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Art, Culture & Unavoidable Spite

Category: Art (page 1 of 8)

Into the Wild with Craig Thornton of Wolvesmouth

Craig Thornton

Craig Thornton (center) supervises a Wolvesmouth dinner.

Originally published as part of MSN.com’s “Fresh Perspectives” series, April 2011

Craig Thornton is passionate about many things. He loves traveling; he loves wild nature; he loves Tom Waits and Joy Division. But all of these things are subservient to his first love: cooking. More precisely, the 29-year-old loves cooking for others—and at his Los Angeles loft, which he calls the Wolvesden, Thornton does just that. Other great chefs may dream of opening restaurants, but through a series of Wolvesden events whose attendance is limited to a dozen people who have signed up online, Craig Thornton hopes to bring back the old-school dinner party.

“I really enjoy having people walk up and talk to me while I’m cooking,” says the chef, whose previous jobs included cooking for Nicolas Cage and at one of Thomas Keller’s prestigious restaurants. “They’re talking about a dish or about somewhere that I need to go try, and I like that exchange more than I enjoy feeding 200 people.  … The whole idea is that you come in, you eat, you leave, and you’re like, ‘What the hell just happened?’”

That question is difficult to answer if one perceives iconic chefs as being lofty restaurateurs or reality show contestants. Thornton approaches a new dish as a painter approaches a fresh canvas; he considers what he wants to say with it, what mood he’d like to infuse it with, what materials he needs to make it perfect, and how it might work in context with the art surrounding it. And if it comes out looking a bit weird, that’s fine.

“When I make a plate, it’s very aggressive-looking,” says Thornton. “I don’t like the idea of everything being perfectly square and symmetrical. My stuff looks more raw, more organic, and more aggressive. … I’m trying to get across a feeling of movement, of energy. When I see perfectly-cut lines on a plate, it makes me think of type.”

Thornton created two dishes for Fresh Perspectives, on the themes of Empowerment and Escape. The Escape dish, which Thornton calls “Rabbit in the Forest,” hints at his love of sitting around a campfire in the woods – “that’s my escape from reality,” he says. But for Empowerment, he played a bit of a trick.

“It looked sweet, but it was savory,” he says. “When I think of the word empower, I think of liberating yourself. Looks can be deceiving; you look at something, and you assume that it is what it is. You assume that it’s going to be yogurt and berries and granola, and then you bite into it and it’s a pickled beet in the shape of a blackberry. Feta cheese was the yogurt; it had more the texture of a whipped yogurt. And the granola was a sweet and salty granola that I made. Underneath that was a beet salad that you couldn’t see at first. The idea behind the dish was that of liberating yourself by actually looking and tasting and really thinking about what’s actually going on before passing judgment. Once you do, that’s when you can empower yourself to move forward.

Moving forward is Craig Thornton’s central preoccupation. He wants to bring Wolvesden dinners to other cities and towns, provided he can maintain the quality of the experience. And more than anything, the chef wants to continue blurring the lines between art, music and cooking – creative mediums that, to his mind, come from the same place and fill the same human need.

“Food is very much how you would view art in a gallery,” says Thornton. “Cooking is a craft, but you can use it to create art as you would anything else, like painting. Everything starts out as a craft. Once you have the idea and express it, that’s when it becomes art.”

EXCERPTS FROM THE MARCH 2011 INTERVIEW

What’s the first thing you remember cooking?

Oh man, I mean I started cooking when I was extremely young, literally when I was 9 or 10. I was asking for cast-iron pans and mixing bowls for Christmas. The first thing I remember cooking was a turkey, pickle and cheese quesadilla that I made for my grandma.

That sounds really good.

At the time, all I knew was I liked the flavors together. But as I got older, now I understand why the flavors would actually work together. But this had to be when I was probably 7 or 8 years old.

How do you perceive flavor? As color? As music? Or something else entirely?

That’s the thing; it really depends on what mindframe I’m in. if I’m out with some friends in a restaurant I’m not necessarily tasting, but more concentrating on having a great time. But when I’m really thinking about what I want to do flavorwise… I went to a Godspeed You Black Emperor show the other night, and as I watched the show I was literally creating a whole dinner concept in my head. I look at literally everything and find to try to find its  connection to food. As far as actual taste goes, I like to think that I perceive taste a little more intensely. I grew up literally on canned government food, so I pick up on off flavors extremely easily. So if I’m making something or I go to a restaurant and there’s an off flavor, I pick it up really easy, because it brings me back to growing up with it.

Like, dehydrated, reconstituted whatever?

Yeah. You’d open up a silver can that has a picture of a pig on it and that’s all that would be on it. But the flavors, you know government cheese, government fruit loops, stuff like that … there’s off flavors with them. Growing up with that, I think I’m perceptive to off flavors immediately. When you’re a kid, that’s when you develop your taste buds as far as things that you like and that you don’t like, and I don’t like off flavors. I can go into a place and I can tell how many times a meat’s been reheated because I can taste it

Why do you do these speakeasy-style dinners? Why not just open a restaurant?

I feel the world is speeding up so fast that most everything seems to be just surface connections . I’m sure you experience it every day; I experience it every day, everyone experiences it. It’s like talking to a person in text message only. The world is becoming very much like a turn ‘n’ burn—you know, where it’s “try and get as much stuff out as possible and just keep moving on” and you don’t really get strong connections with people.

Obviously, I’m working on ways of expanding (Wolvesden), but to me, expanding doesn’t necessarily mean feeding more people. I’m hoping to teach people to be able to do the kind of stuff I’m doing.  I really like the idea of having a smaller group together, where it’s more about the experience as a whole. Food is a very big part of it, but I really enjoy having people walk up and talk to me while I’m cooking. Or when I’m over hanging out after the dinner, they’re talking about a dish, or somewhere that I need to go try. I like those exchange more than I do feeding 200 people. It’s just a deeper kind of connection than just a surface “Hey, how’s it going, oh great, have a good night, see ya.” I want to find out more about people. I’m an extremely curious person. I ask people questions all the time, because I just want to know

Backtracking a bit. What are your musical influences?

I’m a huge fan of Tom Waits. Joy Division. I listen to Philip Glass quite a bit. My musical tastes go all over the place, just like my food does. My top three bands, if I had to name them, would be Tom Waits, Godspeed You Black Emperor, and Joy Division. It’s three completely different styles of music…

But they were all at their best when they went outside conventions, when they strived.

Definitely. Someone like Tom WaitsI love his music, but the thing I like the most about him is that he’s very good at telling stories, just like Bob Dylan was. He has a lot of abstract stuff going on, but at the same time, it all makes sense. But if you just glance over it, you might think, what the hell is this? I really like that kind of surrealism.

Wolvesmouth

And you put it on a plate.

When I make a plate, it’s very aggressive-looking. I don’t do right angles most of the time. When I do, it’s on purpose. I don’t like the idea of everything being perfectly square and symmetrical. I don’t like that organization. My stuff looks more raw, more organic, more aggressive. That’s what I’m trying to get acrossthat feeling of movement, of energy. When I see perfectly-cut lines on a plate, it makes me think of type. That’s just how I see it; obviously, everyone’s not going to see it that way. They want a perfect, consistent portion where everything is exactly 1.5 ounces. I like the idea of everything not being exactly the same.

When people come here to eat, I want them to leave feeling they’ve had a one-of-a-kind experience, and it’s fleeting. They’re here, and then it’s gone, but that experience stays as what it is. That’s why I try not to repeat a ton of dishes. If I do repeat, it’s because I’m trying to refine the dishto find a better way of cooking and serving it. But I also like the idea that every time we do a dinner, they have that experience to share with that group. And that’s the only time they’re going to experience it. The next group has a different experience. I like that idea of going in and it’s all handmade.

I’m really just taking food back 50 years. That’s all I’m doing, regarding the experience. The food itself doesn’t date back to the 1950s, but I guess that the ideal, the connection to where people are sitting around… If you came to a dinner and were just a fly on the wall, you’d see weird stuff happen. People come in here and I can immediately tell who’s more timid and shy and feels lost and doesn’t know what to expect. What’s funny is that, by course three or four, those people are the loudest and having the best time. That’s what I strive for.

What kind of mark do you hope to leave on your profession?

Mostly, I’d like to show people that if you really want to do something—whether it’s cooking, painting, being in a band, being a journalist—you have to sacrifice your time, you have to love what you’re doing and you have to work your ass off.

I didn’t have my early 20s. I literally chose to just cook. Had I waited for someone to get what I was doing, I would still be doing nothing. I would never have progressed. Instead, I figured out what I wanted and I worked toward my goals and I saved up every penny and put it all back into cooking. That’s all I’ve done since my early 20s—I didn’t go partying, didn’t do any of that stuff. Wasn’t even interested in doing any of that stuff. I didn’t take the normal path of working a nine-to-five and partying it up on the weekends. You keep doing that, and then all of a sudden, you’re pissed off about what you’re not doing.

I just kept saving up, kept buying the equipment – and as soon as I felt like I had enough time and  enough equipment to not do it half-assed, that’s when I decided to let loose. To me, that’s a big part of it—leaving mediocrity at the doorstep. If that means that you’re not gonna sleep for 32 hours, then you’re not gonna sleep for 32 hours, and you’re not gonna bitch and cry about it. You’re just gonna do it because you love it so much.

Augustine Kofie Shapes the New

AKofie by urbanartcore.eu

Originally published as part of MSN.com’s “Fresh Perspectives” series, April 2011

If you must give Augustine Kofie something, give him something old. “There’s so much out there, in the past,” says the 37-year-old artist. “We live in an age where there’s so much new technology and new information, but there’s still so much old stuff that’s great, too. That’s my whole life, being a vintage futurist. I love my new stereo, but I also have a reel-to-reel player.”

And even though Kofie owns a computer and has easy access to all the sophisticated illustration tools it offers, when it comes time to draw a circle or square, he reaches for his vintage drafting tools and he uses them to produce otherworldly abstractions like none you’ve seen before. A Kofie piece can be a mass of sharp interlocking forms floating on a background of muted earth tones, with more of the more vibrant colors trapped in soft, rolling shapes … or it can be something else entirely. Kofie’s art has personality enough to change its mood, sometimes while you’re looking right at it. And it does indeed look futuristic while also seeming old, like snapshots of a forgotten World’s Fair.

“I like combining things that don’t seem like they’re supposed to be mixed,” says Kofie. “I’ve been drawing in this style for so long now that I can just kind of go off my head and build something from the ground up.”

Kofie builds his pieces in a variety of settings. More often than not he’s working in his studio, which sits on a hill above L.A. (“it’s really quiet; it’s amazing”), but sometimes you’ll find him plotting his beguiling abstractions on city walls. While not as active in the street art community as he once was, he remains committed to it.

“Street art is just a really tough art form for people to digest sometimes, and I’ve held with it and kept it and I really believe in it,” says Kofie. He’s a bit cagey about his street work – “There’s still a risk factor in doing it out there and I’m well aware of it, the illegal activity of it” – but he does confess to his love of transforming abandoned buildings and drawing the occasional freehand circle on a nice, rectangular wall.

“You have to really balance yourself and have control of your arm; it’s called can control,” says Kofie. “You have to pre-think of everything you’re going to sketch out. People can’t paint like that. I mean, I can because I’m six-foot-two, have a pretty wide arm span, and I’ve paid attention to the fact that my body can be, in essence, a compass.”

For Fresh Perspectives, Kofie was asked to use that human compass to create two pieces on the themes of Empowerment and Escape, both of which resonate through the whole of Kofie’s work and sense of being. “I understand empowerment because I’ve basically empowered myself — I started my own business, I didn’t go to art school, I didn’t go to business school. And because my work is so involved and there are so many layers and so much depth to it, I feel like when I work on the pieces I shut out reality. I’m in my studio, playing music, and I’m just letting my work do what it needs to do. It’s still in the midst of everything, but my studio is an escape for me.”

The way Kofie speaks about his studio, it’s obvious that it’s his second heart. In his studio are paintings waiting to be begun or revised, and of course, a bunch of vintage drafting tools he picked up at estate sales.

“I’m an old soul,” says Augustine Kofie. “I’m inspired by the things that people kind of forget about.”

KeepDrafting.com

Keep Drafting @ Flickr

Keep Drafting @ Vimeo

Official Facebook Page

PHOTO BY URBANARTCORE.EU/CREATIVE COMMONS

From Stephen Powers, With Love

Originally published as part of MSN.com’s “Fresh Perspectives” series, April 2011

Stephen Powers is an escape artist. In “A Love Letter for You,” the New York-based artist and Philadelphia native hasn’t simply created a collection of strikingly beautiful murals to enliven West Philly’s Market Street, but a soulful series of affirmations, commiserations and confessions whose intended purpose is to help you escape from a low place — to help put meaning to those times when meaning is lost. “Forever begins when you say yes,” reads one. “I’ll shape up,” promises another.

“I’ve always had a real fascination with cities, and with the way creative people interact with those spaces,” says the 42-year-old artist. “From the time I was 16, I was interested in being outside and painting in those environments. Graffiti became a way of actively making love to a city, and expressing that love in a way that you can’t do otherwise.”

Before you became a gallery artist, you were a street artist. Did you ever imagine city planners would come to see your work as beneficial?

Yes. Even at 16, 17 years old I thought what I was doing was essentially positive. I thought I was losing my mind, thinking that it would be possible to create work that would ultimately be accepted at the highest levels of at least city government.

Thankfully, it was. What inspired Philadelphia’s “A Love Letter for You?”

The fact that I love Philly. I have very complicated feelings about growing up there, leaving there and eventually coming back. Philadelphia is family to me. And when I say that word, family, I mean to imply all the closeness and distance that family can bring. So, I had the basic components of “Love Letter” in my DNA, and then it was just a matter of connecting with the Mural Arts Program, with the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and then with the people of Philly to find the words. The people gave me the words, gave me the character. But the story arc was there.

The story arc?

I had a friend who’d fathered a baby. He was trying to maintain contact with the mother and with his child, and it wasn’t working out. As a friend, I thought I’d give him something he could work with, and to put something on the table for all these people who are in relationships where they just can’t find the words. I thought it would be an interesting public service project to make the words and put them in a place where people could find them and use them.

Your illustrative style evokes the advertisements and signage of the 1940s and 1950s—it’s really a jukebox of influences.

You’ve hit it on the head. That was the last era when every sign you saw was handmade. … I didn’t mean to be cool and pick the coolest period of American visual noise; I was just picking up where we left off. I haven’t made much progress past that, but I’m starting to.

What’s the greatest compliment “Love Letter” has received?

People telling me that they love the neighborhood again. We’ve had people tell us that they’ve made babies to “Love Letter,” and some marriage proposals have happened because of it.

So, where do you go from an urban love letter? Would you prefer your work end up on a museum wall or a city wall?

They’re great either way. I’ll take the worst neighborhood ever, or I’ll take the best museum you’ve got. They’re about the same to me.

BONUS BEATS FROM THE MARCH 2011 INTERVIEW

What you’re doing … it’s practically a mental health benefit.

There’s no reason all graffiti can’t do that. I think it’s hard for some people because when they see a name, specifically—a name implies ownership, a name implies all these ego issues that people can’t really relate to. But this, just being about love and those hard-to-express feelings … And it’s not all Hallmark card. The feelings run the gamut; there’s a lot of complex highs and lows. The greatest love is the love you have to endure sometimes, the love you have to make work.

Do you begin with the language, or the look?

It’s words first. It’s how the words sound and what they’re saying, but then, it has to work visually. The language we used, “to have and to hold”—who knows how many millennia that’s been around? It’s a beautiful, eloquent and compact phrase that can be stretched to mean many different things. It implies some kind of ownership, but it’s one of the sweetest phrases at the heart of every marriage ceremony. The more you pull it out of its context and think about it, the weirder it gets.

You work really does feel like it’s of another time.

It’s not supposed to be ’50s- or ’60s-centric, but that was the last era when every sign you saw was handmade. The entire visual landscape of America was made by hand. Computers started to come around in the 1960s, and some of the bigger offices and national chains could afford to have computer lettering. I guess computer lettering showed up on a lot of levels just after the war. So when a lot of America that wasn’t operating at the highest level of the economy, everything was handmade. When people say it looks like a certain place and time, that was the last time that the landscape was dominated by that look. Really, this is me picking up the thread that’s been broken. It was cool just to start there.

How do you go about making one of these pieces?

When it’s in public, it all starts with people first, talking. This is a methodology the Pew Arts Program has developed over 25 years of engaging and talking to people. Being in public, it’s part of what you do, anyway. As long as I’ve been painting in public—it’s been 25 years for me, as well—if someone walks up and has a conversation with you… You know, the typical artist values their isolation and doesn’t want to be interrupted, but you don’t have that luxury when you’re painting in the street. You have to engage everybody. And the guy who walks up to you who you give a hard time, or you just blow him off—he could be the guy who shuts down the whole operation. So we spend a lot of time talking to and engaging with people, and when we’ve taken the temperature of what the neighbor is about—because every corner you go to, you spend a little time there, Friday morning or Sunday morning or Saturday night, you’re going to get a wildly different perception of what’s going on. Learning that, and then building a work that meets up with whatever is happening on that corner—that’s really, really good. It gets really powerful that way.

First and Fifteenth

A Love Letter for You

PHOTO BY CONTORTYOURSELF/CREATIVE COMMONS

Celebrity Skin, 1843 Edition: Dolores and Leonilla

Dolores del Rio Mural
PHOTO BY DONNA GRASYON/FLICKR

Whenever I’m in Hollywood, California, I partake in several time-tested rituals. I visit with my friend at the Walt Disney Studios, and stroll pie-eyed around its historic Burbank campus. I get plate-sized flapjacks at the Griddle Cafe, and eat as much of the massive things as possible, which really isn’t that much. And I listen to Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day,” because KROQ hasn’t been listenable for years. I don’t look for celebrities or gawk at landmarks, with the exception of Alfredo de Batuc’s 1990 mural of Dolores Del Rio, located at Hollywood and Hudson. You can’t ask for a better celebrity sighting: the black-and-white Del Rio seems to be walking down the street, looking over her shoulder casual as you please — a citizen of mythological Hollywood passing through modern Hollywood, enveloped in her own glamour. I love her, not just because of what she represents, but because she reminds me of my lover a few miles west at the Getty.

L1000256.jpg
PHOTO BY 17THLETTER PHOTOGRAPHY/FLICKR

German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter painted this portrait of Russian-born Princess Leonilla in 1843. It’s a different kind of portrait for a princess; it is bold, exotic and movie-star chic. This is less a royal portrait than the kind of flirty pinup she might have wanted on her Facebook page. When first I met Leonilla, nearly eleven years ago to the day, I was instantly smitten with her; the rest of my party shrugged and went on to explore the rest of the museum while I stared into the painting as I would an ocean sunset. I actually get bashful when I stand near this painting. Much of my creative work over the last ten years — fiction, photographs, you name it — has been touched by this relatively obscure work. There’s something in that look of hers (a friend once called it “pampered contempt”) that resonates in me.

Yet I never made the connection between Leonilla’s and Del Rio’s Hollywood addresses until now. Just look at them together: Don’t they look like they’re emerging from the same world of the fantastic? Are they not both possessed of the same luminosity? Aren’t they more Hollywood than anyone else living? Or have I had too much coffee today?

I’m sure that there’s a valid artistic explanation why I’m so easily able to draw a line between these two, other than the serpentine line of Sunset Boulevard. (But don’t take Sunset, for chrissakes. Google Maps suggests that you take the 101 to the 405 to avoid the tourist traffic, and they’re probably right). There must be something in their tone, their temperature, their composition that links them together. I’m not smart enough to know what that explanation is. What I do know is that it’s been too long since I’ve visited with either of them, and that I’d like to take the both of them out for pancakes. My treat.

Pretty Little Vignette

books 16x20
PHOTO BY LORIEN GRUCHALLA

I know how ya feel, kid. You been held down so long that “ow” is yer middle name, right between the “d” and the “n.” Yeah, the world ain’t no easy place, and when it ain’t punchin’ ya in the gut, it’s obscuring the sun behind unseasonal cloud cover (what’s up with that)? But you’re a fighter, kid. You been knocked over, but you’re gonna get up with the strength of ten Golems riding on ten Godzillas. (And one of the Golems has, like, a siege howitzer or something. He’s the media-savvy one of the bunch.) On this very day, August 13, you’re gonna pick yerself up, dust yerself off and charge headfirst through the gates of Helle, which is actually a charming day spa in Seattle’s rustic Georgetown neighborhood. And you’re gonna get what you deserve: “Vignette,” a photography show by Lorien Gruchalla. (Full disclosure: She’s my girlfriend. But she’s also a great photographer, more creative than I’ll ever be, and besides, this is my blog, chump.) You’ll step right up to Lorien’s banner-sized images—every one of ‘em the size of a mounted Golem—and you’ll stare ‘em down, because they’re pretty cool looking and you’ll want to look at them for a long time. You’ll eat not but trail mix and and you’ll drink not but spendy beer, and you’ll be the champion of the whole goddamn world! Now get yerself together, get to the Georgetown Art Attack any time between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. tonight, and FIGHT! But, y’know, figuratively speaking. It’s actually going to be pretty chill. Seriously, don’t start a fight.

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