Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Amy Casey, Painter, interviewed by Geoff Graser

Amy Casey's website:

How has your work been shaped by your environment in Cleveland?

I’ve always been the kind of artist who doesn’t necessarily get an idea and do it. I absorb where I am and what I’m doing. I’ve been in Cleveland for about 10 years in a row right now. 15 years total. And I moved into part of the city called Tremont, sort of an artisty neighborhood, which is right where the steel industry used to be based. I think there’s one steel mill left, but the rest shut down.

My house, which shows up in a lot of my paintings, used to house the rotating boarders of steel mill workers. So it used to be very much a working class neighborhood. My work is filled with all the little houses and structures that are mostly from my neighborhood. Sometimes people who aren’t from my area say, these are “generic, little houses.” To me, they’re very specific. If you see a number on the house front, that’s because that’s the number that’s there on the house. I didn’t make it up. So I’m not nearly as creative and visionary as people may think—if somebody were to think that.

I was just thinking this morning that in some ways I’m taking my own city and running it through a blender of other things I’m thinking about and seeing what pops out. But I’m not like, “Now I’m going to make a re-mash of Cleveland.” That’s not how I think about the painting, but I could see how people might say that. So what I’m basically saying is that where I’m living is a huge, huge influence. I’m sure if I was living in the prairie my paintings would be completely different.

I think if I didn’t have connections to the things that I painted it would mean less to me. Even if I don’t know what they are, I have a familiarity. I’m very routine-oriented. I spend most of my days at a gallery where I work, so I take the bus or the train over to the gallery, and the things I see I’m interested in and a lot of times I take pictures. And then my own neighborhood. And then the place where I go quilt-making on the East side of Cleveland, they have a ton of older, industrial buildings that aren’t really making or storing anything anymore. And some of those places artists are moving in and trying to transform that area. So there’s a lot of really great, interesting buildings that when I look at them I just think I’d love to play with that and to see how I can fit that into my own little world.

Sometimes my paintings end up looking kind of fantastical and silly. Not silly, but not serious looking. But they come out of a very practical [place]. I’m a very practical sort of person. So, things are the way they are in my paintings for reasons stemming from previous paintings. It’s sort of like I’m building a little city. I’ve become really interested in the history of cities and city building and city planning and I’ve been reading all summer about city restoration. To me, the most interesting part about the book is just hearing about how cities sort of fell apart and different parts became abandoned and then there’s the urge to rebuild. Just thinking about the history of the city that you’re walking on and why things are the way they are interests me. You don’t really have any idea. I guess you can look into it, but mostly when you walk around Rochester you’re not thinking, “Oh, this is this way because of that.”

In my paintings, I can personally trace when my little universe started growing—like paintings I was doing 10 years ago and how that’s related to the little world I’m making now—so I can explore that history in my own work that maybe I don’t always know about in my actual cities.

How many paintings are you showing at this exhibit and how did you go about picking them?

This summer I was working on new works for the show. I think there’s six new pieces but there are 10 or 11 total. Two of them are etchings. So, because I made the new ones specifically with this project in mind, in that sense I had something to do with picking them, but ultimately the gallery that I work for in Chicago framed the works for me and I told them to use their discretion in trying to pick things they thought would go together and work with the theme of the show. So I had some control over it.

How did it come out?

I think it was fine. I’ve been making a lot of work lately and sending it out almost immediately. In some ways it’s just nice to see them collected and rested on the wall and not be like, “I have to finish something” and not going crazy and stressing out about it.

I’m a twiddler when I see my old work, and I always want to redo things. So it’s actually really great when my work is either bought or taken away from my grasp, because you gotta move on eventually. You have to just take your lumps and learn what you learn and make some new paintings instead of just being on one work for 10 years.

Although it worked for Albert Pinkham Ryder. He was a painter and would work on the same painting for years and years and years and people would want to buy the painting and he’d be like, “Oh, just a few more years.” The art museum in Cleveland has one of his paintings called “Death On a Pale Horse” and it’s kind of this weird figure on a horse, but it’s so thick and gnarly and you can just imagine all the different paintings that painting used to be and the history of the whole thing hiding underneath the surface. Although it’s a problem because when you do things like that it’s a difficult medium to hold up over time because you’re kind of torturing the paint and doing things that won’t always last. So I think for some of the pieces, conservation problems have popped up probably. So there’s even more downside to working on something for that long.

How does it feel now that your work is in pretty good demand?

Good, obviously. But since the work has been getting more and more detailed, it demands a lot more time. And I can look at something and say, I’m going to make a net out of a chain-linked fence and say this will take physically 20 hours just to make this fence part.

So, realistically, when you’re thinking about your deadlines and the amount of time you actually have to work you’re like: I have to have this chain-linked fence net, but I know it’s going to take me 20 hours. Sometimes that can be a little daunting and, honestly, a little depressing. I love making these things but time-wise it’s become a little stressful. So I’m trying to learn to say, “No” a little more to some things. I’m looking forward to some quiet time this winter, so, hopefully, I stay committed to that and don’t change my mind and do something else.

Unfortunately, I do thrive on beating deadlines and the adrenaline probably. And as much as I can’t stand it, in some ways I need it. It’s a back and forth kind of relationship—I guess what most people have in their stressful, frazzled lives.

On your Web site, it said that growing up you wanted to be a painter or writer. What made you go in the direction of painting? Do you still write?

I don’t write in any organized way. I’m not a good writer, but I grew up reading so much when I was a kid. That’s pretty much my major thing in life. Me and my twin would go to the library and get books and then we’d switch books and we’d each have these piles and piles of books. So reading was always way more a major part of my life than art ever was. I love drawing like every kid does, but my family was not an artsy family. My dad worked for the state and before that he owned bars and my mom was a secretary. So it’s not like they were taking us to art museums, not that people who work for the state or are secretaries can’t take their kids to art museums, but my parents weren’t that interested in art. So writing and reading were always a huge part of my life. At some point, I remember, I was a very little kid but I don’t know exactly how old I was. My sister would joke that I was “8” because every time I tell a story and I don’t know exactly when it happened I’m like, “I was 8.” Around that time, I remember thinking, “I could be an artist but that’s not very practical.”

Did you really think about that when you were that little?

In my experience, there’s so many books and [I thought] people must buy books, so, in my head, yeah. Now that I know some writers I know that publishing is this incredible mountain to climb, and even when you do publish it doesn’t really mean that paychecks are going to come flying through the door. But with my rudimentary understanding of life back then, I honestly, thought, “Art, that’s not practical but writing could pay the bills and you could have a life” [laughs].

For a while I was very interested and was trying to write. I was sort of dragged back into art almost against my will. I had a funny high school counselor who was just trying to go to lunch or get the hell out of there, I think he’s like, “Art, it starts with an ‘A’,” and he’s like, “‘You like art,’” and I’m like, “Everybody likes art,” and then I say “Okay, I guess so.”

So then I ended up in this art class and it was completely nuts and everyone was crazy and fighting and throwing and I think my art teacher just liked the fact that I actually did work. Instead of the chaos. But she really insisted that I apply to the School of the Performing Arts program that was in my high school—but no longer is; cut probably because of funding.

So I met a teacher/mentor who also twisted my arm and made me try all these different things. I was a very shy, reading, quiet, geek back then, and he sort of forced me to, not physically, but getting on me about trying all these new things. In Pennsylvania they have Governors Schools of Excellence where they pick a number of kids from around the state and they send them to a summer art camp, which also has been cut because of funding, and he entered me into that. But that started that scenario where I met other art geeks from around the state and you get together and talk about art. You’re 15, what the hell do you know? But I really started to see I could do this with my life. So that experience created this funny life and now it’s a tragedy that it’s [art camp] gone and art geeks are going to have to sit at home all summer and not meet each other and not get big dreams.

Can you take me back 10 years ago, it sounds like you weren’t doing these urban landscapes?

Back 10 years ago, I was focused more on the surface of the work. They were almost in my mind related to textiles, because I was making almost embroidery-like marks.
I’m a very twiddly-thumb bit person, which is why I do the paintings I do with the detail. So, the other interest I have is sewing and I like to make quilts. They’re not really standardized quilts. I’m sure a grandma would scoff at my quilts but I like to be working with my hands. I always imagine whenever I go into a fabric store they’re going to be like, “Uh, what are you doing?” Because I just make things up and do it the way it makes sense to me rather than follow any standard quilting practices. I’m doing a lot of little tiny things that take a really long time and eventually sort of pull it together. That’s just my nature.

I was taking from my surroundings, but it was a little more symbolic and a little more mysterious. It would be signs from places I would see in Chicago, but it wouldn’t be connected. It would be like, oh, that’s a sign on that building. They sort of created a little narrative and I used these little pig characters, one was a Christmas ornament that my mom gave me, and one was like a little drumstick character—not like a turkey drumstick but it used to hold a drum. I lost the drum. So it was always holding a little wand in the paintings. And then two piggy banks that I picked up in Chicago when I moved there and was looking in a thrift store for furniture. So they sort of became these little characters in this abstract landscape world, and they would recapture in a very personal way just little things that would happen in my life.

I would walk to the bus, and I would walk by a tree with a little fence around it. So then the idea of little tiny fences around little tiny trees, things like that would appeal to me and I would just want to include them in my paintings somehow. They were just quick little stories about every day kind of things but I don’t know that they looked like every day kind of things because they were in this kind of weird other world.

I moved around that time, around 2003, I moved to the downtown area, or close to downtown, so I was painting a little more realistically, more space-oriented, not so much surface-oriented. I was including things I was seeing. And hoping not to be known as the “pig painter” for the rest of my life, I started mashing things together.

I was taking these figurines and then I would transpose them with other figurines to make these little grotesque blobby creatures, so they started showing up in the paintings. So for a while I became more interested in the life inside these little urban environments. Sometimes there’d be a fight between one of these little blobby creatures, which would be kind of mysterious in a little weird, dark alley and you’re like, “What the…?” I don’t know if I can even explain why I was doing those kind of paintings but you paint what you’re interested in I guess.

And around that time, it was 2004, I was at home for Christmas doing a puzzle with my mom and the news came on about the [tsunami] in the Indian Ocean. You’re sitting there with a jigsaw puzzle piece in your hand and you’re thinking 100,000 people just died. I have a couple friends in Thailand, so it was like, “Oh, my God.” They were fine; they’re more inland. So it became something I was just thinking about all the time. I became one of those Google news stalkers and it lasted for a long time, and I think that very much affected my work.

Not that I ever tried to illustrate disasters but they were on my mind because I was reading so much, and I think they start to seep into your work. I think one of the most obvious manifestations of that was sometime after the Indian Ocean tsunami—it wasn’t like a conscious [thought] like, “Now I’m going to illustrate the Indian Ocean disaster”—but I was also reading these interesting articles about someone who’d thrown out an artificial, man-made seed into the ocean and it started to take over the entire ocean floor. It was killing out the native plants. I don’t remember exactly the circumstances, but I remember reading that story and thinking: “Oops! What kind of mistake could start that?”

So what happened in my paintings was—and I also visited the Atlanta botanical gardens around that time and started gardening—all of that came together. And all of these weird, little alien plant forms started popping up in my work. Like: “Surprise, you didn’t expect this little creatures in your neighborhoods.” So at first it seemed kind of harmless, but I was curious. And the characters would be there and they’d try to fence them in, like, “Oh, we’ll keep them over there.” And then eventually these tentacle-creature-plant things started taking over entire areas and covering other buildings and taking out the neighborhood. You create this world and you have the guilt of God with none of the perks. So I thought, “How can I save these creatures? What am I gonna do now?” I kind of made a big mess, like that guy releasing the plant [in the ocean].

So, my inspiration was: Well, if I put their homes and things on stilts, at least for a while, it’ll keep them up. So my paintings kind of reflected that. I always now imagine when you see these structures and ropes and things that somewhere way, way below there’s evil plants just waiting to get their tentacles up there. Most people probably don’t think that when they look at my paintings but that’s also what I mean about being able to see the history of why things are the way they are and thinking about your own city that way. Why do we have highways here and not there? So I had them up there, and I became a practical sort of person, and I thought to myself: “These aren’t going to last forever, what was I thinking?” So then I had a big period of houses falling over and there was a lot of wreckage. At that point I was also very interested in how you plan things.

When you said you became a ‘practical person,’ did you mean in terms of focusing on what you were going to do with the painting? Or did something happen in your life at that time?

Things were happening in my life that were making me very anxious and thinking about consequences of actions. I think that was 2005.

Do you mind sharing any of that?

It’s personal stuff, but also Hurricane Katrina happened. To see people scramble to re-form their lives. Some of them obviously had plans and some of them obviously did not have plans. So I was thinking a lot about, “What do you do when now you’re up in the air and now you have to make that work?” When all your buildings fall down you have to think: “What are our resources and how are we going to prevent this from happening again?” So the idea of creating your landscape out of your vulnerabilities.

And making mistakes. That’s a big theme of my paintings. Both narratively, and also physically, because I often make mistakes. And because I work on white paper and I’m a pretty sloppy person. You’ll think you’re finished with a whole section and then “Whoops.” [laughs] So then you’re just like these people because suddenly you have this little disaster. And at first you’re kind of freaked out: “I want to take it back, I want to take it back.” And then you’re like, “I just have to make this work.” I have to find a way to incorporate that into the final piece. So a lot of times, even within my own paintings, you’re constantly reacting and that’s how growth happens and that’s how new developments happen. Because you’re kind of reacting to what’s going on. So I started tying in the houses to other objects and to each other, which eventually made an interesting network, almost a metaphor for how much we depend on each other to create this little civilization that everyone takes for granted.

Around 2000, Cleveland had been experiencing problems with foreclosure—even before it became a “buzzword” in the press and something everyone was talking about. I knew several people who had lost their houses. Everyone’s like [at that point], “Oh, you should buy a house. It’s so secure.” It doesn’t seem that secure to me, because my ability to pay for it in the future is really not that secure. So I don’t necessarily relate the idea of owning homes to security—obviously not in my paintings.

The trajectory of your work seems like you created this world and had a magnifying glass up close and are slowly pulling back.

I feel like I’m pulling back more and more. That’s what the housing crisis made me think of. A lot of times my work has been used for articles about the housing crisis, which is fine. I don’t mind if people look at my work through that lens.

So, a lot of times because my houses are interconnected with ropes and things, I think a lot about some place in Cleveland where one house would go to foreclosure and it would be boarded up and then eventually it would be like “do, do, do” [makes domino gesture] and all the other houses would follow. That was interesting to me in that these houses were tied together because I was realizing that even in my neighborhood, which is more close-knit than any other neighborhood I’ve ever lived in (sometimes I’ll be napping or still sleeping in the morning and someone will be walking by my house and I’ll hear someone be like, “Good morning, Amy Casey”), I know a lot of people but I don’t know the people really who live two doors down. Then you start to think about the people who you depend on to get up in the morning to take care of their property and take care of their business so they can keep the neighborhood going. You don’t even know these people. So it’s the idea of how isolated we are from even very close community but how much we depend on them. Looking at my work I could kind of see that—in that a lot of the houses are all tied together but there’s no direct way to get from house to house.

Actually, I started addressing some of that recently in trying to create bridges and connections in some ways to like “How can we help the citizens of these [paintings]?” And I can imagine some kind of citizenry. Some people think they’re abandoned cities, but to me there’s someone living there, and even if there isn’t, I almost imagine the little houses and buildings as their own citizens so that there’s something at stake. And if the whole thing falls apart it will be a tragedy, and it won’t just be like, “Well, that fake, non-citizen city fell apart finally.”

So I’m interested in trying to protect them and also I just get an idea or I see something. And the beauty of being an artist is that if you see something in your head and are like, “God, I would love to just see that,” you can do that. So, sometimes I’m following trains of thought. I don’t even know why the phrase, “A City of Walls,” came into my head, but I was just like: I’d love to see a city of walls. I don’t even really know what that means, but I’ve been trying to broach the topic.

One of the paintings at the show is a mini “City of Walls” with a kind of tiny neighborhood of houses, it’s not like a super urban center. I think, “Why are the walls there?” Are they there to protect them and keep them inside this area? They kind of end at random spots, so you’re not sure if at some point they had encircled things and if they had eventually changed to become almost completely pointless. I’m not really sure and I’m trying to figure those things out. So that’s one of the things I’m working on now is very much how to bring people together and how community works. I was doing one thing that didn’t end up in the show, but I was creating a little electricity plant for them with turbines. It’s also interesting because I’m in Provincetown (Amy was named a 2010 Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center summer resident, sponsored by the Ohio Arts Council) and that’s a big controversy there of whether to have them or not.

Do they have any there?

I don’t know. They really want to build them, but I think a lot of the people who have been there a long time don’t want to see it happen. I can see both sides, especially if that was your home and if somebody just suddenly wanted to put up something that maybe wasn’t your aesthetic. But with the things I’m interested in, I think they’re really cool looking. But not everybody’s me, nor should they be.

It seems like we have to figure out something, right? I mean, obviously our resources will only go so far. A lot of those issues are interesting to me even outside my painting, but also I think it’s probably reflected in some of the things I’m painting now. Just the idea of: What are your resources and how is this going to play out in the future? It seems like we don’t really have any grasp or we have no ability to think any more than a few years [in advance]. It’s like: “We still have it now so what’s the problem; why should we even worry about it?” I have nephews and I think what a shit world this is going to be, but maybe people just always think like that.

I think we’re finally realizing, against our will now, that we won’t always be the superpower. I think we’re having our humbling now. And actually I think of it in terms of the entire span of history and during those Roman days when the shit was hitting the fan, or even other smaller civilizations that fell apart, that they were probably thinking like, “My God, how is life going to go on?” But it always seems to keep happening. Maybe this place won’t keep on, but something will.

I guess one of the theories about the Mayans—and I’m not a scholar, I’m just a dilettante reader—was that they eventually created a situation where they could no longer keep their city going because they were so badly managing resources. And you think that’s something real that really happened and it could happen again. But it’s impossible to feel connected on a day-to-day basis with that reality. So when I see wind turbines I think: God it’s so nice that somebody isn’t completely in denial of the fact that we need to find something that will actually keep coming—like wind. To me, it seems pretty renewable unless there’s something about wind currents I don’t know. Maybe we’ll use up all the wind and then that will be it—we’ll never have a good breezy day again.

Have any turbines entered your work?

A few really little ones. There’s one I did just since I’ve come to Provincetown. My fellow [resident] was looking at it and saying that it might be a recipe for disaster because I put little water towers there and they’re high above where the electrical turbines would be. If the water towers should leak on the electrical stuff (laughs), he has insinuated that that’s a plan for an interesting future but maybe not a really great one. So once again the idea of: We have this really great idea for how to fix things and it’s like, whoops, how are we going to deal with the aftermath of that really “great idea”?

On a daily basis, how much time do you put into your painting? Can you quantify it at all?

Well, summer has been different, but I almost know exactly how much I’ve been working this summer because I’ve been keeping track of my hours. It’s different for me right now because I’m at residency. I don’t have any duties. I can just do whatever I want to do. I’ve been working 16 hour days. Some of those hours are spent staring at things. I’m not trying to say that I spend that whole 16 hours chained to my desk painting. I guess at least 12 hours a day I’m making something this summer.

I was getting to the point where I would be tired and think I should go to sleep, but I’d feel guilty for sleeping. And that’s kind of when you know that you’ve taken it too far. It’s almost like a kind of anorexia but with sleep. If you start feeling guilty that you slept three hours in the past two days, that’s not a good place to be in mentally. Although, I will say that the things you think about and see and the way you look at life after sleep deprivation is different. It’s very, very different. And I’d never advocate it and it’s not a lifestyle. I used to keep my youthful vigor by sleeping a good 10 hours a day. Now if I get 6 it’s a really great day. And I’m a huge champion and fan of sleep.

When I’m in Cleveland I have my day-job at the gallery connected to the Cleveland Institute of Art. I am the assistant to the Director there. When the gallery is doing installations, then I work relatively later hours than most people do, I guess. And when the gallery is not doing installations, then I work in the office two times a week, so I have more time to work on my own work. But it can get pretty hairy if there’s an installation and I have to work and that’s my job, then at the same time you’re dealing deadlines it can get to the point where I have been, embarrassingly, at work weeping and falling apart because I wouldn’t have gotten sleep so much that I was physically starting to fall apart. Not literally falling apart, but physically just felt so bad and so mentally confused because I would go home and catch a nap and then I’d get up and work [on painting] until 7 in the morning and take a shower and go to work. You can’t really do that for a long period of time. Not that I would never sleep, but I’d get little bouts of three of four hours here and there. That’s rough. Sometimes I wonder what my paintings would be like if my life was different and I wasn’t going through these cycles of complete insanity.

It’s all self-imposed and it’s not anybody else’s fault. I’m not complaining, like, “Oh, poor artist worker, chained to her…” It’s just a reality that there are only so many hours in the day and there are for everybody and all the writers and all the moms and all the factory workers—they all have the same 24 hours to try and stuff everything you want to do and still have friends.

Which it’s different in Provincetown, although there’s a lot of really great artists and lovely people there, I don’t really know too many so I don’t have as many social debts. So I can indulge in those hours working with no interruption, which is nice. But once again, I wouldn’t want to do that forever. Who doesn’t love their friends? It’s always a big part of why anyone wants to go be in cities.

Could you talk a little about the difference between painting on paper versus on canvas? And why you’ve been choosing to work on paper?

I haven’t painted on canvas for a long time. It’s mostly a texture and absorption kind of thing. I work with acrylic paint, but with a lot of water and a mat medium because the acrylic paint can get quite shiny, which doesn’t really work with my subjects. So I use a mat medium to make it flat. Because I use the paint in more liquid form, you can prepare canvas to accept that type of flow but I don’t want to go through all that.

And personally, because I’m staring at things from a few inches away I like a really smooth texture and also the way that it feels for the brush to go along the surface. It’s a tactile thing. That’s why I don’t really work on canvas. The teeth of canvas and how it holds on the brush for making details. Lots of people who are way better than myself and even some who are not even perfectly my equal have done beautiful, detailed paintings on canvas. But, personally, it just doesn’t work with me.

I started printmaking I think in 2006. I worked with Zygote Press, which is a community print-making place in Cleveland. Every year they pull an artist who’s not a print-maker into their clutches and get you all hooked on the print-making junk [laughs] and then you’re stuck with these desires to go print-make.

I’m happy that’s part of my life now and that made me really interested in working with paper. And it seems that paper really sucks up the water media really well. Also, there’s some alteration you can do with paper: you can cut it, you can razor it. I try to never poke holes through it because people notice that, but if I make the small mistakes with acrylic paint I can kind of razorblade it off . And maybe if you really inspected the surface you would see that something had happened, but if you’re just looking at the painting I don’t think it would be too distracting.

So it’s also nice that it can be altered in that way. I’ve also started working with panel, although I don’t have any of those here [at RoCo exhibit] and that has a little less room when you make a mistake. You can kind of scrape things off but the surface is so delicate that it’s really obvious when you make any alterations at all, so in some ways I’m still really connected with working with paper so you can work back and forth a little bit more.

I’ve been working with clay-prepared panels, they’re called clay board, and I’m still kind of learning how to use them and how they work with the paint. It’s just when something gets absorbed really quickly when you’re painting, there’s usually not a lot of brushmarks. So if you’re a painter, technically speaking, and you want to make a field of blank washed color and you don’t want brushmarks, part of it is how you have your paint ready and how it’s on the brush so there’s no lines across it, but also if the paper doesn’t absorb it all at the same time you see lines and it just doesn’t look flat.

So those are just technical details of why you might want a surface to absorb something quickly. With panels I’m still really learning. It’s fun to try something different. And it seems probably to me like, “Oh, I’m doing all this experimenting,” but it seems like so pathetic—paper or panel, what’s the difference?—but in terms of someone actually working on it, physically it does feel different. And it looks different. It retains these little brushmarks because it doesn’t absorb, so if I make a line a lot of times you can still see the mark of the brush, which isn’t something that usually happens in my paintings on paper.

Maybe some people can [notice], but I don’t have a lot of evidence of brushwork in my painting. I don’t think people look at it and say, “Oh, look at those lovely brushmarks.” People are just usually like, “Are you fucking nuts?” [laughs] “How big are your brushes?” I use little tiny brushes for a lot of detail and sometimes they get blown out a little bit because I don’t take super-great care of them, which basically just means that the brush hair starts to separate. So I’m there with a razorblade cutting these individual little hairs off my brushes and if they’re too large then I’ll be there at like 3 in the morning and I’m obviously not going to buy a new brush. So I’m cutting off hairs until you get just the right amount where you can do a tiny, chain-linked fence, but if you cut off too many hairs it no longer will hold the paint very well. So it doesn’t really work so good and then you’re cutting down the next bunch into five hairs—but not four hairs or three hairs. There’s a limit, you know?

I use some stuff that cleans acrylic off brushes and it sort of works, but the brushes are really never the same once it dries on there. It’s sort of tragic.

I saw someone on a blog compare your work to “Beetlejuice.” Have you seen or heard that comparison?

No, I haven’t heard that, but that’s funny. The movie comes on cable a great deal—back when I was living at home and had cable. Well, I love Tim Burton’s aesthetic. Obviously, it’s appealing to me—that crazy, alternate world where everything’s all twisted. I don’t know that I’ve ever considered “Beetlejuice” while I’m working. Sometimes people draw parallels to Dr. Seuss. I love Dr. Seuss. Although once again I’ve never been like, “I’m very influenced by Dr. Seuss,” but it probably has influenced me.

Another interesting thing sometimes people bring up on blogs is Italo Calvino, who’s an Italian writer. I was never consciously trying to make invisible cities. He has this book Invisible Cities that I believe in some ways is alternate descriptions of Venice, but he’s describing all these fantastical cities and some of them are up in the air and some of them are tied together with strings. I love Italo Calvino. And reading his books are an incredible mind-bending experience. Just the way he works with words and narrative is pretty insane, and I kind of wonder what it’s like reading them in Italian, but my grasp of Italian is pretty weak.
I’ve been reading his work for a while, but I explained that the work sort of comes along with its own plan. And one thing sort of leads to another inside that little world. When I heard that Italo Calvino thing, I was like “Wow, that’s amazing,” because I never in any way tried to emulate that, but it is something I love. That didn’t necessarily feed into why things ended up being that way, but it’s interesting that it happened.

What was it like having your work used by Neko Case for “Middle Cyclone”?

I had my work in an issue of New American Paintings in 2007 and she was in a bookstore and saw it and she contacted the gallery in Chicago. She was just book shopping. That’s the beauty of being in something that’s all over the country because then it doesn’t really matter that you live in Cleveland. Not that there’s anything wrong with living in Cleveland but people who are far away have a hard time—without their binoculars—seeing what you’re doing in your part of the world. She’s so super-sweet and kind and awesome. I just saw her play with New Pornographers on their tour in Boston. So I took the ferry over to go to the show and say hello and I got to meet Carl and a few other people.

Had you met her before?

We’ve met a few times. Whenever she plays in Cleveland we try to go out. We’ve eaten some Hungarian dessert together. She’s very generous with her Hungarian desserts and she’s a really, really great person.

In terms of Middle Cyclone, it seems like your art just made perfect sense.

Yeah, I think that was a happy serendipity based on some of the things she’s interested in. It all just kind of made sense.

Do you feel that connection?

I do. Well, we’re not like “high-five” best friends or anything [laughs] but she makes a lot of sense to me.

I read you’re from Erie, PA, and I’ve been there once. It’s different from Cleveland, right?

In some ways it’s a tiny version of Cleveland. It’s obviously a bit greener, not environmentally speaking but physically, than in Cleveland. There are parts of Cleveland that are lovely, fresh with trees and parks, but I don’t live in that part of Cleveland, so I don’t always think about it.

Geoff Graser was a newspaper reporter and freelance journalist in a not-too-distant past life. He lives in Rochester, has an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Bennington College, and likes his popcorn burnt.