November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — INTERVIEW

Masami Teraoka/Artist-Interview


The Cloisters/Arrezo Converters

 Oil and gold leaf on panel in gold leaf frame | 60 x 64 7/8 x 1 7/8 inches | 2014


Bridging Life and Art

with Mike Foldes, Founder and Managing Editor

Ragazine: Thank you very much for agreeing to this e-interview, and for allowing us to share your unusual and thought-provoking (if not controversial) work with Ragazine readers. Most of the paintings included in your online portfolio are in the style you have developed blending the influences of both classical Japanese Ukiyo-e or wood block print tradition, and Christian iconography. Can you tell us a little about your painting before this style evolved, and what led you to it?

Masami Teraoka: While (Marcel) Duchamp’s conceptual art had been discussed when I was going to Otis Art Institute, I had thought this early on that I wanted to pursue a vision that was totally of anti-trendish LA art scene. While I was absorbing new energy from Pop Art, I said to myself re: content-wise, these inspiring artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, and (Roy) Lichtenstein made great sense. Basically what they were saying had been about consumerism culture in US.

Since I always had been fascinated by Ukiyo-e wood block print and it’s beautiful vocabulary coming from Japanese cultural background, what if I use my favorite vocabulary to create my work. I could make comments on Japanese culture and US culture in Ukiyo-e style work. I stayed with the vocabulary until the huge thematic series evolved, the Catholic Church’s historical clergy sex abuse. As I grew out from Ukiyo-e theme work, the next major evolution came with the concept that is all about history of western culture and current social issues. Although the basic approach toward my vision was strongly based on freedom of expression to investigate classical vocabularies and explore how far I can push the boundary of the ignored or totally abandoned vocabulary in the ‘60s, why not explore this path instead of focusing on breaking boundaries of materials and expressions. Classical vocabularies could give you enormous inspiration; perhaps, I thought… in order to tackle Catholic clergy sex abuse, I regrouped my thought about the medium and vocabulary.

There had been another inspiration, sort of a backward way – coming from the close association with Gutai Group in Japan. I used to live within a few blocks away from Jiro Yoshihara, the Gutai leader’s residence in Ashiya city. I often visited his son Michio Yoshihara, my buddy who was a Gutai Group member. We often got together for Mishio’s group jam sessions. I closely watched what Gutai had been doing and what the Gutai’s spirit was all about. This is a good way to start my freedom of expression concept, or vision. Gutai Group’s attitude was whatever you are inspired by, you do it with unconventional materials and take it freely to express in an unconventional approach, to express their feelings. I had lived through my college student time with the close associations, or perhaps closest associations, with them; it was great to learn what was going on in the USA. Gutai Group often had referred to Jackson Pollock, Sam Francis and Anthony Tapies. In fact I had met Sam Francis and Tapies in Ashiya city where he gave a public speech.

In fact one of the most significant and important Gutai Group’s performances, called “Happening,” was held at the Sankei Kaikan Theater in Osaka. I was asked to assist Michio’s concrete music for the happening’s background. In retrospect, I can describe it as John Cage-inspired sound effects for the background audio effect. Recently I was interviewed by Ming Tang who had co-curated a huge Gutai Group show in the Guggenheim. She visited me and I had given her Gutai Group’s catalogs that I had treasured for centuries. While I was growing up, I had such great opportunity to see what Gutai Group had been doing as to their own things, and in the meantime I was nurturing my own vision to evolve.


New Wave Series/Sarah and Dream Octopus

Watercolor on paper | 20-1/16 x 29-7/8 | 1992

Q: Many traditional Japanese works portray waves, and you creatively elaborate on that with your Wave Series and New Wave Series. Do you plan on doing anything influenced by the waves that led to the meltdown at Fukushima?

A: I’m not sure, but the inspiration for the waves theme were inspired by two reasons. I was trying to get used to being in the water. Since I moved to Hawaii, I was inspired to learn to swim. I actually had almost drowned when we had the field trip to Momoshima island. Shortly after that incident, I decided to be an artist. It was more like there were personal reasons that I was ready to teach myself swimming. The wave paintings I created are all about my respect for the friendly Hawaiian ocean.

Although Fukushima tsunami was horrendous, I think natural disasters may not have the same sort of personal complexity that I had been struggling with for ages regarding the fear of drowning. Plus, waves became my helping hand to deal with the AIDS theme painting series. It helped me to balance out the emotional issues. Social implications and historical edges as regard humanity issues always compelled me to paint, and I have wondered about this myself. I tend to be drawn toward humanity (and how people are) caught in complex cultural webs.

Q: What were your paintings/drawings like before your present “style” evolved?

A: My drawings/paintings are as precisely and closely inspired by Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, because they are stunning, fantastic and expressive! Beautifully drawn and articulate. Their vocabulary had a lot to do with the skills of artists who conceive figurative themes in abstract ways. Such transformation inspires me.

Drawings done by Ukiyo-e artists articulated unique narratives. Ukiyo-e artists’ strength is inspired by Kabuki stories. They considered themselves artisans, while depicting Kabuki actors and actresses in the stories is not tied down with rules or technique or theme. They had freedom of expression.


AIDS Series/Geisha in Bath

Watercolor on canvas |108 x 81 inches | 1988

Q: Who or What was the greatest influence on you as a developing artist, other than your father, whom you have said wanted you to do something other than take over the family’s Kimono store?

A: I learned a lot about waves and composition from Katsushika Hokusai. As to figurative drawing, Gototei Kunisada is my favorite artist, since he never went for stylized faces but brought out individual characters and faces. Conceptually, Hieronymus Bosch inspired me at the other end, since his vision is all about humanity. He created a timeless statement.


Burqa Inquisition/Chicken Torture

 Oil on canvas | 100 ½ x 77 ½ inches | 2003

Q: Do you believe that art can influence culture, or vice versa? For example, paintings from the time of the Inquisition reflected the times, but did not necessarily change them. Your works frequently comment on the hypocrisy of the times, but are they are a reflection of the times or a force for change?

A: I’m certain art has such powerful realm where no one can deny when it works in poetic form. It reflects time and forcefully presents what we feel, think and face today. Art documents times and influences social attitudes if it is presented in highly evocative way. I hope to present my statement in high aesthetics and powerful visual poetry.

Q:  What is your preferred medium? Why?

A: Currently I prefer oil. Oil is good for textual subject matter and watercolor for serene surface.

Q: Do you have a favorite piece or series? What makes it your favorite?

A:  Yes. Every series that I created is my favorite one. By far Catholic clergy sex abuse had a lot heavy duty thoughts that involve many layers of social and cultural issues. Having a critical view about thematic issues, composition, drawing and how well it reflects the thematic motif and narratives − that means a lot  to  me. My favorite ones have abundant and richly profound implications.


The Cloisters/Venus and Pope’s Workout

Oil on panel in gold leaf frame | 119 1∕8  x 122 1∕2  x 2 3∕4  inches | 2005

Q: Why has the Catholic clergy sex abuse story become the biggest series you’ve committed to in the last few decades?

A: When I looked at the Catholic clergy sex abuse issues, I saw the institutionalized, long history… where the Catholic Church’s mysogynistic view, confessors, penitence, indulgence, authoritative prayers versus powerless believers, authority versus individual rights. And among others, the gay marriage, same sex marriage issue and the tendency to a totalitarian approach against individuals, the hypocrisy, (and issues of) celibacy, humanity, healthy sexuality, women’s equality, warped sexuality or prohibited conversations between nuns, the institution’s absolute secrecy versus transparent current culture – are all boiling in the same pot. However I looked at it, the clerical sex abuse became  the focus, the core of western culture coming from Vatican history. There had been a lot to do with confession, baptism and all sorts of the church’s institutionalized rituals that have enhanced the institution’s financial mechanism. This is a profoundly amazing place to look into, the confessional room. The dark box or black box holds all of the secrets. And that is the driving force in the institution I wanted to investigate.

Q: You speak of human nature and repression of sexual instincts in the priesthood… Can there be hope for real change?

A: I believe there is hope if the Catholic Church recognizes that confession is the main gear that had a lot to do with misguided behavior. This is the engine that needs to be tuned up to current times, instead of harkening back to the male chauvinistic institutionalized structure.


Venus’ Serpentine Confession

Oil and acrylic on panel in gold-leaf frame | 38 x 44 x 1 ½ inches | 2003

Q: What inspired you to start the initial  series you began in the early 1990s, right after your AIDS series?

A: Definitely many questions came up when I watched (President Bill) Clinton’s and Monica Lewinski’s trial. In a “Who was telling us what to do in bed” sort of the way. I was looking at the entire episode, it was such a ridiculous media circus. Then I wanted to know where the basic morality and politics were coming from. Eventually I traced it back to the Vatican.

Q: Why does Catholic iconography dominate your recent triptych paintings?

A: The thematic choice defines it into iconic images I really enjoy. I also feel many great artists are among the Catholic Church’s patrons and beneficiaries of the amazing Medici’s support. The Medici family had patronized great and phenomenal artists in the medieval times. What if we did not have those greats that enriched and contributed to human history in visual terms. In the meantime, the Vatican had erased all of the major documents about Catholic clergy sex cases… Am I correct to say this?


   The Last Supper/Eve and The Giant Squid Hunters

Oil and gold leaf on panel in gold leaf frame | 199 x 122-1/2 x 2-3/4 inches | 2012

Q:  What do the gold leaf and gold leaf frames mean to you?

A: The gold leaf frames imply the rigid Catholic Church as a formidable institution where individual rights are not respected, but squashed by a powerful institution. The gold leaf frame work addresses the sickening over-the-top symbolic wealth of the Catholic Church. Gold leaf is an uncompromising medium to me to use. But in order to address the serious historical background of the Catholic Church’s history, it became such a big challenge for me to tackle and work with it. Gold leaf is a tough medium. By contrasting concept against the framework of ancient triptychs allowed me to address the current socio-cultural issues more appropriately.

Q: Your answers to our questions are as revealing as your art about your concerns with thematic issues and narratives. Some artists say they cannot talk about their work, that it speaks for itself. What do you say to that?

A: All depends on how you want to see. That is their choice.

I personally feel conceptualizing my vision by verbalizing helps it to evolve into a powerful composition. It helps so much visually. When I get stuck visually, verbalizing becomes a handy tool. In the creative process, especially in a narrative work, I focus on the conceptual aspect focusing constantly on compelling issues as a mantra. I see talking about an art work has dual edges. The positive side may help enhance a viewer’s interpretation, but it can also work against as negative to limit how a viewer would interpret the work.

What viewers may not be able to specifically figure out would be the figures or characters and props that I intentionally choose. Since selecting the props and who I may be depicting have a lot to do with a mixture of personal, general, historical or current social and cultural contexts that have a lot to do with the narrative. There are many layers of congruent concepts that make all the stars in the narrative, and the props, work compellingly. Nothing is accidental in the end.

Q: What do you think about Anime’, and do you have any favored young artists you can identify by name or their work? 

A: I’m afraid not. I cannot make much comment on anime content-wise, since I’m not into anime at all. I am much more a devoted Ukiyo-e woodblock print fan, which I have extensively investigated. In my view, Ukiyo-e’s vocabulary means so much as aesthetically profound and exciting. Those texts in Ukiyo-e prints are fascinating, since they depicted Edo people’s mind in beautiful way. What appeals to me about Ukiyo-e drawing is the figurative drawings created by feelings peppered with abstract interpretation and freedom of exaggeration. The figurative drawing and the poetry is so inspiring in aesthetic ways.  

Q: Do you anticipate that we will ever see a feature-length film based on the style and content of your art work?

A: Definitely. I foresee it coming since the narratives that I have created are all about social and cultural issues that we are concerned about today. My work has reflected those thoughts in that particular time of the history I had lived. In historical context, my work has an abundance of philosophical implications regarding humanity, individual rights, oppression, totalitarian views and bringing out and asserting how important it is to have freedom of speech. Moreover, what art can do to help people to understand who we are – and the most important values (we) may want to have. These aspects will be, perhaps, needed to be examined in an historical sense.


 The Cloisters/Birth of Venus 

Oil on canvas in gold-leaf frame | 90 x 94 inches | 2002-2005

Q: You grew up in Hiroshima prefecture. You were a boy during WWII. How much of that do you remember and how much of that early experience influenced you to become the artist you are today?

A: I used to draw airplanes a lot. After the war a GI gave me a Coca-Cola. I had treasured the tin can, since it was so beautiful. I loved the way it looked and I made a fantastic pencil drawing. I wish I had kept it. Although it was lost, unfortunately. I still have a great American airplane drawing I did when I was 12 years old. In retrospect, perhaps this already might have set me going for Pop Art.

When my sister and I were just about going out to our school, we saw the two suns. One from the east and one from the west. They are exactly identical sizes and brightness. It turned out that day was the day the atomic bomb was dropped in Hiroshima city. I was 9 years old.

Q: How do you start a painting? Do you do study drawings or sketches before you paint? From Ukiyo-e watercolor and Renaissance style oil painting?

A: For my watercolor painting, I have to make so many study drawings and sketches. The drawing and the composition have to be finished and set to go before I start the watercolor. Whereas with oil, the process of painting is reversed. This is one of the reasons why I had switched over to oil painting. It was a big challenge mentally and physically.

I can start from a blank canvas or panel without any sketches. Then I continue to tweak the initial composition. While it is easily, perhaps, overlooked between the two entirely different vocabularies, there is the obvious undercurrent thematically that is so consistent about my work. There is a lot to do with sexuality, health of individual rights, equality and environmental concerns.


McDonald’s Hamburgers Invading Japan/Geisha and Tattooed Woman 

Watercolor on paper | 14 ¼ x 21 ½ inches | 1975

Q: What made you evolve your Ukiyo-e painting style into Renaissance style painting? Their vocabularies seem vastly different from each other. Could you elaborate on that?

A: Largely the two vocabularies have reflected where I had been and am now. Plus, the thematic issues demanded a certain medium. For instance, I felt I could really use oil to address Catholic clergy sex abuse since the subject is textually a complex theme. Watercolor could fall short to bring out the richness of thematic concerns. Concept defines form and vocabulary, in my view.

While I was still learning about American life and culture, I felt my statement had been focused on my Japanese cultural background. Then later on I had realized I had lived in the States longer than in Japan. The experiences I had in America, I felt, my work should reflect. What should I say about USA as a statment in my work? When I was realizing the personal evolution sensing inside, it was getting close to the end of the 1980s. I asked myself what are the most compelling social and historical issues? After I did the personal research summarizing my early shunga series, AIDS, Clinton and Monica Lewinski’s scandal, I realized the most compelling related issue had turned out to be the Catholic clergy sex abuse. I felt it would be a large enough, and profound enough, theme.

Q: Have you done any other form of work in earlier days?

A: I have worked with sculpture such as stone carving, clay figures, resin sculptures in the ‘60s, and also I was really into abstract painting. As a matter of fact, I have loved the way Mondrian abstracted his Dutch landscape into New York Boogie Woogie abstract painting. I was so inspired. When I was a college student in Japan I painted seriously in the Mondrian style painting. I bet he must have loved jazz, imagining from his  apartment that the New York streets looked like his paintings. Grids of the street, with exciting jazz. This is just my guess.

Q: What makes an artist significant in historical context? 

A: In my view a great artist created art work that is identical with who she or he was. If an artist could articulate what is all about the person, history recognize them. However you looked at him or her, the artist’s being has been expressed in the consistent way – showing who they are. Very consistent about themselves. You know what they are all about. When an artist lacks this, the artist would drift away from history.


Adam and Eve/Web Site 2000

Oil and watercolor on canvas |83 1∕2  x 152 5∕8  inches | 1997-2004

Q:  A common thread in your work is sexuality. Where does that come from? Why is it  so?

A: I always wondered about this myself. Basically what had become controversial in  society has a lot to do with sexuality. It seems we cannot get away from sexuality, since we were born from mothers. Adam and Eve started western history with such warped view about the genders. What if someone comes up with series that the artist presents a reversed view. Eve is a good woman in the reversed order? Adam is somewhat put into Eve’s position instead.

Q: How was the most recent show at the MAC/McKinney Avenue Contemporary received in Dallas, Texas?

A: It was of  the fantastic reception! Since showing my large triptych pieces in one huge gallery was more than the dream I was hoping for. I had six large triptychs, each about 10 feet x 10 feet, and one medium Gothic triptych piece. People responded so enthusiastically. They were excited and inspired by the exhibition. Plus, a Pussy Riot member showed up at the opening, since I had been talking about Pussy Riot lately. Actually one of my friends in Dallas had dressed up like a Pussy Riot and showed up. Cheers! There was also the beautiful ballerina among the opening crowd.

Q: Are you preparing the next show now? And where are they going to be exhibited?

A: My solo show opens at the Honolulu Museum in May 2015 for a few months. Then another solo show opens at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco October 2015.

Q: What can you say about the new work? Do you already have a vision of what it will be?

A: I do. I’m writing a Kabuki narrative for the new work. I will feature Geisha Momotaro, Pope Francis and Pussy Riot and Putin. The story should reflect current global socio-political issues.

Q: What are you working on?

A: I’m still working on the new triptych paintings, and also several triptychs in progress that had been in the incubation period for more than a few years. Perhaps several years. Soon they will hatch! Fingers crossed!!!!!


 Lacquer on resin/1966-1970/
Size: 3-3/4 x 29-15/16 x 5-1/8 in. (9.5 x 76 x 13 cm)
Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco

Q:   Your scope of work from 1966-2014… it’s a vast work expressed in different media and conceptual visions, but what ties it together? What do you feel is consistent about your work?

A: Working with sexual and erotic subject matter, empowered women predominate in the narratives. My triptychs focus on equal rights, gay rights, gender issues and health issues, and examine environmental and cultural issues that are pitted against authoritative institutions and power hungry people.

Q: Are you religious person?

A: I am not, but more like I lean toward art power as my guidence for life. Poetry and visual richness in arts are the ones that I value the most.

Q: Thank you, Masami Teraoka.

A: Cheers!


Masami Teraoka Studio

Catharine Clark Gallery
248 Utah St, San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 399-1439

Samuel Freeman Gallery

Samuel Freeman Gallery
2639 South La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034


About the interviewer:

Michael Foldes is the founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.

November 9, 2014   Comments Off on Masami Teraoka/Artist-Interview

Gene Lowinger / Photographer

121006_029_sep2© Gene Lowinger

Street scene in New York City


The World As I See It

on the streets of New York City

with Chuck Haupt, Photography/Layout Editor 

Gene Lowinger’s career began as a musician, transitioned to author, and then photographer whose work captures the faces of NYC, out on the streets….

* * *

Q: You had quite a career as a musician, fiddling with Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. How did you develop your passion for photography?

A: In the 1980s I began to SCUBA dive and loved the underwater colors and shapes, so I bought a Nikonos V camera and strobe. The Nikonos 35mm lens was also good for land photography, so I photographed the exotic locations to which I traveled to do my diving. After developing a bad case of pneumonia with residual lung problems, I had to discontinue my diving. But I’d already been bitten by the photography bug. I took a few courses at the New School in NYC, including b/w darkroom. I had some inspiring teachers.

Q: How did you happen to concentrate on being a documentary street shooter over other styles of photography?

A: My darkroom teacher, Mario Cabrera, was a stringer for Associated Press and he talked a lot to me about photojournalism. His teacher, Ben Fernandez, who was the head of the photo department at New School, was a documentary photographer. Between the two of them they got me interested in documenting life and times. I did other types of photography also − landscape, nature, macro, etc., but it was documentary/photojournalism that really gave me goosebumps.


Gene Lowinger / Streets Scenes from the streets of NYC

very cold day in New York


Houston Street



West 14th Street

All photos © Gene Lowinger. Used with permission.


Q: The tone of your black & white photographs is very rich. Why do you like it over color?

A: I originally shot color slide film – especially Kodachrome. But I really enjoyed the darkroom process of b/w (except for developing the film itself, which I really hated). Making the manipulations and seeing the prints come alive in the developer was very exciting. I try to create images that tell a story. When someone looks at my image I want them to see the story, not the pretty colors of the clothes or the scenery. With b/w I have much more control over how the viewer’s eye moves through the image. And I like the abstraction of using just tones of gray, black, and white for my work. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate others who work in color. B/W is just the way I see when I shoot.

Q: How do you decide who to photograph while on the street? Ever get confronted by a person after you photograph them? If so, how do you handle it?

A: I don’t think about it. When I’m out walking around I let my intuition take over. All the thinking is done beforehand. I have in the back of my mind the kinds of situations and/or subjects I want to shoot. I look for people with interesting expressions or interesting  juxtapositions with their environment. I try to catch interactions between two people. I’m usually pretty close to my subjects and I use wide to ultra-wide lenses – 35mm equivalents of 15mm, 21mm, 24mm, and 35mm. Rarely longer than that unless I’m doing a portrait or a performance. I’ve been confronted, but not often since I’m very unobtrusive (sneaky). When a person becomes confrontational I just keep walking. If they follow me I go into a store and they never follow. Sometimes when people have asked why I’m taking photos, I tell them I’m working for the FBI or NSA. That gets a chuckle and breaks the ice, then I can have a pleasant conversation with them. I give them my card which has my website and blogsite on it.

Q: What cameras do you shoot with? How do they help with your style of photography?

A: At first I used a Nikon D700. But when Fuji came out with the X-Pro1 I jumped on it. I love the optical viewfinder. The size of the camera and lenses make it easy to carry around for long street walks and they don’t draw attention like the big ‘howitzer’ Canons (get it?) and Nikons. I also like the Fuji X-T1 very much. It’s smaller than the X-Pro1, but doesn’t have the optical viewfinder. The amazing quality of the EVF makes up for that. And I especially like that everything I need to change or control on the fly is available to me on the top of the camera with analog dials. I can see in an instant how the camera is set and make changes if I need to. No menus to scroll through. I shoot with zooms and prime lenses, depending on my mood and the particular situation. The Fuji 10-24mm zoom is a wonderful lens that allows for great flexibility on the crowded streets of NYC. But it’s a relatively large lens, so sometimes I take my 14, 23, and 35mm lenses with me. But I don’t obsess about equipment.  Learning to work with what I have to get what I want is more important.


Gene Lowinger / The Jewish Diaspora, NYC





Crown Heights

House of Sages on East Broadway.

All photos © Gene Lowinger. Used with permission.


Q: You spend a lot of time on the Lower East Side documenting the Jewish neighborhood. What do you hope to become of this project?

A: I began that project over 20 years ago as a self-exploration. I’ve expanded the scope of the project now to cover areas of Brooklyn, upstate New York, and New Jersey. I’ve had several shows of the work as it developed, and eventually I will try to get a book put together.

Q: Which photographers have and still do inspire you?

A: The two at the top of my list are W. Eugene Smith and Garry Winogrand. I’ve been looking at their work for many years and every time I revisit them I see something new. It’s like playing a great piece of music by Bach. I’ve studied his solo works for violin for over 50 years and every time I practice one of the pieces I see and hear new things in it. Beyond those two photographers, I really like Robert Frank, Walker Evans, all the FSA photographers, the New York Photo League. More modern photographers such as Tim Hetherington, Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich of the Bang Bang club.

Q: What more can we expect to see from your photography in the future?

A: The Lower East Side project has a ways to go yet. It’s expanded into much more than I originally thought, so there’s quite a bit of work to do with it. I hope to start traveling, especially to Israel, next year. It’s an oasis of development and growth in a part of the world that always seems to be falling apart and in conflict. I’ll probably always stay with b/w, but maybe experiment a bit with color.


See more from Gene Lowinger at: and

About the interviewer: 

Chuck Haupt is Photography/Layout Editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.

This interview was conducted via email in October 2014. 

November 6, 2014   Comments Off on Gene Lowinger / Photographer

Erskine Caldwell Interview

tobaccoroadPhoto by Carl Van Vechten, 1938

Tobacco Road , Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel


 Erskine Caldwell

My Life: Writing, Not Reading … 

This previously unpublished interview with the late literary lion Erskine Caldwell by Charles Hayes took place in 1986, about a year before Caldwell died. It is one in a series of interviews with artists, writers and musicians that Hayes undertook in the ’80s exploring the creative process and various hurdles the subjects had to overcome along the way to becoming established in their respective fields.

By Charles Hayes

Place: Paradise Hills, Arizona
Date: September 24, 1986


This interview was conducted with Erskine Caldwell whose novel, Tobacco Road, was turned into the 1941 movie, also called Tobacco Road.

Our conversation took place at Caldwell’s gated community home in Scottsdale, Arizona, outside of which was neither a Bentley nor Mercedes (which I saw in the neighborhood). Caldwell’s wife guided me through the gates in an old Chevy. We spoke while he labored to breathe through plastic tubes connected to a portable oxygen cannister. Caldwell had about half a lung left and knew he was not long for this world. He reflected on having had only a minor education, learning to write by way of experience, and the obstacles he had to face as a writer, including times when he had to eat rat trap cheese.  At the time of my visit, Caldwell was on his fourth wife, the very hospitable and helpful Virginia Caldwell. One of his previous wives was the photographer Margaret Bourke-White. This interview is one of the last interviews he gave. He would die a year and a half later, in April 1987.


EC: Will you state your premise, again, so I will know what we are talking about?  You’re doing what? Researching a book?

CH: I am doing research for a book.

EC:  This is ah, a thesis or … ?

CH:  … a book…

EC: Did you attend the University of New Mexico?

CH: I’m going through that (grad school) now.

EC:  So, what is your theme?

CH:  I want to be able to present materials that writers and artists like yourself, whose works have to do with hardships that they’ve gone through, as a way to tell us something about the creative life or creating thinking, you see?

EC: What is the title?

(His wife enters the room, “Your son, Jay, is on the phone.”

CH: that’s okay.

Mrs. C:  It will be one minute.

EC: Disruptions!

CH: That’s fine – I’m used to it.

EC: What is your title? 

CH:  Pearl in the Mud

EC: What kind of people are you talking to?

CH:  Besides yourself, Lucas Foss the conductor, Edward Albee the playwright, Louise Bourgeois, the sculptor, and others… Some are not famous.

EC: That can be the best kind because when people get famous they think they know everything!

CH: Yes, I would like to talk a little about this issue.

EC: Good!

CH: If you get tired, we can stop, I have about 15 questions. Let’s see, personally I was impressed by the resolve with which you moved through your hindrances. When young, before American Earth, before Tobacco Road came out and you said various things in your autobiography, Call it Experience, such as “For 10 or 12 hours a day I wrote always with a dogged determination regardless of hardship.’  That was when you were in, ah, Maine.  And…you said:  “I was to break down the resistance of Scribner’s,” the publisher. I’m wondering about that, it seems you had this resolve to get there.

EC: Well, its hard to describe [trembling, feeble tone\ in a way because, ah, you see I was handicapped early in life…. I did not have an education, went to high school for two years, and that as a total of, ah, three years and before (that) lower school.  Then I went to different colleges. I went to a small college in South Carolina, which I didn’t like: Erskine College.  So, I got out … and made it to the University of  Virginia, which I did like.  After that, I was able to go to the University of Pennsylvania summer school, which also gave me a big life, but my personal education came out of the University of Virginia even though I never graduated.  But, I achieved what I wanted to get, all right, as if I had to struggle against the tide, against the odds, because I didn’t have … what might have carried me to higher levels… higher intellectual levels, and so forth. 

So, I was not at all capable of higher intellectual life.  My life consisted of how life, the life on the bottom, the life of the people who were poor because when we were growing up, we were surrounded by people in poverty, and so I had no great ambition to be anything but a chronicler, a conveyer of other peoples’ lives by interpreting their existence to my eyes, the way I saw it, not as … anybody else would see their lives, necessarily, but as their lives revealed to me that basic struggle of human existence, spiritual, educational, medical…all kinds of things.

People who were poor were also in poor health. You can’t have good medical attention if you’re out of money to pay the doctor, so if you had bad health you had a poor empty stomach, you had no great future… So, of course, the panacea for all this … came out of the evangelical religion that was imposed on them. (Not imposed, but) they grasped it because it was the only feasible thing they could get hold on.

CH: Did you feel for those people empathetically at a young age?

EC: Well, you see, I knew them so well because I lived among them, as I was writing in this autobiography over here (points to a large pile of paper on his desk). I used to drive an auto for a country doctor for several summers, for several doctors, so I would be exposed to the mysterious diseases nobody else knew about. But the doctor knew what they were and he could do nothing. I became exposed to those (cough) lives and (cough) yet get into which they were living, so that, ah, influenced me to be sympathetic (hard cough).  So my life was in among those people, and not among the elite, not among intellectuals, not about and among the educated, no.  It was just among the people that were out in the field, the mills…. That is the only thing I knew.

CH: When you started to write, you started on the newspaper, didn’t you?  You started at 18, or so?

EC: Yea, well, I go into that in my autobiography.  I started there. I learned it by working as a volunteer, a weekly newspaper, type by hand, all kinds of things like that. Writing social notes, obits, then I graduated up to sports writer, writing about baseball and the small town in which I lived in Georgia; so that’s how I started in newspaper journalism.  When I left college the last time, I got a job on the Atlantic Journal, and that’s where I really got started in writing because whatever I wrote, he threw it into the waste basket; so I learned everything I write is not going to be good.

Right, so you know you have got to do it yourself, because you can’t trust other people to help you…

ErskineCaldwell and Charles Hayes

Charles Hayes and Erskine Caldwell, 1986. Virginia Caldwell photo.

CLH: I remember you did a story during those times, about a guy on skid row, it was “Blue Monday,” and, he, your editor, threw it away.  Can you recall any images you had of success or fame before Scribner’s started accepting your work?  Did you have images of that? What was it going to be about?

EC: No … No, because I had no great, ah … ego about the whole thing. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just did it, and trust to the future.  I had no ambition to be “a writer!” or “novelist!” or anything.  The idea was to do what I could do whatever it was, so I gradually gravitated from non-fiction … from newspaper journalist to fiction, because that’s what I wanted – to interpret what I saw through my filter system.  And so to me nothing else matters –  except just my reaction.  Whatever they were, true or false, I had to do it the way it appealed to me, so that’s why I wrote as I did – and wrote 50 books… on that basis, and wrote just what appealed to me.  Not what might appeal to a publisher or reader. I care nothing about the reader or publisher, only secondarily.  First it has to be appealing to me and so it has to be filtered through my filter.  And I don’t want to take advice from an editor….

CH:  What did all this do to you? You know, Tobacco Road starts becoming a big hit on Broadway after a while and a lot of stories come out and you are in the papers, you are … what we call Famous.  What did that do to you, the Erskine Caldwell who was private, maybe introverted, or whatever?  What was the power of that on you?  Did that cause a conflict?  Public versus personal, who you really are?

FC: Hah! (laughs)  You see, I was nobody.  I wasn’t anything (chuckles). I was just another scribbler, another writer.  I had no conception of myself as being anything other than the next guy.  Um, because to me a writer had no great standing… where I was living.  As I was growing up, he wasn’t anything to bank on, and he wasn’t anything to raise and he was nobody to look up to. I suppose in certain circles eminence comes from great popularity, or from great fame.  But to me that simply didn’t appeal to me. I just wanted to be myself, I had to do it my way. 

CH: Well, what happened when certain people early on started to align you with Henry James and Balzac … ‘This guy is up there.” What does that do to your ego and so forth?

EC: Well, you hear in college classes, you hear all these names of people who are said to be famous. Sir Walter Scott, Henry James…  It meant nothing to me. I didn’t read ‘em.  I didn’t read other peoples’ books. I wanted to do my own books. Ah, I didn’t want to be influenced… I didn’t want to waste my time… Sure I it would have helped me, it would have educated me, ah, but my life, ahh, is spinning away… I couldn’t sit and read a book. I had to write a book! Ah, that was my life.  Writing, not reading.

I didn’t know what fame meant! It was so far removed from my existence that it was  Nonexistent.  In my time, it was several writers I heard about…  Well, I was not interested… They could invent kingdoms way up there, out of reach.  And, of course make it interesting I supposed, but it didn’t interest me. … As time went on, what I tried to do was to read one book by some master, whomever appealed to me, and one book by a young contemporary… I read a few books, maybe two a year. So, I would read one book by Hemingway, one book by Truit Edison, one by Theodore Dreiser. But they didn’t influence me because they were doing their things and I was doing my things. 

CH:  Next question, Criticism. Was it Call it Experience in which you talk about early criticism, the first book that Scribner’s published – American Earth?

EC: American Earth?

CH: That’s right…and there was a lot of negative criticism and a lot of negative criticism toward Tobacco Road.  In a certain part of the book, you said you had a realization that you no longer had to satisfy the critical establishment. Where one time you began to think there had to be a formula for your books to sell, but then you realized that you don’t have to do that, you’re writing for you and to other people.  Now, my questions is, “With that realization, was there a change in your life?  When you had that realization… (was it) a kind of therapy?  You know, a breakthrough?”

EC: well, you see (cough) when criticism came, I was not interested in it. I probably would have benefited from it, but I always had a theory: there are always two opposing forces in criticism…One is praise and one is damnation. To me they cancel out each other.  So, I was not interested in either.  Ah…to me, when someone panned (a work), I could accept it.  If I read it – I didn’t always read it, didn’t know about it, I guess, but ah… if somebody praised it, I usually didn’t accept praise.  Ah, I disbelieved it.  Because to me there might be… some element there…some trickery. I don’t know, somebody might think he could achieve success by… praising something. Well, to me that’s false. I couldn’t accept any of that, no more than I could the praise, the condemnation.  I guess… outside all that criticism, any book, current or other I’ve done, because once I approve or once I finish or set out a book… that’s the end of it. I don’t care what’s going to happen to it. If it has a good sale, fine…. If it has a poor sale, fine. I accept that.  So I don’t expect anything. I don’t accept praise and I don’t accept condemnation. I… I just live above it.

CH: So, do you think that has been basically one of your saving graces, the things that allowed you to have or find buoyancy, where others fell? They identified themselves as a god. In popular music, someone like Elvis is an example. He became a myth, a famous person.

EC: Well yes! You see, the trouble with many young writers is that they get into a corner… they get backed into a corner and the first thing they know they belong to a coterie! A crowd. A self-admiration society. And so they only surround themselves with people who can appreciate them.  Outsiders go away!    An inner circle… Inner circle, where a lot of writers get into that troublesome thing… that they think they have to associate only with their own kind.  I don’t associate with writers. Writers are dull people. I must rather associate with the store clerk.  Or bank clerk, or garbage man, or anybody who has a better outlook. A writer is self-centered. He’s so self-satisfied with himself and life, he knows everything, so you can’t tell him anything, so why associate with him?

CH: It sounds like being brought up in your family, you know, a father who was the minister… and the kind of humble surroundings… It sounds like you were helped by your upbringing to prevent this sort of illusion?

EC: Uh huh…!

CH:  That can destroy people. The next curiosity I have is to do with nostalgia.

EC: With what?

CH:  Nostalgia.

EC: Yes.

CH: Do you ever feel you live in a fairly comfortable existence? Do you feel…a desire for those days when you were eating rattrap cheese and bread, and you know, starving in Maine? And Georgia, and New York?  Do you feel like you’re missing something from then?

EC:  Well, you put it this way… you see, you can FEED on that past! And… you know the pangs of hunger. And, so you say to yourself, “I know what it feels like to be hungry; I used to be hungry a lot.  Well, you’ve already experienced that. You know the feeling, so you don’t have any desire to go back and relive that. Not because you feel you have achieved anything or that you’re rich enough or that you don’t have to endure poverty again. It’s just that right now, I have no great ambition to be extravagant.  I have a certain level of living, a standard of living – so that suits me. So, I’m not going out to try to make a lot of money … or anything in order to raise the level of my automobiles … So, I don’t have to have a Rolls Royce, I’d feel embarrassed.  Ah, I can imagine that, that a lot of people would want one and use it if they had it, but I don’t want one. If it were a gift, I would trade it in for a Chevy.

CH: You have one there (ha ha!)

EC: Ha! Yea. (pause) or a Ford!

CH: Didn’t you say this feeling that you have also happened when you were in that Hotel and the guy ran it who was the writer, and you had to get out of place because it was so swank and you were eating cheese on the floor…. Was this the same feeling of “What in the hell am I doing in THIS place?”

EC: Yeah!

CH: Was that present at the time?

EC: Yeah… I guess so. I used to go back and recreate those things.  I’m 83. I’ve lived…. And a lot has happened.  And a lot of things have been forgotten. You ask do I want to go back and relive my days of poverty. No.  For the same reason that I’ve already done it. Done it in the same way you don’t want to repeat yourself in a book; you don’t want to write the same book twice.   You want to but you have different visions; so, I don’t know how to explain my existence now… it’s nothing great.  Ah, a lot of people think I’m living on the edge of poverty right here…. Ah, but I don’t consider that. I don’t even consider what the degree is, as to me that’s immaterial.  As long as I’m satisfied with what I’m doing. What’s now is revising these galley sheets.  After that, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But, ah, right now that’s the only thing that interests me.

CH: Uh, huh…ok!

EC: And… I do have this new cancer. So, that’s something to think about. I’ve had it twice. Now I have this inoperable cancer, which cannot Be operated on! You have to take the chemo.

CH:  Chemotherapy?

EC: Injections (cough)  So… I don’t know how long its going to last. That’s an interesting thing. I look forward to what’s going to happen tomorrow. Or the next day!

CH: How does that affect your creative life, how does that affect time… things getting shorter, and how does that affect your creativity?  It must put you on the ledge between life and the  hereafter…  How does that affect you?

EC: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think about that enough, I suppose I don’t know how to feel ‘bout it, because, ah, as you know I was raised a Presbyterian….

CH: Right.

EC: And the Presbyterian is not too much worried about what’s gonna happen, because its going to happen anyway; so it doesn’t bother me what my troubles are – I know I am going to have troubles, so whatever they are, it’s something I have to lived with. And, I’m prepared to do it. Whatever it is. Because I don’t expect to live beyond another two or three years, anyway.

I set myself as a goal – 85!  And my wife wants to raise it to 86 because she wants to be 70 years old before I die.  You think she’ll make it?

CH: You might surprise yourself, too.

[Mrs. C (in doorway) I think you might!  Its time for your water!)

EC: (to his wife) You will bring me that check to sign?

Mrs. C: All right, I will.  Would you like some coffee or tea?

CH: Tea would be nice.

Mrs. C: Or cookies?

CH:  Just a little bit of caffeine would be nice.

Mrs. C: Just plain old tea or fancy tea?

CH: That’s all I drink is plain old tea.

Mrs. C: I have every one, from blackberry to sassafras.

CH: O… blackberry…

CH: Well no one knows when they are going, I could go before you and I’m 37.

EC: 37? You are about half way!

CH:  About half way, huh?  However long my life is, I just want to be able to do it fully, and I think you’re a model in a way… because you live fully. You’ve written, you’ve done what you wanted, you know, and I respect that.

What would you say is the most trying phase as you look back … What do you think  … what was the most trying phase, if you can talk about it.  The one that had the most obstacles, where  you almost gave up.  If you can use that term?

EC: Well, you see, these obstacles I consider to be helpful!  For example, as I keep saying, I was undereducated even though my mother did teach me almost everything I know (coughs),  but I never memorized the definitions of words, that kind of thing, so when it came time to write ‘em out, I couldn’t spell ‘em, and so what I looked for was a word of two syllables, and to me that simplified matters.  It helped; it was helpful to me because as I grew older, I found that the best writing is simple writing. Not the most intellectual or educated, or whatnot. Because if you’re going to know what the meanings are, even though I don’t know myself… Even though I look it up in the dictionary, I really don’t know what I’m doing! So, I like to look for a word, the origin of a word whether Greek, Latin, French, or wherever it came from, ah, to see the root. So, for me, that gives the basic meaning of the word that can be simplified.  So you don’t have to put a lot of syllables on it. Man is man. Woman is woman. And so on.

CH: How did you deal with the problem of labeling? There are many people out there labeling artists….  You have been labeled everything, more than anybody…. From a communist to somebody who writes burlesque…to a naïve writer that Malcolm Cowley called you, to a surrealist, to ah – O God, everything.  How do you deal with this sort of thing, you know, the public image; how the public perceives you? Has that ever been a problem?

EC: Well, I don’t, because you see, that’s part of what I consider criticism.

CH: All right.

EC: I don’t take to criticism.  So, I don’t care that the public advises, or thinks… I’m gonna do it my way!  So, I’m not much impressed by other peoples’ advice. So I’m not impressed by other people.  Sure people have great reputations. Malcolm Cowley has a fine reputation as a critic.  Ah, he could not influence me! Not by any means, I wouldn’t consider… followin’ his advice ‘bout picking out certain themes to write about; that would not interest me, but I want to do it may way.  I want to pick the theme, not what he thinks is good.

CH: He’s supported you more than a lot of people.

EC: Yeah.

CH:  Where does he live, Malcolm?

EC: In Connecticut, like a little of writers. I used to live there myself.

CH: Some people have commented that you have been denied some of the major prizes… like the Pulitzer.  They felt that Hemingway and Faulkner got these, that you didn’t.  And your reponse was “I don’t really care.”  Once I’m gone, it doesn’t matter.” My question is: does it matter?  Let’s assume there’s life after death and you can look back, what would you like us to know as far as Erskine Caldwell goes?

EC: Well, I think… ah, some time ago I had some question like that, and I think what I said was, to give an example of what happened at one time. I had a letter from a reader. I don’t know what story they had written about…  It was a woman reader who said, “I likevery much…your story about so and so…” (she gave me the name of the character) “because it revealed to me something about my uncle that I had never been able to fathom myself. When I read your interpretation of so and so’s life, that was my uncle!’  And, that was the application that this story had for the woman; it revealed for her something she otherwise would not have found herself if she had to read my interpretation of somebody else’s life. So, that’s about the only answer I can give to that kind of question.

CH:  Back to your late 20s, early 30s when you were in the phase of writing The American Earth and you had already done The Bastard  then Tobacco Road… and it ends up being a work that – through your own imagination, reflecting,  being a mirror for the rough social conditions and economic conditions for a lot of people with whom you were brought up –  the sharecropper, etc. My question is: Is there ever more than just mirroring? Can writing therapize and deal with that? Or, is there always a residual feeling of suffering? Because, I’m assuming here that the imagination in ways amplifies, especially when you see so much and you can’t get it out of your writing. Or, is your writing a form of therapy?

EC: Well, it is a result of observing.  Result of having to do something yourself, because I always think that how could you write about and describe a human being if you never had seen one?  It would be so fanciful.  Ah, are you going to make it realistic if you never saw a human?  If you were the only being there was, and you couldn’t see yourself, of course, but if you tried to write about someone else, it would be difficult.

[Virginia Caldwell stands in doorway]

EC: What do you have there, Virginia?

CH: Can I help you?

VC:  [Brings in tray of cups and cookies]

CH: Are you feeling tired?

EC:  We have been at it for about …

CH:  For about an hour. I’ve got about three more questions.

VC:  (talks with EC about signing checks)

It’s so automatic to write a check and sign it. And that’s an attractive New Mexico style color!

CH: Oh, that’s a Sear and Roebuck! Its incredible what I found for $12.

EC: Oh, Sears has turned out to be quite the store… they have fashion shows.

CH:  I didn’t know that, but they upped their quality and their prices, too. They even got new managers in Chicago.

VC: You make him behave will you, Charles?

CH: Okay!

VC: He wanted to get rid of his oxygen …

EC: Yeah!

CH: Staying on the topic of imagination a moment – there was the psychologist,  Carl Jung, who found that going into oneself and confronting imaginary figures can be a tremendous teaching.  And, when I read your comments on imagination and characters as they develop and speak, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much difference. They have independence, in a way, they are not just your ego, but there is something else about them.  And, I’m just wondering if they have been “teachers”… not only Ty Ty (and Geeter, but are they “mentors”?  That may be a hard question.

EC:  Well, imagination is a writer’s best friend.  If you could not imagine (then) all you’re going to end up with is an encyclopedia of facts everybody already knows; what you’re doing, you’re repeating the facts… you have to go beyond that, you have to interpret those facts in a different way.  Ah, I couldn’t by any means…delineate or explain what imagination is, how you get it, and how you use it. I don’t know.  I just do what I do.  I think most writers do who are imaginative in that sense because imagination is a free flowing thing.  I think that’s what they meant when they called it “stream of consciousness” because its unmediated thought; things that come to mind without being urged, without trying to recall because it has to go beyond anything that’s happened…  Just like fiction has to be something that has never existed ‘till it is written.  Ah, fiction means exactly what it says. It’s fictitious – nothing that exists ‘till you write…. And, that’s fiction; that is something that now exists because you’ve written it.  But it never existed before.

So, Imagination is the same thing, it has to derive out of nothing, more or less… Derive… make it realistic… not  a dream… it’s not like dreams because dreams are very elusive, they are deceptive. If you try to go back and justify existence of some dream you had, to verify it, you’re gonna find flaws, you’re gonna find great flaws in it that could never have existed.  It’s just a dream world.  It means exactly what it says, it simply does not exist.  Imagination is different, it is [the] free flowing result of, ah, human existence.  You apply what has already happened to what might happen. – now, that’s imagination! And, not what has happened. Fiction has got to be something that has never existed.  So, your imagination has got to be unique, and should not be denied a writer, that is his best stock-in-trade.  If he doesn’t have imagination, what’s he going to do? He might know how to spell… Know how to make paragraphs, but what’s the meaning?  That’s the important thing.

CH: Do you see a different …obstacles (today) that were different from when you look at your 30s or 40s…obstacles that were different from then or similar to ones you were or are (still) hitting in your mature years, you’re 60s through 80s? Do certain obstacles stay with you, or do they change?

EC:  Well, obstacles always exist in some form.  Because they conform to, ah, your current existence, current life and so forth, because… I’m trying to think of an example – of what existed then and what does not exist now; but, for example, Welfare. In my days, there was no such thing as welfare. Now, everybody knows what welfare is and has ambition to go on welfare or something of this sort.  In my early life, which is, say, 70 years ago, no such thing as welfare existed, and you had it or you didn’t have it. If you are going to beg… well, go out on the street and beg..

But you wouldn’t do that now, you go to welfare, so it’s a change of existence, a change of style.  The obstacles then and now, always differ, no matter what the subject or matter is, it’s going to be different   Now, everybody … a lot of people … could not exist or would not exist without credit, borrowing money, credit cards, mortgages…  In the old days, it was a feat to be debt-free – if you could manage it.  So you tried to own your house, you didn’t want a mortgage….  You didn’t want to have to pay on it.  You just wanted to live in it. So, the present generation, the people in their 20s and 30s, they want credit. Well, more power to them… but I wouldn’t want it.

CH:  We’re forced to. I’m finding myself forced to.  I want to keep away from that kind of thing, but I had to have a Sears credit card to get this car at the Phoenix Airport!

EC: Yeah!

CH: They would not let me pay cash.

EC: That’s right!

CH: I had to have a card, so you are forced to go into hock…. To me, its terrifying because it’s all in computers and people can know about you and it is getting to be a mess.  Talking about writers today,  I remember one thing I had read, something you commented about,  how it’s hard to be a writer today because everything has to be done quickly!  The publishers want you do  things quick!   You have to read quick, and so forth.  How do you feel, what would you do, if you were not born in 1903, but 1949? How would you handle this “future shock” that everyone is quick, everyone has to be instant!  You can’t reflect anymore.

EC: Well, of course, you can swim with all  the blows you get. You learn to do that. You learn to live with your circumstances. It all depends on the era in which you live, because life ten years from now is going to be nothing like it is now.  Whether I could cope with it ten years from now, I don’t know (coughs).  If I knew 40 years ago what life  was going to be like today, I probably would have had a convulsion!

CH: What do you say are the main things in an aspiring artist’s character that are needed to deal with the insanities of today?

EC: Ah, of course that’s where the writer comes in!  he should imagine at least what is going to transpire next year.  Maybe not ten years from now, but that’s why a writer’s imagination has an opportunity to exert itself   If he can foresee tomorrow or the next day or year,   Ah, that’s imagination,  where the imagination of a writer goes to work.  I wouldn’t want to write a novel of the future; I could not envision that far ahead. I could try to write about maybe what is happening today, and it could be of course about, maybe what is happening, and it could be a dated novel, and it would be written in 1986 and so forth and so that would be a 1986 vision, but at least you could apply your imagination to some extent, and sort of foresee… what the architecture of a town is going to look like in  years from now.  Things like that. You can use your imagination to that extent, but beyond that, I don’t think I could cope with the world tomorrow.

CH:  There’s one thing that came to mind as I was driving over here, following your wife here.  It has to do with relationships. … about how relationships, marriage, and so on, impact a writer’s compulsiveness, and I wonder how you have dealt with that, if it’s been a problem at all? You know, the kind of intimacy, and so forth.  How has that affected you, taken you from writing?  Has that threatened you?  And how did you deal with that?

EC: Intimacy?

CH: With a woman, male – female.

EC: Oh…

CH: Say you are related to someone like Margaret Bourke White, who is very energetic and so on, what does that do to you?

EC: Yea, yeah!  Ah, it all depends on your nature. Some people can, some men can get along without women… to various degrees, of course.  But to me it is natural to be affiliated with the female. To some extent, I can understand out here – there are two birds, me and female, they fly together…. I can appreciate that, so for me it is just as natural for those birds to be mated as it is for a male and female to be mated. My… difficulty in life is that I’ve been married four times.  That’s not a very helpful…  kind of life I suppose to some people. But, it happened to be my life and I lived it that way. I think I couldn’t see it any other way because now, looking back, there are a lot of people I wouldn’t want to be married to, that I had known earlier, then I would not even be intimate with. But, looking back and remembering the circumstances of other people, I say: “Well, I’m glad I’m not married to that woman!”  But, I can say, “I am glad I am married as I am today!”

CH: You do have a wonderful wife.  I had a college professor in Florida, a poet who said in class one day, “One of the great things about getting older is that you can look back with joy at all the people you didn’t marry!”

Let me put it this way: Okay, assuming that I don’t know what your personal philosophy is about the afterlife… But assuming for a moment that one exists… and the possibility of coming back into life again…. What would you become…a writer, again?  Or, would you eliminate that?

EC: Well of course, hindsight is a very ticklish kind of thing to deal with because you could always approve of what you did wrong in the past.  Ah, I would rather come back as a writer rather than as a lawyer or anything else. Although there are some of the glamorous professions, like movie actor, all kinds of things, but to me the way I feel about myself, I wouldn’t want to be anything else the second time or third time! I’d have to be what I am.

CH: Would you still type in a cold room in Maine with not enough wood? Would you still eat rat cheese in a depression? Would you still accept the rejections …

EC: Well, you see, those things, when you look back… seem like hardships, but while you are doing them you are so busy living, you don’t consider what they are.  Sure, I was cold at night, very cold. But, at the same time, I considered it part of living life itself. So, it was something I didn’t regret, or didn’t disapprove of, didn’t dislike. It was a hardship, sure…

CH: Do you feel that those hardships added to your life as you sit here at eighty three? Do you feel that those were important for your character in terms of who you are?

EC: Well, they give you a lot of stamina!  You, you get engrained with stamina. Ah, of course, I could not visualize a life of ease in which you have no hardship.   I would not know how to exist because I would be living in a false atmosphere in which you have no troubles – ah, if you had no money troubles, no health troubles, no this, that, and the other … you have to have hardships in order to be impressed with life. Especially as a writer – if he’s not impressed with living, well, what’s he going to write about?  So, I don’t say that every writer should go to Greenwich Village and live in a coldwater flat and be emaciated down to 98 pounds – NO!  I don’t think that’s necessary. But, if that’s what befalls you, well, you’ll want to do it if you are a dedicated writer.

CH: What do you feel “failure” and what do you feel “success” are?

EC: Success?

CH: Success versus failure?

EC:  Okay, well, I don’t think that success is necessarily fame.  Ah, success might be recognition.  Ah, but that recognition his not something that is as important as the fact that you wouldn’t be satisfied without it.  It’s something that you think you may have worked for and earned. Ah, and if money comes with it, that’s secondary; that’s not the main point. And if you have recognition, not fame, but if you have recognition, if somebody says: “Well, he’s a pretty good writer!” he’s written some pretty good books!”  to me, that’s the ultimate praise that any writer could or should expect…. Now, failure … we are talking about writers’ failure. Its someone, to me, who thinks he has talent or for some reason has… mesmerized himself to the point that he thinks he should be successful. But, not having the talent and the ability, but somebody who keeps on in the face of failure, ah, to the end, and ends up a derelict, to me that’s failure.  Now, he might resort to other means of making a living, by writing porno books or something, to exist. To me that is not a successful failure, that’s a premeditated failure. Ah, to do something like that in order to try to be successful, because if you change your philosophy… if you change your ideals… in order to achieve something underhanded, something fraudulent, to me – that is not something successful. It’s a failure.


CH: I think that one of the best comments I’ve gotten on this subject!  Seems like you have thought about it.  Well, I’m through, if there is anything you can think that we didn’t cover?

EC: Ha ha!  Well, I don’t know of anything else I can say, and I don’t know if anything I said was really important.  So, it’s whatever you make of it. Because I’m not a great mind. I’m not a great thinker. I’m not a great philosopher. I’m just an ordinary guy.


About the interviewer: 

Charles Hayes began publishing poetry and essays in the 1970s and ’80s. His 1978 book, From the Hudson to the World (introduction by Pete Seeger) remains the most complete collection of Native American lore and art (gathered from 17th century Dutch deed books) to date. In the ’80s, Hayes started a book called Pearl in the Mud, which involved interviews with various famous and lesser-known artists, from John Cage and Elaine Dekooning in New York to excellent folk weavers in the New Mexico mountains. A book he funded on student loans.

Concurrent to his book project, Hayes studied Navajo language and earned his MA degree in Art Therapy from the University of New Mexico.  Since then, he has become an avid amateur photographer who combines his photos with his writings. Currently, he is “taking the ‘Pearl’ project onward in the form of a smaller book, Ten Women Composers You Should Know

Previous contributions to Ragazine include interviews with the late John Cage and the very-much-alive Dorothea Rockburne.


November 6, 2014   Comments Off on Erskine Caldwell Interview

Mary Ross/Video Artist

Eric and Mary Video dance 2011

“Mary Ross – Video Artist”

Interview with Eric Ross


The late MARY ROSS was a fine art photographer and visual artist. In 1975, she began using video and computers to produce still images on film, one of the first fine art photographers to do so. Her images provide some of the earliest examples of the convergence of photography, video and computer technology. Recognized as a pioneer of digital photography, her photographs and video art have been featured in hundreds of multimedia performances she has produced in collaboration with composer/performer Eric Ross. She exhibited extensively at galleries and museums in the United States, Europe, Israel and Japan. Her photographs are in private collections and in the permanent collections of the Kunsthaus, Zurich; International Polaroid Collection; Herbert Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University; King’s Library, Copenhagen; Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; and the Lincoln Center Library Dance Collection. Her archive is at the Rose Goldsen archive for New Media Art at Cornell University and at LIMA in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

ERIC ROSS, musician/composer. Ross has presented concerts of his music at Lincoln Center (NYC), Kennedy Center (Washington, D.C.), Disney Redcat Center (LA), Newport Jazz, and Berlin, Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals, among many others worldwide. He performs on guitar, keyboards and is a Master of the Theremin, one of the earliest electronic instruments. The New York Times calls his music “a unique blend of classical, jazz, serial and avant-garde.” He began playing the Theremin in 1975, and has performed on radio, film and TV. Since 1976, with his wife Mary Ross, he has presented multimedia performances with video, music and dance. Recent projects include an Ultimedia Concept program at UNESCO World Heritage sites including the Guggenheim-Bilbao Museum, Spain; Residenz Palace, Wurzburg; Bauhaus- Dessau, Germany; and Casada Musica, Portugal. He was a friend of Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore, and electronics pioneer Robert Moog. In 1991, he met and played for the inventor of the Theremin, Professor Lev Termen.


Q) How did your multimedia Pieces develop?

A) Mary and I started working together in the 1970s. In 1976, we first used live and pre-recorded video in my Songs for Synthesized Soprano (Op. 19). There was immediate synergistic energy to our combined work. Mary wrote, “In 1977, I began to use video in live multimedia performances in collaboration with my husband, composer/performer Eric Ross. At first I used live video cameras in closed circuit installations during performances of his original electronic and acoustic music compositions. Two or three video cameras were mounted on tripods and focused on him as he performed, inside the piano, and I manipulated video camera imagery with a glass prism. The results were displayed on two color TV monitors which faced the audience. Since then, I have produced pre-recorded videotapes and now DVDs which are designed, composed and edited to his music. These tapes, with accompanying video stills and digital images, have been displayed and projected as he performed concerts of his music worldwide. I wanted to create a parallel in the music to the video which would reflect and comment upon the action in different, distant and often remote ways. I like to set up contrasts with the music and images on the screen – fast when slow, bright when dark, dense when sparse – to create unexpected relationships and meanings. Eric’s music has led me deeper into this non-literal, non-narrative form. Musically there are specific themes for some parts and other sections open to improvisation. In performance, the music and the emotional relationship to the video, which is fixed, is ever-changing depending upon time, place and mood.”

By the 1980s, we were performing our pieces in major venues in the US and Europe. We worked with the space and equipment situations available. We performed in big rooms like the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Berlin, Montreux and Pori Jazz Festivals as well as smaller, more intimate rooms like the mirrored ICC in Belgium, the Munch Museum in Oslo and loft spaces in NYC.

Mary’s work evolved steadily. She was a darkroom printer in black-and-white and color film, and in other media including gum bichromate, silkscreen, and Polaroid. She saw video processing as an extension of the technical possibilities of print-making, or an “electronic darkroom.” She included slide dissolves and video during this period. She said, “The video synthesizer functioned as a type of electronic darkroom. My own slides, negatives, prints, movie film and videotapes provided source material.” At a certain point, technique and aesthetic merged and became intuitive.

In interviews we were asked, “Which came first: the music or the video?” Usually, we would work simultaneously and at a certain point of progress, would come together for editing sessions. From that point on, we would stay in close collaboration. Mary preferred to edit to my music – I would give her track to edit to, and then I would orchestrate the final versions for “mixdown.” Other times she would work alone on a piece until it was nearly complete and then I would compose music to it. We were open to different approaches and each piece shaped up differently. Our works were never experimental – Mary and I knew exactly what we were after in each piece and worked hard to get it right. 




Mary Ross photo gallery. Goes with Eric Ross Interview on Mary Ross.

Eric Ross on Theremin in Germany. Mary Ross.
Eric Ross on Theremin in Germany. Mary Ross.
Figure With Bicycle. Mary Ross.
Figure With Bicycle. Mary Ross.
Inner Child. Mary Ross.
Inner Child. Mary Ross.
Mary at her computer.
Mary at her computer.
Triptych, 6-17-2011. Mary Ross.
Triptych, 6-17-2011. Mary Ross.


Q) Were there artists she was influenced by?

A) Mary knew the great European and American painters, the classic black-and-white photographers and all kinds of visual references. She was commissioned by universities to photograph art galleries and museums across the USA and EU. Thus, she was familiar with the works of the major artists as well as many other painters, graphic and visual artists, photographers, sculptors, etc. She had a “photographic memory” regarding images. She never forgot a picture and could recall names, places and details of photos or prints she had seen from decades before. Joseph Buemi, a classic black-and-white photographer, gave her occasional help and some darkroom tips and the two remained good friends despite their work being very different. She kept in contact with a network of video and film makers and was aware of work and tech developments in her field. She was an avid reader, writer and prose editor. All of these things formed background to her own work. She never wanted to be copy artist, a clone or from the “scuola de” style artist. She always sought her own identity and vision in art.

Q) What were the themes of her work?

A) The major themes that Mary worked on all her life included: People Real and Abstract; Dance; Self-Portraits; and Imaginary Landscapes. She received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant for her work with dancers. She was very aware of “negative space,” the spaces between things. Most of her images fit into these categories, although she would take a photo of any subject if it pleased her.

Q) Did she storyboard her videos?

A) Almost never. She improvised in the camera, in the studio, and in her editing, mixing and finished work. She knew what she was after, recognized what she actually had, and went with the work where it took her. Because of her great visual memory, she could find and combine edits from materials that were perhaps years or miles apart. She could work on different sections, or from the inside out, to shape the materials. It was a process as well as a product. Mary knew what she wanted in the final print. I don’t think anyone else could have predicted from the source material, or even mid-stream, how the final images would look.

Q) What was her working method?

A) Mary was constantly shooting, editing, evaluating, filing, re-evaluating and re-editing. She shot a lot of film and later digital images, but she was often a one-shot picture-taker. Even her video shots were mostly single-takes. Editing was her forte. She edited herself – always selecting, refining and mixing. Sometimes she liked to let the computer make random mixes, putting together images like musicians “jamming,” and then remix that. Her final edits were always carefully chosen. Mary seldom took the first version of a shot. If she liked something, she would keep working it, sometimes over the course of years, changing things minutely or entirely – adding, subtracting, changing in different media, etc. She liked to work on many projects at the same time and this helped to “cross-pollinate” her ideas.

Q) What were your last collaborations?

A) Mary and I created dozen or so works for video and music. By our last pieces, the Blvd Reconstructie (Op. 54) and Rimn Vornl (Op. 37, 2011 Edition), she had a real sense of the architecture of her time-based art on the micro, middle, and macro levels. She used her own autobiographic materials as a girl, a woman, a wife, a mother, a cancer patient and an artist, with concert footage, travel, dance, human abstractions, family, friends, black-and-white stills, Cibachrome color prints, super 8mm films, gum bichromate prints, silkscreens, Polaroids, watercolors, distressed images, images with text, hand-drawn and hand-colored prints – everything relevant to her life – all in the mix. Ideas that she had worked on during her entire career came together and were interwoven in these last pieces.

Q) How do you see Mary’s artistic development?

A) I think all of the elements of her vision were present early on. She refined her vision by focusing in on the ideas that she loved and that would convey her artistic objectives. She acquired technical mastery over her tools as well, and these tools (home computers, video cameras, etc.) became simpler and more easily accessible over time. In the early years this was not always the case, but she had always “worked with what she had,” or as she might say, “fought with what she had.” Mary had periods of time that were real growth spurts and others that seemed fallow where she did many different things but were in fact “in developmental” stages ready for the next artistic endeavor. She stayed true to her art and her last works were a combination of her ideas with many layers of energy going on, both simplifying and gaining in complexity.

Q) Why do you think her is work important?

A) Mary had an aptitude for getting a great shot or sequence of shots that spoke to the viewer on different levels of interpretation. She said, “The images create a narrative that can be supplied by the viewer’s imagination.” Her mixing of imagery was precise, yet free, strong and beautiful. Her vision was unique from a woman’s point of view without being self-consciously so. Her sense of composition and drama within a shot was enhanced by an expressionist palette, which makes her images even more striking. There is a timeless quality about her work. Some figures in her shots seem to be floating or in suspended animation. Her work was never totally “abstract.” She said, “The human form is a recurring motif…along with many images of dance. Though often abstracted, my photographs and videos usually contain recognizable elements. In recent work, I continue to explore abstract renditions of the human form in imaginary landscapes.”

In some of her pieces, there is a calmness and quiet of infinite spaces, where time seems suspended and there is an air of tranquility. In others, she deliberately introduced chaos, noise, glitches and other random elements to create a sense of real and unreal; there is movement, the action is in flux, and she went for the vital significant energy of the moment. She liked to capture energy, mood, setting, characters, time and place. She was not fascinated by technology for its own sake – she was interested in the human aspects of art and art-making.


* * * * *


c.MMXIV. Tyava Music. BMI. Used with permission.


Eric and Mary Ross Ultimedia Concert

$12 general/$10 students & seniors

Advance tickets available at:

Friday, September 12th at 7:00pm


A special electronic music performance with composer and master thereminist Eric Ross and his Avant Ensemble, including Trevor Pinch (Moog Synths), Peter Rothbart (EWI), John Snyder (theremin, digeridoo, waterphone), and Joseph Perkins (bass). The evening will feature music on the theremin, as well as Analog and digital synths, guitars, percussion and electronic wind instruments, and will be accompanied visually with work by the late video/computer artist Mary Ross, whose work will be deposited in Cornell’s Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art. The event is cosponsored with the Cornell Council for the Arts, the Rose Goldsen Lecture Series and the History Center of Tompkins County.


 * * * * *






August 29, 2014   Comments Off on Mary Ross/Video Artist

Hawk Alfredson, Artist/Interview


Icon for an Unknown Religion | Oil on Canvas | 39″ x 33″ |  1999

* * *


But Not Sublime 

with Mike Foldes

If to describe Hawk Alfredson’s paintings as dreamlike goes without saying,  why did I bother? Because they’re his dreams, not yours. To those of us simultaneously inside and outside this Swedish-American painter’s world, the images reach far and wide, as far back as Scandinavian and European legend, as far forward as tomorrow when an understanding and appreciation of his craft and skill blend seamlessly with  the work itself. Easily recognizable are the armored knights and stone castles, but why then mix that into a visual cacaphony occasionally interrupted by the cold calm of river stones and embellished vortices.  These images derive from a wide-ranging portfolio of influences the artist says often come to him at the threshhold of wakefulness. It is this “awakening” we are fortunate to observe in Alfredson’s  art.

Alfredson was born in Orebro, Sweden in 1960. He arrived to New York City in 1995.  From 2001 to 2010, he and his wife, photographer Mia Hanson, were residents of the Hotel Chelsea, where his work was commonly seen in staircases and hallways. He was interviewed by  Abel Ferrara in “Chelsea On The Rocks”, and many of those paintings can be seen throughout the film.  Hawk and Mia moved to Washington Heights; the hotel closed in 2012. Neither of them has a studio at the moment; Hawk paints in a small area on the floor in the apartment, and Mia works where the jobs take her. Each has numerous commercial pieces to his/her credit, including book and album covers, magazine covers and advertising.

 * * *

Ragazine: What was your work like as a child, and how long did it take for you to actually develop drawing skills?

Hawk Alfredson:  I just returned from Sweden two months ago and in my mother’s attic I found an old suitcase filled with childhood & teenage drawings. Early on, I remember it was in school at about age six or seven years when I realized that I was more advanced at drawing than the other kids my age and I really enjoyed doing it. Every year in school thereafter the teachers would pin my work up on the wall and the other children would crowd around to look at my work. Relating to this somehow, I’ve believed in reincarnation since I was 16, and feel today that I must have been an artist in one or several of my life-times.  I guess it took a couple hundred years or many more to develop my skills, but I finally believe that I have become in this life the artist that I was always striving to be.

Q) Did you receive a lot of encouragement from your family? Were they interested in your art, or did they direct to other pursuits?

A) My father was a hobby painter and my mother and I spent a lot of time drawing and painting watercolors together when I was very young. When I was around the age of six, I vaguely remember watching a documentary about artists and realized then that this was to be my path…my calling. When I was seven or eight years old I announced to my parents that I wanted to be an artist after previously wanting to be an archaeologist. It was at this time that I finished my first oil painting, a black & white whale jumping out of the ocean. My father helped guide me through this. I remember thinking how much more difficult it was to paint well than it was to draw. It was a bit intimidating so I went back to drawing on my own for a couple years. Throughout school my teachers would often encourage my artistic skills to the point that it became natural for me to expect that I would move north to Stockholm to attend art school after finishing my compulsory education. And so this is what I did when I was 16. I left my small village in the south of Sweden and never returned.

Tight Antic II

Tight Antic II | Oil on Canvas | 59″ x 79″ |  1992-2007

Q) Your paintings remind me of Albrecht Dürer; perhaps that’s the Old World influence some reviewers have spoken about in your work. Was that an evolutionary or conscious process to arrive at that point?

A) I was never interested in artists who basically just throw some paint on a canvas & then smear it out with a broom or something. I’m always drawn to painters that work with a skillful technique. Because of this, very few contemporary artists really affect me. Visiting the great classical museums of the world, you come across great older works that share a commonality: technique.  However, sometimes a painter might have “it” but they might fall short on technique. Technique in general isn’t everything. Many times the most important quality an artist must have is a life experience that comes across lucidly upon the canvas. I enjoy being surprised by work like this even more. As Dali once said, “An artist must have hands that are guided by an angel,” or words to that effect.

Q) With which of the classical surrealists did you or do you most closely identify?

A) Back when I was in art school in Stockholm in the late ’70s, it was Dali and Magritte. Today, Magritte doesn’t do much for me anymore, but Dali’s strongest work (from the ‘50s and ‘60s) is still fascinating on many levels.

While in art school I traveled all throughout Europe. And in my early 20s I had a very profound experience in Paris when I saw a Giacometti painting. It totally mesmerized me, and put me in a ghostly, dreamlike hypnotic state of mind where time and space disappeared. No other painter has ever managed to do this to me. What is absolutely unbelievable to me is that he is better known for his sculptures.


V10N5 Hawk Alfredson

Hawk Alfredson Paintings, V10N5

These Senses Never Sleep
These Senses Never Sleep
A Dim Immortality
A Dim Immortality
Lost World
Lost World
Icon for an Unknown Religion
Icon for an Unknown Religion
Zen Window
Zen Window
Chance Meeting with Circlings
Chance Meeting with Circlings
The Dragon's Mreath
The Dragon's Mreath
The Presposterous Propos
The Presposterous Propos


Q) How much a part does music play in the formulation of your work?

A)  Music of all kinds has always influenced me.  If I hadn’t become an artist, I probably would have found my way creating weird, uncategorizable music. The past years I don’t listen to music very often while I paint. I’ve found it to be too distracting, especially if there’s lyrics. However, if I do listen, it’s usually ambient music.  The painting process needs total focus. Sometimes I get into a deep space within and nothing is of a distraction. It takes a good run of a couple days of intense work to get there, though.  Generally, I’ve noticed the surrounding cacophonous noises of NYC are enough of a distraction and take the place of music. Paintings are sensitive objects.  I believe they act as mystical recording devices soaking up the surrounding energy and music of their environment. If anyone can hear music seeping through my paintings, which some have said they can, then it’s most likely from all the sound energy involved in the painting process.

Q: I would imagine any artist coming to NY trying to make it in this scene would have great dreams, and unfortunately not everyone can make a living at it…. Who is  your dealer now, and what would you say to someone just coming to New York who’s looking to make that kind of connection?

A: This question is actually quite complex. Basically, things have changed dramatically in NYC since I first got here in 1995. For instance, back then I had a show going on every day of the year for the first two years I was here. I would hop from one show opportunity to the next. The underground art scene was vital and still alive in the 90’s, especially in the East Village. And SoHo was of course going strong with established galleries. The neighborhood wasn’t overrun with fashion boutiques and aggressively competitive rents. These days, it seems artists have no place in a city that is desperate to make money simply to feed a machine. It’s an entirely different situation for the young artist coming to NYC now. For success, the young artist depends on an art establishment that is open to fresh ideas and is capable of taking a chance on an unproven talent. This is not the NYC we have post 9/11. 

Q: Who are your current dealers?

A: I have kept an affiliation with my private art dealer in Stockholm since 1994. His name is Jan Linder. Here in the states, I’m represented by  Limner Gallery in Hudson, New York. I also work closely with a couple other private art dealers here in New York City.

Q:  How did you meet your wife, Mia?

A: We met at a gallery in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1997. I was having a solo show there and she walked in one day when I wasn’t around and took a good look at all the paintings hanging from floor to ceiling. She was immediately hooked and tracked me down. A couple years later we were living together in Stockholm. A Swedish journalist wrote about our meeting: “It was love before first sight. Mia felt Hawk’s presence, his language, yes his entire being just through studying the detailed paintings.”

hawkbookQ:  Your N.Y. history includes a long stint living at the Chelsea Hotel. In an artistic sense, I can only imagine it was a creatively communal experience. While you grew and prospered there, would you agree, “It’s not for everyone”?

A:  Nine years at the Hotel is very difficult to put into a nutshell.  We had insane neighbors sometimes. One actually accused me of painting her breasts when I had never even seen her naked… ever! I had a couple of my “Circling” paintings hanging in the 4th floor corridor where we both lived and she complained to the management that I was painting her breasts. The “Circling” paintings I had started long before I ever met her and honestly, I don’t even associate them with any part of the human form at all. For all of those nine years I had paintings hanging in the staircase, as well.  Also in the lobby and in a few V.I.P. rooms. There were over 50 paintings of mine displayed in the Hotel. It was an amazing and very unique situation. The owner of the Hotel, Stanley Bard, encouraged me to hang as many paintings as I wished throughout the Hotel. And so I did. Unexpectedly, I noticed it wasn’t too long after I started hanging my oil paintings in the open spaces in the staircase that other resident artists did so, as well. There were some few paintings throughout the 10 floors of the staircase before Mia and I moved in – this was in 2001 – but it was sparse and uninspiring to be honest. 

Q: Do you have any shows coming up?

A: I have work showing at Minerva Gallery, however outside of this I’m pretty open right now. I’m interested to hear from anyone who has an offer!

Q: Anything you would like to tell our readers that you always hoped someone would ask about but never did? 

A: Verbal communication is not something I usually put a lot of effort into when it comes to my own artistic process. You will never see me giving a lecture or teaching a class on the subject of art. It’s difficult to talk about the intuitive artistic process so I’m glad I haven’t needed to delve into that too deeply here. To be honest, the more time advances, the more reticent I feel toward verbalizing my art. What I can say about my artistic process is that I am always hunting for the mysterious while I paint. When I begin a painting I have no definitive destination. Rather, while I work I encourage subliminal ideas and cosmic forces to collaborate with the process. In any case, I’d like to circle back to one of my favorite quotes from any artist- it’s from Jean Cocteau: “An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.”

For more images, see, and facebook:

To purchase a copy of Alfredson’s book, click on this link:

Click here for Mia Hanson Interview and galleries.

* * *

About the interviewer:

Michael Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.

This interview was conducted via email between February and May 2014.

* * *


August 29, 2014   1 Comment

Mia Hanson, Photographer/Interview

Ida and Disa

Ida & Disa, photo by Mia Hanson

* * *

Hotel Chelsea Girl

Artful existence lets the light shine in

 with Mike Foldes

Mia Hanson is one of those photographers who seems to sense the aura that surrounds her subjects, and then seeks to capture it with her camera. While many of her images are portraits, what separates her from so many portrait photographers is her ability to go beyond the mechanics of finding a location, setting up lights and filters, and pushing the shutter release. It’s evident she’s looking for more and finding it. No “same old, same old” there. A California native who grew up taking the daily dose of sunshine for granted and then living in the narrow canyons and uncertain weather of New York, Hanson’s experienced eye readily goes to light and shadow – principally light, as seen in the connectedness of Ida and Disa, the pale fluidity of “Victorian Kiss,” and even the sky seen through a matrix of bare limbs.

Hanson’s credits include a number of album, magazine, and book covers, as well as extensive work in fashion photography and commissioned portraiture. Some of her experiences living in the illustrious Hotel Chelsea are documented in an interview that took place in 2006, three years before the hotel closed.  Hanson lives with her artist husband Hawk Alfredson, whom she met in 1997. They live in Washington Heights, New York City. An interview with Alfredson, and a gallery of his paintings, appears here:


 * * *

Ragazine: To begin with, how did you happen to move into the Hotel Chelsea?

Mia Hanson: Hawk and I met in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1997- four years before we moved into the Hotel. We lived in Sweden two years after we met and decided to come back to NYC in 2001 since we soon missed the charged energy of the city. For our homecoming week, we decided to try out being Hotel Chelsea guests since we hadn’t nailed down an apartment of our own yet. It took about a day for me to realize that I didn’t want to live anywhere else in NYC but the Hotel. 

Everyone we knew just assumed this wasn’t possible since we had little money and knew not a soul in the building.  But I grew attached to the place quickly and knew the Hotel wanted us there. It’s a sentient building. Everyone who lives there will agree with this.  If the building doesn’t like you, you will be driven mad.  After the firm decision that the Hotel would be our new home, it was obvious that the next step would be to talk to owner and operations manager Stanley Bard. “Talk to Stanley about it”- that was the catch-all phrase for everything Hotel Chelsea. One day we made an appointment to show Stanley our respective art portfolios and he then immediately showed us a couple rooms from which we chose #421- located on the north-facing side, with the balconies out front. Then, we may have spoken briefly about monthly rent…and before we knew it we had the keys and were hanging up Hawk’s paintings sporadically on all 10 floors wherever there was open wall space to be found!

Hawk and Mia, image by Barbra Walker (2003)

© 2003 Barbra Walker

Hawk & Mia, Room 421, Hotel Chelsea

Q: What was it like when you first moved in?

A: Day One kind of felt like all the Hotel days to me which was generally friendly, with an overall upbeat busy energy to the place, bordering on the chaotic at times. Even if there was a Hotel resident on the 9th floor and you lived on the 4th…they were still your neighbor in every regard. We got to closely know so many of the people who lived there and we still keep in touch with many. Everyone had a unique and diverse story. Film composers, fashion photographers, musicians, even a trans-gender cabaret performer, a U.N. associate diplomat and a kabuki knife-wielding expressionist painter! 


Mia Hanson

Mia Hanson Photography, V10 N5

Victorian Kiss
Victorian Kiss
Hawk Alfredson, Kungens Slott, Stockholm
Hawk Alfredson, Kungens Slott, Stockholm
Lea Rodger
Lea Rodger
Ida & Disa
Ida & Disa
Ida & Disa III
Ida & Disa III
Terezka Up Close
Terezka Up Close
Terezka the Betrothed Shrew
Terezka the Betrothed Shrew
Hawk Alfredson
Hawk Alfredson
Eva Rhino
Eva Rhino
Disturbance Central Park
Disturbance Central Park
Bettina 09
Bettina 09
Jennica 6
Jennica 6

All images copyright Mia Hanson. Used with permission.


Q: How did the Hotel affect your photographic work?

A: There were two scenic aspects of the Hotel that I really liked to work with. The Hotel’s top floor skylight and the rooftop private garden that belonged to an eccentric cabaret raconteur for many years. The sun energizes me creatively and I like to work with it. While growing up in California, I took varying degrees of sunlight for granted most times and created photo shoots that utilized theatrical lighting both indoors and out as a way of separating myself from the sun-loving culture. It didn’t take long to realize that my most poetic images were photographed outside, in nature, utilizing sun and shadow. While at the Hotel I realized that the sun is my best creative partner.  My photographs really started to feel more sensual and personal because of this, I believe.  

Terezka, the bethrothed _72dpi

Terezka, Hotel Chelsea rooftop, 2004, photo by Mia Hanson

Q:  What do you look for through the lens when setting up a portrait?

A: I try to find the soul of the person in front of me. I try to find the essence of what makes them unique.

Q: Do you approach different people in different ways during a shoot?

A: Yes, every person requires a different approach. Not only are they entering my visual world but I am being allowed to enter theirs as well.  Usually, this requires delicacy. Some I approach carefully if I know they are usually reticent with exposing themselves intimately either physically or emotionally. Others I can play with freely and guide them into uncomfortable positions. It all depends on what a person might be looking for while being photographed. The person in front of the camera has needs and goals for the shoot, too. 

Q: What has been Hawk’s influence on you as a person and photographer? Can you imagine how your life and career would have evolved if you had not met?

A: We have been together now for 17 years and he has definitely helped to develop and sharpen my creative eye in many ways. We like to play a game of observation sometimes. He will  ask me to study a newly finished canvas. Then a day later he will put a singular dot of paint somewhere unexpected and I must find where he placed it. (Hawk comments: She almost always find it, or if I change the colour in an area, or change the shape of something, even if it’s very subtle… she’ll usually finds it.)

Q: If you were able to work with any photographer living or dead, who would it be, and why?

A: First I would take the living. French fine-art photographer Sarah Moon, for example, or Italian Paolo Roversi. I feel these two photographers greatly exemplify the achievement of the elegant, mysterious and the sublime when photographing a person. They always maintain a fierce standard of authenticity while continuing to mystify their audience in beautiful ways.

To go back in time and visit the era of Weimar Germany through the lense of Baron Adolph De Meyer would be unforgettable. Sarah Moon has looked closely at De Meyers work, I believe.

The iconographic ideal of the feminine woman is represented by De Meyer and Moon with great ethereal glamour. Sarah Moon was a fashion model in the ’60s and became an influential fashion photographer by the mid-’70s. She’s known for bringing the “gamine-look” (of the turn-of-the-century) back into style with the pale-faced make-up, shadowy eyes and red doll-like lips. De Meyer was a homosexual man living and working in Germany at a time when being gay was a death-sentence for many; invalids and homosexuals were targeted for death camps in the ’30s along with people of of Jewish descent. I think both Moon and De Meyer are/were searching for their idealized feminine self with every photograph taken.

Q: The feminine form is well represented in your work…?

A: Most likely this can be attributed to the former situation. A search for the idealized feminine self. Now that I am in my mid-40’s, that search has narrowed to simply include a poetic representation of the idealized feminine self. I’m not searching for the mysteries of femininity any longer. There’s a wider angle to the “Unknown” as we mature. Can any camera capture this? That is a realm worth exploring.

Q: What camera equipment do you shoot with?

A: For my personal work, I shoot film. The cameras I have that accept film are a Mamiya (twin lense) that was purchased in Sweden by Hawk’s father in the 1950s. Also, I like working with the lenseless Holga camera – for it’s uncomplicated poetic nature.

The camera is just the groundwork of a photograph. The photographer from there must establish a sense of his or her own presence in the choice of diffusion lenses or diffusion materials as well as printing techniques.

Q: What is the best professional advice you have ever received as a photographer?

A: The best piece of advice took me nearly 20 years to assimilate and it came from a prominent gallery owner in Los Angeles, who only now I recognize as a wise man. The advice was to understand myself as a photographer who methodically works for the long-term to develop meaningful work. At the time I was 25 years old and had moved to NYC from San Francisco to continue my photographic studies while simultaneously landing commercial work. I took his words to be cryptic and unhelpful. But in retrospect, I am living the life he told me I would have. And it’s not a bad life at all. I set my own pace. I follow my own path. 

See more from Mia Hanson:
Photographer’s website:
Hotel Chelsea Interview: 

Hawk Alfredson’s page can be seen here:

* * *

About the interviewer: 

Michael Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.

This interview was conducted via email between February and July 2014. 

* * *

August 29, 2014   Comments Off on Mia Hanson, Photographer/Interview

STEPHEN VERONA / Photography

Surprised in a Paris Gallery ELF© 2000 Stephen Verona

Surprised in a Paris Galley | Paris, France  | 2000

* * *

Life’s Work Not Over Yet

* * *

A quick look at Stephen Verona’s website and you soon find out you’re standing on the front porch of an archival history of 20th Century art, film, video, advertising, and more. From his groundbreaking film “Lords of Flatbush”, which propelled Verona to heights seen by few filmmakers, to his tenure as one of Madison Avenue’s advertising “Mad Men,” to an invitation to the Vatican in 2009 for Pope Benedict’s Address to Artists held in the Sistine Chapel, Verona not only made his mark, but has lived to see it recognized and appreciated. Verona’s creative drive remains  alive and well even today, as he works to find funding for a documentary film that contrasts the poor, agrarian China he visited and photographed in 1980 with the thriving world class industrial and commercial setting of 2014.

We trust you’ll find his work here and on other websites to be worth investigating, and representative of the effort and attention to the human condition you can expect to see when MAO to NOW finally comes to a theater near you.


Stephen Verona / Photography


Stephen Verona / Paintings

All images copyright Stephen Verona. Used with permission.



A brief exchange with Stephen Verona

with Mike Foldes

Q) Who would you like to have worked with in film or on stage, but never had the chance to do so?

A) Then Marlon Brando, now Meryl Streep.

Q) What painter’s work do you like most, or an artist/teacher has influenced your art the most?

A)  Picasso, Warhol, Rembrandt – How’s that for eclectic.

Q) Which of the arts do you think can best address politics?

A) Can? I think film has the potential, but hasn’t made a major statement because the Studios are still part of the giant complex that frowns on individual voices. That would leave posters as they seem to always creep into our lives and I believe shed some influence on our thinking. I don’t think of painting when I think of political statements. Although Picasso’s “Guernica” was a monumental exception. Even if that was more War than Politics.

Q) What is the next major project for Stephen Verona?

A) In 1980 I was in China to prepare for a movie that sadly never happened. I wish to return to photograph and video the changes for a traveling exhibit I now title: “MAO to NOW.” I wish to produce a coffee table picture book as well as a photo exhibit and video. 

Q) What’s your favorite restaurant in LA?

A) As a foodie, that’s more difficult. We love Chinois on Main, but Mr. Chows in Beverly Hills is probably our favorite. We eat there regularly and I have since they opened in London and then New York and Beverly Hills. It’s hard to find a place in three cities that you know will always satisfy your taste buds. I used to have my table at the old Ma Maison where Wolfgang Puck started before Spago. I even painted the image for their menu as did David Hockney and Francois Gilot (Picasso’s Mistress). Good company. 

* * *

 Gossip at the Beauty Shop

GOSSIP AT THE BEAUTY SHOP | 40” X 40” | 1980

Up Next: “MAO to NOW”

“In 1980 I went to China to work on what was to be the first American/Chinese Co-Production of a motion picture since WWII. Sadly the film was never made. The good news was that I was able take lots of photos. When I returned home I spent the next year painting, drawing and printing the photos. What I wish to do now is to return and capture those extraordinary changes. Then to produce a traveling exhibit as well as a Video and coffee table photographic book.”   

— Stephen Verona

Find out more about Verona’s project: 

* * *

About the interviewer:

Michael Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.

The preceding miniview was conducted via email in July 2014.




August 29, 2014   Comments Off on STEPHEN VERONA / Photography

On Location/France

Woman Informing Herself


An Interview

with Valentin Magaro

Digital & Analogue Explorations

by Jean-Paul Gavard-Perret 

Valentin Magaro fills up sketchbook after sketchbook, and many days he lets himself drift almost on automatic pilot guided by the image banks in his mind. He makes his compositions rapidly. They are inexhaustible exploratory pathways, sometimes pursued, sometimes abandoned along the way. Romanticism contrasts sharply with the thrilling styles of the scenes.  Each of his images works autonomously, but at the same time they irresistibly form a series and a narrative.


Jean-Paul Gavard-Perret: What makes you get up on morning?

Valentin Magaro: Our son. He wakes up early.

Q) What happened to your dreams as child?

A) I can’t remember.

Q) What did you give up?

A) My virginity.

Q) Where do you come from?

A) From the tummy of my mother.

Q) What is the first image you remember ?

A) The little forest in the garden of our house.

Q) And the first book ?

A) Wenn Kubaki kommt (a Swiss book for children).

Q) That is what distinguishes you from other artists?

A) An individual picture language.

Q) Where do you work and how?

A) I have a studio for my big acrylic-paintings and a little studio at home for my drawings ans my architectural models.
I create complex compositions. Every work always starts with a drawing in pencil. Later I transform the picture in many different technics.

Q) To whom do you never dare write ?

Q) What music do you listen to?

A) I listen to different kind of music. Music from the last 40 Years.

Q) What is the book you love to reread?

A) “Wahrheiten und Weisheiten”, a book from Beat Imhof with a collection of symbolic stories from the whole world.

Q) When you look yourself in a mirror who do you see?

A) A friendly young man that would help every old woman to cross the street.

Q) What city or place has value of myth for you?

A) Paris.

Q) What are the artists you feel closest?

A) Hieronymus Bosch, Willi Sitte, Hans Memling, Felix Vallotton, Michel Erhart.

Q) What film makes you cry?

A) Brokeback Mountain.

Q) What would you like to receive for your birthday?

A) That’s my secret (and the secret of my wife).

Q) What do you think of the sentence of Lacan: “Love is giving something that we don’t have to someone who does not want”?

A) Do you like Italian food?

Q)  And Woody Allen: “The answer is Yes, but what was the question?”

A) Is there life after death?


About the interviewer:

Jean-Paul Gavard-Perret contributes the On Location/France column to Ragazine. This interview was conducted in April 2014. You can read more about him in About Us.

August 29, 2014   Comments Off on On Location/France

Robert Soffian/Artist Interview

The Ringmaster's Diary

 The Ringmaster’s Diary, by Robert Soffian


Robert Soffian:

The Melody of Shape & Color

with Michael Foldes


Q) When did you know you would become an artist?

A) I do not remember.  If you mean painter, I knew I always wanted to paint. However, for many years I wrote poetry, plays and directed.  So I didn’t really have time.  I was surrounded by art all my life.  My parents collected art.  I studied art history when I was kid at University of  Florence.  Also I was exposed to many artists growing up.  I had friends whose parents were artists. Mostly Greenwich Village in the early 60’s.  People like Jack Levine, Leon Golub.  In theatre, one is involved with design, lighting and period all the time.  So being informed about art styles and movements is just part of the package.  Also directing is really moving shapes inside a frame…composition, making pictures etc. I also designed lights for many productions: dance, plays, even music groups. So I was painting with light… I was pretty  good with this and always had a sense of liquid and  melody of shape and color. The truth is…one day my wife and I got into a small argument about what I would do after my life in theatre.  And I said “paint of of course.”  And she said “really…I don’t believe it.”  So you might say it was my answering her question.  This was   many years ago.  Funny out of this came a joint exhibition we did in San Francisco!) Also my sister, who is five years older…was a painter. And I watched her. I like to paint because it is so obviously personal and doesn’t involved lots of stuff…like making theatre.  It called to me.

Q) Were any of your family members instrumental in your artistic pursuits?

A) My father loved Shakespeare and poetry.  MY parents always took me to museums and plays.  My sister painted.  My mother loved Kandinsky’s work. I was surrounded by art in the house. It was rare in the 1950’s and 60’s..but my parents loved to collect.  And the walls of our house were were packed like  a salon.  It was odd.  But the images drilled themselves into my mind.  Art was valued. And the people who made art were respected.

Q) Why the intense colors, and not more figurative work?

A) Great question.  The truth is that I see my work going backwards into more figurative practice. I really view myself as a kind of figurative painter.  My abstraction is not pure.  I enjoy all kinds of art and technique.  Really I often work in a simple palette.  But I feel the vibrancy of my way of seeing requires the reflections of their colors.  There is short hand also.  They are sexy, fertile, fecund. Hues and pigments mirror the natural world and less conscious truths.  They are obvious and hidden.  Vivacity.  I often vacillate between a wildness with line and color and austere paintings.  I enjoy contrast.  Contrast creates focus. White and black even.  Some shapes just require their voice.  And if they are figures/they have a real colored shape. One can eat color. Make love to color.  Sense its shape.  Ride its destiny.  Cheap fun if you can get it.)

Q) Do you paint for a living, and if so, how long have you been fortunate enough to make a living as an artist?

A) It is a living.  I could be a very rich artist if I lived in The Congo!)  But yes I do sell my work.  Also the world of art is dominated by trends and what’s hot or currently hip and goes in cycles . Always new artists imitate their teachers and the paradigms they swam in.  I will keep any ideas to myself.  I do not think that one art can explain another well. The painting speaks for itself..   I have been working as an artist for less than twenty years.  One hopes to find a few collectors who value your work and understand its practice and support your efforts through its myriad phases.  I think I operate from a place of security when I am producing work which is honest and dynamically valid.  That is important.  I guess I have confidence in my vision.  Of course, just making art is a challenge of beautiful cruelty.

Q) What artists have had the greatest effects on you as a person, and your work as an expression of your perceptions?

A) I am drawn to all art which is good.)  For me it doesn’t matter what school or style or concern they express.  I think I have a sharp, trained intuition.  In general, I gravitate to the Modernists.  Picasso, Miro.  The energy and freedom of Abstract Expressionism  is compelling.  I enjoy Tintoretto.  Rauschenberg of course.  The other great innovator…Duchamp.  For me, it really is an unfair question. Artist search for expressive forms in their own epoch.  Van Gogh, Michelangelo,etc.  I am thrilled by the magnetism of ritual art:  New Guinea, Alta Mira.  One should learn from all the great teachers.  Steal what you can.  The main thing is not to imitate.  One might try to see if you could try to understand how something was accomplished, some techniques.  Or see beneath the technique and begin to empathize with the practice and concerns of the sincere efforts of all artists who create authentically.  The main thing is to discover who you are and what you needed to do. Yes, it is a conversation with the past and even some contemporaries.  We just move on.  Who doesn’t admire Rembrandt or Beuys?)  One ought try to avoid comparisons. Let others say what  they see it to be or its influences.  Goya, Praxiteles…Matisse…

Q) Where did you grow up, and did you find a receptive audience in your early years  that reinforced your desire to paint? Or did you spend a lot of time swimming upstream?

A) My childhood was spent in the East Coast..Philadelphia/New York.  But I have done a fair about of traveling and working in many states and countries. The various locales and experiences, of course influence one’s perceptions and way of being.  So I have lived in Wisconsin, Virginia, and for the last 30 plus years in California…Far northern near MT. Shasta, San Francisco and now LA.  When I was younger I lived in Europe for many years.  Mainly in Amsterdam.  But I have spent time in India, Bali, Greece, Argentina, on and on. Every place has a smell, a palette, a special light.  The light in Budapest was almost like Paris!  and  Greek light just explodes.  The contrast between that and the sea is elixir. The water greatly inspires me.  The way the colors integrate with the rhythms of the sea.  I think, unless one is a genius or extremely lucky, mostly artists go through a similar trail.  At first, even you doubt your efforts.  Then a few friends begin to notice what you are doing. Then other artists who you respect offer critique and encouragement.  And then you find some buyers, then maybe galleries, then collectors. Nothing is easy.  What is one’s goal?  Fame? Money?  For me, the freedom to explore was what drew me to painting. In the beginning I allowed myself to make any mistake possible.  Now as I know a little more, one forgets that mistakes are what we are after.  To watch something come alive through informed accident and the logical systems of the subconscious.  If I have a practice it entails the rigor of time, repetition and the ability to allow myself the honestly to be privately Universal. My basic feeling is intoxication and analysis.  One’s lover will find you…I know the purpose of what I am doing.  It takes time for some people to hear the drums.))  But when they do it should feel good.



Robert Soffian

Soffian gallery with interview, V10, N4

The Spine of the Matter
The Spine of the Matter
X-Ray Man
X-Ray Man
The Alley of Poplars
The Alley of Poplars
The Duchess Out of Hamburg
The Duchess Out of Hamburg
Susanah and the Elders
Susanah and the Elders
Ten Screen
Ten Screen
State Power
State Power
Sunrise Guests
Sunrise Guests
Pasiphaes Dream
Pasiphaes Dream
Serial Face
Serial Face
Jeune Fils 2013
Jeune Fils 2013
Jump Forward
Jump Forward
Little Shiva
Little Shiva
Gardener Wirth Green Bird
Gardener Wirth Green Bird
Have a Ball 2
Have a Ball 2
House of Spirits 1
House of Spirits 1
Five Screen
Five Screen
Downtown Alphabet 2013
Downtown Alphabet 2013
Fight at a Nightclub
Fight at a Nightclub
Dance Static 2
Dance Static 2
Dawn Patrol 2
Dawn Patrol 2
A Couple, 2013
A Couple, 2013
Barktree, Bark Bark
Barktree, Bark Bark
Bird and Guillotine
Bird and Guillotine


Q) In your website bio, it says you discovered the Violent Femmes. Just how did that happen?

A) In the late 1970’s I ran a multi-purpose theater in Milwaukee called The Metropole. There I produced all genres of performances. Acts that were local and National: Theatre, dance, punk, ballet, performance art, film and many genres of live music etc. This was a time  when eccdentric acts toured specialized venues, a kind of circuit…the Kitchen in New York, Name in Chicago, Walker and places in LA and SF. Anyway I held auditions, open mikes regularly. Brian  was my friend and worked at the theater and he played bass in my pal Jerry Fortier’s band…”The Ruthless Acoustics.” One evening I was holding an open mike and Gordon Gano then a  waif showed up and sang a couple songs. I liked his performing and introduced him to Brian and they formed the group with Vincent who was an actor before a drummer. Not long after both The Ruthless and Gordon opened for Nico at the Metropole. She was staying at my house sort of hiding out. Wonderful concert. But she was consuming quite a bit of vodka. Nico was a dear person.  She played solo with her harmonium that night. The Violent Femmes and I have been associated ever since then. Brian was a good janitor also!!  He lives in Hobart Tasmania now and curates a weird museum of art and music events.

Q) You have a very eclectic background, a chain of links stretching across many media, which to me is evident of a mind that seeks and a body that follows. So, looking back on it all, what possesses you when you make a life-change from one thing to another. For example, from archaeology to theater to art… I don’t see how you can really leave any of it behind. In fact, when you talk about color in light and pigment, it’s evident nothing has been left behind, only transformed as it became the foundation for moving on, or in another direction.

A) I think the creative impulse just wants to be involved to make things. It seems to me as I look back a bit that I have been interested in trying to understand the differences between how the aesthetics differ from one thing to another. It’s all a type of psychical discovery. This moving from one art world to another. It is also about epistemology…searching for knowledge. I am just fascinated by the various ways our mind must work within each discrete form. Also I get bored. I believe in hard work. I like to get deep into a discipline. In fact I think there is jealousy between the arts. Also often  I need to express myself this way not that way. Still I have found that combining interests and skills is what I always like. I enjoy collaborators. Even within myself. There is a process of discovery. Those eureka moments when the possibilities of each field astound and engulf you! You have to have confidence to travel even if the confidence is self invented. All the answers are wrong or so opaque that searching is the only fun. I really think everything is consistent and logical since I am following what I know I must do. I say I must try this. I can do this. Failing is interesting. Look  I learned something! I have a strong sense of being lead by my subconscious. If such an entity really exists. I am inclined to follow it. I like the history of things.  I see it is my  forte to attempt connections. I wish I had more time to do more.) I think backwards also.  That helps. I know where I went, now I just need to find how I got there! In general once you begin to suss out the limits of each realm one can begin to investigate things creatively. It’s the limits that really create! And truly all knowledge is transferable across disciplines. They just look different because they use tools from a special kit, Unified Field Theory of Aesthetics. Some paths are corporeal some just ethereal some textural some visual or aural. Some are New. But the best are really really old.  Because everything repeats. Does this help? On the other hand: I am Adventure Averse. But I am attracted to what appears an innovation. That is until I recognize it’s original status.

Q) You mentioned you were dyslexic. Was there a point you can recognize when the right and left sides of your brain suddenly meshed and you were moving forward in high gear?

 A) Never. I just learned how to use it. To see it as a gift rather than a deterrent. I learned to see blocks of words, pages all at once instead of each word.  I FOUND OUT THAT BY PRETENDING I could stop stuttering when I was 13 years old. I realized that gibberish can make sense.  I discovered that liquids and colors communicate sense memory. I found out that something about how I process things let me see things clearer. It helped me see the cosmic jokes abounding in paradigms. It let me find friends and co-conspirators who also recognized the shibboleths and pomposity of certainty. I learned to interpret myself. There is an acting exercise I use called “Go Left by Going Right.” That about sums it up. When at a loss get more lost!  To really find something one has to NOT look for it. I go fast up there. But my mind feels it is slow so it just works out fine….I am not quite sure the brain works that way. But I will say that Art is my saving Grace. Because I always saw things in a different light. And thus I knew I had to share my vision.  So in that way I knew it was correct to be me. Doubt is very specific in art. It is often pointing out what does not work. Editing and cutting away the “wrong for this moment” thing and then seeing what remains. Absurdly the via negativa is the most positive.

Q) Do you have siblings, and are –or were they – as adventursome as yourself?

A) My sister was a painter. Now she is a classical scholar. My mother taught. My dad was an attorney who loved Shakespeare and poetry. I am the black sheep. We always were expected to travel and appreciate the arts. I don’t know why. Our parents encouraged us to learn. Their lives were full of poignant life events: illness, stress, drink, frustrations and surviving The Great Depression. They did not have the luxury to be artists they thought. But we had a large library. We talked about politics, and crime and whores and boxing and the horses. The world of the inner city was ever-present as many of my dad’s clients were poor and black. And of course there was The Mob too! However I think they never expected me to really do creative things.  Family is the basis of all drama. Each one is an adventure. I think it is impossible to understand how and why and what notions our families really entertain. I am sure my children hardly understand who I am and I certainly only know them as a father. Every life is an adventure if our thought dreams could be seen…I think I was a product of the 1960s. I really believed that change was imminent. In terms of who I was to become… I learned that I could communicate and inspire some. Every person senses the power and draw of the erotic force of creating. However only time reveals who actually stayed until the game got going in earnest. The crucible is eternal. Perhaps the one who does nothing embraces the most adventure. I am not that person. I could be him. But I did not allow myself to be. Instead I like to make expressive things that satisfy and trouble me. But eventually we all will have the same adventure.

Q) How did you happen to go abroad, to Italy, at such an early age? Did you go alone, or with relatives?

A) I often marvel at what I was allowed to do!  When I was 13 years old my father and mother were spending summer in France. They arranged that my sister take me to Florence to study at the University. I imagine she was my chaperone and my presence offered  a little stability to the situation. In actuality she was a lovely blonde 18 year old who wanted adventure and I was a little nerdy kid who she probably regretted knowing. Anyway the classes were all in Italian. We tried to learn Art History and Italian. The lecture halls were hot and sweaty and brimming with infatuation! We traveled there on what were then called “student ships” which were really Italian freight transports converted to haul college students to the Continent. What a blast!.  The year was 1960. My sister and I lived in a pension…Pensione Panoramica Angelica/ 60 Via Cavour. She often left me there in the evening to zoom into the Tuscan hills on a Vespa with one dark boy or other. Luckily for me in the neighboring room lived an ethereal French girl close to my age…so I was never lonely. I think I learned many things that summer. I have three grown children and I am still amazed that my straight parents encouraged us to do things like that! I am probably more protective than they were. Funny isn’t it? They were always doing things like that. What were they thinking?  Perhaps this was their vicarious adventure. I had few restrictions. But I was a good kid. They could trust me. At least for awhile…. I think that travel/ traveling alone is a wonderful growth opportunity. It instills self-reliance and opens one up to many mechanisms that will be useful during one’s lifetime. It’s sometimes scary but very invigorating. And of course one quickly realizes that the world behaves in many ways you never expected. That they are many right answers!

Q) At the time, what was the most important thing you thought you were bringing away from your work in Greece, and does that remain so today?

A) Greece remains today my most sacred place. The light is bright and bold and shattering and clean. The sea is fresh. Cretan Blue.  The cicadas never stop sounding. The past is present. The ruins are proud and sad. I get dark there. Everyone thinks I am Greek. I love to swim. I feel at home. The year I graduated from High School my parents arranged for me to work on a dig there through the University of Pennslyvania. My sister knew the program and the archaeologists. I worked there for about 4-5 months before I started college. I was the youngest member of the expedition. My job was to do scale drawings with rapidograph pens of the numerous shards which were uncovered. I meticulously drew the rims and bodies of graceful jars, amphorae, oil lamps, small broken heads of sculptures… whatever. My work station was a small table under a canvas drop. I think in later years I saw where one or two were actually published in some schorlarly journal! This was miraculous considering I was just learning what graph paper was and struggled to create each piece perfectly. This was a laughable experiment but I was treated kindly by everyone. Before I started to work I was sort of marooned in Athens at the American School of Classical studies because the lead professor was delayed. I had little money. But I was lucky to find a couple who showed me how to explore back roads of Greece using the Guide Blue. So I spent a month taking buses and donkeys up and down little trails viewing sites, sleeping outdoors and being free. Greece in those days was quite primitive. Not the bustling destination of today. One was able to investigate ruins with hardly anyone around. No one had money. Everyone hated the Germans! I wrote my first full chapbook of poetry that summer.  Later, I returned to Athens with hardly any money but somehow the residents of a nearby whorehouse took pity on me and allowed me to sleep in a shed on their roof. Very idyllic. I read all of The James Bond books, ate pistachios and  became friends with the girls. But boy when they fought you didn’t want to be around! I also grew a mustache. I still have a beard. So that stuck. I go back to Greece every so often. I always feel welcome. Later I studied Ancient Greek. So I learned to love the meter and melody of Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Sappho, Herodotus, et al. That classical education ( I also studied Latin) has allowed me to understand English better and developed in me a great love of the Humanities.

Q) I see elements of indigenous imagery in your work, e.g., in the Femme and Genetics and of course, in Went Native… What informs these pieces that’s different from what informs you as a stage lighting director?

A) In Light Design color, hue is form and movement. One is creating an illumined environment where action happens and bodies inhabit. It is a very old thing to do. Lighting a fire. Making a shadow. Revealing something mysterious. Those paintings you mentioned are also about the movement of life. In the days I did those I was interested in archetypes. I made a whole series on motifs from Micronesia and stone age cultures. Procreative things.  Pre-verbal. Light is sub verbal. So there is some connection. Lighting is very elemental. Fire light.

Q) You mention Miller and Burroughs and I wonder, did you know them, meet them, work with them? What was their influence on you – and are we talking about the same (Henry) Miller and (William) Burroughs?

A) Never met Henry Miller. sure would have loved to though.  However In the early ’60s I went to a camp for the children of leftist artists and bohemians.  It was called “Lincoln Farm Work Camp.”  It got its name from the Lincoln Brigade of Anarchists who fought against  the Nazis in Spain during the Civil War there.  There I became friends with the kids of Jack Levine, Arthur Miller, Leon Golub, Burroughs and many many more.  Funny place. Pre-hippie . Our week was eight days long…etc.  Great topic for a book.  As it happened about ten years later I was a sort of hanger-on at London’s New Arts Lab.  This place in Camden Town housed a theater, gallery, and was also the home of the London Filmmakers Cooperative.  There Burroughs put on a small show of his recent paitntings.  He was hanging out in London in those days.  These paintings were the ones he made by shooting or throwing things at balloons filled with pigment.  I helped hang the show and got to know him a bit. Pleasant, Mandarin, funny/ arch/arcane and everyone whispered around him.  He was trying to kick.  Unkle Bill! That period introduced me to some good theater. The People Show for one.  Later we took “experimental” films up to Stockholm….Bailey, Ron Rice, Carolee…I was just a kid wet behind the ears. 

Q) What is your earliest memory?

A) I am about three years old. I am at our house on the Jersey Shore. Near the beach. My mother wants me to eat eggs for breakfast. I DO NOT WANT TO EAT EGGS! I am wearing a striped blue or yellow shirt. I have curly blonde hair and blue eyes. I ran out onto the porch. There are many many  red bricks steps down to the pavement. My grandmother comes out of the house. She is a big Russian woman with pendulous breasts. She is wearing a housecoat. She takes me up in her arms and cradles me. “He doesn’t have to eat eggs.” She says to my mother. I stop crying. The wind blows her hair.  My mother agrees.

Q) What obstacles to working have you found over the years, and how did you get over them? Something along the lines of writer’s block… did you ever experience painter’s block?

A) For me, if I am not creating something I usually feel out of sorts. or “Neurosis is cool/Neurosis is Hot “)  So I try to be involved in a CREATIVE ENDEAVOR as much as possible.  There is a compulsion to that.  But so be it. I will just start something to get the line alive without a plan if need be.  Also I am convinced that the more one does the better one gets.  I have done this directing plays, writing and now painting.  I try to paint every day.  I work without present judgement.  Judgement happens within the practice moment by moment and after.  But I just like to work.  ” Work on What has been Spoiled” as the I Ching hexagram says..  .sometimes on several paintings at once.  My hand gets more limber too.  I like to work at night but also in the morning. I like it quiet.  I talk to myself though.  This is a deep concentration better than any drug.  I love to watch how my brain works.  The hours between 3 and 6 or 7 pm are usually fallow.  Nap and rest.  Of course, sometimes I don’t work.  It bothers me.  Because it takes a lots of gas to build up the speed and get the mistakes out.  Similar to writing strategies where the first things one writes is usually garbage…but one must clear the pipes!  Then there comes the time when an idea or technique or material has been tried in a series of paintings.  And I just need to stop and regain a type of balance and perspective.  However If I had a choice I  would never stop.  Because in my view the mind gets freed up and all the messages get clearer.  I conjure that how I work best is accepting the signifiers from inside and below my rational self and then trapping them and organizing them in a very conscious effort.  In other words I enjoy how the rational and  illogical cooperate.  Another way of saying this is that the illogical is just as valid and prevalent as the opposite.  You may turn the corner and meet your true love.  Or who is to say what sperm what hit the mark? If I am not working creativity I feel I am not doing my destiny. weird.  I like white wine. and I drink Drambuie on the rocks. My sense of humor  is an acquired taste.  So is what I make.  But I convince myself I have the confidence to go on.  Isn’t this what we are supposed to do?  The main difference between an artist of any genre and a person who just loves to express herself (himself) and perhaps does it well…is that the artist never stops.  While the most graceful amateur( literally “lover of art” ) does it on Mondays and Holidays!  I am lucky to have had children and relationships that centered me.  And a way to make a living.  Those platforms have given me a grounding to pursue my passionate obsessions and desire to say something.  To add something to the stew.  The fun is in the journey. It is a path I treasure.

Q) What other creative outlets do you have? Do you play an instrument? Write? Go hiking in the Sierras?

A) Well I have always written poetry.  So I do that. Sometimes I will write dramatic texts.  Of course, I used to teach theater and film…so that occupied much time.  I direct a play if something really excites me. I prefer new plays. I usually say I can play every instrument poorly.  My favorite is the SAX.  Contrary to what people think (about artists)…I like sports.  So I play and watch baseball(my favorite and Packers football)!  I read mostly poetry and  biographies and new plays.  This year I translated a small book of Italian poems written my(friend) Esther Grotti.  That was hard and great fun.  I have two cats.  I really love to travel if the opportunity arises.  Of course I go to galleries. and Museums.  The beach is good.  I really enjoy cooking. mostly sea food.  My two sons live nearby so I get to hang with them every week or so.   I like science, mostly physics.  I stare out the window.  My partner, Cynthia, is a musician and songwriter so I go to her concerts.  And I watch how she creates.  We talk about practice and process.  I think about art.  I try to get my older friends to work with me on projects and convince them that communicating is worth the effort.  I read their novels. I visit North Beach in SF.  I worry about the direction of compulsive materialism.  I stay in contact with old friends.  I frequent the haunts of young people to see what I am missing and what I should know.  That is an impossible and mostly invisible task.  I mean they do not generally see me.) I try to motivate myself to invent things to do.  I marvel at the stupidity of war.  I dwell on the zeitgeist and motif of social media. I remind myself there was once something called “The Jet Age”. so that gives me faith.  I swim sometimes.  I eat chocolate and drink Earl Gary.  I pretend I am a comedian and play my jokes in my head.  I try to contact my intuition.  I dance around the shimmering membranes between Universes.  I think about meaning and lack of meaning.

Those Ionian Philosophers were really smart!  I hustle and promote and hide out.  Mostly I watch and receive…and I like to talk about all this stuff!

Q) What would you say is the direction of art today, and what will the influence of technology be on the more classical media such as drawing, painting and sculpture?

A) I tend to think that artist will  always adapt to new materials and technologies.  That is a given. And also the most vital things contain their negation.  And yet I always feel and hope that the hand and body will retain its prominent place.  The last century was the time of Light.  In fact we are still experiencing ourselves through new light…cinema, video, lasers , computers, the 01010  on and on. the nuclear world/the quantum space.  I think often about the Eternal Return.  Things will proceed and morph.  Consciousness will grow.  We will become alienated by our inventions. We will return to the essentials.  Personally I am not a very intellectual person.  Many if not all of the current ways of viewing things seem to bore me.  Whatever is believed is suspect.  Most paradigms appear humorless, inflated and conflated with bad nonsense. Fun is good.  Sly Fun. SEX The Death Machine is a good game.  I try not to say this.  Perhaps this is the province of dumb age?  I prefer things that can include raw satire.  I am not sure about the pretended brilliance of popular culture critiques.  Nor do I understand so much irony. It’s like casting a play.  A good director just is able to tell who is right for each role.  A bad diretor never does.  Let’s hope we can recognize the most potent works of art sans belief system.  A good creator is either in the time or beyond the time.  Show Me do not tell me what things mean. Please!  Recently I have been assembling lots of archival material.  So I begin to understand something about the relevance of archiving things, events, ephemera.  Many of the things I see which combine media and seem new are really just modernized  versions of things done decades ago with better equipment.  Does this sound harsh?  i hope not.  The Eternal Return.  Certainly the ubiquity of phones with cameras, You-Tube Channels etc asks and goads everyone to pretend to be artists.   To record to watch to work for The Paris Match in your head.  Yes it democratizes expression.  It tries to destroy elites.  But how will it actually affect the humane thoughts.  We don’t know.  It scares us.  I am sure the Renassiance was scary.  The Industrial Revolution was shattering.  But not as momentous as THE ICE AGE!  I am an optimist… in geologic time.  To be specific  ART IS NOT HOMEWORK.  Do Not look for a good grade from society.  Things that are expressed  with intention resonate.  Shit!  What do I know?  Is there a new story to tell.  It seems to me we live in our own science fiction  novel.  On the other hand things evolve in flashes.  Where is the next Cubism?  Find it and buy it cheap. Now is the time.


About the interviewer:

Michael Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.

This interview was conducted by email in March and April 2014. 

June 28, 2014   Comments Off on Robert Soffian/Artist Interview

Ultra Violet Interview

Buy the book!

Interview with Ultra Violet

Isabelle Collin Dufresne

6 September 1935 – 14 June 2014 … 

by Mike Foldes
Originally published August 28, 2011.

A couple of years ago Hélène Gaillet suggested a Ragazine interview with her friend, Ultra Violet, one of the Superstars of Andy Warhol’s infamous Factory troupe. It took a long time to finally make the connection, and when we did, Ultra didn’t want to talk about the old days. “Read my book,” she ordered. “It says everything.” Instead, she moved the conversation to what’s happening now, and said what she’d said, in so many words, when we spoke on the phone: “I want to talk about tomorrow. Tomorrow is important.”

Ultra’s Chelsea studio is in one of the larger converted factory buildings on West 26th Street in New York City. When we visit the crowded space late afternoon on April 30, she is contemplating a move to a larger studio that had come available in the same building. The 26th Street space appears to be more of a place to show her work, than to make it.  Many of her pieces are one-off or short runs made at her direction by artisans in shops both in and beyond New York. There’s no way she could produce some of the pieces on display here in such a space without means of production. When asked the extent of her participation, she asks pointedly, “I don’t have a shop to bend metal. Do you?”

Most of the recent pieces in the room reflect Ultra’s commitment to understanding and explaining the cause and effect of the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and on America as a nation.  “American naivete,” she says with a French accent, for she is, in fact a French-born heiress who ran away to see the world — and did. “American naivete, it died that day.”

Ultra, born Isabelle Dufresne in 1935, comes across as self-confident and energetic. In the studio, she’s in her element. Her friends, acquaintances and lovers comprise a pantheon of some of the 20th century’s most famous and accomplished artists, writers, politicians and business people, as well as many more unseen stars who will never be seen, heard of or heard from ever again.  I mention to a friend we’ll be doing an interview with Ultra Violet. “Who?” he asks. “One of the Warhol Superstars,” I say. His wife remembers her this way: “She was famous for being famous.”

That was then. This is now. Ultra Violet is who she was, and more. Today she’s serious about leaving a mark, focused on seeing that her art becomes a constant message to audiences of tomorrow of what 9-11, and its lessons, mean for all of us.


Ragazine: Are you done with the 9-11 series?

Foldes, Ultra & IX-XI sculpture. Maya Photo

Ultra Violet: No no no, the other day I did a performance, a 9-11 performance. No, I’m not done…. No, I’d love to do a chess game; I’d like to do an hour glass, a huge hour glass. No, I’m not done, I don’t know when I’ll be done with it.


R: Do you take breaks and do other things in the meantime?

UV: Well, I do. I just came back from the Dallas Art Fair premiering a movie… I do other things, but 9-11 is a very important subject …

R: Where did you live when that happened?

UV: I was in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side.

R: We were wondering when we came over here whether you lived in your studio.

UV: No, no, you can’t live here ….

R: Once we saw the building it was pretty obvious….

UV: No, no, you don’t live here.

R: How many pieces do you have in the 9-11 series so far?

UV: The other day I had a show, a wonderful show. They counted 25 pieces; actually I have more, but some of them they didn’t want to show…. Like the nuclear terrorism after 9-11, they didn’t want to show this one, because they thought maybe it is irreverent. (Ultra points to a painting of an angel Mickey Mouse). It’s a very touchy subject, they thought maybe it would be irreverent…. Or something.

R: This is the gallery in Brooklyn?

UV: Yes, it was a great show. You know some people might take offense to this, though I can explain this. I’m not trying to be funny or irreverent.

Mickey Mouse represents the American naivete, or good humor, you know, and that day I think that he got nailed. Actually I wrote a story that he died on that day, that’s the meaning of this. But some people, some 200 people or whatever, might take umbrage to that.

R: I don’t understand why people would take umbrage to that.

UV: They would, because the idea to mix Mickey Mouse, which is “Ha ha ha ha,”  with a tragic event, you know,  to some people…. You know, they are in touch with some commission people they want to bring to the studio and I am going to hide this.

R: You mentioned on the phone you didn’t want to look back, that you like to look forward, to what’s happening.

UV: I do, I still do. Usually the press asks you about the past, and I’m not interested in the past, I much prefer tomorrow. What I might do tomorrow. A lot of what’s in the past has already been recorded.

I mean, you might say 9-11 is in the past, but it’s the very near past. It’s just about 10 years, and I think it was such a blow to the American nation that I don’t think people have yet digested it, if you know what I mean, absorbed it, and oh, and plus, a marking of time….

This is a marking of time. It’s really the official date of the Terrorist Era. Terrorism has existed before, I am aware of it. The word terror was created in the French revolution and in Roman times the Zealots, but you know, as we know it now, terrorism… this is the official date. And it will never go away. Terrorism. Unfortunately. So, that’s why I think that marking of time, which is what I am doing with my “Woman of Miracles” (Ultra gestures absently toward another sculpture in the space), matters a lot for people, and I think I was able to do it in a very elegant way.

R: It is, it’s really clean. When I was looking at pieces on the web, they were very clean and seeing them here they’re very clean lines, and to see how smooth they are. Do you do this, or do you have people working with you?

UV: Do I have a factory that bends metal? I don’t …

R: So this is steel?

UV: Aluminum.

R: When did you do the mirrors in the glass frames?

UV: Oh, the glass.  Those are fairly old,  maybe three years or so, and it’s a baroque frame cast  in acrylic.  I think the frame is absolutely phenomenal, and it took me at least a year to decide what should go inside. I tried things, you know, paintings, portraits, blue, green, yellow, and it finally dawned on me to do a mirror, and to do a self-portrait, which I think is pretty nice. (Laughs.)

When you look into it, it must be a self-portrait, but you must think of it. This is a very expensive work. If I could do this very, very cheap… I looked for (a way to do) it, but I couldn’t find it. You know, they used to make mirrors in metal, and they also used to make frames all in plastic, plastic molded, and I was looking for a very cheap $10 mirror that would look good in this. We used to find things on Canal Street, and now Canal Street is all Americanized.

R: Chinese-ized. When you’re working on 9-11 projects, do you conceive of other things, films, or things based on what you’ve done it the past?

UV: Oh, I do. Yesterday I did an interview with a television show with, I don’t know, and the interview was about tarot reading. Why? Because someone created a tarot card (deck), and each card is designed by an artist and I designed one.  The deck is going to premier at the Andy Warhol Museum, and they asked me to do a tarot reading there. I said I would if it only lasted 15 minutes each, and they said “OK”. So, they did that interview for television, and so I spoke about tarot and I did a reading, totally improvised.  I mean I’ve never read the tarot.

So, you know, I do other things. Not all in the studio.

We have a short chat about Helene Gaillet, about Ultra updating her website, and whether Ragazine will ever be in print. “Not likely,” is the answer, but you never know. Ultra continues:

I met a lady at the Invisible Dog (the gallery where her recent show took place) who was doing a thesis on 9-11 … and what she did, she Googled “artist” and “9-11”, and she had a whole list, and she asked “How come you’re not listed?”

(She turns to Martin, an assistant who is doing a time lapse photograph of one of her pieces, and who is also working on the update of her web site.)


Martin you’re supposed to work on this, remember?

M: I’ll do some SEO.

UV: Did you do this? Am I listed?

M: Probably not.

UV: Well I would like to be.… And she found me by chance, because someone told her I am doing work on 9-11. Ah, I guess it’s the new way of the world. You have to deal with it.

R: It used to be video, and before that it was Polaroids. Things change.

UV: Two days ago I was on a panel of Andy Warhol –  since you mentioned Polaroids. The subject was the influence of his artwork today and the influence of the Factory today, and on the panel was Bob Colacello. Do you know him? And then a famous photographer, Berger…. I think he works for Vanity Fair, and then a vice president of the World Foundation who resigned now …. I forget his name…

(Jumping to another subject ….)

Can you take that piece of paper there … the building once a year does an open house, and it’s this weekend, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I have to sell things. Martin, you still need the white cloud?

M: I do until nine o’clock…

UV: What are you doing exactly?

M: I’m doing a time lapse with the cloud in the background.

UV: Then I can’t walk over there …

R: When did you do your clouds?

UV: About two years ago. Much of my work is luminous. This is luminous (points to a neon piece on the wall), and the rainbows are luminous. I was saving…. I can turn them on, but you know all these things have a lifespan. They have a lifespan. The neon, I don’t know if it lasts forever…. And ever.

R: I have a bar down the street, and it has neon in it that’s been there for years.

UV: Well How do you know they didn’t repair it? (Laughs…)

This is neon (points to a neon sculpture on the wall), at the Invisible Dog.   I have this one and another one in black light, ultraviolet light,  and the owner of the place bought it, and he just sent me an e-mail, he said your neon, 9-11, one of the letters is not lit. It never happened to me before.

R: Who does your neon?

UV: There’s a place in Brooklyn called Technolux. I will have to bring it back to them.

I have more in boxes here. We did not unpack everything. I have a series of Windows in the World, it’s a series of 20 little windows on the world, with sky, sky, and after that the sky is crying, and after that the sky is no longer a sky, and I turn it on when I have to but I don’t leave it on all the time. And it flickers. I don’t know how long they last.

R: What’s that piece? (I point to a piece high on the wall, written in Arabic.)

UV: Can you read it?”

R: I can’t.

UV: It’s 9-11 in calligraphy, Arab calligraphy…

R: 9 being the top number?

UV: Well apparently there are many ways to say it, whether you say it nine one one, or n-i-n-e-e-l-e-v-e-n or phonetically, or whatever. So I inquire at Islamic school and they always send me different interpretations, because this one is not exactly the same as this one, and this one I worded to say this way, and left a mirror below.

You know they’re doing a 9-11 memorial in London and the purpose of it is mostly centered for better understanding between the Muslim world and the European world. I don’t want to say it’s invaded, but it’s really not the same civilization…

R: What interests me is that in France, fundamentalist Muslims don’t seem to be very well accepted, these days. (Referring to French law against women wearing the chador).

UV: Yes, and a lot of French people regret it, regret that the laws are so strict….

R: Where do you live in France?

UV: In nice, in the south, you know….

R: Do you have pieces in the show, the 9-11 exhibition that’s coming up?

UV: No, not yet, but I might …

R: How much time do you spend in France.

UV: I don’t spend any time… I just happened to be there a little while ago because I have a show in Paris, and I give a talk in Paris at New York University, and I was signing a very big art project, so I went to Nice for one week….

R: Do you go in the summer?

UV: No, I will spend the summer here, because I have lot of projects planned. One of them is very nice, it is visual and sound and in the project is Bob Dylan and Becky Smith and John Giorno, and it is coming out in August at the Jackson Pollock Kassmer House in the Hamptons. It’s produced by Sony, so it should be lots of fun.

R: So it’s a film?

UV: No, no, it’s a box, and inside the box, you have a visual. My visual happens to be 9-11, and some recordings, probably a DVD. In my case, I excavated a chant, very classical, which I recorded in 1973 for Capital Records, so I’m happy that’s coming out.

R: You mentioned one of the Warhol projects you’re working on, has to do with the influence of Warhol’s ….

UV: Oh, that was a talk two nights ago…



Several of these photos are from Ultra Violet's web site. Others were taken at the studio during the interview. More of Ultra's work can be seen at:


R: So that doesn’t have anything to do with any upcoming projects….

UV: No, no, that was a panel that was organized in Soho by a company that makes furniture, and Bob Colacello was there, and after the talk he signed his book. He has a new book out called OUT, and he was just signing OUT. It was a photography book, mostly of ‘60s photos, and it was organized by these furniture designers, the New Traditionalists, it was at Broadway and Spring.

I’m going to be at the Houston Art Fair in September.

R: Do you take pieces ….

UV: I don’t show it. The gallery takes a space at Art Fair. In this case, the gallery in Houston does that.

I was well positioned, sandwiched between Indiana and Warhol, and there will be a premier of a film which they’ve never seen, that I introduce ….

It’s interesting. The photographer Bill Kennedy, who photographed people before they were famous, in the ‘60s, during the love years… I just happened to be there, and a few others. The photographs have been buried for about 50 years, and now they are just coming to surface, and they interview Indiana and me and a few others…..

R: Indiana, he is still alive?

UV: Yes, he’s alive, he‘s in Miami, Florida. He’s about 70.

R: What’s your routine like when you’re working?

UV: Routine?

R: When you work, do you have a routine?

UV: Well it varies, with some freelance, it depends a lot on appointments. When I have an appointment here and when I stay the day, depending, and I work a lot from home. I have a nice Mac and a lot of my information is there. I work between home and here… No set time… Saturday or Sunday , noon to six… Actually, I met a guy who works with architects, and he knows about my 9-11 and likes it, and I want to put my 9-11 in a situation… For example, I might put it down around Ground Zero. I met the architect that designed Ground Zero, Michael Arad, and I might send that to him, so … It takes time… time.  Time is the issue, time is limited. I am limited, too.

R: Who’s working today whose work you like?

UV: Oh, a lot of people. I like Cristo and Jean Claude. I like James Turel. I like, there are some good people…. There’s a lot of trash, but there are good people, too.

R: Has it always been that way?

UV: No, more so now, because of the art market. Everybody wants to be an artist and cash in, they read the   prices which are phenomenal and they want to cash in. There are a lot of artists now, which makes it very hard to make it, and to break into it (the art market)….


There’s a knock at the door. It’s the agent who will be showing her the other space where she will be able to hang her large paintings of Ground Zero. The interview is over. It will take several weeks before it’s transcribed, edited and placed on the page. In the end, it doesn’t look the way it sounds.

See more of Ultra Violet’s work at

June 15, 2014   1 Comment

Jeanne Mackin/Author Interview

On Writing Historical Fiction

with Mike Foldes

Q)  Tell me, how did you happen to start writing? Does it run in the family?  Why historical fiction?

A) I’ve been writing since I was about seven.  Turns out my grandfather (I didn’t know him – he died the year I was born) was a poet.  Unsuccessful, commercially.  I have one of his rejection letters from Harper’s, about  1930.  Historical because I love the travel of it, that sense of being in a different time and place.

Q) What did you study in college, and when did you write your first novel? Did it sell, or is that among the undiscovered manuscsripts of J.M.?

A) I studied English lit with minors in art and history.  I finished my first novel in my late thirties… slow bloomer… and yes, it was published:  The Frenchwoman, from St. Martin’s Press.  I did write quite a few short stories before I began working on that novel, and was short-listed for a few contests, but didn’t publish them.  They were kind of like warm ups for me:  my heart is in long fiction.

Q) What is your process for developing a story line? Plot? Character development?

A) I usually begin with an initial image and just follow the story.  Who are the people in that first image?  How did they get to whatever that place is?  What is at stake for them, what are their possibilities?  I like to mix fictional characters with real historical characters, so, for instance in The Beautiful American, the historical figure is photographer Lee Miller; I imagined her, just after World War II, in London, bumping into an old friend outside of Harrods.  What are they doing there?  What are they looking for? The old friend is the fictional character, someone who can follow Lee from childhood on, telling Lee’s story mixed in with her own.

I tend to write chronologically, beginning to end, as if I’m telling myself the story as I’m discovering it. That’s the first draft, of course.  Much, much rewriting follows the first draft.  John Gardner says writers should work as if in a dream state, that a good novel is an uninterrupted dream, and that’s how I like to work: deeply trusting some unknown part of my imagination to supply what I need for the story.

Plot and character can’t, for me, be separated. They come from each other.  The tricky part is not letting my own self seep unnecessarily into the characters. For instance, I have a quick temper. When I’m writing fiction I have to make certain that the trait doesn’t automatically become part of the characters.  When I might slam a door, someone like Lee, as I imagined her, would be more clever, more subtle when angry.  I have to intuit who the characters are, what shapes them, drives them, and then make sure they are very separate from my own psychology.

Q) What was your most useful ‘other’ occupation that helped define your successful career as an author?

A)  Not to be too cynical here, but John Gardner (yes, him again) recommended that writers marry rich spouses so they wouldn’t have to work ‘day’ jobs.  I couldn’t go that far, though I see his point. Instead, I found part time professional work that allowed me a few hours every morning for my fiction.  Those hours were worth their weight in gold.  Successful?  I don’t think of myself that way. I’ve managed to get my novels published.

Q) How much have other types of “writing jobs” influenced your approach to historical fiction?

A) My other writing jobs have been in journalism – print and a little radio,  and I  don’t think they influence my fiction writing, except in very basic ways: they gave me a kind of confidence on the page.  I know my way around a sentence, and I can write to a deadline.  Perhaps they also kept me a little grounded.  My type of fiction is about a two way communication. I don’t write with readers looking over my shoulder, but when I write fiction I feel an obligation to tell a good story for that reader, just as, in journalism, you must be able to anticipate questions a reader would ask if that reader were there with you.

Q) Would you recommend that everyone try out a variety of forms on the way to ‘settling in’? or is that inevitable?

A) Absolutely.  If writing is your choice, your way of experiencing the world, then why not experiment with it?  It should be a bit playful and adventurous.  I write historical fiction, but I’ve also written mysteries under a different name, and lots of journalism.  I’m not a poet, but every once in a while I’ll challenge myself to try some poetry, just to keep some imaginative flexibility. 

Q) When we spoke last year you had a contract for two books. How’s the second one coming along, and are you able to work on two books at a time or do you actively work on them in succession?

A) I’m about a third of my way through the second book in this contract.  I’ve tried working on two books at a time, but I just can’t do it.  When I’m actively writing, that voice ‘telling’ the story is going on in my head whether I’m at my desk or not,  so I can follow only one narrative at a time.  It is kind of like finding yourself in a dream, even when you’re wide awake.

Q) I understand you went to Europe while you were writing The Beautiful American. Do you work well on the road? Was this an investigatory excursion? Did you visit places that were central to Lee’s associations at the time?

A) No, I can’t work on the road at all.  I’m a true creature of habit.  I need my desk, my reference shelf, my pot of tea. The trip was to revisit some of Lee’s old haunts and other locales in the novel, so it was a research trip specifically centered in Nice and Grasse.  There was a huge storm in the upper part of France, and all the trains had been snowed in, so I didn’t make it to Paris, but I already know that city pretty well.

Q) Thank you, Jeanne.  


About the interviewer:

Michael Foldes is founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in “About Us.”  This interview was conducted via email between January and March 2014.

Also in this issue: A review of The Beautiful American.

April 28, 2014   Comments Off on Jeanne Mackin/Author Interview

Ralph Gibson / Photographer Interview

Bicycle  ©Ralph Gibson

This photograph is the cover for Ralph Gibson’s book, MONO .


Seeing in Mono

* * * * *

by Mike Foldes


ralph quote4


Q) When you say something like that, is there anything in particular you are referring to?

A) I got my first Leica, an M-2, in 1961 and have used rangefinder Leicas exclusively throughout my entire career. I knew immediately that the camera fit my hands in a unique way and that my brief was to focus on my skills as a camera handler. In those days my dream was to be a photojournalist and camera handling, speed and grace with the camera were the keys to capturing a certain kind of photograph.  And years ago it occurred to me that more great photographs had been made with a Leica and a 50mm lens than any other camera/lens combination. Now, 50 years later, the Monochrom digital has arrived and with a maximum  ISO of 10,000 there are absolutely no restrictions left. One can photograph anything just about anywhere…..with or without enough light! The image of Billie Holiday’s table was taken in a very dark room and the main challenge was finding an edge to grab for focus. Then having the immediate display of the image available, I knew the image was secure.


Ralph Gibson / MONO


Q) There is a Ralph Gibson signature edition of 35 pcs of the Monochrom, in black and silver. I take it you were involved in both the design and marketing effort for the camera. What did you tell Leica you were looking for in a digital camera when they came to you, and how long was it in development? Did you have a chance to test various editions as it was going through engineering design?

A) I was initially approached to use a proto-type model of the Monochrom. The first morning I had the camera in my hands I made the image of the bicycle and I realized that this camera harbored enormous potential. I asked for no changes whatsoever because I was too new to the digital space to suggest any modifications. The only thing the User Manual doesn’t explain is how to set the camera down.

Leda©Ralph Gibson


Q) While you’ve used Leica cameras throughout your career, I would imagine you’ve tried using other brands. Does anything else come close? If so, what?

A) I began to photograph quite by chance in the USN. Having taken a battery of tests, I was assigned to the US Naval Photography School in Pensacola, Florida. The course was exigent and demanding in that one had to resolve problems with the view camera, the speed graphic as well as the k-25 aerial camera that shot a 100-foot roll of film. Once out of the school, I was assigned to a ship charged with making an hydrographic survey of the Aegean Sea. My duties included portraiture, industrial, aerial, (and) also lithographic process. By the end of my four-year enlistment, I was in charge of the entire photography division of the ship. I had a broad relationship to the medium including many printing processes, as well as Ektachrome processing. When I enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute, my instructors knew far less technique than I. One afternoon my teacher Paul Hassel loaned me his Leica and the die was cast. I made a decision the same day to use that camera to the exclusion of all others. It was a life guiding decision, second only to my vocation to be a photographer. I didn’t stay long in school, primarily because I was offered a job as assistant to Dorothea Lange. I printed for her for about one-and-a-half years. She was the first great photographer I was able to know in a personal way and her influence has remained present throughout my entire career. 

Q) Some photographers committed to shooting black and white film have said that color photography diminishes the effect, but classical painters didn’t paint in black and white and came up with art that will last forever…. What was your initial attraction to monochrome and how did it keep you so engaged for so long?

A) Let us consider the world of reality. It exists in three dimensions, 100% scale and in living color. A black and white photograph reduces the world into two dimensions, considerably reduces the scale of reality down to the size of a print and also subtracts color. The result of this is a strong dramatic analog of the world that is immediately recognized by most of the people on the planet. Color, being only two steps abstracted from reality, is much less dramatic and for this reason remains for me a great challenge. I would like to make images in color that resonate with the same power as black and white.


Ralph Gibson / Photographer


bookcover2_monoMONO Lustrum Press |104 pages

Black and white digital images

Ralph Gibson’s video of book release event

Ralph Gibson @ Kahmann Gallery’s Facebook page

Ralph Gibson’s MONO site



The foregoing interview was conducted via email between December 2013 and January 2014.


About the interviewer:

Mike Foldes is the founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in “About Us.”

March 1, 2014   Comments Off on Ralph Gibson / Photographer Interview

Dorothea Rockburne/Artist Interview


Dorothea Rockburne

Interview by Charles Hayes,
with Guenter Knop, photographer

New York City, Jan. 18, 2014

I learned about Dorothea Rockburne in 2013 from an art historian friend while I was editing the interview I had conducted in 1984 with John Cage. My friend, the historian, said, “You need to look into her, go to her show at MOMA (September 2013 to February 2014). I did go to the exhibit, which spanned about 40 years of Rockburne’s intriguing, often mathematically based works, and with the help of the staff at Ragazine, I learned Ms. Rockburne agreed to an interview.

On January 18th, photographer Guenter Knop and I ascended the stairs to Rockburne’s spacious Soho loft, and got the tapes rolling as Guenter moved about photographing. I began by asking the artist questions not so much about aesthetics – which has been the standard approach  but about her psychological and “human interest” perspective, since my own background involves an MA in Art Therapy. Just as I was not primarily interested in John Cage’s “indeterminate” aesthetics (which
has been explored extensively), I was not primarily interested in the “minimalism” nor other “styles” that have been hung on Rockburne’s variety of work over the past 40 years. My original purpose for going to John Cage’s loft in New York 30 years ago was to dig about into his experience with things like hindrances and how these may have shaped or reshaped his creativity. To ask Rockburne similar questions, and to hear her memories of Cage, were a big part of the motivation for the interview.

Ed. Note: See Hayes’ John Cage Interview here.

* * *

Charles Hayes: You said in the e-mail to me that you feel “gratitude each day” to your education at Black Mountain.

Dorothea Rockburne:  I grew up in Montreal. I studied at Ecole de Beaux Arts – on Saturdays. Then when that program ended (I was 14), I attended the Montreal Museum School. But wherever I studied, it was 300 years behind the times. At the museum, I did have a teacher, Gordon Weber, who studied under (László) Moholy-Nagy in Chicago. So, I became aware of Russian constructivism … and I owned  Vision in Motion (Nagy’s book).

Compared to other students at Black Mountain College, I had had decent training in French and English literature.  When I got to Black Mountain, I went from a high school level of education to knowing the most sophisticated (laugh) group of people. I studied photography with Hazel-Frieda Larsen, but also with (Edward) Steichen. His brother-in-law, Carl Sandburg, lived in Asheville, so he spent time there and he would come and teach at Black Mountain. 

CH: Do you remember Cage being there?

DR: Of course!  I studied with him. I also took classes with Merce (Cunningham). They were there together in ’52, ’53.

CH: What kind of teacher was Cage?

DR: You’re aware of course that Black Mountain never had more than 25 students, so the teachers didn’t regard themselves as being above the students. They were interested in what you had to say – very different from the academic background that I came from. In my family, one came out of the womb taking lessons. I started ballet at four. So it was automatic to check into the dance classes being offered. No one really knew who Merce or John were. David Tudor was there also, because Merce’s prima ballerina was Carolyn Brown (who was married to David Tudor), and Tudor performed the “Concerto for Toy Piano.” I think it was first performed in the dining room at Black Mountain College.

CH: Did they do 4’ 33” (by Cage), where everybody just sat there and the noise of the audience was the music…?

DR: I believe he did that for the first time at Woodstock in 1952.


CH: After Black Mountain… When was your daughter born?

DR: I married one of my teachers at Black Mountain and she was born in October of ’52.

CH: So you were also doing art… what challenges did you have to face…?

DR: The most challenging situation was that I was clearly facing a bad marriage and while we did come to N.Y. together with my daughter, we separated. After separating, supporting my daughter and myself was challenging, although I continued, at night, to study and paint.

CH: What kinds of things did you do?

DR: Whatever I could do. Around 1963, Bob Rauschenberg, who had been at Black Mountain, asked me to come and work for him… That is one thing I did and I also did waitressing. I was trying to take jobs without any mental carry-over. In 1970 or so, Christine was getting ready to leave home to go to college, and I began to exhibit in group shows. Soon I was able to support myself from my work.

CH:  I’m interested in your creative process. I found most interesting in an interview by Saul Ostrow when he told you that your work is theatre and you said, “No, I don’t like this!”  You said things like, “I’m coming from the heart,” “This is not theatre,” and I “peel away” the layers.

DR: If you have sensitivity, you can tell the works are emotional. Philosophically and visually, it’s a different concept of space, however. 

CH: You used the term “peel” back layers until you get to a realm of  emotions you said you can’t even name, and then you’re talking about “risk taking” (and)  “decisions” you have to make in the creative process. Could you talk about that more? It gets a bit esoteric.

DR: People credit me with mental processes that are, in reality, so much more GRITTY (laughs). When I was a kid in Canada, we used to ski in the Laurentians. My father was a good skier and my brother was a superb skier. There were hardly any tow ropes in those days – during the ’40s – and we’d climb up to the top of a hill and look down, and I’d say, “My God!” And my father would say, “Just begin to go down the hill and if you feel frightened, you can always sit down.”  

He was a very gentle, strong person and I followed his advice. It’s the same with art.  I’ve taken the biggest challenges to make exciting work.  I often read books I can’t readily understand. I don’t read novels. I recently met a woman who is the editor of a mathematics journal. She’s a topological geometer. This kind of geometry has been around for a long time and in essence it’s more esoteric than the high school geometry we all learned. She asked,“Do you fully understand Riemannian geometry?” and, I said “Not all of it. I’m just absolutely fearless about attempting an understanding of it, and eventually I do.”


Photographs by Guenter Knop

CH:  So, in the creative process, being willing to be beyond the edge, can you pinpoint works where you made breakthroughs for you by having this … 

DR: No. It’s a mystic process. It’s not something….

CH: … you can talk about?

DR: Yes,  I can talk about it the best way I know how. I mean I’m not afraid to talk about it. After I’ve worked a while and I’ve gotten through to this ‘other place’ in my head and soul, and its not a conscious place… The Black Mountain poets referred to it as “the zone.”

CH: It reminds me a little bit of quantum physics in the sense of … 

DR: Quantum has that mystic aspect.

CH:  David Bohm, who said that there is this ‘implicate’ order and an ‘explicate order,” and the implicate we don’t have words for, and it’s this source, it’s like a fountain, and these tiny particles just …

DR: This is the creative process, and it’s not unique to me. You can, for instance, see it in a rock concert of the Rolling Stones. At the beginning of the concert, they’re performing what they know but halfway through, they’ve entered the zone.

CH: What things tend to keep that door opened?

DR: Never closes!

CH: There’s nothing you think or do that closes it? So the more you do it, the more it becomes the reality?

DR: No, it’s the same now as when I was five.What is difficult is that I have to translate my intuitive thinking, which is in pictures, into language. It’s like going from English to French.… Early on, writers and interviewers would ask me what I was doing and I’d answer “Well, I’m using “matrix” theory, “but” … there would be “the BUT.” It’s easier to nail something, look it up in the dictionary and so everyone was writing about me as if  I was a mathematician, and not an artist. I’m not someone who  does mathematics eight to 10 hours a day AND then makes a mathematical breakthrough. I AM  NOT A MATHEMATICIAN. I’m an artist who uses math creatively as another tool in my work because mathematics and the ways of nature walk hand in hand.

When I took Max Dehn’s classes at Black Mountain, it immediately struck me that his was a new way of considering space, all space. I was also aware that, although the appearance of contemporary art was constantly changing, spatially, most work that I saw was still cubist, or based on a grid. While Max’s teaching presented an exciting alternative, it took me many years of study to understand how to create a new, topologically based way of creating art. A non-cubist, non-grid, spatial concept.

CH: I did the interview with Cage, and John said the same thing as Edward Albee, when the public and gallery world try to pin you down to what you’re already doing… Albee said that after he did the Zoo Story. “They try to stick me into doing the same thing.”

DR: Yes. It makes it easier for them to write about it that way, but pigeonholing limits the artist’s freedom.

CH: And he said this is a challenge. I realized that it is what courage is, his courage in breaking this and I know you have spoken about Pollock who started to do figurative works in the abstracts and …

DR: Everybody at that time hated his figure paintings!

CH: Was it because Dekooning was doing it?

DR: I don’t think so, in fact I think Pollock was doing it before Dekooning if I remember right. It had more to do with categorization. Pollock was an abstractionist. How dare he paint the figure! Those paintings are beautiful.

CH: Can you tell us a little about the ‘friction’ between public/critical perception of you and what you know of yourself?

DR: It was just that this critical thing happened … instead of talking about the work, talking about math, my work is of a visceral, felt, dimension… Anyone who is a mathematician, well, they don’t  talk this way, it’s the people who are looking it up on Wikipedia (laugh) and it’s an easy way… they’d write it down and then someone else would copy what the other person wrote and then extrapolate and it went on and on and on, and I got so sick of it!

CH: What are you doing at present?

DR: I’m dealing with my MoMA show. A lot of paper work and details… I’m working from 10 in the morning to 19 at night (laughs)…

CH:  So after all that’s done, you’ll try to get back to work?

DR: I’ll clean up the studio and we have the shipment that comes in on the sixth of February, and there’s lots of prep work for the shipment, and post-shipment inspection, unwrapping and re-wrapping, then storage. Also the computer records all that entails. I have assistants during the week who help me with these aspects, the physical aspects of running the studio. 

CH: Do you have another show coming up?

DR: No. I want to get back to work.

CH: Another thing I want to know about was your references to art as religious, not religion, but religious.

DR: I don’t follow any religion.

CH: But you said it’s a religious experience, and I think I understood …

DR: That’s what I meant when I said “you go to a different place.”

CH: Tell me more.

DR: How to describe that exactly? I guess I think of religion in the best sense as when one is in touch with a creative source both outside of, and inside yourself, the Grand Creative source. Mathematics and art have been key in helping me understand that source.

CH: And you said something like those coming out of Greenberg, and creating appearances, didn’t have any intentionality, and (for) you, you talked about you having intention.

DR: I never would have said that in that way. I don’t really slam other peoples’ work. Being an artist every day of your life for years and years is hard work on so many levels.

CH: I wonder what intentionality means…

DR: I always title a work before I do it. Some people just  work and let it go where it goes until it can’t go any further and then they move onto the next canvas. I don’t do that. I name it. Then I make it.



Gallery of work by Dorothea Rockburne to accompany interview by Charles Hayes with photography by Guenter Knop. New York. December-January 2013-2014.


CH:  You already have a certain amount of conceptual framework and that means intention. When I read “intention” I was thinking of some kind of emotional charge… like in the Medieval Ages when the priests created sermons, created pictures to educate the flocks, they had the word “intentio” which involved affect to create ‘punctum,”  “going to the heart,” and that’s what I was thinking about with “intention” – that there has to be affect…and you were talking about emotions.

DR: I don’t know how to verbalize it. When I work I don’t think in words. I think and feel in pictures, and then I pull in, out of the blue, a certain amount of knowing. .

CH: Without trying?

DR: Naturally!

CH:  Do you ever get inspiration from dreams?

DR: No. I don’t dream for the most part.

CH: Or you don’t remember. Do you sleep well?

DR: I do, sporadically. I think sleep is overrated in America… I don’t seem to need much sleep. I get up early and go to bed late. I have that 10 minute rest at lunch, but not always.

CH:  Do you get like four or five hours a day?

DR: More like five or six.

CH: I do, too! We’re supposed to be dead!

DR: (Laughs.) I think that some day science … will find out that when one has a strong imagination, your subconscious is open and a lot of people have to dream to be in touch with their subconscious. With an artist, the subconscious is made conscious, and then you’re flowing along and your REM states are happening while you’re awake. I think a lot depends on your natural disposition. I  don’t tend to be depressed.  I work like hell all day long, and I love it. Then I fall asleep at night, around 12 o’clock, and wake up naturally between 6 and 7, and I don’t wake up unhappy.

Guenter Knop: You’re an addict to your work?

DR: I don’t think so! I’m living my life!

GK: Isn’t that the motive?

DR: No, I’m just living my life. Life is the motive, life itself! I don’t think of stuff like that. I’m not giving up my life for my work, believe me! My work makes me feel exhilarated, challenged, and alive. It’s very exciting being a creative person. You never know what’s around the corner.  The MoMA show (came) totally unexpectedly. You never know who’s been looking and taking account. For instance… I’ll show you a great letter I got… from an art historian. When he was an art history major, he wrote a catalog for me on the Arena drawings. He was very bright. It was 1974. He talked to the director of the John Weber Gallery and he wrote the catalog. I just received this letter from him… Michael Marlais, after all these years, after he saw the MoMA show. One never knows who’s watching.

CH: You mentioned to me in an email how you feel gratitude toward being a student at Black Mountain…

DR: It was fantastic! I was young and stupid, right? I was at the dry-sponge stage. It was “bring it on.” I came from a very good educational background in Montreal so it was natural for me to check in with academic courses. People don’t talk about the academic courses at Black Mountain, however, they were there and they were very good. For instance, the professor who taught philosophy had come from the U. of Chicago and it was he who wrote THE Philosophy 101 book. William Levy. He was FANTASTIC!  I also immediately checked in with the linguistics teacher, Flola Shepard, who had studied with [Ferdinand] de Saussur. However, since I’m a reader, I already had a fairly trained mind…

CH: How do you feel you’re different now than then?

DR: Not so much, I’m older and … I’m still reading esoteric books

CH:  How about gratitude? How does it count into openness?

DR: For me anyway, gratitude is coupled with love.

CH: Walt Whitman in the 1880s wrote a beautiful piece… he was at a Thanksgiving dinner, and someone said: “Mr. Whitman, what are your thoughts on Thanksgiving, and he told it like it was, he didn’t hold back …

DR:  I’m part Indian so Thanksgiving is not the most favorite holiday in my family. … I’m part Algonquin…. My family, the Algonquin part was from Nova Scotia, Mi’kmaq Indians. My grandmother was part Mi’kmaq.

CH: Whitman said “I don’t give thanks one day, I wake up every morning and give thanks,”  and then he goes…something like… “and the gratitude I can trace it back and see my poetry and I create from that gratitude what I give every day.”

DR: I don’t know how to put it in words, that’s why I paint. Black Mountain, that was a different situation, it was just so extraordinary an experience. Scholars would ask Max Dehn, the mathematician, why he was at Black Mountain, not at Harvard or Princeton? He was there because he was a  creative person. Creativity was everywhere, everyone took his class, John (Cage) and Merce took his class, the poet Charles Olsen took his class, as did Joe Fiore, the painting teacher.

CH: We don’t have  Black Mountain today. What is happening today?

DR: A guy I know who is a painter and teacher sent his best student to me as an apprentice… It was a waste of time. She was bright and talented, but the whole academic way  of “get your degree and go live your life” translates to “Go be a slave,” as far as I’m concerned. “You gotta get that degree so that you can get that teaching job, you know, support yourself…” In my generation,  none of us thought that way. You figured it out. It’s as though true self-confidence is eradicated by the current art educational system.


See also:

* * * * *

About the interviewer:

Charles Hayes began publishing poetry and essays in the 1970s and ’80s. His 1978 book, From the Hudson to the World (introduction by Pete Seeger) remains the most complete collection of Native American lore and art (gathered from 17th century Dutch deed books) to date. In the ’80s, Hayes started a book called Pearl in the Mud, which involved interviews with various famous and lesser-known artists, from John Cage and Elaine Dekooning in New York to excellent folk weavers in the New Mexico mountains. A book he funded on student loans.

Concurrent to his book project, Hayes studied Navajo language and earned his MA degree in Art Therapy from the University of New Mexico.  Since then, he has become an avid amateur photographer who combines his photos with his writings. Currently, he is “taking the ‘Pearl’ project onward in the form of a smaller book, Ten Women Composers You Should Know

Hayes is a frequent contributor to Ragazine.


About the photographer:

Günter’s work has appeared internationally in group and solo exhibitions and related publications. Features about his work have appeared on NDR TV News and Norddeutscher Rundfunk Radio as well as in a variety of books, magazines and online publications. In 2005 he released a book, Guenter Knop on Women, featuring art nudes.

Günter Knop began a career in photography, following his studies at the Christian-Albrecht University, working with fashion photographer Charlotte March. After traveling extensively, Knop landed in New York where he worked side by side with Henry Wolf, influential Art Director for Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar magazines, for many years. Together they created trend-setting TV, print and fashion advertising for major clients. Knop eventually opened a studio of his own in Manhattan and continues to work on a variety of projects ranging from still lifes to fine art photography.

March 1, 2014   Comments Off on Dorothea Rockburne/Artist Interview

John Cage: Looking Back

John_Cage_at_home (2)

Cage at Home: Collage by Christie Devereaux


John Cage

by Charles Hayes

Several years have passed since the cold December 23rd 1984 when Reagan had recently been elected president, I had begun grad school at the University of New Mexico, and I was spending graduate loan money to get around the country interviewing artists, musicians, and writers on topics related to the term “obstacles” in creativity. John Cage would be the first of many artists to be visited over the next five years.

It all started during the summer of ’84. I sat with friends on a roof in the barrio of Albuquerque drinking Tequila and the idea hit: “Interviews with artists regarding their angst/obstacles?”

I whipped up a list of top figures in various arts and sent the first letter to what I thought was the wildest chance taking mind, that of John Cage. A few weeks later, I got the “mail gram” (see illustration) from Cage…

From there, I connected with other major figures, Carol Wincenc (flutist), Edward Albee (playwright), Erskine Caldwell (author of Tobacco Road), Carlos Montoya (flamenco guitar virtuoso), Maria Benitez (flamenco dancer, turned choreographer-composer), Louise Bourgeois (sculptor), Elaine Dekooning (painter)… and, today, in the project’s 31’st year, Daisy Jopling (rising star of fusion composer/violinist).

For the first interview, I flew from New Mexico to New York before Christmas to be with my family and to go into NYC to talk with Cage about his obstacles (such as early poverty), current challenges, as well as existential topics such as the after-life.

As I climbed the stairs to his loft on that December day, I looked up and saw a man with a full swath of gray hair, slim body and angular face chatting quietly with a small, older woman in a dark coat. I recognized Cage and said, “Hi John, I’m Charles Hayes, I’m here to interview you at 2 p.m.” “Oh, Yes! of course! Why don’t you go up there (he points to the open door to his loft), go in and make yourself at home?”

Five or six more steps and I was in the outer circumference of the 20th century’s most experimental artist’s headspace. I gazed at walls covered with amazing, original art works, not the least of which were a few Jasper Johns prints, while below and to my right were white computers waiting for someone to trigger them so that their programs could write Cage’s indeterminate music, based on chance operations of the I-Ching. Of his method, Kay Larson writes in Where The Heart Beats, John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (p. 175):

As 1950 ends, he will learn to release the tight fist of ego by devising a radically new way of composing. Chance operations allow Cage to dissociate his music from his inner turmoil. He will generate random numbers and use them to find sounds. How can he (or anyone) judge a sound that has arisen of its own accord? It rises and falls, appears and disappears, and has no ego content whatsoever.
A single sound is like a thought: here one minute, gone the next.

Each sound is free to be itself. Nothing can cling to it; no interpretation, no ideas; no anger…no ‘masterpiece’ judgment, no ‘not-masterpiece’ judgment.’

His resting number-generating computers faced a kitchen at the center of which stood a rectangular counter stacked with greens waiting for John’s cook to prepare a vegetarian dinner.

I sat and waited.

I got up and I waited.

I sat down and I waited.

“Did he forget me?” I wondered.

I could have taken a bath. I could have cooked the vegetables and eaten them and he probably would not have lifted an eyelash. I could have had a nap. Maybe moved in…

I don’t know how many minutes passed, it was a lot, and I realized he probably had too much Zen that morning and the great Zero or Nothingness took him deep into timelessness. Eventually, he came and took me into what I wrote in my notes while on the return trip up the Hudson: “Cage’s jungle.” Plants and trees filled half the loft. We passed a chess set to our left as he led me to another table, where we sat facing one another, Cage waiting patiently as I made sure my tape recorders were operational. They were:

In 2013, I began to edit that interview with Cage for Ragazine.CC, and during that time, the thought dawned on me that composer of avant-garde, unrhymed verse (Walt Whitman) and the wild-minded composer of contemporary avant-garde music (Cage) had certain things in common. Both men thought that once they die, their works would not be remembered.

Cage indicated during our talk that his music would not be respected, though he thought he would be remembered — more as philosopher.

Now, more than two decades after his death in ‘92, I look over my shoulder at myself at age 34 in the conversation with Cage, to see that he, like Whitman, was dead set wrong.

The music world has not forgotten John Cage, composer, though Whitman has had much longer in proving that the poet’s poet was also wrong about his afterlife footprint.

* * *

John Cage: I forgot now what subject you wanted to talk about?

Charles Hayes: I want to get into obstacles and what they have to do with your art, what failure and success and all these [related] issues that may be relevant to you as someone who has made an effort to make music that is detached and not done by one’s ego and one’s control…

JC: Sure!

CH: When you started composing…was there an intention of “getting there”….?

JC: I think there was. I began my work… performing in a home situation for just-invited guests. I moved from L.A. with Xenia (his wife of ten years at the time, Xenia Andreyevna Kashevayoff) and… organized a group of performers…. I gave concerts …and collected percussion instruments, I did everything … to perform the work and interest people, and I wrote to people…inviting them to write for this percussion group. Now… there are many percussion orchestras…. I could see … if I stayed in Seattle…it would not go much further…. I began thinking it would be better if I established a center for experimental music… this was in the ’30s and we …had the notion through the Journal of the Acoustic Society of America that there were …possibilities; they didn’t speak of magnetic tape… they spoke of magnetic wire. And… film phonographs and they thought in both ways you could record sound and …use those records as instruments. So, I began to think in those directions… to establish a center and I spent two years writing to corporations and universities, and no one had money…. Since I could not find the money, I went with Xenia to the School of Design in Chicago…because it was the farthest east and … nearest New York, and I think it was a right [move] … The fact that I was ambitious, I wanted to have the work accepted and used…. I wasn’t ambitious for myself; I was ambitious for the work…. I was trying to make music hospitable to noise. The people often say my work is ‘destructive’ but I don‘t think it is… Beethoven is getting along as well as he was when I was starting.

My work with noise has added SPACE and DIMENSION to Western Music and Beethoven hasn’t suffered!

CH: Would you say that the ambition you had was really not that different from what is now…ambition for your work, to make music hospitable to noise?

JC: Um, I’m less ambitious now. I don’t have to be ambitious, everything I do is published, and my energy is spent not moving from Seattle to New York. I’m in New York and I think that one is justified if he wishes [to be] in Seattle, I think its different now to be in Seattle than when I was there. Don’t you think that if you visit any city…you get a feeling of presence of modern music and art?

CH: Any city? Modern music in terms of environment being noise and relating to that in your terms?

JC: That, too, and the fact that the televisions and radios are open to all this.

CH: How about ambition, having the world understand you?

JC: Ha! Ha!

CH: I got that sense in “For the Birds,” you know.

JC: Well, you can’t force people to understand you, you know ha ha!

CH: That’s right! But isn’t the concern there, though?

JC: It would be nice! It would be nice but you see no matter what you do, they don’t.

CH: What’s the result.

JC: We don’t know what the result is… I was talking with a taxi driver this morning and we were in complete agreement, and I think if we talked with other people we would be in agreement. We have no deep regard for government any more. We have no confidence in our president, or in anybody else’s president. Ah, I’m not so unhappy about the assassination of Indira Gandhi . I think she made some very serious mistakes and I think it was unfortunate she was killed, but I think it was more unfortunate that John Lennon was killed. But then why should we compare …none of them should be killed, but the fact that she was killed was partly because she placed herself in a position of such importance and she had done things that were offensive to a large number of people that were theoretically beneath her, and they are not beneath her – their rights are just as great as hers.

JOHNCAGE V10N2 March-April 2014

CH: Self-deified!

JC: Or she felt the things she was doing were of such importance, that she could ignore everything else.

CH: Well that happens to a lot of artists!

JC: Right!

CH: How did you avoid that? …

JC: There are many people (chuckling) who would think I haven’t avoided anything (ha ha ha)!

CH: Okay, it’s just coming out in a different form?

JC: I don’t know. What do you think is being avoided?

CH: Corruption. Ego that comes with high recognition.

JC: No, but you see very much the truth of what Emily Dickinson said: Success is dust. You see very quickly if you keep your eyes open either because it fades more quickly than a flower or its opposite appears with a greater vigor.

CH: Did you realize that at an early time?

JC: All the time!

Ah, I could see very soon that the reactions of people to what I was doing had to receive no serious attention on my part. The teaching is of course entirely different, it is that you should have something to say and say it – for the people you know, and this is ah, ah at the heart of what you might call a political use of the arts in which the arts are for the people. I don’t take that attitude. I take an attitude that I think is closer to Thoreau. I think he paid or got his family to pay for the publicity of his books.

CH: There were 800 copies that he was the sole owner of or something like that.

JC: Right! And the publisher couldn’t sell them and so he wrote to Thoreau and said: ‘What should we do with the books?’ Thoreau said ‘Send them back to me,’ you know this whole story. The day he received the books he explained that he built a coffin for them, put them in the coffin, and then he said that “it makes me feel good to KNOW THAT NO ONE IS INTERESTED IN WHAT I AM DOING. It allows me to conduct my work in precisely the way I must, without any thought for reactions to it.” And he has turned out, I would say, at least of all Americans, to have lived the most useful life, not only for himself, but for all of us. He has been an example not only to me but to countless others, and he continues to be an example for all those who wish to change society for the better, which is to say the more OPENED. The more willing to accept a diversity of actions and ideas. I have in one of my compositions of music the one called “Song Books”; I have at the basis of it a five-word text which comes out of one of my diaries, it says: ‘We connect Satie with Thoreau.’ And ah, just as Thoreau was the sort to speak independently, and was almost alarmingly independent from other people, I mean alarming to those people who comfort themselves through their connections with one another; they don’t do anything themselves, but they want to feel connected… he didn’t even like to walk with anyone in the woods, did you know that?

CH: No, I didn’t.

JC: He would say: ‘If I take anyone with me in the woods, the walk is ruined!’

CH: That’s right, and, also, when he used to talk he used to like to have great space between.

JC: Yeah!! ha ha ha!

CH: Didn’t Ives start out with that kind of music in which he was playing at two different poles, as you were?

JC: Yeah yeah! So, Satie said the same things and they’re really remarkably similar those two. Satie said: ‘I wouldn’t think of touching the thought of someone else.”  You know, he would want to leave it, just as you wouldn’t think of pulling that flower apart. Unless, say, you were asking the question: She loves me? She loves me not? You might do it then, with the daisy if you had lots of them, but if you only had one you wouldn’t destroy it, and he was thinking of the thought of someone else as being so special to that person … That as something suitable to be observed and appreciated, rather than argued or destroyed… Maybe it will turn out – there are many indications – maybe it will turn out there are, oh, what you might call varieties of, ah, mind, ah? And that Thoreau and Satie had a particular type of mind that becomes … appealing to those people that are displeased, as I am, with government.

CH: With organization in general?

JC: Institutionalized.

CH:  Don’t you also find friction with someone like myself calling you and saying, “What time can I come tomorrow?”

JC: No, because I don’t have any schedule. I need what time I can have to work, but I’m afraid, maybe I’m mistaken, I have, but I think of myself as having a responsibility to talk to the people who want to talk to me. For instance, I don’t have my name listed in the phone book, but one way or another people can find it. And I don’t have an answering service. I’m so unhappy when I call someone and I get an answering service. McCluhan called it the “extension of the central nervous system.” And we should be open to contact. I’ve just met a very intelligent Hungarian musicologist who has made a study of my work.

CH: What is his name.

JC: András Wilhelm. He’s been here for several months from Budapest. And he, uh, I asked him what his phone number was and he said he is opposed to telephones, he has no telephone. And at home in Hungary he has no telephone. And it seems to me to be – if you really are opposed to telephones you are living in a time of the extension of the central nervous system to tell András that I think he must get a telephone! Ha…and not have an answering service. It’s much better to get no answer than to get an answering service, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you be happier with any answer than with leaving a message?

CH: Yeah, I am a little wary about leaving messages for the very practical reason that they don’t get through to the person…

JC: Or, imagine having an answering service and coming home, say, and you have been away for two weeks; think of the list of numbers. Ha! … to drive you crazy.

CH: To change the subject a moment. During the time you sold tickets during the Depression, and you sold tickets to middle-class housewives to come to lectures for things you really didn’t know about, but you’d study up on, or something the night before…

JC: Yeah, Ha ha ha…

CH: The “Prepared Piano,” when you did the work with Syvilla Fort …
Is she still alive?

JC: No, she died of cancer.

I wrote a nice, ah, well I thought I wrote a nice enough to publish piece … one of my mesostics, it’s written – I got to get some glue — here it is on page 10:

“Had there been two composers
You might have asked the other one to write your music
I’m glad I was the only one around.”

CH: How about the limiting situations? And I’m wondering if you could talk a little more about ….these limiting circumstances – a lot of situations that I think that a lot of people would have gone to seed with.

JC: Well, I’ll tell you the situation I’m now in: its fairly well agreed now in the musical society that, ah, my ideas are interesting, and that my music is not so interesting. Or, if my music is interesting, my early music is more interesting than my late music (ha ha ha)! Now, say I accept all that, ah, nevertheless the fact remains that, in recent years, and only in response to commissions, I have written a great deal of orchestral music…for orchestras, commissions from orchestras. I wrote the 30 pieces for orchestra, commissions from Loraine; it was played both in Metz and Venice. It hasn’t been touched  anywhere on this side of the Atlantic. Ha ha! Then after that I wrote “Dance for Orchestras”, which was played very well in California, poor in Paris, and recently well in Toronto. Before that commission, I wrote “Atlas Equipticalis”.   And, I guess out of a kind of necessity, but finally commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation I wrote the “Cheap Imitation for Orchestra”, and then I’m trying to think of other things; I just finished a new piece for an orchestra in Yugoslavia, but the fact remains that there are lots of orchestras and most of them would not consider or take seriously the notion of playing my work. If they did they would rehearse it improperly. …

There are quite a number of pieces and if I do say so, they are all quite interesting. I think the attitude I take and that keeps me from being glum or miserable in this situation is that eventually they ‘all have to change their minds; now, whether they change their minds before I die or after I die, perhaps makes some difference to me, but little difference in the long run.  All of the work exists; it will eventually have a use, I think. When they are tired of playing all the things they do play? And that fatigue will enter at some point, they will have to search around and I think they’ll automatically think of trying my pieces out. Ha!

CH: Ironically, isn’t there a bit of Beethoven in you?

JC: Ha, what! What do you mean?

CH: In the sense that once some man said to him “What is this stuff?” and Beethoven said to him: “Sir, this isn’t for you … its for the future.”

JC: Yeah, ha ha!

CH: You know and I think he would have had the same kind of reaction, you know, contemporaneously.


CH: Wouldn’t you be more accepted in that kind of time when people have a certain kind of mind-set that would go more along with your music?

JC: I don’t know what what’s going to happen in the future. I would hope that some kind of peaceful anarchic social situation would take place. Christian Wolff speaks of Social Democracy, but I would like some term for the state of society that would involve the term ‘anarchy  and anarchy seen as something good rather than dangerous. But, in such a situation don’t you think a great and facilitated exchange between individuals of mum ideas and works – connections – ah, you would quickly be able to transfer things that now go through large institutions to get to the other person, and in having that high degree of … individual communication, there will be less need … I’m just imagining this, for  large social situations.

CH: What do you see as obstructions NOW?

JC: Well, the only thing that, the thing that those large social institutions are good for is something akin to – well, one of the things they’re good for is celebration. Festival? But can’t you imagine a different kind of celebration, or Festival than the one we now have? I love those… In Little Italy, up and down the streets people have food and things could take place where you have a – not all the time but ah  sometimes during the year you would have large festivals….  The more frequent and more basic use of the arts will be from individual to individual.

CH: You’re enabling it.

JC: Do you, have you any contact with this modem business?

CH: No, but I work with a computer….

JC: Well, you know you can get one connection of your computer with other computers so that the technology is moving … so that right into your home a very large number of other minds [come]?

CH: True Global Village!

JC: Right. Some of the things that have happened in that present situation don’t strike us as being welcomed or good.

CH: Because its new?

JC: We are in the period when the evils of the present form of society are still dominant; so that it hasn’t been known how to build up a good use of the extended central nervous system. One of the things that should happen very, almost basically, to the social use of the computer, telephone and so on, is the alteration of the economic structure. Everyone should at birth be given a credit card. Besides being given a name, yes? And they should have all the basic necessities of life …. money now is not real money, all it is is credit, so we need simply to extend the notion of credit to everyone.


JC: And, you know, a painting or a drawing right – Jasper Johns – I’m fortunate to have  those prints (pointing to the series of Johns’ prints on the wall in his loft)… Prices are absolutely outlandish! If he [Johns] just touches paper,  it becomes inordinately valuable…

CH:So what can artists do to wrestle creativity away from the talons of the value system?

JC: Right now in this dramatic situation where the old surround us and we have a vision of the new, and these two things are quite different from one another…

CH: So, how do you foresee the  process of the dialectic clash happening?

JC: Say, I become pessimistic?

CH: I was wondering what stops you from being pessimistic! Is it Zen?

JC: Well, no it’s now not only me stopping me, but it’s other people begging me to not become pessimistic.

And they point out to me that things are really changing. A few days ago someone was, I was saying to someone ‘this is bad, that’s bad….” and it didn’t seem to be that anything I’ve had in mind was coming about, you know. But he said: ‘But look at this and this and that!’ And the changes are really remarkable.

CH: So this person did persuade you that good things were happening?

JC: Yes! – So I went back to my old ways, ha! My old optimistic ways!

CH: I’m wondering, it seems like back in the ‘60s, did you feel more optimistic than you do?

JC: Yes, yeah!

CH: I think a lot of people did. You know that one of the people that are going to be in my project is Edward Albee. Everyone called him the playwright of the ‘60s, and I think he had a hope there of educating his audiences and so forth to their foolishness, their fantasies they got lost in, and lack of communication – conventions and things. But, his more recent works don’t reflect that same thing. It seems like the ‘80s, it seems like everybody feels – from the ‘60s I’m saying, because I was growing up and was 20 and taking things in, there was a betrayal and it didn’t go (Cage interrupts)

JC: No, not! Its true!

CH: So, I wonder how you see that? How you are dealing with these ‘80s, which show people just retreating to conventions, to American symbols, wealth, getting as much as they can and so forth? Is this a force that is causing your pessimism?

JC: I think it’s very depressing to have a presidential election such as we just gone through (election of Ronald Reagan). I think the only thing that saves me from being miserable is, is my increasing feeling that the government is of no real consequence. When I say that I realize they could quickly destroy the … whole planet so that, but right up to the moment of the destruction, I can proceed optimistically… And my foolishness comes from the continued presence of energy …

CH: And how do you renew this energy?

JC: You do it in the simplest possible way Ha Ha ha… going to sleep!
Ha ha ha… and waking up the next day. Ha ha ha…

CH: I was expecting you to say 15 hours of meditation a day, something like that.

JC: I think you get it from going to sleep don’t you think?

CH: Sure. How about periods, though, when you’re really worn down, when you are worn from a lot of travel and work.

JC: You find me in such a moment right now.

I’m now at a point where I have both on paper and in my mind a list of things I should be doing, and  I’m not sure yet whether I can do them or not in the time allotted, and so on. At the same time that my situation more so than ever before is facilitated by the computer business. So that I don’t really know my own capabilities. I’m not familiar with what I can do, and it would not be any good for me to be familiar because what I’ll be able to do a month from now may vary greatly from what I can do right now. It’s because I have two people doing programming for me so that I may suddenly be able to do all kinds of things that I, that are not in my mind at all. Its quite marvelous!
And that’s what we’re living in right now. So that even though I’m almost overwhelmed, I’m also almost opening doors that I haven’t opened before.

CH: Other times: what were your harder times, say back in the ‘30s, you know, before the electronic thing.

JC: Trying to start that Center for Experimental Music.

CH: The electronic music and the (pause) have you had this always with you, this kind of resiliency?

JC: Yes. And always until the middle ‘50s or (pause) even when I was just as poor as a church mouse. Yes, it wasn’t until the late ‘50s that I had any extra money at all. When I wrote the Concerto For Piano and Orchestra, I wrote that out in the country, I was living in Stony Point. And, I didn’t have any money.  And my music was not published. And one of my books. And I came in with … I got a ride into town and I went to a cocktail party, and Elaine Dekooning was there, she said … she said: “I have always wanted to commission a piece from you! And I said “Oh, that’s marvelous!” — no, FIRST she said: “Oh, how are you?” I said, “I’m perfectly alright. BUT, I’m poor as a Church mouse!’”

Ha ha ha! And so she said, “Well I’ve always wanted to commission a piece,” and so she gave me a hundred dollars and it came in the mail. It was a great deal of money then. So, I dedicated the “Concert For Piano and Orchestra” to her. And she wrote back and said: “It was so beautiful, I didn’t mean a big piece, I just meant a little piece!” Ha ha ha!

CH: That was already when you were breaking into Oriental thought. You had studied with Suzuki, right, in the ‘40s or so?

JC: No, 15 years before…. So even during the time of the poverty…

CH: Would you say that there’s always been a creative life that has always been independent of ego, in your life, that always had to, that always wanted to go forward, explore, always kept you going? Mozart felt this about his life.

JC: In the beginning your first question had to do with ambition… and I was very ambitious but then I think after the studies with Suzuki, I think it (ambition) became something else.

CH: Not even ambition for the work?

JC: No, that no doubt. No, I think by that time I had confidence in the work. It just becomes simple things like energy and optimism. Or continuing.

To think that the help is got to come from the outside; the help has got to come from the inside. I think. At one point I got a Guggenheim, and I got a grant from the National Academy of arts and Letters at the same time.

I didn’t take the attitude that some have take that I won’t do anything unless they give a grant; I did all my work all the time on my own. And I had the example in front of me of another composer who never wrote a single piece unless he got a grant; he lived his whole life supported first by one foundation and then by another. I think he is still living, and still [being] supported . But I am delighted to be able to know through the body of my work both in music and writing to support myself. I’m not dependent upon any one else. And I’m able to support as I do, with any income I don’t need – I divert it to support the Cunningham Dance Company

I’ve made a will that would umm benefit the Cunningham Dance Company if it’s still in existence, then if it isn’t, then the Foundation for Contemporary Performance…

CH: Talking about death a second here, and the hard times, death in relation to hard times, I don’t know what your beliefs are in relation to death and afterlife and so forth, but if you know, if you were to die in 10 minutes and all of a sudden you were to be faced with ah (Cage interrupts with deep laughter) …

JC: HA ha ha ha ha!

CH: A mandate to be reborn, would you? And say you couldn’t use the I-Ching or something like that, in determining …

JC: I would have a choice?

CH: You would.

JC: Okay.

CH: To come back again!

JC: What would I choose? Well, you know the story where I say I’d be a botanist? And …

CH: Oh, the mushrooms!

JC: And Alexander Smith, says “Why would you want to be a botanist?” And, I say: “To avoid the jealousies that plague the arts!” And he says to me: “Oh that shows how little you know about botany!” Ha ha … So I don’t think it makes much difference what you – it’s like what I sad about the I-Ching in the beginning. Any profession will answer the needs of any human being… Don’t you think? And you could – well, if Jesus was willing to be a carpenter, and I was willing to be a composer, and Smith was wiling to be a mycologist, I think anybody could be just anything, don’t you think?


CH: What would you eliminate say from your prior life to the next one?

JC: Well, it won’t do me any good anyways. But your question is a very iffy one. But it makes me think of ah – a very beautiful interview with Marcel Duchamp with Pierre Caban.  Near the beginning he’s asked if he has any regrets. It’s more or less the question you’re asking and he says: “No!” he doesn’t have any. “When you look back over your life, oh first he says, “What is your first motive of satisfaction?” and Marcel says, “In the first place to have had luck, to have been lucky, because, “Basically I have never worked for a living. I consider working for a living is foolish. From an economic point of view, I hope a day will come when no one is obliged to work.” And that’s what we are in the presence of, in the Central Nervous System.

CH: Thoreau realized through technology?

JC: Isn’t it true? And Thoreau didn’t work.

CH: Yes, of course not.

JC: Thanks to my good luck, I’ve been able to get through all this business without any trouble. I’ve understood at a certain moment that it was not necessary to overload life with too much weight, too many things to do, with what people call “a wife, children, a house in the country, an automobile”! And I’ve understood happily and soon enough, hmm? That permitted me to live a long time as a bachelor much more easily than if I had – if it had been necessary for me to face all the normal difficulties of life, hmm? Basically, this is the principal thing – I consider myself therefore very happy, or very lucky … I have never had any great unhappiness, sadness or neurasthenia. I have never known moreover, the effect of producing (reads the French text of the DuChamp interview). He’s never known moreover the effect of producing things. And painting not having been for me a diversion, or an imperious need to express myself… This is what I’m free of.

(Cage continues reading the French text and provides the following translation): “I’ve never had the need to design the morning or the evening, to make sketches.” He didn’t feel compelled to work. “I can’t tell you anything more about it. I have no regrets!”

Now, I can’t honesty say that I have no regrets. I have in me… a lot, not only of my father who was very much like Marcel, who I think would have said “I have no regrets,” but I have in me, also my mother who would have said that things “could have been MUCH better than they were!” Every time we took a drive out of town on Sundays, we’d no sooner, we wouldn’t, we’d just be approaching the city limits and she would say: “Oh we should have taken so and so with us!” And she almost would get us to drive back to pick up somebody. She never thought that the situation we were in was a good one. She always thought it could be improved. And that’s what Marcel is saying right there. Is that he felt everything is fine. Wouldn’t you say?


John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, & Teeny Duchamp performing Reunion at its premiere in Toronto, 5th March, 1968. Photograph by Lynn Rosenthal, courtesy of The John Cage Trust.

John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, & Teeny Duchamp performing Reunion at its premiere in Toronto, 5th March, 1968. Photograph by Lynn Rosenthal, courtesy of The John Cage Trust.

JC: And, you talked about death and he talked beautifully about death. First, they ask him if he believes in God. He says: “No, not at all. Don’t even mention It! Ha ha ha ha! The question doesn’t even exist. It’s an invention of man. Why speak of such a utopia, when man invents a stupid imbecility to have created a notion of God? I do not wish to say that I am or am not an ‘atheist,’ or a ‘believer.’ I just don’t want to have anything to say about it!” Isn’t that beautiful? Imagine, that’s true anarchy isn’t it?

Yeah, “I won’t talk to you – “I won’t talk about the life of ants (you know ‘ants’) on Sunday, would I?”, he said. “It’s the same question!”  Ha ha! And they said, “What do you think about death?” Marcel says, “As little as possible.” Physiologically one is obliged to think about it, from time to time at my age when you have a headache or when you break your leg, death then appears… I do not hope for any other life than this one or for any metampsychosis – it’s very troubling. In spite of myself, one is impressed that one is going to disappear completely. Isn’t that marvelous?

Then they say, “In an interview you have said that questions of journalists that they give you and that there’s one that nobody ever asks you and would like to have asked and you have said that the question is: “How are you?” And, so he answers, he says: “I am well!” Ah, I don’t have bad health at all, I’ve had one or two operations. I think they are normal operations when you consider my age, like the prostate, for example. I have submitted to the boredoms that surround all people…all people who are 79 years old. He says: “Look out, I am very happy,” and he ends the book and begins it with the same… Isn’t that beautiful!

I think it was a great pleasure for me to have spent a lot of time with him until the end of his life, and when I received the telegram from Teeny saying he had died,  I put the telegram down on a low table like this one, but it wasn’t covered with books, and I was living in a place in the University of Illinois, which was even longer than this is, and it was like a bird cage and it was up in the trees and you could look at the trees out the window, and I had no furniture, and I just avoided the table and I went about my work and thought about, and thought, I was very foolish, I thought I could bring him back to life by ignoring the letter. It was so – and for years Teeny spoke, I don’t notice so much any more, but she always used the pronoun ‘we’ – we do that, we do this, he was such a marvelous man. Just love ‘em.

And all the time he was fooling us, you know. He had us all feeling that he wasn’t doing any work. And there he was busy on a great masterpiece. And he would even tease us – he must have laughed inside, because he would bring up in conversation all kinds of things that pointed to the existence of this work without ever mentioning it, so that he almost gave away the fact that he was working. But he didn’t. We were all surprised that he had been busy all the time we thought he wasn’t. And we turned him into an art, turned the fact that he was not working into a great work of art, really – at least I had. I thought: ‘Oh the fact that he’s doing nothing is the greatest thing he can do!’ and he was (ha ha!) all the time just as busy as a bird …

 And another things he would say is that, “An artist must go underground!” Because he was underground working! He was working secretly and you know he would go to great lengths to do that, he had two studios. And if you went to visit him in his studio he took you into the one where he was not working; he collected dust in it. It was photographed and it was proof that Duchamp was no longer working.

CH: There’s one other question that I had, it has to do with Zen … I wonder how this relates to your work … part of the Zen teaching, I believe, is that philosophies and so forth have a kind of regression downward from thought to words to sound and sound has its counterpart, maybe its roots, in feeling and one of the teachings is as I understand it, certain mantras are death mantras. We have to understand the sound and not use it in … I don’t want to use the word “careless’ but I guess a random way …we have to be careful about sound first of all and they have to come from a master who understands what feelings are going to be stimulated by the sounds that you are using, otherwise a destructive effect can come about. I’m wondering how this aspect of the teaching relates to chance music? You know it seems like [with] chance music, you can wander into this area of …

JC: … do one thing or another?

CH: Yeah! create a negative feeling state. Have you ever confronted that thought?

JC: No, I don’t believe that it is true. I think that those notions of some thing being potentially destructive, that is outside of us or potentially beneficial that is outside us, is not true. I think that all the power is within each one… rather than outside of us.


The foregoing interview was edited for style and length. 

To read Hayes’ Dorothea Rockburne interview, click here:


John Cage at MoMA:

There Will Never Be Silence:

Scoring John Cage’s 4’33”

October 12, 2013–June 22, 2014

Read more about this exhibition, INSIDE/OUT.

View selected works from the exhibition

View the Share Your Silence sound map

View related events


About the interviewer:

Charles Hayes began publishing poetry and essays in the 1970s and ’80s. His 1978 book, From the Hudson to the World (introduction by Pete Seeger) remains the most complete collection of Native American lore and art (gathered from 17th century Dutch deed books) to date. In the ’80s, Hayes started a book called Pearl in the Mud, which involved interviews with various famous and lesser-known artists, from John Cage and Elaine Dekooning in New York to excellent folk weavers in the New Mexico mountains. A book he funded on student loans.

Concurrent to his book project, Hayes studied Navajo language and earned his MA degree in Art Therapy from the University of New Mexico.  Since then, he has become an avid amateur photographer who combines his photos with his writings. Currently, he is “taking the ‘Pearl’ project onward in the form of a smaller book, Ten Women Composers You Should Know

Hayes is a frequent contributor to Ragazine.


March 1, 2014   Comments Off on John Cage: Looking Back

Paul B. Roth/Interview

Ragazine Interview (Paul in front of a tree)


An interview with Paul B. Roth

of Bitter Oleander Press

by Alan Britt
Book Review Editor

For the past several decades as corporations have gobbled up major publishing houses, causing poets in many cases to succumb to the whims of commercial-minded editors, the future of serious fiction and poetry in the United States has been under attack. For the sake of survival, medium and small presses around the country have carried the torch. Publishers such as Anhinga Press, Boa, Black Sparow, Brooklyn Arts Press, Červená Barva, Coffee House Press, Four Way Books, Graywolf Press, March Street Press, Milkweed Editions, Red Hen Press, Sarabande Books, Soft Skull Press, Tupelo Press, Twisted Spoon Press, White Pine Press, along with several others have taken up the mantle similar to what New Directions and City Lights did throughout the 1950s and 1960s. All of these publishers began small and have since grown into vital alternatives for innovative poets and fiction writers. A few publishers, such as City Lights and New Directions, in particular, also published journals and anthologies along with books. In this necessary tradition, editor and publisher Paul B. Roth has been publishing his celebrated international journal of poetry and short fiction, The Bitter Oleander, while building an impressive library of books through his Bitter Oleander Press. Year after year Roth continues to produce beautiful books by some of the most impressive writers from the U.S. and abroad. The brief interview that follows allows us a glimpse into Roth’s emergence as one of this country’s most important publishers of poetry and short fiction.

* * *  

Alan Britt:  You publish the award winning literary journal, The Bitter Oleander, a bi-annual, international journal for poetry and short fiction that features extensive interviews along with a large selection of poetry by poets from all over the globe. You also publish The Bitter Oleander Press which features books of poetry and flash fiction by writers both domestic and foreign. When and why did you begin publishing the journal and books?

Paul B. Roth When I was finally awakened from the doldrums of contemporary North American poetry in the late sixties and reborn by the teachings and work of Duane Locke, it became paramount in my mind to find a way to make the kind of poetic temperament he espoused more available to those who, like myself, craved it and for those who didn’t yet know they craved it. There were no journals at the time willing to accept great numbers of deep image, Surrealist or Immanentist poetry. As a result, there was no one journal specifically dedicating itself to the kind of poetry that had already been flourishing for decades in both the European salons and in the darkest blood our Latin American brothers and sisters were bleeding into their poems. A profound poetry that, for the most part, was just not as accessible to the English speaking world as it is today.

AB:  What words would you use to identify your mission statement?

PBR:   Patience, perseverance, dedication, openness, and the presentation of different landscapes in as many exemplary poems as are publishable from one issue or individual book to the next. And to find those poets no one knows, no one has ever heard of or whose work exemplifies in stark contrast to what it means to be an individual poet in a world where so many sound like each other, as if we were all somehow the same.

Ragazine Interview (Alberto Blanco & Paul at Dartmouth College)

Mexican poet Alberto Blanco & Roth at Dartmouth College.

AB:  What is the origin of your press’s name, The Bitter Oleander?

PBR:   Again in the late sixties, while reading García Lorca’s poems and plays for the first time, I came across and loved his play, Blood Wedding, which I read  appeared in New York City back in the early thirties. The play’s producer was concerned that the American audience would misinterpret this play because of its title. Lorca was consulted, completely understood the problem and pronounced the play would now be called Bitter Oleander. Upon first seeing this name I said to myself, if I’m ever lucky enough to succeed in my dream, this will be the name my journal will go by. When it all fell into place in 1974, it was the only name I had ever considered.

AB:  Along with your journal, am I correct in assuming that some of the books The Bitter Oleander Press has published have won awards?

PBR:   Yes, a few. In 2005 we were recognized by National Public Radio (NPR) as the best journal for poetry in the United States. Shawn Fawson’s book, Giving Way, won the Utah Book Award for poetry in 2011 and the Estonian poet Kristiina Ehin’s 1001 Winters was short-listed for the prestigious Propescu Prize for best book of poetry in translation from a European language. With our books we pursue every competition for which we qualify. Getting our name out there in every possible circumstance has helped over the past forty years to bring a lot of positive attention to this press and it’s certainly helped establish us as a more than legitimate and successful publisher of poetry in the United States. Along the way we’ve been fortunate to receive two extremely helpful Hemingway Grants from the French Cultural attaché, one for a book of poems by the purest Surrealist of them all, Benjamin Perét, and his Children of the Quadrilateral translated by Albert Frank Moritz, along with Torn Apart/Déchirures by Joyce Mansour who was the only woman within the inner circle of the Surrealist movement and whose work here was so beautifully translated from the French by Serge Gavronsky.

AB:  Besides an impressive list of books by U.S. poets, you’ve also published an amazing array of books in translation by poets from Bolivia, China, Ecuador, Estonia, France, Germany, Mexico, Sweden and Switzerland. Why the stress on publishing so many books in translation?

PBR:   I cannot think of a time in cultural history when translations have reached such great proportions. There are translations of poems and fiction of all kinds from every corner and language of the world. Much has been translated into English and some into other languages. Having come to realize that there are vigorous cultures whose pursuits of its own language through poetry are much greater than what we read and see every day in submissions to us from around the U.S., we wanted to try and amp up the availability that a true seeker of poetry could have in regard to a less self-absorbing and more universal kind of writing.

We have also tried to accomplish this reaching out to non-English speaking voices in those poets we feature in our semiannual journal. By feature it should be understood that we devote thirty or more pages to one poet in each and every issue. There’s an interview usually conducted by me, plus a generous selection of work by the featured poet. We’ve featured close to forty different individuals. Specifically, from other countries we’ve featured Ruxandra Cesereanu (Romania), Alberto Blanco (Mexico), Nicomedez Suaréz-Araúz (Bolivia), Aase Berg (Sweden), Chun Ye (China), Martín Camps (Mexico), Pierre Albert Jourdan (France), Ana Minga (Ecuador), Fiona Sze-Lorrain (France), Kristiina Ehin (Estonia), José-Flore Tappy (Switzerland), Tóroddur Poulsen (Faroe Islands), and such excellent American poets as  Duane Locke, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Ray Gonzalez, Silvia Scheibli, Christine Boyka Kluge, Rob Cook, Shawn Fawson, Patrick Lawler, George Kalamaras, Carol Dine and Patty Dickson Pieczka.

Ragazine Interview (Roy, Silvia, Paul & Georgina in Upstate NY)

Roy Rodriquez, Silvia Scheibli, Roth & Georgina H. Roth in upstate New York.

AB:   What plans for publishing do you have for the future? Projects? Desires?

PBR  We just published a wonderful little book of poems by the anguished Ecuadorian poet, Ana Minga, translated by Alexis Levitin, entitled Tobacco Dogs/Perros de tabaco. At the same time we published the winning book in our annual Library of Poetry (2012) competition by Patty Dickson Pieczka entitled Painting the Egret’s Echo. We’re on the verge of publishing Patrick Lawler’s new book of poems, Child Sings in the Womb, which will be available in March of this year. A month after that book’s debut, our spring issue of The Bitter Oleander appears. Following that issuance, other books coming due in 2014 include Puppets in the Wind by Karl Krolow, translated from the German by Stuart Friebert; Sheds/Hangars by the Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy, translated by John Taylor; Movement Through the Pain by Philippe Rahmy translated from the French by Rosemary Lloyd; the 2013 winner of our Library of Poetry award The Cave by Tom Holmes, and beginning in 2015 we will publish Rich Ives’ Light from a Small Brown Bird.

AB:  Any other future projects you’d like to see come to fruition?

PBR:   After Rich Ives’ collection, and at this very moment, I’ll be starting to look for outstanding manuscripts, particularly translations. We want to keep concentrating on those poets who are still living or have not been gone for too long. It’s been said that more people than ever are writing poems in this world. That there’s an abundance of literary journals both in print and online for those who seek publication, credit and attention, makes things more complex for any editor today. There’s a lot to sift through, as one can imagine, but until we’re moved to accept a person’s work for our journal or have it collected in a full edition, we’ll continue to sift.


About the publisher:

Paul B. Roth edits and publishes The Bitter Oleander Press in the village of Fayetteville, NY. He has seven books to his credit, the two most recent of which are Cadenzas by Needlelight (CypressBooks, 2006) and Words the Interrupted Speak (March Street Press, 2011). His eighth collection, Long Way Back to the End, is to be published in the spring of 2014 by Rain Mountain Press.

The Bitter Oleander Press
4983 Tall Oaks Drive
Fayetteville, NY 13066


About the interviewer:

Alan Britt is the Books & Reviews editor of Ragazine.CC. He received his Masters Degree from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He performs poetry workshops for the Maryland State Arts Council.  You can read more about him in “About Us.”


March 1, 2014   Comments Off on Paul B. Roth/Interview