Monday, May 18, 2009

Dale Johnson, Columbus

Interview with Dale by Melissa
Photo: Melissa Vogley Woods

M. I was so amazed to see the variety abound in your studio, I have been aware of your custom stonework, but had not seen the fine art work. I was really amazed at the variety and amount of artwork you produce. I felt a bit like a kid in a candy store walking around in your home and studio a gasp at all I saw.

D. Thank you for the kind words.

M. Do you find working in different medias relaxing?

D. Necessary. In my non-commissioned work when I finish a piece it may never find a home outside my own. I'm ok with that. But there is no carrot, no pat on the back. With a commission, the process may be similar to my improvisations, but the lack of spontenaity is a killer to my imagination. On the other hand, the gratitude and recognition of a job well done as expressed by my clients is needed to maintain motivation. I use the by-products of the commissions as the material for my original works. The two processes compliment each other. I have trained myself to be able to execute about anything anybody wants to pay for, so I am like a total sell out that way, but I turn it around and use the commissions to fund the explorations, over which I have total control, with expensive materials, and without need to sell them getting in the way of what they are. I don't need to sell my art to be able to afford to make it, which enables me to have a great deal of freedom in my work.

M. You hear a lot about building a cohesive body of work in the arts, do you ever feel pulled in different directions, or are you all stone carver?

D. Not all stone carver at all. Mostly musician, actually. I play piano, keyboards, and guitar. Free improv jazz. Loud and wild. And I like to draw. I draw a lot, pastels and pencil, mostly taken from a landscape point of departure. I love light and how it plays across large spaces. My back vista is amazing, and I have drawn it hundreds of times, in all lights and seasons. I don't bother with galleries and expectations of a cohesive body. I just make whatever I want. As a result I'm not really gallery material, so I don't often show, and rarely sell the originals. Maybe I could show the pastels. I'd like to show again, but I need a space that could accommodate a forklift to do it right. And I have been loving doing my cast stainless work, as well as the recent welded pieces and "musical implement" sculptures. I think my next show should be both indoors and outdoors in a single location. I don't know where that might be.

M. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got started stone carving? What was your first piece?

D. As an art student, I was drawn to cast glass. This was the early 80's. At that time cast glass was very new to an individual artist, as it's cooling can take weeks. The computer came to the rescue of the cooling process and monitering. An artist, Howard Ben tre, of Providence, Rhode Island had been making the largest cast glass sculptures in the world outside of the 24 hour factories of Czechoslovkia, and I wrote him and asked if he would let me apprentice. I said I would work for free and live on the floor of the studio if he would feed me and teach me. We met in LA at a glass confereance, and he agreed. I received full credit for a semester, and lived and worked in NYC and Providence. We put together a show at Cowles in SOHO. I loved the internsity. We worked 7 days, literally 18 hour days. I met Castelli, Johns, Warhol, it was crazy. I was maybe 24, 25. After I got back to Berkely I wanted to learn more from older dudes, and I had been throwing together crazy chemicals in my glass castings trying to make them look like stone. It never occurred to me that people still carve stone. Seemed too hard to do. So when I saw the poster of a "world famous African stone sculptor" looking for an apprentice I jumped at it. John Odoch-Ameny of Uganda had irritated Idi Amin, and so his gallery in San Fransisco brought him her until Amin died. I worked in the driveway of the gallery owner, where John was staying, for about a year. I had a wife and a kid and I was a full time student with a full time job making cookies in a mall. Hard long days, baby. Too old for that now. Where does that energy come from? John gave me his tools before he went home. I treasure them, and they are are on my mantle now. Hippopotimus skin, the steel banding around the wagon wheels that drove colonialism form the blades that still cut stone. My first original stone was a coffeepot with a Scottish air and hat. My computer is down so I can't share the photo. I am writing this from my wife's computer.

M. We talked a lot about technique, and method during out visit, how do you in your fine art transcend the labor of the piece? I often think of the piece in the yard with the two puppets, I find it hard to wrap my mind around how it appears so spontaneous, yet it is carved out of stone!

D. I am given ideas I have learned enough to execute. I execute them. I am grateful for the ideas, and grateful I have had the opportunity to have learned how to do with my hands what I am told to do. The ideas are free, but once received, I have to complete them. It's kind of a deal like Robert Johnson. If I do what I'm told to do, I will be fed. But the long works are a lot of time, a lot of work. Doing them is how I earn my keep. The paymaster is tough. I listen and obey.

M. After you finish a large piece, do you take a little break, or do you just on keep on keeping on?

D. I need to have a large, long term work slowly brew while I share it's gestation with more spontaneous work. There is a break between the long term ones, but no break in total output.

M. I have a feeling you do not listen to music when you work, (the noise factor), but do you have some favorites?

D. I wear headphones and a dust mask pretty much all day, and most days I am alone all day. I like to listen to my thoughts and the birds. For me, visual art making requires a pretty noise-free (as regards organized sound) environment. I listen with my eyes.
As for music I like, well, I'm all over the board. I'm a huge Beatles fan, and I love Harry Partch; Belefonte is my favorite all time singer; I'm a big collector of 50's mambo records; I love Miles, Coltrane, Dizzy, Chet Baker, etc., and I had my Mahavishnu Orchestra moments as well. I like rockabilly and I love to dance, so all that stuff is good. I like pre-war acoustic blues. I like New Wave. I love Flamenco guitar and trumpet. I love trumpet period. I love Al Hirt. I love the Sex Pistols and punk in general. I like the classical composers of the 18th and 19th centuries. I like spoken word. I hate heavy metal and most modern "country". I like anything Latin. I like Dean Martin. So there you go.

D. Thanks for the questions. This has been fun.

M. Thanks Dale!!!

D. Thanks Melissa!