Thursday, November 4, 2010

Interview with Derek Weisberg

I am happy to see your clay work getting into some great galleries that showcase urban and contemporary art, not typically clay. To what do you attribute your success as a CONTEMPORARY ceramic artist?
It is true, clay is the primary medium I choose to use to express myself. However I don't consider myself a ceramic artist, I consider myself as an artist. I use clay because it is a material I enjoy using, have learned to understand, and have training in. It is the material that best communicates my ideas and what I want to share and create. I also draw and paint, do a lot of wood construction and found object assemblage work. Really I use whatever material I think fits my vision for the work. I don’t think it is smart for artists to pigeon hole themselves, the world will do that for you and in lightning speed. Once you have designated yourself as something it is hard to break out, so if you put yourself in the position to make ceramics and show in only ceramics galleries, and only attend ceramic conferences, and only look at ceramic art history, then you will be only that. I try to put my work in as many contexts as possible; so yes the ceramic and craft context is one, but also I look at a lot of art history so I put the work in a larger fine art historical context. I grew up on the DIY, and the hip hop culture and so I put my work into the street art, contemporary urban, low brow, no brow, Beautiful Losers, Mission school whatever you want to call it context. I am trying to do as Peter Voulkos did, and break out of the traditional typical clay world by applying contemporary ideas and aesthetics to clay, to create work that is relevant and interesting regardless of the medium.

You seem to be very busy as an artist. Do you have a regular job also, or are you at the point where you can sustain a living from your craft? (And if so, I am totally jealous!!)
Yes, but there’s no need to be jealous! I have multiple day jobs. I am always very busy. I like to say I have the curse of the shark, there is no stopping or I'm done. But don’t get me wrong, I also see it as a blessing. Luckily my current day jobs are art related, so that is nice. I am Stephen Destaebler's assistant and I do almost every and anything for him. It is glorified manual labor, just kidding. Actually it’s really cool. I have been working with him for about 5 years and have learned a lot and created a great relationship with him. I also "manage" a residency program where non ceramic artists are invited to work in clay. I I am currently working with John Bankston and Rebeca Bollinger. Those are my regular weekly jobs but I have several other pick up jobs here and there.

Coming up in San Francisco, in my opinion, must have been a huge help to you. (This coming from someone who lives in the middle of nowhere-according to the art world). How has your community helped your attitude, work ethic and rise to stardom?
The San Francisco bay area is truly an amazing place. I grew up here and have never lived anywhere else, although I have travelled a fair amount and visited many other places. So maybe I don’t really know how coming up in the SF bay area has directly affected me, I don’t have anything to compare it to. But there is a pretty great community here, with many artists and very talented people. San Francisco is not quite NY or LA, but there are pretty good museums and many great galleries to visit and other resources here to take advantage of. So I am sure that all of those things have helped shape me as an artist somehow. Having certain instructors in school was definitely influential. Being in an urban environment and experiencing life here were also influences. It may be untrue, but I would like to think that I share similarities with my work. In school and as a pre-schooler I always did my own thing and had a clear sense of what I wanted to make and express, having the same work ethic, motivation and desire. I would probably put myself in the same type of positions to make art and try to form some kind of like minded community to be part of, regardless of where I was. Oh yeah, and I think I am far from art stardom.

You co-ran a gallery (Boontling Gallery) for awhile and started some great community programs. How did this influence your path? Did it help you with connecting with other artists who have now become pretty well known such as Josh Keyes and John Casey?
Boontling was an amazing venture for me. I ran the gallery with one of my best friends, Mike Simpson, for 2 and a half years it was great. We started the gallery in February 2005 while we were in our last semester of art school, and it ran until August 2007. We started the gallery because we were getting out of school soon and wanted to show our work. Neither of us were going to sit around and wait, and try and fit in somewhere or into someone else's program; so we just started our own thing. Oakland was just barely starting to jump off. It was perfect timing. We helped start the Oakland Art Murmur, a very, very popular first Friday of the month art walk event in Oakland. We both worked day jobs which financed the gallery, and it was a small space so we could do creative shows and events. We didn't really have to worry about selling paintings to make rent. In running the gallery we learned how to put ourselves and our best work forward. (I may not always do it, but I know how to, if need be.) We worked with a lot of artists and saw the good the bad and the ugly.

We got to see what it was like on the receiving end, and what artists did that was professional and impressive and also what wasn't so hot. And the gallery was really fun. We were open weekends and so many friends and artists would come by just to hang out. It became a kind of club house for artists. It was a great place for connections to be made, and we made friends and acquaintances with many artists. We started showing people from California College of Arts and Crafts that we knew and liked and went to school with. We then put out calls to artists and took submissions. By the end, we were showing national and international artists. People like Josh Keyes and John Casey were just guys living in Oakland wanting to show their art. They were nowhere near what they have now become, and I like that.

We didn’t want to just show "popular" artists, although we wanted part of our program to include them, if we liked their work of course. But we also wanted to give the space to someone who had never shown before who we believed in and just say “here you go, run with it,” and see what they came up with. Our gallery was great for that, and all though it was short lived, I think had a big impact on the Oakland art community, artists we worked with, and on ourselves.

Your newer work seems to be getting more details (facial, etc). Does this mean the work is getting more personal or is that just a natural transition?

The newer work is beginning to take on more individualistic characteristics, again. I say again, because in my early work all the figures were very distinct and individual. The work then began to move in a more universal direction. I continued to think of all the figures as individuals, but they did have many commonalities. This was right around the time my mom got very sick, and it was seeing her and living with her and watching her that had a big influence on the aesthetic and content of the work. Stripping the figures of hair and really identifiable features made all the figures more similar. They shared the same dysfunction, vulnerabilities, melancholy, etc. They somehow got closer to the core of human experience for me. I am still very interested in those same ideas and having that content in my work, but I have been more or less on that very similar aesthetic for over 4 years or so, and I was getting bored with it.

I also think that creating that work was my own grieving and my way of dealing with the loss of my mother. It has been over 3 years now since she passed away. I guess I am starting to feel like grieving in a different way. It is a hard thing to describe because it is just a natural process that evolves; it is not premeditated or planned. It just comes out. I am still trying to maintain core ideas to express basic those human qualities which are universal and timeless, and create works which reflect humanist ideology. I am still continuing a search for truth and trying to express commonality of the human condition. However, the figures are expressing that on a more individual basis. I think with enough figures on view, a viewer will get a sense of life through the individuals in a setting, as a community, as a world. The figures are being created to express both the individual and the whole: separately, together, alienated from, encompassed by, and the rest.

I know you are a big fan of studying art history. Do you think your knowledge of classical art helps your foundation as an artist? What contemporary influences from daily life influence your work?
I actually do love art history! I really enjoy seeing art and art movements in reaction or relationship to the next or previous. I love seeing the history of the world unfold through paintings and sculpture. And I love learning about artists who came before me, what great accomplishments they made and obstacles they overcame, what their communities looked like, and how they lived their lives. All of those things inform me and my work and hopefully make it better. By looking at past work I can borrow from it and add layers and content to my own work. We have almost 30,000 years of art/creative visual information to look back upon, to help inform us, compare to, compete and react against. It is that tradition and lineage which I think is also so important. All humans throughout time can be broken up into tribes, and one of them is the artist tribe. It is important to know and acknowledge your ancestors. I think many young artists say things like, "I don’t want to look at art history. I want to make something new." Well, I say “how do you plan to make something new if you don’t know what has already been done?” No artist exists in a bubble. Artists exist in a particular time which comes from a previous time, in a certain context, with contemporaries, and they should be aware of all of that. It is part of the artist’s job.

While studying the past is part of what I think an artist’s job is, simultaneously, being aware, active, and commenting on the present is also part of the job. So I am continuously trying to merge the two. My contemporary influences come from all moments of my waking day, from listening to Amy Goodman and the news and current events, to walking down the street and seeing what some kid at Oakland Tech High is wearing, or walking by a warehouse with beautiful brick work, abandoned with broken windows, to old Victorian homes newly restored with fresh paint and architectural details. Rusted signs and scuffed up walls, graffiti, and other hand painted signs, hip hop music, books and magazines I read, and other contemporary artists; all these are influences. The gestures of down trodden, poor and tired people, the homeless pushing shopping carts full of crushed cans, tattooed skinny jeaned hipsters pushing fixed gear bikes – all these everyday observations affect my work. I really try to take in all parts of the world around me, my city, neighborhood, community, friends and strangers. The world at large, the times, and the atmosphere that I live in, all are part of my life. I try to take every part of life and use it as influence in my work.

Have you shown in NYC? Is this a goal, why or why not?
I have shown only once or twice in some small galleries in NY, but not yet at a major gallery or a solo show. Yes, there are several galleries I would like to work with and have a solo show at in NY. LA may be quickly coming up on its heels, but New York is still the art capitol of the world, and I would love to be there, no question.