This interview was recorded in August, 2014.
JK:I don't define myself as an artist. I’m a person who does art.
Transfo: Do you identify more with other titles you've held?
I was a therapist. I was a therapist for over 30 years.
But not an artist even though you’ve been making art all of your life?
Calling myself an artist. . .it seems awfully pretentious to me. I'm not comfortable with that description. It’s just something I’ve always done.
I’ll tell you what I used to do. When we'd go out to bars and people would ask me what I did, I’d always lie. They'd say what’s your name and I’d say “Johnny Backstreet”, and then they'd say what do you do? “I'm an unemployed steel worker.” Or my favorite was “freelance mortician”. And the reason I did that was, what they were really asking for was a social resume. But you'll know more about a person just by being around them than you will by asking.
What was the first thing that you imagined yourself being?
My interest as a kid was astronomy. But at a certain point I knew I couldn't be one, because I was so piss poor at math man. I was awful. But I loved astronomy. I loved looking at the stars. Fairly recently I took a class in astronomy. I bought a telescope. I never use it because of the light pollution. In cities the light blocks the stars, you can’t see them. But I just bought it on a whim at a photography store. I always did photography, too. Even in junior high. My mother sent me a little Ansco camera.
My mother, she was always so hard on the weatherman. I mean, if they said it was going to be 65 degrees and it ended up being 67 degrees, she’d be so angry. She’d really go on and on about it. And I’d say “Mom, come on, you can’t predict the weather.” But then years later I found out that she had wanted to be a meteorologist. And she couldn’t be. There were no women meteorologists then, and there were no black meteorologists.
But I always did creative things because it made Jim feel good, you know what I'm saying? I felt like I was responsible for giving myself pleasure. I’ve always made things, drawn little things, and I was just a collector and a saver by nature. You know how you just do something and you're not aware of it until someone points it out?
So when did it get pointed out for you? When did you know that the way you made things and collected things was different?
Well my grandmother would send me these letters of encouragement. She said “you're going to be very good, very successful”. And I think I took some of it to heart. Not all of it. She was a loner. She had some friends but mostly she was always by herself. But she was a great encouragement for me continuing to do to do artful things. And when I did them, I just did them. I never thought about display. I never thought I was going to be an artist.
You never considered being a professional artist?
Well it might have flashed through my mind, but it wasn't a goal for me. It wasn't something I was working towards. I think somewhere in there was the idea that artists don't make much money. Poor assholes.
But to use this vague, indefinable term: It’s in my nature. I don't know. A lot of things, we blame on nature. Like, its human nature for mothers to love their babies. But there’s a lot of mothers who fuck over their babies. So human nature. . . Its human nature to be who you are, whoever that is.
Starting at an early age, I really had low expectations of people. I'm sort of self-reliant. Part of that is being an only kid. I think having low expectations, it allows people to be free. They can be whomever they are and do whatever they want, and it doesn't have to meet my standards. You know what I mean? But it allows me to be who I am too. It allows me to be free.
Do you make a distinction between art-making as an everyday thing and the “art world”?
Well. . .Galleries, museums. They can be real elitist places man. I would go because I liked the art, but I never felt like they wanted me there. I never thought they really encouraged people to go.
I love art made by people, when people get together and make clothes, make pots, paint things in the street. I love Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat. They did some great stuff. And we all think about art and aesthetics. All of us. What we wear, jewelry, the colors we choose. It’s art. We’re all art.
You do art in the context of your life. The things you were exposed to, the things you weren't exposed to. I did a lot of the racial things because of things that had occurred in my life. I did things about the death of my father, my mother. . .I did some things that were dreams and thoughts in my head.
Some people’s art has a theme or some thread that goes through it. Balance is a very important thing in what I do. The rocks, I try to make them so they all balance. And if they're off balance it’s because I want to be a little disturbing. They’re heavy but if you balance them correctly they lose their heaviness. If you arrange them in a way in which they seem to be related they become light, peaceful.
Black is important to me. Black is the color of the earth, the color of the soil from which everything comes. Black contains all the colors. You look up at the night sky and black exposes the beauty of the universe to us. Yet it has been denigrated and put down. It continues to be.
Tell me again about that Rosa Bonheur painting.
Oh the horses? That was in second or third grade. We had this art appreciation course. . .
In second grade? Yeah, right here in Braddock. At Hamilton Elementary School. It’s gone now. I remember looking at this book and there were these huge horses. I can close my eyes and see that picture now. It was so fantastic. It was the greatest thing. It was so powerful. It struck me. You know how you have experiences in your life that sort of surround you? I mean you can't always define what they are. That’s how that picture grabbed me.