a kind, hand-painted and hand-carved celebrity portrait cakes with the likeness of Madonna, Britney Spears, Ricky Martin, Lindsay Lohan and so on. The series is called my "Everyone Wants A Piece Of ..." Collection and for the Art Now Art Fair, for the first time, I created a real-life, edible Britney Spears cake that everyone got a chance to devour at the opening. Since Basel, I spend most of my time preparing for other shows, searching for that "real job" which I know is just not out there. I also just signed on with a bakery to hand paint real cakes to bring in money to pay myself back for all the thousands I have devoted to my materials.
MICHAEL: You're simply a true believer in what you do. One of the things that I've learned is that practically everything is a struggle ... especially worthwhile things. I think we all get a little tired of the character building!
JONATHAN: I am not defeated, in fact, like it or not, I have two major exhibitions coming up. Luckily, most of my art is on hand so I am "saved" for these shows. I pray it gets better. I still network and plan shows to help other emerging artists. I haven't changed that dramatically, but now I spend less, take less risks artistically and live with a slightly deeper fear for the future. I know things will improve. When? I only wish I had that answer. But I say to other artists who are grieving, look inside your heart and ask yourself if you could fully, honestly walk away from this? Can you surrender the brush, the lens, the carving tool, the needle point, the video projector? Can you silence the hunger inside to create or quell the need to dream what the "masses" deem "unfathomable?" How easy is it to no longer seek to fashion something out of nothing?
MICHAEL: I couldn’t give up writing. It seems to me that you're definitely NOT going to give up.
JONATHAN: For me, I can't. If I know anything about the creative, universal spirit that I believe thrives in all of us, it is impossible to extinguish. So, we breathe, take our moments to "PAUSE", possibly cry out of the views of others, question why it has to be "SO F%$#*@G HARD TO MAKE IT!" and as always, we find a way to proceed even if money isn't the outcome!
MICHAEL: Jonathan, I honor you and wish you nothing but loads of future success. You deserve it.
Jonathan Stein's website is www.steinseye.com.