Jim Draper reflects on the experience of “Feast of Flowers”
Jim Draper is right on time. Meeting me in the Stein Gallery at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens on our agreed upon appointment of 1:30 p.m., Draper strolls into the large space where his multi-disciplinary project “Feast of Flowers,” has been on display since mid-December of last year. “Sorry I’m late,” he says. After I assure him that he is right on the money, we sit in two black leather chairs that face his recent work while also providing us with a fitting view of the museum’s award-winning gardens and the St. Johns River. It is an ideal setting to speak with Draper, as his twin loves – painting and the outdoors – are both within sight of one another. Two iPads are placed on the table between us and a collection of hard-shell binders are stacked upright against the wall. The tablet computers contain copies of the digital publication which coincides with the exhibit; the spiral bound books feature dozens of photographs that Draper took during his many excursions into the natural world, the very source and place that feeds his work. The 25 recent paintings in the exhibit are large-scale oils that both celebrate the flora and fauna of Florida while also warning of their possible passing. The title “Feast of Flowers” is a translation of the Spanish “Pascua de Florida,” the name chosen by Ponce De Leon in 1513 when he and his fellow explorer-conquistadors “discovered” the very much already-inhabited land that became known as Florida. On this 500th anniversary of Ponce De Leon’s arrival, Draper explores these ideas of “feasting,” devouring, conquest and commodification throughout the exhibit.
Draper talks in an easygoing manner that speaks as much of his Mississippi roots as it does the overall mellow, open and inclusive vibe he emanates. In conversation, he describes ideas in a non-linear yet engaging way, touching on topics like art and nature while never holding back when lambasting the political systems and seemingly-indoctrinated ignorance that threaten those very two things he finds to be sacrosanct. Yet Draper is hardly a good old boy watching from the sidelines but rather a humble visionary and informed radical in the worst possible way; he galvanizes people and he gets things done. In the past two decades, the now 59 year old Draper has been a constant in the Northeast Florida visual art scene. As an artist, gallery owner, teacher and surely a kind of reluctant pater familias to the subsequent generations of local artists, Draper has loudly championed the arts in an area that only in the past decade-plus has really found the ears to listen. Yet his ongoing creative endeavors are rivaled only by his love of our state’s wetlands and natural realms. Consequently, Draper uses his greatest implement, his art, to try and draw greater attention to the ongoing destruction of countless acreage of the wilderness of Florida.
Over the course of the exhibit’s run, which closed on April 7th, there have been notable locally published articles about the paintings and environmentally-conscious themed events, including two pieces by Jon Bosworth, as well as an essay by Dr. Debra Murphy and a Folio Weekly cover feature by Kara Pound. However, STAREHOUSE chose to explore the accompanying digital publication, a 214 page, collaborative document that now reads like a “living” continuation of the exhibit and features pieces ranging from essays and photographs to films and soundscapes. Draper hand-picked each contributor and it is an impressive roster that includes Karen Ahlers, Neil Armingeon, Bill Belleville, Jon Bosworth, Staci Bu Shea, Jeremy Chandler, Eric Hawes, Jake Ingram, Jeremiah Johnson, Holly Keris, Dr. Hans-Herbert Kögler, Lily Kuonen, David Montgomery, Dr. Debra Murphy, Daniel Newman, Katrina Zoe Norbom, Cári Sanchez-Potter, Bob Self, Margaret Ross Tolbert and Dr. Quinton White. At the end of the publication, readers can also enjoy images of the 25 paintings that were featured at the Cummer, all photographed by Doug Eng. The physical copy of the digital publication is housed in a glass jar package that was designed by artist Crystal Floyd and is available for purchase at the gift shop in the Cummer Museum. It is also available online as a download at Draper’s site.
What follows are some highlights of our conversation at the Cummer.
Starehouse: So this all seems like it has been an unequivocal success. Do you agree?
Jim Draper: I think it was
S.: Well, how do you feel after all of this? How has it changed you?
J.D.: You know, I don’t know – you get an idea and you do it. Then it’s over; it’s not really “over” but you do it and it works. It’s a little weird because I think you’ve been taught to not trust your ideas for so long; you know, as artists you’re actually taught not to. It’s kind of a little bit unnerving when you realize that when you’re thoughtful about an idea and do it, and you see that it actually does work, it kind of makes you feel strange about all those years when you have kept having ideas and everyone just kind of rolled their eyes at you.
S.: All of the ideas you ignored.
J.D.: Yeah. You know, you’re marginalized for the most part. I think people put artists in that side slot that they need them in.
S.: A comfortable ghetto or niche or whatever?
J.D.: Yeah, yeah. It’s okay to go sneak out and spend the night with them every couple of months but you don’t want to take them with you to church (laughs).
S.: (laughs) Right, right. So when you say these “big ideas” do you mean … obviously this one [“Feast of Flowers”] was a home run … but do you mean maybe all of the times that you may have ignored that kind of monkey chatter in your mind, or …
J.D.: No, I mean a lot of times you actually wouldn’t ignore it, you’d actually write it up, do it, try to convince somebody to do it and then (…) the city of Jacksonville for instance is historic for this. You’d have an idea and then you got talk to them and then they’ll milk the idea out of you and then they will hire a consultant, pay ‘em hundreds of thousands of dollars to have them come and tell them the same thing – and then still not do it. I mean, it’s just kind of bad (laughs).
S.: Have you had a taste of that with the city?
J.D.: Oh my God, yes! (laughs)
S.: Can you mention specifics?
J.D.: Well, I think the whole “Off the Grid” program is a good example of it. I mean, it was a good idea; originally it was an idea that I had and talked to some people (…) it was just really never done in the way (…) you have the idea and it gets turned into something else. It was never really about getting galleries downtown it was about getting artists on the streets – which would have worked but between the landlords and everything else but it always turns into this desire to be something else.S.: It seems like with that situation in particular, the artists and surely including yourself, were doing that [what became “First Wednesday Art Walk” in downtown Jacksonville] regardless of the city’s involvement, renting spaces and trying to generate events. A while back, I had spoken to some unnamed (laughs) gallery owners and they felt like they were being almost “coded out” due to the required insurance coverage to have a gallery down there. So you pay $300 a month to rent a space and then have to pay $600 for mandatory insurance.
J.D.: Yeah, yeah, there are always systems in place that have a tendency to eat up these kinds of programs. One time I compared Jacksonville to an alligator; it kind of lies around in the sun and looks big and bad, but it doesn’t really do too much until it is backed into a corner. But it has this tendency to eat its young (laughs).
S.: Yeah, plus the city has such a deliberate history of destroying its own history.
J.D.: Yeah, this show really came out of the response to that because of this idea of the 500 year anniversary of the discovery of Florida – but discovering what? It was densely populated 500 years ago by people who just didn’t happen to have gunpowder.
S.: We should call it what it really was – the conquest of Florida.
J.D.: It was really was an invasion; even the people who mounted it called it an invasion and then we call it something else. History is really written and stories are written by whoever has the ability to write.
S.: And who won.
J.D.: And who won and whoever owns the language.
S.: Can you give me a sense of chronology? This particular project started in October of 2011?
J.D.: Yeah, sure. I think it actually started before. I don’t know when it actually started (…) I had the actual idea for a while but man, I am horrible with dates. I pitched it to the museum in 2011 but I started thinking about it in ’10 and it was actually in ’11 when I started formalizing it; it was about two years ago in April or so when I formally pitched it to Hope [McMath, director of the Cummer].
S.: Were these paintings…
J.D.: The paintings were done after that; the paintings were done after that then we came up with a date.
S.: So all of these were made for this project?
J.D.: Yeah, all of the paintings were done in the last two years.
S.: Did that schedule have you working 16 hour days, or…
J.D.: Not really, I paint very quickly. I had to also do a lot of traveling for this but I work very quickly. I could have done a lot more paintings. And meanwhile we did the book, which was probably more work.
S.: I want to kind of focus on this and I think in my correspondence with Staci [Bu Shea, local curator and Jim’s assistant] she had said you wanted to talk about that as well. I’m curious too about the crowdsourcing approach, which is a relatively new idea. How was that experience?
J.D.: It was really good. I think it was probably the right time for crowdsourcing, I think that it was (…) it’s like anything else, now it’s like there’s a little too much of that – I wouldn’t do another one now.
J.D.: There’s too many of ‘em; it’s just too much. I think that it’s become (…) it’s like anything else, it worked for a while but now it might be dead in the water.
S.: It seems like with bands there can be almost a novelty aspect where it almost diminishes the whole trip; you know $100 and “Get a lock of Ringo’s hair.”
J.D.: Yeah, yeah. It does become a little cheesy. I’ve also got a little (…) the whole idea of being popular, popularity on some level in general. I mean, being popular – is that really what you want? There are a lot of ways to be popular if you want to be popular. I think that significantly meaningful is an acquired taste and I think it is a form of elitism which I kind of like; I like the idea that you have to have a certain (…) capacity in order to understand significant meaning.
S.: I agree. I don’t think discernment is necessarily a natural thing; it comes with wisdom. It might not be a popular sentiment or thing to admit but fuck it.
J.D.: Yeah, I think that probably for funding in the future I will be more interested in finding a partner, ally and somebody who is really interested in particular ideas or projects and is willing to invest in it. I think that becomes more interesting. I don’t wanna sound like Mr. Smarty Pants, take-the-money-and-run kind of thing (laughs)…
S.: No, I don’t think you are and I appreciate your candor.
J.D.: It worked well for this because also in the midst of crowdfunding there’s also a significant marketing/PR component so you are actually informing as you go along. So I think that in this particular project it probably worked better than some others might have. This project, as good as it was – and it has been well received and people have been wonderful about it and embraced it; and that’s good – I don’t know if I have it in me, and again this might sound like a stupid thing to say, but I don’t know that I have the capacity to be popular (laughs) it just takes a lot out of you.
S.: You mean just the weirdness of having the attention?
J.D.: Yeah. If I could just figure out how to cover the light bill, I’d like to slip into a little bit of quiet for a while.
S.: The “Greta Garbo”-era of Jim Draper.
J.D.: Yeah, yeah; except if I come down the stairs in chiffon, call somebody (laughs).
S.: Now was the crowdsourcing for the painting or the digital deal?
J.D.: It was primarily to finance the book and that’s pretty much what it took. We wound up raising around $14,000; we started with ten.
S.: It happened pretty quickly; I guess spoke with you on the phone right before that kicked off.
J.D.: We did it in a month; we did it the month of February 2012. Staci and I worked on it, mainly Staci really, for three months setting it up and understanding what you’re doing and what you’re doing is you’re appealing to your families. So the first thing you do is identify your families. I mean, I’ve been very popular and involved and done stuff over the years so I do have some really good friends and a significant family; so there’s your core. You don’t really (…) I think that you think you’re gonna make new friends and it’s gonna go viral in Seattle, Washington and be all over but you’re not.
S.: So it’s really your home ground.
J.D.: Yeah. Out of all the contributors, I would say a huge portion of them were friends. I would say that 80% were already friends.
S.: I’m wondering, and you gotta forgive me if this is already in the works, but when you say “book” is there a tactile, actual book of this?
J.D.: No, the book is just digital. The reason there isn’t a tactile book, because I wanted to do one, but it’s expensive. I mean it was $60,000. So you go “really?” (laughs) And realistically I could have probably looked for someone to publish it and have underwritten it and they probably would have been smart to because it has been very well-received. So what we did, there was a lot of expense involved in doing the digital publication (…)
S.: It’s a lot of material.
J.D.: It’s a behemoth and a tremendous anthology.
S.: So do you still, and Staci and I had spoken about this very thing, but do you like that tactile, physical experience of “having a book” or do you even care?
J.D.: I’ve actually had several people ask me from around the world who have been really interested in this. I talked to someone from Georgia Press who is fascinated with the idea of publishing a coffee table book in the form of a digital publication, something that should be published in the form of a coffee table art book. And it’s kind of a (…) I’m not trying to flatter myself here (laughs) but I think that it’s kind of ahead of its time as far as general acceptance, because it’s unusual. People look at you and they go (makes a quizzical expression) because they want something to flip through instead of just having this (points to iPad on table).
S.: Yeah, well I surely do. I like the book form.
J.D.: I probably do too. It’s also interesting because you start realizing in those coffee table books, picture books and monographs and art books how little of them you read. I’ll look at all mine and think, “Yeah, I read some of it. I read the captions.” But I really just look at the pictures. So I think that’s interesting and I think reading a digital text kind of makes you kind of understand that this is kind of an incredible piece because there’s a ton of information with a lot of different voices saying a lot of different things.
S.: Yeah, it’s pretty exhaustive. So did you always have an idea to do this (digital publication) kind of parallel with the paintings?
J.D.: Yeah. My original idea was to do a picture book (…) I originally wanted to do paintings in a six foot by nine foot size and I had a kind of obligatory number of 60 or something, I couldn’t remember how many there were, and then I wanted to have them represent specific ecosystems and then I would have another voice, like Bill Belleville who did a piece on the “Scrub,” do a piece about that particular ecosystem. And again, that’s a cool project idea but you’re talking about something ten years in the making to get it done and up and on the wall and something that was exhibit-able with a publication within a year. And getting the paintings done in two years (…) it was impossible.
S.: It’s funny because when I talked to you a few years back about this, I thought “Wow, he’s really pitching this far ahead” but now I see that it was just the right amount of time. There was a lot in play with this and to get it together.
J.D.: Yeah. Well, originally I had this idea about opening on this past Tuesday [April 2], which would been the actual date of whatever happened with Ponce De Leon, because we are really not sure of what, or when or where or who and all that stuff (…) but it could be that the date was April 2nd, 1513 which was Easter Sunday which probably was the date that something happened in relationship between Ponce De Leon and Florida. But that didn’t work out but it didn’t really matter; the 500th anniversary happened and nobody noticed.
S.: Nobody is really clicking their heels about his arrival.
J.D.: I don’t think so. The whole thing is really kind of conjecture and the whole thing is probably wrong. There are maps that were drawn of the Florida peninsula before 1513 (…) so somebody was here. I think that the state got it down to the point of the 500th anniversary of the naming of Florida.S.: As far as this digital publication, had you seen some other artist do this or were aware of some other type of multimedia work?
J.D.: No, I don’t think I had. I surely could have but I don’t know of any specific (…) I’ve never seen anything like this, but I think that if I had seen something that was really like this I wouldn’t have done it. This theme was a perfect theme for me to hang some ideas on so it worked well for me thematically; because there’s not a lot of moving parts, it didn’t wax kitschy or cheeky, but it also has some amusing elements and some ways that you can kind of surf through it; there’s certainly an intellectual component, there’s some social issues and environmental issues that can be raised in it. There are some issues about the image that can be raised and have some discussions about things (…) it’s a good thing to hang ideas on and that’s how I really look at it, as places to hang things on. I’m not particularly a historian. I think 99% of history is bullshit. History is what people want it to be.
S.: You have a healthy (…) agenda with this; you’re not telling a history of anything. Quite frankly, the more I delved into this (points to iPad) publication it seems fairly angry in a healthy way. It’s a protest.
J.D.: It is a protest. What I think it really is (…) is a manifestation of frustration. I think that the older I get, the more I watch – especially in Florida – you watch the goose that’s laying the golden egg be systematically tortured and killed and you just go “What in the world? What are these people thinking?” This (…) incredible, incredible government we have now and wherever this governor (Florida Governor Rick Scott) came from (…) you feel like the conquest of Florida is still going on. None of them seem to have a clue about what’s valuable. I don’t think they’re stupid people but I think they are extremely mean; but I don’t think they are stupid. Unfortunately (…) I wish they were. I think that (Former Florida Lt. Gov.) Jennifer Carroll was stupid in that she got busted. I think that with all of this you have to develop a cultural shift. You can’t have a bunch of environmental people sitting around and just talking to each other and telling each other how good you’re doing. I mean, we’re all doing good but you got to be in the culture. You got to get into the place where the majority of the people are offended when you go down Riverside Avenue and you see 500 year old oak trees that are cleared and hauled off – illegally – before anybody questions it. It’s gotta be as offensive as – as horrible as this is – as offensive as someone going into a school and killing a bunch of first graders. You’ve got to be offended at everything. All of those things are offensive; but there can’t be any difference. It has got to be in your culture so that people respond to egregious acts of violence against nature; which is all of us, I think.
S.: So how do you think people can sustain and direct that kind of outrage?
J.D.: I don’t know. Of course you have got a lot of groups that are actually doing a lot of good and then you have people that are saying a lot of good things but you have got to get people into (…) I mean, that was my idea of getting people into art museums. I mean that you bring it into a place where you have a larger audience, where you can get converts from the world, you know? I mean, a lot of what we say and a lot of what we do, we’re not going to go to a city council meeting and win any friends. So you gotta get friends somewhere else, and broaden outside of your circle.
S.: It seems like you are actually more vocal about these things than you were in the past.
J.D.: I think so, I think so. And I don’t really know (…) I think that I am getting to the point that “ideas are ideas.” All of this segmenting things into “art” and “science” and “biology” and “medicine” and “politics” and all that (…) I think that we have a tendency to make all of these divisions and segments and talk about things as separate entities when really they are not. And I think that’s what, in a lot of ways, I feel almost as rabid about the ideas of art and the things of making art, teaching art, showing art (…) I don’t think there’s any difference in that or attitudes toward your place in the natural order. I think it’s all the same thing.
S.: I know you grew up in Mississippi, but did you grow up around nature?
J.D.: Kind of – but I was in town. Certainly by today’s standards I probably was, but yeah, I wouldn’t have been called a “nature boy” when I was growing up.
S.: So when did this change within you happen? Was it a series of things where you started camping or kayaking and started having these kinds of epiphanies or experiences with nature?
J.D.: You know, I think it was a series of things. One thing I’ve always done is that being trained as an artist is that you are taught to be observant. That’s one thing with drawing and painting from life, you are taught to look at something and burn that image into your head. And most people aren’t trained to see anything; everything is just kind of a blur. And most of their perceptions revolve around social situations. People have a tendency to talk about things with groups of people in social settings. I think that as an artist you are taught to slow down and look beyond and you start to have almost a social dialogue with inanimate objects.
S.: It’s an interior experience, a meditation.
J.D.: Yeah, yeah, because you watch the way that the cool light moves and how the warm light comes over and you actually start having a visual conversation with this thing in your head. I think that probably for me, just as an inadvertent observer, you go to a place that was significantly beautiful then two years later you would go back; it was diminished. Two years later you go back; it was diminished. Five years later you go back and it’s gone. This happens over and over and over (…) then everything about Florida, which is where most of this happened, you start talking about everything “as it was.” You start describing everything as “this was.”
S.: Sometimes I think how people who are fairly new to this area cannot imagine how Northeast Florida has changed in the past 20, 25 years. And I mean change as in mass destruction of old buildings and the natural environment.
J.D.: We took somebody, Casey James that visiting artist who was here from New York, some friends and I took him around and were going through town and found ourselves describing Jacksonville as “well, this was a really cool spot” because of all of these warehouses and spots and we were going down by the Prime Osborn Convention Center and saying “this used to be great” and “this used to be” and he was like, “Well what is it now?” And we’d say, “Well, we don’t know (laughs) – but I guess this what it is now.” So everything becomes referred to in a description of the past.
S.: It’s like rapid history. Something that really intrigued me, and I don’t know if this was deliberate, but in reading the title card of the piece “Wild Hibiscus” you talk about this kind of accidental realization as you were looking at this plant, where you noticed that the aphids were there. I guess that card was describing a kind of interconnectedness. But it seems like when we deliberately enter the natural world, whether it’s hiking or camping, it’s an exclusive experience. You might simply look at a tree and then (quickly snaps fingers) you have all of these spontaneous, free associations and it jogs all of these memories. And I believe it really only happens when we “go into” nature. Do you have a sense of that? Do you believe that might bring you back and make you return to nature? I mean beauty notwithstanding.
J.D.: Yeah, you know I went into this place on the Santa Fe River, and I don’t know if this is what you are asking, but I think this is kind of like that. I was there about this time last year and the place was blanketed with these Atamasco Lilies, these little white lilies, as far as you could see. They call them “rain lilies.” And there were hundreds of thousands of them. And so, the same time this year, I go back and because of a storm or whatever they were beaten down – different year, different time – but instead you find these incredible clumps of this other plant called Senecio, which is a yellow (…) kind of looks like wild mustard but it stands real tall; so it was a same type of experience but also a total different experience. Climactic changes, big difference from year to year, made it a different experience (…) interestingly valid; different. But from observation you understand the significance. I think that’s kind of interesting about seeing and how you look for things, you start getting interested at looking for holes in the leaves and then you get excited about looking for caterpillars.
S.: It’s a sequence; it leads to the next thing …
J.D.: It leads to the next thing. And then I start getting really sad if I see leaves that don’t have holes in them because I know that something is not eating. It sounds counterintuitive but you almost have to swallow all of the bait if you’re going to go there. And then you start to go full circle with it.
S.: Right, right. Lemme veer back to the publication because I want to keep on point with this. It’s 214 pages long and runs the gamut from video art, photos, essays, soundscapes (…) what were the criteria for you in hand-picking these contributors?
J.D.: Well, it started with [Northeast Florida writer and activist] Jon Bosworth. Thematically, in my head a lot of my ideas weren’t linear and they weren’t necessarily founded. They were just ideas. I had this general idea about activism, like historical activism and Florida activism, and I wanted to have at least some kind of reference to three people that I have known who were activists; one being Stetson Kennedy, another MaVynee Betsch and then David [Thundershield] Queen. MaVynee not so much a good friend but I admired her certainly, Stetson was a pretty good friend and David was a real good friend, all three dead now. But all three kind of just didn’t care and threw themselves into the activism and all three created this character that became them. David went through the passage and became “Thundershield” and reinvented himself as the activist for environmental and Native American issues.S.: So it was also about persona.
J.D.: Right. MaVynee became “The Beach Lady” and Stetson, you know, created himself as “Stetson Kennedy.” So Jon was Stetson’s last intern and was working with him when he [Stetson] died, so I wanted him to pay homage to those people in that intro [Bosworth contributed the short story entitled “Sing Nana Sing”] and I wanted kind of a fiction piece. I picked him for that because he’s a great writer (…)
S.: Yeah, and that’s an excellent, funky piece to kick it off with.
J.D.: And I thought that was a good way to start, because it set the tone, I needed this kind of bizarre tone that allows the rest of the anthology to come about. I chose Neil Armingeon and Karen Ahlers [contributed the piece “500 Years of Florida: God, Greed, Guts, Glory”] because of their level of work with environmental issues; I thought that piece they did on the Ocklawaha River, which is a hot button issue of mine, was a good mix. Bill Belleville [contributed the essay “Scrub/Sandhill”]; you know I think he is just the consummate Florida writer. I think that he delivered an incredible piece. Hans-Herbert Kögler did that incredible piece [the essay, “Art as Dialogue: The Rediscovery of Nature After Modernism”] that I didn’t see coming, that kind of blindsided me. We talked and had some conversations about (…) you know, being a regionalist, naturalist you always have a tendency (…) I always feel inferior. I always pigeonhole myself as, “He’s just a guy who paints Florida landscapes.”
S.: Why is that? Do you think it’s humility or doubt?
J.D.: I don’t think it’s humility. I think it’s just real to a certain degree. You’re not going to waltz into the Gagosian [acclaimed international chain of gallery spaces] with some Florida landscape paintings; they’ll laugh you out the door. I mean, of course. And they should, probably. But that was really exciting to me to see what he [Kögler] wrote about that (…) it took me four or five times to read it but, you know, do you need to be validated? Well, yeah I think you do at some point need to be validated. I mean, you hope you will be. But I do think if you seek validation all of the time you become kind of a bore. I didn’t necessarily choose him to be validated. But he did. And I think Debra Murphy did the same [Dr. Debra Murphy contributed the essay “Context & Meaning: Jim Draper’s Feast of Flowers”], I mean, I read both of those pieces and to have somebody write something about you with footnotes is kind of, uh (…) you know, I’m not in academia, I’m not in that world.
S.: Well (laughs) you are now.
J.D.: I teach but I’ve never been in that. It could have been I was just never hirable. Nobody wanted to hire me because I’m such a wild card and loose cannon. I would be great because I love teaching.
S.: Are you teaching now?
J.D.: No, I’m still on the list. I don’t know, it just gets so frustrating. I love teaching, I love having students around. I would do it for free. It’s offensive how little they pay. But I would do it for free; but I’d almost rather be asked to do it free than be asked for the little amount that they pay adjuncts (laughs)
S.: Dignity tax?
J.D.: Yeah (laughs) I’d just give them the money.
S.: So Bosworth kind of set the tone and his piece dips into the surreal. So what, did you pick these people or did they come to you?
J.D.: No, I picked them all.
S.: It seems like mostly friends, contemporaries (…)
J.D.: Yeah, they’re all friends.
S.: You think you hurt anybody’s feelings by not picking them?
J.D.: I don’t think so. And I specifically didn’t pick any painters. I did that intentionally because I didn’t want to (…) I have a lot of really close friends who I certainly would have asked but I just wasn’t picking painters. Because I (…) for whatever reason, I wanted to be the only painter.
S.: Sure, man. Well, it is your show.
J.D.: Yeah and I think it clouds the issues if you show other paintings. Part of the thing I wanted to say with the publication was: “I paint; painting is a valid way of doing this. Other people do these things. Is there a difference? I don’t think so.”
S.: It seems like even some of the people that you picked like (experimental filmmaker) David Montgomery, (photographer) Daniel Newman, they have a real painterly vibe (…) even the one guy, who did the sketch, the landscape architect dude?
J.D.: Jake Ingram
S.: Yeah, immediately I saw how that could be a cartoon for a painting. So that element is still threaded through there and kind of tethers it to your painting. I want to talk about this as well were it seems like you were very mindful of creating this sensorial experience where you have Jeremiah Johnson providing soundscapes, the piece with the couple picking wild fruit, [Katrina Zoe Norbom and Eric Hawes’ “A Bright Orange Afternoon,” an essay on wild harvesting/picking and eating fresh persimmon] and Cári Sanchez-Potter is talking about the actual feast and the act of devouring [the interview “Eating & Feasting”] (…) you have every sense addressed in this.
J.D.: Well, you think about the word feast and you just think of it as being like an onion and you think about all of these different things and layers of metaphor and skin and juice and all of that stuff (…) it’s the way you (…) I think that there’s ways of looking at ideas and that’s the way you have got to look at it. You know? You’ve just got to chew on it and tear it apart and think about every way in which you can think about it. That’s what I think is so beautiful about the “Feast of Flowers” thing; the title. That was just a total gift. That was just a given. You can talk about bugs eating plants. You can talk about Western ideas of possession and consumption. And, I didn’t, but you can talk about Native American ideas of consumption. You can talk about attitude towards place. You can talk about layer and layer. You can talk about sensual, the sexy act of eating. I mean eating is putting stuff in an orifice for pleasure. It’s about as core of our animalness as you can get.
S.: Feast is celebratory and gluttony, nourishing and destroying.
J.D.: It goes through all of those places, all of these different voices and attitudes and music and sound (…) it talks about all of those things by looking at this thing from all of these different angles. But not specifically, not “take a portion of this and write about this.” I was not instructive at all (laughs).
S.: Did you give them any kind of direction?
J.D.: Not really.
S.: You have these three sections within the publication [“Discovery,” “Conquest” and “Poison Arrow”] which could be viewed like a corollary to a visual triptych; a form you use in your painting. Did you have those in place or was that an afterthought?
J.D.: Those were post-scripted. My original idea was to have it divided up into eParks and ecosystems and have it be about, you know, wetlands, Upland sand, scrub, all marginal (…) maritime forests, all these different things (…) and it just became really exhaustive (…) it became too many categories. So we kind of developed those three ideas as just kind of arbitrary but almost like a plot; you know when you’re developing a plot there’s the set-up, the climax and then the final outcome. So in a weird way it’s kind of a novel plot development. I don’t know that much about plot development but it’s really kind of a device to hang all of this stuff in there and get some sense. Taken separately, it was hard to (…) I guess the only unifying thread, other than the name of the pieces, was me. I was kind of what tied them all together. As a whole, it makes sense.
S.: When I was going through the publication and thinking about this devouring concept, I had kind of thought about this, something that I had read probably twenty five years ago. Are you familiar with J.G. Ballard? He’s probably mistaken for a science fiction writer but he was just a fucking visionary novelist.
J.D.: No, I don’t know.
S.: He wrote the memoir “Empire of the Sun.”
J.D.: Yeah, I do know that.
S.: He had this novel called “The Drowned World.” It’s basically a story of how the ice caps melt and flood the world and the protagonist loves it (laughs). But Ballard addresses this idea of how our primal being is really coded by nature (…) how things like being afraid of lightning or even certain animals are programmed in our DNA or along or vertebrae through evolution. I guess I’m wondering, do you think this “feasting” (…) in spite of the best efforts of awareness and activism, do you think this is an inherent, devouring nature that humans as a species might have?
J.D.: I think it’s cultural. I think that our culture allows us to think that we deserve it. I think that our culture allows us to think that it’s ours for the taking. I think that other cultures that evolved in other places probably weren’t allowed to (…) well, take The Roman Empire. The Romans felt that if it existed, it was theirs for the taking. I think we are still The Roman Empire. I think when Constantine led the charge to develop the Christian church in 325 A.D. at the Nicene Conference, I think he had to get control of the empire and charge the writers and people who put the bible together, with the idea of developing a system that would allow for Roman ideals to move forward. And I think that was the perfect (…)
S.: It kind of spun on the gears of conquest.
J.D.: Yeah and it was in selecting things in the bible like “Go forth and multiply to the ends of the earth.” I mean, that’s ingrained in our culture. There’s no reason for us to do that. That’s a pretty rude idea (laughs) and I think that other cultures are just as content to go down to the river and catch fish and eat. So how do you develop a cultural shift? I don’t know. I don’t know how that changes. I think it’s going to inevitably play out the way it plays out.
S.: Well, I think when you have things succeeding like this (the exhibit and publication) it plays out in the form of an incrementally won battle. It seems like the money and power flow usually doesn’t work in favor of the artists. How do you not become cynical when you personally return to your favorite places in Florida and they are torn down?
J.D.: I don’t know. How do you remain hopeful? I guess it’s hard not to be cynical.
S.: But you know some people have actually stopped shopping at Wal-Mart. It’s a slow wave.
J.D.: Yeah. And when does that become self-flagellation? At what point do you cross the line where you start enjoying yourself that actually denies the rest of the world? I don’t know. Those are all questions and I don’t know the answers. I think that you end with a lot more questions than you do answers.
Daniel A. Brown