May 23, 2009

You're On Earth. There's No Cure For That.

An Interview with American Painter Ross Bleckner
Part 1 of 2 (link to Part 2)
click on any image to enlarge it to original size

I first read about Ross Bleckner’s appointment as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in the New York Times some days ago. Just as I was to later find out about Ross, I consider myself somewhat of a news junkie – noting that this news resonated within me for a number of reasons, as you’ll see. As the NYT article indicated:
‘Earlier this year Mr. Bleckner, whose mostly abstract work came to prominence in the 1980s and who has long been involved in AIDS-related causes, went on an official mission to the Gulu district of northern Uganda. Gulu has been terrorized for many years by the rebel force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has abducted and conscripted thousands of children, forcing boys and girls to become killers and sex slaves.’

Now this is obviously an enormous statement in itself. However, if you add to that that Ross is in his own words anything but a celebrity – despite many considering him to be one of the pre-eminent modern American painters working (and subsequently, living) today – then it becomes all the more impressive to put this side of his work into perspective. I was pleased then to get a chance to interview Ross not only about his art, which many others more versed in the vernacular of various ‘isms’ have done before me, but also about the effect that this endeavour – and others before them in terms of his philanthropic work for AIDS causes and more – is having on both the people he seeks to help, as well as he himself and his art. I would also add that I was more than pleased to hear Ross’s much happier than expected sounding voice (his thoughts at least can seem a bit intense to some [read on]), rich, easy-flowing laughter and faithful Long Island accent. The following interview is then taken from our conversation:

Ross, I have to ask this because I found such a wonderful picture of you waiting outside before your Bar Mitzvah: how did a nice Jewish boy from Long Island get into art?
Ha! That’s very funny. Well, number 1: I got into art because a lot of nice young Jewish boys become artists! In terms of being from Long Island, well, there, too, it’s just a route some people from there take. It’s like how did Donna Karan of DKNY fame – who grew up in the same town as me – become a famous fashion designer? There are people from everywhere that have an inner light for whatever reason when they were young, that kind of develops over time. And then they become what they are!

Was art always something you were interested in when you were younger?
No, art was something I did not do through my youth. I had more of an interest in being in my own room. You know, making little drawings or playing in one way or another on my own, that’s how it really developed. Maybe it’s the idea that you feel maybe even a little bit marginal, a little bit outside, a little not like the other kids. That’s where these things really start.

But you know, how does someone become interested in anything really? Again, it’s like that phase when you play around in your room, just by yourself. It’s like the playfulness becomes the thing that makes you happy. And in my case, maybe it was something as simple as my mother liked making paintings, even though my family was not artistic. But as I watched her make her little paintings, well, it looked to me like it made her very happy. So that stuck with me.

What ultimately inspired you to become an artist?
Kids have certain gravitational pulls, it’s just the way kids grow up. Some kids are pulled more towards sports, some kids more towards math, some kids more towards creativity in any artistic way. Me? Well, I definitely gravitated away from sports and I was bad in math. That was just the way I developed.

I really basically think a lot of that stuff has to do with how your mind is wired. It’s about things you understand, things you don’t understand. Things you feel like you do more comfortably. And if you’re not good at sports and not good at math, well, what’s left?

Was there a particular ‘wow’ moment for you when you realized that you were good at art and could then potentially do it for a living?
Yes, there was actually, there was a ‘wow’ moment for me as you call it in college. I think it’s because, well, there’s a phase that comes after you take art classes and you feel the encouragement of your art teacher. Or you’re the high school artist and you’re good at it in high school, and then you get accepted to college, where I went to New York University. And when you’re there you think, now is the time to get serious, one way or another.

It was then I thought, ‘I don’t have to make a living doing this like my father or like father would want me to do’, noting my father was a very successful business man. For me, it was a question then of what kind of independent life are you going to lead? So the ‘wow’ moment was really when I said ‘I want to do this!’ That happened when I was like 20 and I realized that painting was not just a hobby. This ‘thing’ that I would do on my own all the time in my room – which I never really thought would be viable as a living – well, I started to think ‘what does it matter if it’s viable or not?’

That path is only do-able with the clarity of understanding at any age who you want to be – and yes, it’s great if that happens at a young age. And the only way you can do that is by making a decision and then saying to yourself ‘... and I will accept the consequences.’ So I asked myself what would be the consequences of being an artist? Well, I thought if the consequences of being an artist was that I couldn’t make a living, the worst that could happen to me would be I’d be homeless and broke. Yet I knew I’d never let myself get to that point, I’d always figure out something to do. But I wanted to be happy.

You see, success at that point in your life has to be measured individually, it can’t be measured in terms of being in business or making money. It’s measured by personal fulfilment. And my personal fulfilment, I realized, was to be an artist ... no matter what happened! That’s how you choose a path, you have to think that no matter what happens, something will happen! I knew I wasn’t going to be on the street, I mean, I wasn’t a moron! At the same time, I wasn’t looking to be rich either, I was just looking to do what I needed to do. You know, inside.

Overall, I really think that the ‘wow’ moment occurs between that time when you’re becoming an artist and being an artist. It’s when you suddenly find yourself saying ‘well, now I am an artist! And whatever happens, happens!’

Were you ever drawn to other avenues of the arts or even other ways of expressing your artistic tendencies besides painting?
Actually, no. For some reason – again maybe it’s just the way your mind works – I just really felt like when I made a decision to be a painter, I just wanted to concentrate on what it meant to be a painter. Maybe it was just out of insecurity. But I just felt like painting was the best way to get out what I wanted to say emotionally, to express myself in terms of what was going on inside of me.
In terms of your career to-date, do you see your work fitting into different ‘periods’ or phases?
When I decided to try and become an artist, I was looking around and searching. You see, the whole idea of being an artist is that it’s a process. It’s like creating a new language, or writing a book. And just like in a book, every chapter is part of something, but yet they’re different, too.

Looking back, unlike many people at the time when I was in school, I did not share the general sentiment that art was moving very much away from painting. I wouldn’t say that many found painting irrelevant – but you have to put it into perspective with what was going on at the time. I started painting seriously in the 70’s, when conceptual art and other new forms of art like video art were really coming into vogue. I think these were all then considered to be what kind of art to do if you wanted to be a more avant garde artist. Painting was considered a little bit of a dying enterprise so to speak.

But I didn’t care. You just can’t choose like that. I wanted to expand my own emotional language and I felt like painting was a good way to talk. The fact that painting could express a lot of different interests of mine meant that, yes, that there have been a lot of different ‘phases’ with my work. On one hand, clearly, I didn’t think I had to come up with one style and just make paintings that looked alike forever. On the other hand, I made all kinds of paintings. I made abstract paintings, I made representational paintings, I made paintings that had objects in them, paintings that were more like still-life paintings. And all that in my mind kind of ‘blew up’ and exploded the idea that if there was anything possible going on in a painting, it didn’t have to mean that it was completely abstract.

And as you know, there have been times when I’ve done very scientific paintings – at least what I consider to be very scientific paintings – because I was interested in how things work. And how things don’t work. So I did cell paintings and paintings of molecules and paintings of DNA where I was just curious about looking under an electron microscope and looking at cells divide and how sometimes there are mutations of those cells, too. That was during the 80’s when the health issues of the day – during the AIDS crisis – became more in the forefront of people’s minds, especially younger people. And it was then that I felt like suddenly 20 to 30-year olds were fearing and considering ideas about mortality that people that age never really thought about before. So I wanted to somehow reflect that and commemorate that and think about that.

To me, painting is always about thinking. About thinking thoughts that are cohesive and clear and then thinking thoughts that are more effuse and elliptical. We don’t always know how our consciousness works. And that’s part of what interests me about painting in that it allows me you to draw almost a map that you can lay on consciousness and that can help you follow your thoughts around. I want to have my paintings reflect both the intellectual and emotional range of what people can feel and think.

Do you have other interests in terms of the sciences?
I do. But it’s more [pauses] ... Listen, I have interests in politics and I have interests in science. Just because I’m an artist doesn’t mean that I don’t have other interests! I even consider myself on the side a little bit of a political junkie. It’s just that I’m really interested in how things work and don’t work. Whether it’s visual, intellectual, political, scientific – I like putting things together. It’s like a painter is really a tinkerer in a laboratory, that’s how I like to think of it. There’s always something to do, some problem to solve, some issue to resolve.

That’s how I think about my days. I come to my studio because there’s something I didn’t finish up yesterday. Not so much physically but there are things that want to be put together or I need to figure something out. It’s always about looking and investigating and exploring things close up. I think that as you’re working and as you’re thinking, your thoughts mutate and expand and contract. That’s what the imagery becomes, it’s really that expansion and contraction. And when my thinking contracts, my art becomes very representational. When my thoughts expand, my painting becomes more emotional in a way, much broader, more abstract. That’s how I think of it in my mind.

From previous interviews, one quote says that you think about ‘irony, tragedy, contradiction and discrepancy’ when working in your studio. Despite these seemingly morose topics, you even said in the same interview that you consider yourself an optimist. Is there some discrepancy or even cosmic sense of dichotomy going on in your way of looking at things?
Optimistic is kind of a good word for it. There’s a quote from Samuel Beckett that I think about that’s interesting and funny to me: ‘ must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.’ (ZN: the title of this article also being a Beckett quote!) To me, it’s almost like a kind of melancholic optimism, that’s what life is like. Every day. And every day you see what’s around you. The point being is that with all of this stuff – with this world we live in – well, how do you make sense of it? How can you still be an optimist but have a sense of reality? That in itself is a contradiction.

I’m not sure. I don’t want to say that I want to challenge you on that ...
But you can, please do!

... it’s just that I would say that, yes, I see these things that you’re focusing on are ‘tragic’ in one sense – but to me it seems to be actually the other side of the coin you’re thinking about or looking at, namely, how people survive.
Absolutely. That’s what you’re looking for in your heart, that’s what you’re looking for in your life. I mean, I read the paper every day. Other people tell me they don’t read the paper – they CAN’T read the paper – because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get out of bed! And I say, ‘no, that’s actually quite the contrary. You have to read the paper because there’s no way that you can’t live in the world. And you have to have a sense of what the world is, even if there’s a lot of contradiction in that world.’

Every day you live, you see tragedy. You see irony. You see poverty. They all co-exist. A lot of artists – I should say a lot of creative people, whether you’re an artist or a scientist or a writer – what you’re really looking for – and I know it’s a cliché and it sounds silly – but they’re searching to find the light at the end of the tunnel. How do I find the path out of here, you know, how do I make my way through this? Both in your mind psychologically as well as in terms of trying to put something in the world that even in a little, little way adds something positive and productive.

It could be a product, or it could be something entrepreneurial, it could be a discovery of some kind, a philanthropic action, something creative, anything. I mean, you’re only one person and you’re battling against tremendous odds. But what are you going to do, give up? Again, essentially you want to put something in the world that tries to make a positive statement. Isn’t that why people try to become leaders or try to work on things or discover cures or why doctors try to help people? I mean, despite what you read in the news these days, not everyone who runs funds – and I know a lot of people like this – are just greedy thieves and bastards; a lot of these people raise money for really good things, productive things and things that can be and are a tremendous benefit to so many others.

That’s what I mean with optimism: there’s optimism, there’s melancholy and I think all of this is in all of us. That’s reality, even if it is a little mixed up. And that’s what I think a good artist reflects, is the reality of all these contradictions. To me the ultimate definition of an artist and what makes their art good is that their work is somehow relevant in describing what it means to be alive today.

You're On Earth. There's No Cure For That.

An Interview with American Painter Ross Bleckner
Part 2 of 2 (link to Part 1)
click on any image to enlarge it to original size

You have said that you do not consider yourself an overtly political artist, but that on some level, ‘everything is political.’ Looking at this slightly differently, do you think that as an artist you have a particular responsibility to address social issues?
I think it’s the same for anyone, whether you’re an artist or not. Some artists do feel that way, some artists don’t. It’s just the nature of how people go about their individual work and how they think. For me, yes, and for many artists I know, yes. But I know many artists that couldn’t care less. But it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the fact that they’re artists.

For me, in many ways, I could say that my first job is to make good art. My 2nd job is the hope that the art I make has some relationship to the world. But first, you have to learn how to talk the language. Then you have to learn how to articulate the language and make it effective. And the way you measure the efficacy of your art is to ask yourself ‘how does this resonate beyond me?’ That’s the difference.

You know, I’m not judging or making comparisons – but something could be just beautiful and decorative ... and that’s fine! But I’m looking for work that goes further than that. Now other people might disagree with me and say my work doesn’t go further than that and maybe it doesn’t! But that’s my ambition. You can only talk about what you’re trying to do, because you’re never the one who at the end who decides how the world sees what you really in fact do.

I always say I only have to do 51% of the work. And that’s including all this stuff we’re talking about now. And all the rest has to do with the way it is in the world and well, I have no control over that. That’s what you just have to realize as an artist: you show up and you do the work that’s in your mind. You have to remain true to what you think is your responsibility as an artist and what your ambition as an artist is. Everybody else will decide, I guess, if you were right or wrong [laughs]. And even when I teach, that’s what I tell all my students. I like saying inspiration is for amateurs. Real artists just show up and do their work, day in and day out.

How do you incorporate this ‘awareness’ of the world around you into your art?
I think about the world, because I live in the world. Again, I don’t understand how you could separate yourself from that. But yet some artists might be able to understand that and be able to do it very well. Maybe they can just focus on their work and not at all on the world. And sometimes I think honestly: lucky them! There are a lot of people out there like that.

For me, I really feel like the journey and the real spirituality is searching for meaning. And that meaning is outside of yourself: helping people, bringing out light, putting something into the world that is optimistic. And it can be in the work that you do in your objects or in the work that you do in your person – like with volunteer work. That’s why I’ve always actually considered that doing things for other people is really for me part of what being an artist is. It’s not just in my work – it’s actually in my life, too. It’s wanting to express a certain sentiment and following through on that. That’s why I get involved with different causes and participate. Being an artist doesn’t mean you’re not a citizen.

How then did you come to ultimately be named Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations and become involved in this work?
Exactly the way we’re talking right now. I went to see an exhibition of photographs, which a friend of mine had recommended and said was interesting. It was a kind of documentary display by a photo journalist who had been taking pictures of human trafficking, but more like in Mexico, you know, where traffickers cram people into trucks to smuggle them across the border. The show in fact happened to be in the lobby of the UN where they regularly have little exhibits like this. And the Under Secretary General of the Office on Drugs and Crime – which is responsible for the issue of human trafficking – also happened to be at the show. We met through a friend and we struck up a conversation where it turned out he was actually very interested in art.

He pointed out that the whole trafficking issue was a very serious and growing problem his office had to deal with, and he eventually asked me if I thought art could play a role in drawing attention to these issues? I said in fact that I thought that not only could it draw attention to these issues but that it would help the victims as well. So we agreed to think over a potential project and he invited me to lunch, where I proposed that we try to work with some of the people who have been victims of atrocity and abuse. Really it came down to me telling him: ‘you find the people and I’ll do the work.’

They had these kids in Uganda who’d been kidnapped and abducted from their families. These were child soldiers who had escaped from the rebel forces or girl’s who had been forced to be sex slaves that had been released for whatever reason by their captors. They were all still in the refugee camp and were still obviously traumatized. So I just said let’s just see. Let’s get them to express themselves and tell their stories so people can see those stories.

I worked with about 30 kids – 15 boys and 15 girls. Obviously, the UN found a logistical way to do it and organized everything. They found a place right by the camp which was an old convent not being used anymore. I sent the supplies, you know brushes and paint and stuff. I worked with these kids and they did these paintings. And we just had an exhibition the other night (May 12th) at the UN.

How did that go?
It went great! The Secretary-General of the United Nations – Mr. Ban Ki-moon – ended up coming because he saw the work and was inspired by it. You know, as Secretary-General, he rarely gets to come to these things because he’s so busy. But he liked the work and he liked the idea of this workshop as he called it, this mission. So he was there, his wife was there, he even introduced me and it was great! All the kids’ paintings were on display and were all for sale to raise money, which now goes to a fund that will go back to the camp through social workers who were part of the tribe where I was. It’ll be put back into the school and helping those in the camp.

It’s gone so well, the UN even wants to do something like this every year with kids that have gone through similar hardships and more. So this was a kind of an opening in a way. I think they realize the value of creativity and art in terms of dealing with victims.

So now that you’re an Ambassador: does that mean you get to park anywhere you want and you have diplomatic immunity?
No, no, no!! [laughs]

Sorry, just kidding there. Do you find your selection – as an artist or however you want to look at it, even comparing your selection to the almost ‘Hollywood-ian’ list of previous Ambassadors, including such names as Susan Sarandon, Angelina Jolie and George Clooney – to be a significant event?
I actually do think it’s significant, because they (the UN) haven’t done it before. I don’t know why, but the point is like I said before: it’s an opening. Sure someone like Angelina Jolie is wonderful and can certainly bring attention to an issue just by being there. She comes to a place and she stays for a day with all the photographers in tow and then she leaves. But me? I’m not a celebrity; but I think the UN is really starting to want people who can actually bring their specific and individual talents in order to work with the people. You know, stay and actually DO something. Whether it’s painting with them or getting them to tell a story. It’s about giving them the tools to express themselves, which is very important.

I gave the kids a lot that made them proud. I mean, it was so great to see: they were so proud of themselves, because of the fact that they had made something that had value which they could see and realize it was going to come back to them. I think it’s a more practical way, it’s to me a more effective way than just having a photo op.

Plus, when you stay for a few days, you learn even more. And one of the things I learned is that a lot of the girls, they had this great desire to make things like tablecloths, they really wanted to make dresses and more. So I think the next time I go back, I want to bring a fashion designer with me. Famous or not, it doesn’t matter. But they would stay there for a week and teach the kids things like: how do you make a pattern? How do you sew? I mean, let’s find someone to donate some sewing machines and let the kids cut a pattern and sew!

Most importantly, you learn though that people want to do things! They don’t just want aid and an NGO to come in and give them a little food and leave. They want them to give them a skill that would maybe lead to a job one day. And, sure, maybe these kids won’t be painters, but just to look at their work and see how fresh and wonderful and powerful it is, it’s just amazing. (ZN: for a few more images, see and their recent coverage of the event)

This role must present you with a maelstrom of emotions to deal with, including even outrage at those who responsible for these crimes. Perhaps I’m just superimposing my feelings on to you, but how do you keep from just being, for example, angry as hell at what’s going on?
There is some of that and that’s why drawing attention to it is so important. Sure I think, ‘Why in the name of hell doesn’t this stop? How can the governments not stop this?’ I mean, this has been something that’s been going on for such a long time. There’s so much conflict in so many places in the world. When I think about the Middle East, I think the same thing. But I think that I can only do what I can do.

You would hope – and I think that there’s a hopefulness growing today – that it will be stopped. Personally, I think the election, the whole Obama mindset is bringing a little more optimism to people in the world. [we start to be interrupted rather determinedly by Ross’s wire-hired dachshund {I think I have spotted my nemesis here}, who had obviously come to the decision that I have taken enough of his master’s good time] ...Sorry about that. It’s just feel like that especially for my generation (I’m 60), the Bush years were such a disappointment. Now you have a new generation of people who can hopefully do a better job. But there’s so many interests and conflicts and different sides of the story. So it’s not as easy as it sounds. But there has to be a different mindset. And that takes a long time to change.


It would be rather silly of me to try and top any more of what’s been contributed to Ross’s wide range of fantastic works and his dedication to good causes throughout the years. I can only recommend a few sites that I found to be useful myself and encourage all of you to take the time to learn more about the work and good deeds of a quiet little Jewish boy from Long Island.
- UNODC Announces Ross’s appointment as Goodwill Ambassador
- Ross Bleckner at the ‘Welcome to Gulu’ exhibition at the Moschino boutique
- A very wide selection of press input about Ross and his works over the years (from his homepage)
- An incredible listing of all the shows he’s been involved in through 2008 (French version)
- A really truly incredible listing of all the shows he’s been involved in through 2005 (and more it seems) in downloadable PDF format
- A selection of Ross ‘thinking big and sharing ideas’ (videos touching on life, the universe, and everything)
- And finally, another article touching on Ross’s work in Uganda (nice compliment to the NYT article already linked).


All photos or reproductions of art-work used with exclusive written permission by Ross Bleckner and may not be reprinted or otherwise used without permission of the Artist. Biographical photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (from and all pictures of the childrens’ art by Anna Rosario Kennedy/United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. For more details to all pictures, please see either the original NYT link or refer again to Ross’s home-page.

May 22, 2009

Fresh Ziggy: Good-Will Painting!

Introduction to new blog offers on May 22, 2009

Greetings again one and all. Don’t you just love this time of year? Here in the neighborhood of ZN HQ, there's a May tradition of gathering with perhaps 10 to even 15 of the most boring people you’ve ever met in your life and having a long and drawn out lunch-time which inevitably begins to stretch into the next Presidential administration or Summer Olympics, which ever comes last.

Personally, I think we do this now before it gets too hot and would therefore feel much more (but not too much, mind you) inclined to stifle Uncle Guffaw with farm implements and bury Aunt Willsheeverstoptalking somewhere in the nearby marshlands. Sigh, families: can’t live with ‘em, can’t legally... never mind...

As you can see, rather than including this entries long-introduction into a jam-packed e-mail for the Faithful (note the capital F! If you're a 'small f' and want to be a BIG F = get emails, let us know!), we went ahead and put this part into a blog itself. So for those of you reading this (to both of you: as always, thank you! And the check IS in the mail...), just a few words:


First, many thanks and muchas gracias for all your nice comments about the Enrique Rodriguez article from last time (and to MS who wrote in: well, I guess he is rather cute now that you mention it).

All kidding aside, it really is amazing what this talented young fellow has managed to do over the past few years with his light boxes and really what we’ve come to think of as ‘space enhancers’.

Again, be sure and check back often to his blog and what should also be an updated web-site in the coming weeks!


Speaking of updated in many ways and forms, we’re pleased to bring you these updates:

First, our favorite Editor-Supremo has picked up our previous entry about Christoph Niemann and published it on the ‘X’, including fine-tuning my En-ga-leesh dialect and also adding some new pictures. Check it out!

Second, speaking of Christoph, he also released just hours after the previous article went live his newest blog entry in the New York Times. This is an exceptional piece and amazing in so many ways, including the power of the story itself – the fall of the Berlin Wall and the memories it has left behind – and also as usual Christoph’s mastery of making absolute genius from seemingly the simplest of approaches!

Someone to watch and enjoy for years to come for sure (just put his name in the NYT search engine for example and you’ll see almost every week new graphics offers!).


And now for the new bits here at our happy house-hold: it is indeed a privilege and honor to bring you an interview with Ross Bleckner. See

You're On Earth. There's No Cure For That.
An Interview with American Painter Ross Bleckner

Or copy-paste in this URL into your browser:

Ross is not only an exceptional and very well-known American painter but also has just been named Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Please read on to learn more about Ross’s philosophy’s about life and art, as well as more into his caring about those less fortunate and amazing amount of time he donates to help others.

We hope you enjoy this as much as we enjoyed getting to meet Ross, who was an outstanding ‘host’ and supported the entire interview process with tremendous patience and grace! Thanks again, Mr. Ambassador, sir!!


And finally, friends, we ask that if you do indeed print out this week’s introduction or even the article itself, that you be environmentally conscious and use only real Roo Poo Paper. Not only does it utilize resources that no one usually can think of a better thing to do with them, but it’ll add another sensory experience to your blogging pleasure!

(Roo Poo Paper not quite your scent? Then try Wombat for that rare audi-... odat-... ouaral- ... for that rare smelling experience!)

Be good Troopers!

P.S. Before we forget, we want to include a little bit about this episode’s blog header image (for those that came in late, we try to change the blogger header image with each new entry, just to keep our own creative juices dripping down the spine of our mornings and into the underpants of our afternoons).

This week’s exercise is really an attempt to follow the KISS principle, namely Keep It Simple Stupid. Several of our interviewees, including also Christoph Niemann, who has now reached his full quota of plugs for the week, have pointed out how important it is to keep things simple, even when trying to be creative. However, keeping it simple – or brief as you’re noticing by now!!! – is not one of the Zigster’s talents!!

Anyway, we took one of the simplest – and really incredibly powerful – images we knew of and tried to imitate that, namely the Little Kitty collection. Our own daughter has several items – ranging from clothes of all sorts, bags, jewellery, books and more – with the simple image of Hello Kitty on it. But it’s amazing! It never changes, it is so gosh-darned simple, and yet it will burn a hole in your brain like nothing else. No joke, when I take the kids to school, I am amazed at the number of these images that abound! I don’t know whether to be very respectful or very very scared... but the group that came up with this should be enshrined somewhere in graphic arts immortality! And – I kid you not – even before I had gotten very far with this, I noticed that I was working in fact with a Hello Kitty pencil! Aaah, it’s everywhere.

So I merely have tried to make similar images of the most popular, uh, popular people or even current faces that perhaps most if not all will recognize in one way or the other (sorry folks, but Fidel’s image is Nr.1 globally). Enjoy... or don’t, your call, but it did teach me something. Which is nice.


May 8, 2009

A Rich Opera of Light, Shadow, Function and Beauty

An Interview with Designer Enrique Rodriguez
click on any image to enlarge it to original size

When looking for connections to an artist’s beginnings, there is often a very close connection to the world they are working in today. Perhaps it’s a graphic style from a well-known ‘master’ or a form initially brought forward by those that later came to teach or even be created with their own ‘schools’, both literally and figuratively.

In the case of Chilean born designer
Enrique Rodriguez, it might not be as obvious at first glance that his increasingly popular light and other decorative designs in fact find their inspiration from the worlds of opera and theater. It might not be the first thing either that one thinks of as a professional progression from studying architecture and industrial design, as Enrique did at the Catholic University in Santiago. However, it is the combination of his passion for these worlds as well as his artistic interests in working with light and shadow, especially when working in a three-dimensional environment, that has led him to create so many amazing pieces.

Whether or not the viewer also senses the inspirational lightness of ‘The Magic Flute’ (shown here at right) or feels the same passion or devotion in ‘Carmen’ (below left) does not matter. But certainly everyone can appreciate his special gift for combining an almost mystical sense of lighting and his love affair between both illumination and shadow. He is well known not only for the geometric shapes of many of his pieces, but also a talent for using white on white or even combining colored pieces with a strong sense of transparency. His work is often described as being more abstract than figurative, which generates very frequently different interpretations from a growing group of fans the world over.

Ziggy Nixon first caught up with Enrique’s agent, Ute Hübler, in order to contact him. We had met Ute several months ago in Paris when she was still working then for the group
espírito brasilis and since that time we had kept in touch with each other including about the artists she works with (and of course the ZN blog!). She provided some insight of her own before kindly coordinating the question and answer session with the artist himself:

Dear Ziggy,
Thank you again for inquiring about Enrique’s work. Concerning some of our previous conversations: please not that since last year Enrique is not focusing so much on pure ‘objects’ as before. Instead, he is much more involved in offering artistic concepts that are later used in clinics, hospitals (see several examples from his work for Hospital São Luiz here), hotels and also private residences.

Enrique’s style of working is that he studies the architecture of the area – be it a hallway or waiting room or private section – and also the materials being used. He then adapts the forms of his pieces and creates tailor- or custom-made works of art. Through his education and years of experience, he is able through his approach to perfectly adapt the works to fit the designed spaces in measurement, size, color and designs.

His work and the process he uses is very much about meeting the customers’ needs. As such, we’re really only working with architect’s now and often other involved designers or artists, too. That’s where I come in, in that I’m working as well as kind of an art dealer in order to present Enrique’s work to these clients in a first phase and really help along the process of finding an ideal solution for their project.


The following input is therefore the direct input from Enrique, who graciously took time out of his busy schedule to answer several questions:

Enrique, thank you so much for your time. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, for example, where were you born, how did you come to naturalization as a Spanish citizen, why did you eventually move to Brazil, etc.?
I was born in Chile. But my father was a Spanish citizen, so I have always also had Spanish nationality.

After my studies in Santiago, I came to Brazil in 1992. This was because I felt there were many more opportunities in my area here.

Why did you choose to study Architecture and Interior Design?
I’ve always liked a "macro approach" to the world of objects, especially in terms of space and being able to work in three dimensions.

How did you start designing scenes for opera and theater, and also events?
I began doing work as an opera scenic designer and also for events when I arrived in Brazil. I really found of both the theatrical and musical direction to be very inspiring. This time of my career still influences my work today in a very intense way.

It was indeed my passion for the world of opera that led me to create a visual language and an artistic technique through which I could re-create the traditional opera universe.

Do you also have a passion for music or the theater beyond just working on the lighting and set design?
I have always had a secret desire to sing that is certainly hidden somewhere in me. That is why I have chosen the opera as an inspiration. For me, opera is the art form where the human voice can reaches immeasurable and limitless dimensions.

What did you learn from your education that most helped you with your designs for the opera?
The Catholic University in Santiago had a very Renaissance approach to teaching. This very global vision of art, history, architecture and urbanism as well played a fundamental role in my development and what I think of as my ‘artistic purpose’ which is currently present in my work.

So much of your work involves designing with light or around light. Can you explain a bit more about your passion for working with light?
I think that the presence of light ever since the beginning of my career is directly related to the magic of black box theater or what is often called ‘experimental theater’. There is a very good definition for this on Wikipedia, where it is also mentioned that the sets are typically very basic but allowing for a lot of work and even influence by the lighting.

And my work with light combines with other parts including sound and movement. Again, this all comes from my love for the theater in all of it’s magnificent artistic manifestations.

What are some of the biggest influences on your work outside of opera or the theater?
I’ve always been in love with Art-Noveaux, as well as the Bauhaus approach and all the modern constructivist movements.

In terms of artists, I admire
Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and Antonio Gaudi. I also get inspiration when I travel, including to cities like Berlin and Hamburg which are very inspiring to me.

When you are designing, for example, a piece with a complicated geometric pattern, have you already drawn the sketch on paper first?
No. I never draw a sketch first. I have always a concrete design in mind and as I am of course very familiar with my process, this enables me to create directly as I am making a piece.

Is there a different approach when designing a piece where light actually comes through the form vs. a piece where the light is separate?
Yes! There is surely a very different approach, so much so that lately I have only designed pieces which are defined by the light itself. Again, so much of my work now focuses on solving a client’s specific project needs.

When you are designing a single piece vs. for example a set of pieces for a hospital or even a special room, is there a difference how you approach the overall design process?
When I work on a more ‘corporate’ project, I create an artistic concept. And it is this concept which then is the basis of all the production we do on the project.

Still, even when I work on my own collection, I also develop an artistic concept first that leads my way. I am extremely rigorous, absolutely disciplined in this way.

What is your attraction to working geometric patterns vs. for example a scene from an opera or even with the nature of Brazil?
I have what I would call three main ‘inspiration patterns’. These include opera, architecture and nature. These are elements of course that have so much to do with my personal experiences.

Just look at my life today: I live in this colourful tropical country, I am in contact all the time with big cities (I live in one and travel constantly) and then of course there is my passion for opera. I am forever looking and being inspired by these worlds.

I also see influences of Asia in your pieces. Is that something that you also see and if yes, why?
I have always been fascinated by Japanese design. And when I say Japanese ‘design’, this for me is very much present in their culture, meaning the way they live, eat, etc. From this, I really found that taking translating these aspects to my work was a natural step.

What are your pieces typically made with? Is there a material you most like to work with?
The basis of my pieces is paper in all it’s forms, textures, qualities, colours, and more.

In fact, as I think art on paper is often seen throughout the world as something of let’s say ‘less importance’, I make a point in giving the paper and my pieces made through paper a status of ‘true’ art throughout my work.

As such, I think that I would define my work as a sophisticated paper architecture which only uses acrylic and glass as a support.

How about a material you have not yet worked with that you would like to try?
I have been doing research on pure metals, such as copper.

Do you see your work getting more and more international exposure now?
Well, in fact, our focus is really on Brazil right now. The international experiences we have had recently have really shown us that we first needed a consolidated base here before we can venture more outside of this region.

But once our work is consolidated here, reaching other big centers like London, Paris, New York and Tokyo is definitely my aim.

How about your web-site? Is that starting soon?
Our web-site is being re-designed because we have had lots of changes lately.

Still, our blog is up and running and shows quite a lot of our work! Please visit us!

In conclusion, I would just like to repeat the invitation to Enrique’s web-site, it is really well-worth the time. Still, as my friend Ute Hübler pointed out in one of our exchanges:
‘When you see (Enrique’s) work on a picture, sure it impresses you. But if you get the opportunity to see it up close and personal, you immediately feel the impact and I think you will be profoundly moved.’

And also, because in large part I don’t think it’s been done anywhere to-date, Ziggy Nixon is pleased to bring you the following run-down of exhibitions and awards from this very talented artist’s career. Até breve!

2006 / May / Ritz (São Paulo)
2006 / April / Light + Building (Frankfurt)
2006 / March / Paralela Gift (São Paulo)
2005 / December / Zona D (São Paulo)
2005 / December / Interdesign (São Paulo)
2005 / November / Ritz (São Paulo)
2005 / June / São Paulo Fashion Week (São Paulo)
2005 / May / CasaCor (São Paulo)
2005 / April / Embraer Evento Ebace (Genebra)
2005 / March / Embraer Evento Labace (São Paulo)
2004 / October / Embraer Evento Nbaa (Las Vegas)
2004 / September / Crate & Barrel (New York)
2004 / August / Puntoluce (São Paulo)
2003 / March / Arango (São Paulo)
2002 / July / Casacor (São Paulo)
2002 / June / House Garden (São Paulo)
2001 / November / Zona D (São Paulo)
1999 / March / Teatro Municipal Santo André (São Paulo)
1998 / September / Espaço Unibanco de Cinema (São Paulo)
1998 / September / Espaço Unibanco de Cinema (Rio de Janeiro)
1998 / July / Fnac (São Paulo)
1998 / March / Associação Brasileira A Hebraica (São Paulo)
1997 / February / Centro Cultural SP (São Paulo)
1996 / August / XVI Bienal Internacional do Livro (São Paulo)

2006 / September / Maison et Objet (Paris)
2006 / September / Macef (Milan)
2004 / August / Indac (São Paulo)
2004 / March / Art Image Gift Fair (São Paulo)
2003 / August / Art Image Gift Fair (São Paulo)
2003 / August / Art Home Abup (São Paulo)
2000 / October / Galeria Mônica Filgueiras (São Paulo)
1997 / October / III Bienal Internacional de Arquitetura (São Paulo)

1997 / April / Prêmio Secretaria Municipal de Cultura (São Paulo)
1996 / October / Prêmio Estímulo Secretaria de Estado da Cultura (São Paulo)

All pieces and pictures used in this article by kind permission of the artist and may not be used or otherwise reproduced without permission. For more information, please visit Enrique's blog and contact Ute Hübler for further information.