The subconscious and grotesque stick together in the art of Russell Maycumber
Since the early nineties, Russell Maycumber has been documenting his life, travels and interior reality onto three inch, yellow squares. Introduced by the 3M Company in 1980, the Post-it Note is a small square of paper with an adhesive backing – initially introduced as an office-friendly product that could be used to jot down reminders, appointments and upcoming tasks, and then applied to any available flat surface. Yet Maycumber uses these ubiquitous pieces of sticky stationary to create images that explore memoir, humor and the phantasmagoric, creating them systematically, if not compulsively; a kind of hypergraphia barely contained in magic marker and yellow paper. The 44-year-old Maycumber admits to owning “volumes” filled with these images that date back to the early nineties. But rather than having them tucked away on some shelf in his house, the St. Augustine-based artist creates massive installations and sculptures that can contain hundreds upon hundreds of these carefully arranged Post-it Note drawings. Viewed in mass, the small squares can have an overwhelming effect: these images of chimerical creatures, people captured in mundane activities, classic automobiles, flying skulls, sexuality and playful demons seem to exist in a weird realm that splits the difference between the subliminal and the obvious. Some images feature cryptic text, while others offer little help in deciphering the odd, miniature graphic. Maycumber’s work seems to find company in the fever dream-styled imagery of artists like Francisco Goya, Edward Gorey, Max Ernst (especially the surrealist’s pioneering, 1934 collage work “Une Semaine de Bonté ,” translated as “A Week of Kindness”) or even underground comic raunch lord S. Clay Wilson. Yet Maycumber’s concepts and delivery are wholly his own, blasting these images at the viewer in the form of a mob of hundreds of pieces of visual shrapnel, aimed for the bull’s-eye of the viewer’s retina and mind.
While Maycumber might be a lesser known quantity among local art lovers, he has been consistently presented by a few, key area galleries. In March of 2005, St. Augustine’s Screen Arts Gallery (now transformed into space: eight) featured Maycumber’s work. “I consider his work ‘intellectual folk art’ – smart, witty, and original,” says space: eight owner Rob DePiazza. “And I need to credit Russell and Billy Matlock (they painted together in collaboration as ‘Frank Lee’) for talking me into doing a show with them, which then kick started the gallery at Screen Arts. They also introduced me to the Jacksonville art scene.”
Five years later, Maycumber was invited by Jacksonville’s nullspace gallery to present a show. The collective brainchild of artists Mark Creegan, Kurt Polkey and Jefree Shalev, nullspace encouraged artists to look at the downtown-based gallery space as a blank template to imprint their work, thus a “null,” or empty, void space. Maycumber’s show, Pips and Paracosms, The Lost and Found of Paradise, was ostensibly the first display of his Post-it Note Universe structured en mass. “What I like about Russell is his oddball sensibility that seems to come from some dark, mercurial subconscious,” says Creegan. “His imagery is hilarious and his use of the Post-it Notes seems so nonchalant, but they really allow for limitless display possibilities.” Creegan also recalls that Maycumber really took the Nullspace challenge of utilizing the open space to heart. “Jef, Kurt and I knew that Russell was perfect for our gallery. We always wanted each artist to really take over the space and make something unique and dynamic, and Russell really delivered! I loved that he played with narrative in such a way that allowed the viewers to make their own connections and associations. Russell’s show is often cited as our best show by people I meet reminiscing about nullspace.”
And now Maycumber’s ever-growing universe of illustrated squares is about to be broadcast to an even greater audience. The jury for the Highway Gallery, a joint-project between Florida Mining gallery and Clear Channel, has chosen Maycumber as part of this year’s group of artists to be featured on digital billboards throughout Northeast Florida. “I am really proud to have Russell and his work in the gallery through September and on the Clear Channel boards through the summer of 2014,” says artist Steve Williams, who also owns Florida Mining gallery. “I am taken by Russell’s work, both visually and also within the content. I can look at it for hours and still see something different, each time I look. The drawings are inconsistently, consistent – the color and placement and design of what he accomplishes are always from an eye of expert. And the feeling I get when surrounded by his poetic line and sculptural presentations give me a feeling that something important is happening around me. I think from a perspective of being from a long line of Jacksonville people, he is unexpected at times – or is it just what we expect.” Maycumber was also voted Director’s Pick and garnered the audience’s Popular Vote for this year’s series. Maycumber’s piece, “Untanglement,” is currently on display at Florida Mining gallery through September 19. The gallery is located at 5300 Shad Road in Jacksonville. The contact number is (904) 425 -2845.
Maycumber lives in St. Augustine with his wife Beth, a talented writer in her own right, and their 13-year-old son and fellow artist, Russell III (or, “R3,” as we were first introduced). Maycumber currently works for Flagler College’s Department of Art and Design.
I spoke with Russell Maycumber on the evening of Monday, August 5. What follows is a transcription of our conversation, which touched on everything from Maycumber’s experience of being a student during the flagship years at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, to his humorous and peripatetic wanderings, and ultimately his unique vision, approach and creative use of the Post-it Note-as-visual-art medium.
Starehouse: First off congratulations, on being both the Director’s Pick and winning the Popular Vote for this year’s the Highway Gallery series. Have you dusted off all of that confetti yet?
Russell Maycumber: Right, yeah (laughs). No, it’s awesome.
S: How did you get involved with the project? Were you invited or was there a submission process?
R.M.: Yeah, there was [a submission process]. Mostly, I think I was introduced to the whole Florida Mining gallery group through Mark George.
R.M.: And maybe I met Steve [Williams, gallery owner] through Mark. But then I realized that he [Williams] was friends with a lot of friends of mine.
S: That Mark George opens doors!
R.M.: For everybody.
S: He is a key to the lock of the local art scene. So you kind of met Steve and that crew through him.
R.M.: I think so. And then also, Debi Boyette is a friend of Steve’s. And she now lives in Seattle and is running a gallery there. And I lived with her in Atlanta before she moved to Seattle. So I think she was key, as well (…) just by knowing her. And she’s connected to Gillyard, Eric Gillyard, and (…) you know. It’s a good circuit.
S: Yeah, a good circle to be in. So let’s talk about the piece, “Untanglement.” First off, does that title allude to anything specifically?
R.M.: Yeah, I’ve been having a lot of entanglement, as far as Quantum Entanglement (…) as far as I understand, since I’m not Mr. Scientist. But I think that when you get involved with people and things, you start to entangle yourself, no matter what (…) you start to become entangled with certain threads of their reality and you start to tie each other’s realities around one another (…) it’s like spaghetti (laughs). There’s this thing called King Rat. It’s when a bunch of rats become entangled with each other and their tails start to wrap around each other and it becomes a knot of rats (…) which is what I imagine people sometimes doing as well. So there’s an untanglement. How do you untangle yourself from all of this? It’s kind of like (…) I don’t know, I think eventually you learn how to be in the world, but not entangle yourself. Because I realized after a while (…) like now, there’s a friend of mine and I’m helping to restore her home and I’m constantly involved in her family and I really don’t necessarily want to be (laughs). And I have to clarify that these are really great people. But even like, her little girl, I’m in her world, too. I start hearing her music and then pretty soon I come home and I’m listening to her music (laughs). So you get entangled so there must also be a little process of untanglement.
S: I gotcha, kind of like healthy detachment. It’s almost the same idea of a self-help or psychiatric word like enmeshment; and there’s some truth in all of that. So is there a story in there, inside of the piece, with all of those drawings?
R.M.: Not a very specific story. It’s a very non-linear narrative. It’s not a specific narrative about multiple narratives. And none of them finish; there’s no end – because the person describing the narrative, hasn’t “ended.”
S: How large is the actual piece in diameter?
R.M.: It is ten feet in diameter.
S: Do you know, or can you estimate, how many Post-it Notes were used in that piece?
R.M.: Well, we pinned them because they start losing their stickiness. We bought 1700 pins and we have about 500 left.
S: So how long did it take you to complete, from start to finish?
R.M.: It’s probably about six or seven hours of pinning them up. I figure it was fifteen minutes for each drawing (…) 1200 divided by four.
S: I’ll do all of this math later (laughs).
R.M.: It was about 300 hours spent in total, of drawing.
S: Can we totally shift gears and talk about your early days?
S: Now were you born in Jacksonville?
R.M.: I was. I was born at Baptist Hospital.
S: Where did you grow up? Where were your stomping grounds?
R.M.: Murray Hill. I grew up on Glen Laura Road. My mom had that house built as she was living on Lamboll [Avenue], which was a house my grandfather had helped build, when he was living on, I think, Headley Street. And his grandmother and her people had come from Cassat Avenue. My grandmother was from White Springs and my grandfather grew up on a dairy farm in Callahan. So they slowly moved forward from the country, as the work dried up in the surrounding areas.
S: So when you were a kid, where you like drawing as you left the womb? I always make these presumptions, because you and I are from the same generation, and it seems like things like comic books and Star Wars became inspirations (…) but that’s not always the case. Can you remember how you got into creating art?
R.M.: I do specifically remember. In first grade, at Ruth Upson [Elementary School] in Murray Hill, the teacher (…) it was kind of a bad policy (…) she was trying to show how kindergartners could draw better than the first graders.
S: Oh really? That’s an encouraging teaching method (laughs).
R.M.: And mine was one of the drawings (laughs) she picked as an example. “Look, these kindergartners can draw better than you.”
S: So your art was born as an act of defiance at age six: “I’ll show her!”
R.M.: Yeah. And then in second grade, I was like Paul Revere and my friend was another patriot, I forget who it was, so that’s where I guess we though “fuck this system!” (…) I don’t know (laughs).
S: That’s weird about the teacher. I had kind of a similar thing where my third grade teacher would not let me draw in class. She even tore up my drawings in front of the class as a warning. So when I was like, 36, I finally let that resentment go.
S: I want to talk about this. You are, I think, the first locally-based artist I’ve interviewed for this blog who was a student at [Jacksonville-based public arts high school] Douglas Anderson School of the Arts [D.A.]. Were you enrolled in the first year  of the school’s opening?
R.M.: Yes, the charter class.
S: And you were in the first graduating class as well?
S: So what was that experience like? At the time, was it fairly “free-for-all” in the sense that they were trying to get their program together?
R.M.: Yeah, I think so because even within the second year they switched principals. So it was kind of a big thing. We were going to actually stage a protest (laughs) and have a “walk out” kind of thing. But then the newer principal, who is still there [Jackie Cornelius], turned out to be really awesome. But I think it was an interesting time since all of the nerds met; all of the drawing nerds finally met and suddenly we were somebody. We came from respective schools and were we all a bunch of nobodies. But suddenly we were in this kind of meritocracy. Suddenly if you had talent you were somebody. And that was a big deal.
S: And it [D.A.] has had such a pulsar effect on the city. I guess I was 13 when they started up and it was strongly suggested by a few of my teachers that I actually try to go to that school. But I guess I thought I’d lose my cool credibility of being a lonely, chubby kid who constantly drew pictures in the library. So I didn’t go (laughs). And then I eventually met all of the Douglas Anderson kids anyway (…) hindsight’s 20/20. So I imagine that unlike your first grade teacher, they only encouraged and fortified your talents. Did you have a particular field of study that you were focusing on?
R.M.: I didn’t really (…) because they also offered Drama and when I graduated, people thought that I was a Drama Major. Because that was one of the other electives that I took (…) I just enrolled in that to kind of “fill up my card” kind of thing.
S: So were you like a “theatre kid,” too?
R.M.: Yeah, pretty much. And then (…) but not necessarily since there were definitely students who were way more devoted to theatre. There were a couple kids who were already acting at The Five Points Theatre [now Sun-Ray Cinema] (…) you know, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was going on (laughs).
R.M.: And I never got that involved. But at that time at the school, no one really knew where to put you to fill out your electives.
S: Now were you still focused on illustration?
R.M.: Yeah, yeah, definitely. There was a guy that I met there (…) and I don’t know why his mom put him in there. He was just exceptional; his name was John Mylan. He was just (…) it’s weird, (lowers voice in a conspiratorial manner) you grow up and some of your friends suddenly become these Super Christian People (…) and you think, “What the hell happened?” (…) I don’t necessarily challenge (…) a lot of our friends knew John, but he was a major influence on me. This guy just had a super style when he was nineteen.
S: Do you mean as far as talent and artistic charisma, or he just emanated some attractive vibes?
R.M.: I’d look at his drawings back then and even now I think, “Who was this guy?” He was just that person who, at that age, already had their style down. I don’t know if you had ever met somebody like that when you were younger.
S: I know what you mean. They somehow magically direct you to the right band, or the right book or artist at that one juncture when you needed that experience. And then sometimes they just move on but you’re still changed by that relationship, or just the moment.
R.M.: Yeah. And he was the kid (…) later I had heard that his mom let him smoke weed when he was eight years old (laughs). You know? And he came from Hawaii…
S: Only eight (laughs)? What a lightweight.
R.M.: (laughs) After knowing him I often wondered – what is it about Hawaii? Was it in the lava rock? But he was so influential and encouraging to me. When I first saw him at school, he was in a sculpture class and he was like this tough-looking skinhead with a leather jacket, wearing all of this crazy jewelry. And then we met in the hallway and he was like (in a high-pitched, ‘Mickey Mouse’-like voice) “Hey! Hi! How are you?” (laughs). But that school’s environment kind of pulled in all of this talent that was around at that time. And then when I graduated, I just assumed that everyone came from that environment. If I was to look at it from a legislator’s point of view, that school was money well spent.
S: So after high school, did you pursue college or did you just kind of knock around?
R.M.: I didn’t really anticipate going to college, because my family didn’t really have a whole lot of money. I was offered a scholarship to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) but it just never happened. So the day I after I graduated I moved down to Miami with my family. I was living with a friend. I was sleeping on his floor, to go to D.A., because my family lived in Tampa. So I moved in with my friend Cary Whittier and his family.
S: Cary’s a photographer, right?
R.M.: Yep. That’s him. He and his family lived over in Murray Hill. Our grandfathers grew up together, hunting alligator and all kinds of crazy adventures.
S: Parallel families.
R.M.: Exactly. And his family was totally cool and welcoming. I was there for like a year and a half.
S: So the SCAD thing didn’t happen. Did you try to check out other schools?
R.M.: You know, at the time, everybody thought college was bullshit. I thought, “Well, fuck this, I’m just going to go straight to my career.” Well, I should say at least the people that I was around. There were a couple of people like Ash Brannon, he was in my graduating class at D.A., who went on to Cal Arts and then he went on to become animating director for “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2.” He was one of the few people I knew who went straight through college from our graduating class. But at the time it seemed like college was a joke or scam. So the day after I graduated, my parents were in Miami so I went down there and over that summer (…) as soon as it was time to register for classes, my Mom told me, “Alright, go register for community college because you’re not just sitting around here.” So I enrolled and went for a semester and then I moved to California with my family. And I ended up staying there in L.A. for like five years.
S: So you’re in your early twenties at this point?
S: So what did you do while you were in Southern California?
R.M.: I met a girl from Florida who was moving out there and she was heavily into theatre and acting. So I would do like, um, I think it’s called “Cast X” (…) it was just a weird movie thing where you would do whatever you could to get by, work as an extra, whatever (…) I think “Cast X” was non-union. But once you can get in, I did like “Jurassic Park”…
S: I spoke to you before about this, but weren’t you working on some of the special effects things? I thought you had told me that at one time.
R.M.: Probably the closest I came to effects was I sculpted toys, like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Gremlins,” and it was right when that miniature figures, mini-figs, was big business. It was pretty crazy, the business. I remember my boss showing me his gold watch that Playmates [Toy Company] had sent him. “Thanks for kicking ass with record sales.”
S: So you’re there for five years. Didn’t you eventually wind up in New York for a time?
R.M.: Yeah, I actually tried to move to Houston with my parents. Because I didn’t know what in the hell I was doing at that point. I totally ditched the toy job so I didn’t have to commute. I really hated driving in a car in L.A. I was really trying to simplify my experience. So I started riding a bicycle to a recycling job (…) it just started breaking down. “Why am I here?” I had friends coming out to visit all of the time and the person I was dating at the time (…) we were just heading in different directions. So I went to Texas and ended up in Houston. I spent a little time with my parents there and then I moved to Austin, which was a really great, weird, fertile ground for everything (…) music, art, whatever…
S: So what year is this?
R.M.: This was around 1994 and ’95.
S: So during this time, even though you had been around the film industry/toy company thing, were you still illustrating and creating your own work?
R.M.: Yeah, I tried to get into Cal Arts. I applied there and I didn’t make it so I figured “Fuck it (…) maybe this isn’t for me, maybe I shouldn’t pursue this.” And I just couldn’t concentrate enough to get past an Associate Degree.
S: I understand completely. I was too mentally agitated to really get a college degree.
R.M.: It seemed like it was different for the people I knew. All of these guys I knew who went to New York, like Cary and Lysergic Garage Party [nineties Jacksonville- bred psych rockers, now known as Dead Stars] were like, “Fuck let’s just try this and do what we want to do.” It was kind of weird, because why did we assume (laughs) that we could just step into that kind of level?
S: So did you go from Texas to New York?
R.M.: Yeah, in a roundabout way (laughs). I was living with my parents and then I moved to Austin with my friends. During all of those years, I rode the Greyhound Bus a lot (…) I don’t remember, I think I hitchhiked (…) I was really fed up and didn’t know what I was doing, so I went to the Drive Board at University of Texas (…) you know, you can catch a ride with someone. I guess they still have the Drive Board system in place (laughs). This girl with dreadlocks was there. And I asked her, “Where are you going?” and she said “I’m going north. Do you have a car?”(…) “No, I don’t” (laughs) because I had been totally broke but I had just done a drug study and I had like $800 in my pocket.
S: Oh really? Like experimental drugs – that kind of thing? You were a human lab rat?
R.M.: Yep – Pharmaceutical studies.
S: What was the study might I ask?
R.M.: Yeah, the most recent one I had done was for a schizophrenia drug. And it turns out that I got the placebo, because certain people who got the actual drug (…) because I did a later study for schizophrenia and I must have gotten the drug because I did not last, it just completely freaked me out.
S: Did you undergo these studies due to a personal history of mental illness or just for the cash?
R.M.: No you just sign up. I didn’t even know what kind of study they were going to do.
S: In hindsight, would you suggest that young, struggling artists sign up for schizophrenic drug research studies (laughs)?
R.M.: Yeah, right (laughs)! It’s money. It was a $100 a day, man! Back then, how could you make $100 a day?
S: That still sounds like a pretty good deal today. So did you and the dreadlocked woman somehow join forces and hit the road?
R.M.: We did. We made it as far as Utah. But she dumped me. It’s actually cheaper to travel as a couple but she told me it would be easier to travel as a “single woman” so she “could do her thing.” So she took off. I think we were actually in Montana when she left and then I got picked up by some Green Beret dude who just wanted company. So we talked all the way to Utah (…) and the next ride was from a woman I met who worked at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and she dropped me off in Twin Falls, Idaho. And then the next ride I got was these two hippies that took me to Vancouver. And I wound up at a Rainbow Gathering and I met some ladies there (…) and then I ended up in Europe after meeting them.
S: This was with one of the Rainbow Gathering people?
S: I didn’t know you had these hippie roots.
S: Did you at least survive the drum circle-induced dysentery outbreak as a souvenir?
R.M.: Yeah, (laughs) right. The first or second night I was there at the Rainbow Gathering, this veteran from Desert Storm gave me his coat. And I had already shaved my head, so I had a bald head and was wearing these combat fatigues.
S: And a central nervous system full of experimental schizophrenic drugs.
R.M.: (laughs) And I’m in the middle of this hippie gathering.
S: It was like the film “Born on the Fourth of July.” Did they all gather around you and hold you aloft to the sun?
S: So you were just in a state of constant motion, somewhat funded by drug research. I should just put a giant map on this blog post (laughs) with a little Russell Maycumber traveling around, like young Billy in “Family Circus.”
R.M.: (laughs) I ended up in Germany and then came back to Florida. And then I wound up in Jupiter and a friend drove me back to Jacksonville. And then I heard about this thing in Andersonville [Georgia] where you can be a Civil War extra (…) and I had grown out my beard by then, so I looked like the perfect Civil War-era prisoner of war. So I ended up in Andersonville with this Canadian woman (laughs).
S: As re-enactors? How long did this go on? How many battles did you endure?
R.M.: I think about a week, maybe a month? We made pretty good money. Those guys from Lysergic Garage Party were all on the set. It was kind of a big Jacksonville faction all living up there, re-enacting The Civil War (laughs).
S: So for the sake of this winding, confusing chronology, what year was this?
R.M.: (yells to wife Beth) “Beth, what year was Andersonville?”
S: (laughs) “What year were we in the war?”
R.M.: (Laughs) apparently, we were in the troop of ’94.
S: Oh, it that was a cold, ruthless winter in Andersonville. Alright, after the war ended in ’94, you headed north.
R.M.: Well, I think I wound up back in Houston. And all of my friends from Jacksonville had moved to New York by then. So I’m in Texas kind of fizzling out not knowing what I was doing.
S: You were admittedly running out of bohemian-derelict options at this point in your life. You had tapped the well.
R.M.: Totally. I was gathering Marlboro Miles on my bicycle (laughs). So I decided that if I went up there for a month, maybe my luck would change. So I moved to New York and that’s where I met Beth.
S: That’s where you met Beth. Where is she originally from?
R.M.: She was born in New Jersey and moved to Jacksonville when she was eight.
S: But you met in NYC?
R.M.: She had moved up there with Cary, Angela Marsh and all of the Lysergic guys and she wound up working her ass off. And I stayed with Cary and slept on the floor, I think he charged me like $70 a month.
S: What were you doing there for money? I’m almost afraid to ask.
R.M.: I found a job delivering sandwiches on a bicycle, riding in the middle of Manhattan traffic. And then I wound up working at a bar where everyone was working at, The Ginger Man, doing bar-back kind of stuff.
S: So were you checking out contemporary art there at all or just kind of bopping around?
R.M.: Totally. It was like a dream. I’d been up there before in 1989 to visit my sister and that was kind of during the tail-end of the whole SoHo scene and you could kind of feel it. I think Basquiat had just died the year before. But there was still like smoke in the air where all of that art had exploded.
S: So now you and Beth meet, love is in the air (…) did you get married up there?
R.M.: We had been dating for like six months (asks Beth, “How long had we been dating? Three months?”) She was pregnant in like three months.
S: That’s one of the ultimate side effects of sex.
R.M.: (laughs) Yeah (…) Beth is also very creative and a total bohemian woman. So we thought, “We don’t necessarily have to get married.” But after a month or two of being in New York, we had gone on a road trip and not necessarily returned to the city. We had gone to Boone, North Carolina and lived there for a little bit and then we moved to Atlanta. So by this time we were living in Atlanta, and she was trying to get a job and she realized that she was pregnant. I was like, “We have got to make this work.” I was working as a furniture restorer, a wacky little job right in Five Points in Atlanta. We were living in Cabbagetown and just trying to figure out how we were going to manage (laughs) having a family.
S: So did that kind of end your wandering ways?
R.M.: Yeah, pretty quick (laughs). And it also solidified our relationship. But you know who I also met in Atlanta, was Eric Gillyard and Debi Boyette. And Eric also now has a kid. But at the time they were dating. But I can remember Eric working at Mellow Mushroom for eight hours and then coming home and painting all night. And it was like, “Holy fuck (laughs) how can this be?”
S: So he was like a direct example; “I need to get back to this.”
R.M.: Exactly. You know, nobody in my life at that point was so serious about art. It was survival up to that point. And Eric was that person (…) even to this day. Like now, Brianna Angelakis (…) she’s got that same drive. Eric had that. He would just come home from his job and work. He was very serious; he and Ryan Coleman. It was really good for me to be around these people that were working on their art. And I think that they are also both D.A. grads.
S: Yeah, I know that Eric is. I had the chance to interview Eric for Folio Weekly. When I went to his home, I was really impressed that he worked a fulltime job and was a brand new dad, but it was apparent that he had maintained this meticulous work ethic.
R.M.: He still does.
S: So I gotta get to the epiphany of working with the Post-it Notes. When did that happen?
R.M.: When I lived in L.A., I was drawing on Post-its, but I didn’t think it was legitimate. I didn’t accept the legitimacy of what I saw as my idiosyncratic language. I was building the language at the time, but I didn’t realize it. I didn’t think it was legitimate because it wasn’t on a painting (…) I mean, even other artists would say, “Yeah, I’ve seen you make these little drawings, but I never thought you could paint.” I guess that is what they had conditioned themselves to see as my work. I came back to St. Augustine. We had our kid and I was doing day labor. I had been doing day labor in Boone and came here and did the same thing. I guess for the sake of just attention deficit with work, period. Like I couldn’t wake up and go to the same job every day. It would kill me. So I decided that day labor was for me, I could either go in or not (…) I enjoyed the autonomy (laughs) of it. And eventually, I kept creating so many drawings that I decided I had to do something else. So I applied to Flagler. And then while I was working on my BFA, I hooked up with [painter] Billy Matlock and started working with him. He was good friends with Rob DePiazza and Rob had a painting in the lobby of his business for like eight months (…) and Billy proposed that we have a show in the front of the business. So Rob agreed (…) and I seriously think that was kind of the first show of what has now become the space: eight gallery.
S: So did Matlock also encourage you to take another crack at art school?
R.M.: Totally. They day we moved into our house in St. Augustine from Boone (…) it was too fucking cold in Boone; I would have to dig out all of this snow just to go to my day labor job (…) and right next door was Billy Matlock. This was pre-hipster, but he was just a cool guy. So one day I’m painting on my porch and he’s painting and our windows are facing each other. It was kind of ridiculous (laughs). So he came over and said, “I’m painting over there, you’re painting over here … what’s up?” So we ended up becoming friends and painting in his studio. And we ended up doing shows at Energy Lab and DePiazza’s Screen Arts Gallery. And there might have been two or three restaurants that we could show work at. So Matlock was really the guy pushing me to do shows and at the time I would say, “Well, I’m just trying to build a body of work.” But I realized that I couldn’t do day labor forever so I applied to the school.
S: Did you complete that degree? Did you get your BFA?
R.M.: I did. I got my BFA. I had gone through the whole rigmarole…
S: What was your main focus? Illustration?
R.M.: I started out in Graphic Design because I had a kid and I knew I had to make some money. And then, surely enough, just sitting around the art building I thought, “Man, who am I kidding? I can’t do this.” I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer so I switched my major into the fine art program. So I brought in all of these things I had been working on for years, all of these Post-it Notes (laughs). I had these books of Post-it Note art from 1994, maybe even earlier that I had kept. And they were just sitting on my shelf. And I was still making more. So I brought them into class and my professor, Patrick Moser, just told me “This is what you are doing and what you should be doing.”
S: So when did you finally graduate?
S: But you had been generating this huge body of Post-it Notes this entire time. So were you really just more or less uncertain, in the sense of “Am I just doodling or is that actually fine art?”
R.M.: Right. Even to this day, I still wonder that. There’s only a certain amount of people who will understand and think that this is legitimate. I think there was somebody working at the Florida Mining gallery and one of the words he used to describe it was “doodles,” you know? And I don’t mind that – because on some level it is. But at the same time I think that there is a level of legitimacy to what I am doing as well.
S: Well, you know while I was writing out these questions, I came across the information that Post-it Notes had once invited artists to create art on their product, and four artists also somehow incorporated Post-it Notes in their work: Paola Antonelli, Rebecca Murtaugh, Ardan Özmenoglu – by the way, I’m not making some of these names up (laughs) because they all have great names – and R.B. Kitaj (…) but they really only used Post-its in the past five or half dozen years (…) so one could argue that Russell Maycumber is really the pioneering Post-it Note artist.
R.M.: (laughs) Right, thanks.
S: When you do each drawing, do you think of a concept first? Because each individual Post-it is titled, right?
S: Is that title an afterthought? Do you do these in a way that is based on free-association?
R.M.: You know, I was thinking about this after you asked me to do an interview, it is so much like music. Every time I try to describe what I am doing: it’s like improv. It’s total improv. And kind of weird because I am from a generation where it was uncool to do a guitar solo. Until someone came along and started playing guitar solos. You know what I mean?
S: Absolutely. It’s in the same way that J. Mascis was so radical with Dinosaur, Jr. since he dared to bring back the guitar solo. And it turned out that some people wanted to hear a guitar solo!
R.M.: (Laughs) Exactly. A lot of comic artists will “pre-draw” something in blue pencil and then add the ink. But I feel like if I do that I take the energy out of it. Sometimes I will build up a drawing if a friend wants me to draw a logo or something like that. But it is total improv. Every time I sit down I don’t know what I am going to do and I think that is an integral part of the experience. So every Post-it is like an impulse.
S: Looking at your work, some of the images are obviously humorous and fun but I think a lot of them lean towards the grotesque. Two of my favorite definitions of grotesque, which I had to look up in my trusty, cheaper version of the Oxford English Dictionary, read as follows: 1. comically or repulsively ugly or distorted and 2. shockingly incongruous or inappropriate. And it seems like those could all be slapped right onto your future artist statement.
S: So all of that being said, even though you acknowledged that it has this subconscious and spontaneous inception, did your work begin with that sensibility? Just letting the weirdness run free?
R.M.: When I was growing up, one of the first things I ever drew was the guy from Cracked [magazine mascot Sylvester P. Smythe]. I had read comic books but it’s like my friend John Myland from high school, he brought all of these underground comics from Hawaii and when I saw those I was just like, “Gee, that is repulsive!” (laughs) because I was seriously like this Jacksonville, Baptist kid. “This is the devil’s work.” I seriously believed that for a while. But I think that the drawing is a way for me to mitigate my experience with things like sexuality and, uh, just body hair (laughs) just the grotesqueness of being human.
S: It’s weird because I did some research on classical grotesqueries and they really were first implemented in the churches, with gargoyles and weird little archetypes, where they were these strange filigrees that reconciled divinity and just bizarre shit. But they seemed to always tuck them away into these corners (…) they were usually small renderings. And your work kind of follows that in the sense that it is also based on miniature ideas, but you use them in a mass scale. I really first saw your work firsthand when you had your show at nullspace. And I thought of two artists in particular: Raymond Pettibon and Gary Panter. And I think I saw some of the similarities in the line quality as much as the ideas.
R.M.: You know, after I had that show, I was friends with Panter on Facebook and I actually wrote him a thank you message for making that possible. Just trying to be unfinished and immediate, that was akin to his style. It didn’t really happen before him in illustrative art. The whole RAW comic was just radical.
S: In your work, I also see these weird corollaries with Alchemy woodcuts, where they had truly juxtaposed things, ideas that shouldn’t be in the same place (…) the moon has a face, the sun has arms. Like I think your drawing “Ren,” has a sense of this. It’s almost visual ideas we take for granted now and things that have kind of infiltrated common graphic design. But those Alchemical images were ultimately codes for these mystical messages. I guess I’m just wondering if overtime you might have realized more overt influences of what you are creating.
R.M.: Over time, I started looking at people or things I could be influenced by. In L.A., I did take a Far Eastern history class. But then I discovered Masami Teraoka, a Hawaiian artist who was doing contemporary themes, in the style of a woodcut, but he did this with watercolors. And seeing his work made me go back even further. And the Japanese had made these prints as a way to sever their ties, Buddhism-wise, with China. They were making fun of the monks: monks were drawn as monkeys and frogs, and “look how absurd this is,” “it’s absurd to have a tradition.” And I thought that was awesome. Teraoka was on the cover of L.A. Weekly. And I saw a pretty big Robert Williams show when I was out there, when they were really kind of pinning down that “lowbrow” deal. He had the show in this tiny, little gallery called The Soap Plant on Melrose, and the same people had the La Luz de Jesus Gallery.
S: It’s interesting to me that you draw these Post-it Notes, these small images, but you in turn create these large pieces and installations with them. Like, “Untanglement” is a giant wheel of small images. You create a mass of these images. What do you think draws you to that approach?
R.M.: I think maybe just because it’s a way to display multiple instances. I mean, I could display just one Post-it. But as I’m speaking, I know there are 1200 or more in that gallery right now. And I’m looking in my kitchen and there’s another 1200 or more. (In the background, Beth can be heard saying “And there are 40 on the floor!”) Yeah, there are 40 here in front of me (laughing); they’re in the living room. So it just can’t be (…) one Post-it. I feel like I’m kind of being genuine with one. It’s kind of about scale and if I am offered a space, I want to fill that space. I also think too, it’s like the act of reading. If you read a book, it’s maybe eight inches tall and six inches wide but it’s actually so big – it takes up your life for a week or a month. When I see people looking at a big sculpture of all of these Post-its, they seem engaged. And I think that it’s really one of the most beautiful things about that experience for me, in watching people “read” the work. It’s visual, but they seem to read.
S: It isn’t like an abstract of one color. Your work almost requires the viewer to lean in and investigate it. I want to talk about some of your prior shows. In 2005, as you had mentioned earlier, you had a show at Rob DePiazza’s Screen Arts gallery. What was that like? Was it an installation or separate pieces?
R.M.: (Asks Beth, “Do you remember Screen Arts? … confers with Beth)
S: Beth is like your actual memory (laughs). Just put her on the phone, man.
R.M.: (laughs) That show was more like paintings. (Confirms this with Beth, “Those were paintings, right? “Yes,” explains Beth). Screen Arts was paintings. They were mostly house paint on canvases that I built on bed frames. I’m looking at one now and I think even the canvas on this one was an old bed sheet. We had a newborn. I think Russell was like two or three. And there was not a dime. We seriously couldn’t spare any money for anything except sustenance. I did up end up selling a painting to a friend of Rob’s down the street, who usually come to his shows.
S: And in September of 2010 at nullspace, you had the show titled Pips and Paracosms, The Lost and Found of Paradise. What was the impetus behind that show? It does have a title, so was there a theme to that?
R.M.: Yeah, I think (…) and it’s still going on (…) and it might be an overly psychological examination of my deal. Because I am trying to figure out, why am I (…) why do I (…) it’s kind of a Tourette’s. I’ve been trying to understand Tourette syndrome.
S: Just as far as why you compulsively do this thing with Post-it Notes?
S: Have you ever contacted (Post-it Note manufacturer) 3M about an endorsement deal?
R.M.: I actually did write an e-mail once (laughs) but nothing ever happened. But the thing is, the Post-it was really accidental and it’s still the cheapest material that I could get. And still, to this day, people give me Post-its. Every Christmas I get Post-its. I haven’t bought a pack of Post-it Notes in years.
S: Self-fulfilling prophecy.
R.M.: Yeah. And now I’m at a point, and actually after reading your article about JU’s MFA program, it seems like they are emphasizing people who are in transition with their practice. That’s kind of where I’m at.
S: Are you considering maybe pursuing an MFA?
R.M.: I totally am. Because all of my colleagues at Flagler are like, “Dude, get your post-graduate degree and you can teach here.” They want me to teach here, but actually I’m totally happy with what I am doing here. But it would be nice to have another degree.
S: You’re still working at the school, right?
R.M.: Yeah, this is my fourth year.
S: Your official title is “Wood Shop Assistant” but what does that entail? Are you generally working with sculpture students?
R.M.: Yeah, I work with a variety of students including graphic design. It’s kind of a resource for even like the Marine Biology students; I was building oyster beds for them. But mostly it is the sculpture and metalwork students. And then the painting students, I’m always helping them learn to stretch canvases. And then I’ve got students that just want to come down and talk. I’m kind of the liminal person. I’m always there, eight hours a day. I end up getting some students who just want to come down to the wood shop (laughs) and talk with me. So it’s kind of weird, because I’ve been through the program, and I do believe (…) there’s a certain amount of faith that an art career or an art direction, takes. You have to believe that this is worth a shit. And those seem like the people, the students, who end up in my workshop. Because I still do believe that this is a valid way to be.
S: In April 2012, you were also featured in a show at Launch F18 in Manhattan. What did you feature at that show?
R.M.: Yeah, with site95 (visual arts site and publication).
S: And Beth writes for that as well, right?
R.M.: She does; she edits the interviews.
S: So did that show feature more installation-type work?
R.M.: Yeah, I did a wall. I’ve also been painting on bottles and doing more wood sculpture.
S: You’re a part of a family of artists and creative types. Beth is a writer and your son Russell had his first show when he was five. How does all of this energy affect the Maycumber household? Do you wander off into your respective studio caves?
R.M.: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty good description. I had met this guy in northern California. He was my friend’s neighbor; he was an art teacher in California. And this guy had developed Squaw Valley. And this guy could afford to have a house built by (…) who is the guy that built “Falling Water”?
S: Frank Lloyd Wright.
R.M.: Yeah. So he had this really incredible house. It was this really weird neighborhood on the side of a hill. And across the valley was a dentist who lived in a teepee. And he would play classical piano out of his teepee every night. It was a weird little zone. And this teacher had told me, “If you marry someone, marry someone who is creative. Because they will understand you” And sure enough, there are moments when all three of us really appreciate this space we have and respect that that we all have our own creative times. And I think that it’s an important thing to realize that we have this kind of creative space going. And you know I’ve got Post-it Notes all over the walls (laughs) so if they can put up with that…
Daniel A. Brown