May 23, 2009

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.

No comments: