Studio visit with Skeleton Krewe Chris

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In the studio with Skeleton Krewe Chris (all artwork © Christopher Kirsch; all photos © Luna Park)

On my recent trip to New Orleans, I had the great pleasure of finally meeting long-time Flickr friend, fellow graffiti photographer, and artist, skeletonkrewe. He not only showed me some of his hometown’s best graffiti spots, but also graciously invited me into his studio and agreed to answer some of my questions.

Please introduce yourself. How long have you been making art and how did it all start? Tell us about some of your various projects.

Hi, my name is Christopher Kirsch (but I mostly go by Chris).

I am New Orleans born and bred. I am a self taught painter, print-maker, photographer and papier mache artist. I am the leader and founder of the New Orleans’ Carnival Club, the Skeleton Krewe.

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Son House

I have ongoing series of musicians, either New Orleans’ or Delta blues. I also paint portraits of Skeleton Krewe members and my newest series is somewhat “anatomically correct” animal skeletons, kind of inspired by textbooks and circus side shows.

SkeletonKrewe
Pig skeleton


What inspires you?

Life in New Orleans and the American DEEP South, mainly Louisiana and Mississippi. Life & death in New Orleans. New Orleans’ rhythm & blues and Delta blues. Food and culture found in the Southeast region of New Orleans.

SkeletonKrewe
Okra Truck

You have lived in New Orleans your entire life. How has this shaped your artistic practice? What is characteristic of New Orleans folk art?

I’m born & raised here. I’m a rarity these days. Tons and tons of transplants moving in, and it ain’t necessarily a good thing…

I grew up drawing and painting, no one ever told me “how to paint”. So I do what I do and have developed my own style over the years: being self taught, I define myself as a folk artist.  Anything I find around me is inspiration for my art: I’ve painted everything from musicians to food, po-boys & crawfish (a.k.a. sandwiches and crawdaddies).

What is Skeleton Krewe and why is it important to you?

The Skeleton Krewe is a small New Orleans Carnival Marching Club. I started it in 1999 by myself and have slowly grown to 40+ members (although not everyone marches each year). I know everyone personally, have taught each one to do papier mache, how to paint their suit, and about face make-up. We try and hold ourselves to some strict carnival standards. Each year we make new heads and try to keep to some level of secrecy. We lead one parade on the Friday night before Mardi Gras and we also march early on Carnival morning. Some photos can be seen here:   Skeleton Krewe 2013.

SkeletonKrewe
Skeleton Krewe cooler on wheels

To what extent do you use found or recycled objects in your work? What is their appeal?

As an artist, I pretty much live hand to mouth, so I am always on the lookout for anything I can paint on, from cabinet doors to old shipping crates and 55 gallon drum lids. I really don’t like canvas, it has no appeal to me, no character… A rusty 55 gallon drum lid tells a story and then you just add onto that story by adding your own art to it.

SkeletonKrewe
James Booker

Why did you start painting portraits of jazz and blues greats? Do you listen to their music while you paint?

I started by doing portraits of two of the most famous (dead) New Orleans musicians: Professor Longhair and James Booker, 2 of New Orleans piano greats! Their music is just embedded into our lives, we grew up knowing the lyrics to their songs before we even realized who they were. In my teen years, I grew up with punk and through The Clash, my life came full circle: The Clash covered a New Orleans standard called Junco Partner and it made me realize how special New Orleans music is. The Clash took another New Orleans great on tour with them: Lee Dorsey. And a couple of years later, when Lee Dorsey died, some of the members were his pallbearers. Anyway, this all brought me a greater appreciation of New Orleans. Later on, I started getting into the blues and traveled throughout the Mississippi Delta, visiting some of the great historical sites of the blues. And yes, I always listen to whoever it is I’m painting at the time – I find great difficulty in painting musicians that I don’t like.

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Skip James

How is the graffiti & street art scene in New Orleans? Are there any particular local artists whose work stands out in your opinion?

Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has been a spray-cation destination. I can’t say that I approve of this, but it has brought some greats to New Orleans. Read More Books has been here a couple of times in the past 8 years and dominated. You Go Girl has been here a bunch and UFO 907 came a few years back. And of course Banksy was here and did some really great, politically motivated pieces. I enjoy all their work and then there are some natives that really stand out: Harsh has been the dominant graffiti artist for years and years. Meek has also been around.

Harsh
Harsh D30

Then there’s a batch of younger ones that I like a lot: Uzit, Achoo, AMYK and MRSA. We also have to deal with the Grey Ghost, who goes around buffing everything. He’s nuts and he’s dangerous – if you watch Vigilante Vigilante you can find out more about him.

uzit amyk western1
UZIT AMYK

Where can people see more of your work online? How can interested people contact you?

I do a lot of art markets and festivals in and around New Orleans, but I do have a presence online: http://www.flickr.com/photos/skeletonkrewe. I also have two groups on Facebook: New Orleans Folk Art and Bare Bones Studio. And people can email me directly at christopherkirsch@yahoo.com. I’ll be setting up some sort of eCommerce site shortly.

SkeletonKrew
James Booker, R.L. Burnside & skeleton

In the Studio with Leon Reid IV

Draft P (all photos by Luna Park)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to spend some time with Leon Reid IV in his studio. He’s in the midst of fabricating his 100 Story House, which he hopes to install in a Brooklyn park sometime later this summer. Before I left, Leon made a get-well piece for my partner, Peter, who recently broke his hip. Here’s how he made it, from start to finish. Thanks, Leon!!

Leon starts cutting out the P with a torch.
Sparks fly as the flame cuts through metal.
With a well-practiced hand, Leon expertly completes the first cuts.
The outline of the P takes shape.
Leon applies a final burst of heat to cut out the center of the P.
The molten center of the P glows from the heat.
The hot P is dunked into a bucket of cold water.
Slag has formed along the edge of the P.
Leon chisels the slag off the back of the P.
Any remaining rough edges are polished off with a grinder.
Leon cuts a base for the P with an angle grinder.
Leon employs a MIG welder to fuse the P onto the base.
One last tack and the weld is complete.
The P takes a final, cooling dip in water.
Leon and the finished P!
Yo, P, feel better soon!

Jon Burgerman’s Doodle Domination

Jon Burgerman: Master of Puppets (photo by Becki Fuller)

If you ever find yourself wondering what the British born/Brooklyn based artist Jon Burgerman is up to, you are asking the wrong question. The real question should be what ISN’T he up to? In the last year alone, he has released a puzzle poster, a limited edition t-shirt for Azita, silk screens for 1xRun and Random Number, designed a Bathtime Favourites Tin for Lush, installed a flower bed outside of the Nottingham Castle Museum, penned the soon-to-be-released book “My American Summer”, released a CD and music video with his band Anxieteam…and that’s not even touching on his various projects, commissions, installations, performances, residencies and exhibitions throughout the world!  Ahhhh, I need a nap just from writing about his life!  I guess that may be why he occasionally shows up around town in various states of undress.

Doodle on Doodle action by Jon Burgerman (photo by Becki Fuller)

Even before meeting him it was easy to see why Burgerman is such a popular artist. His “doodling” often showcases his great sense of humor and enjoyment of the world, with all the meals it has to offer.  After meeting him it was easy to see how he maintains the viewer’s initial interest and has turned it into quite the rabid following: aside from said sense of humor, Burgerman is not someone who is afraid to experiment with his style, even if it risks alienating fans who want to see him produce variations of the same work over and over again.

Putting the (veggie) burger in Burgerman (photo by Becki Fuller)
Jon's upcoming book "My American Summer"

During our studio visit, it was exciting to see how he experiments with different materials, colors, shapes, form, technique and scale.    For some artists, once they have found success, it can be especially intimidating to mess with what can be viewed as a “winning formula”.  It was interesting to hear Jon talk about his work and what appears to be a compulsion to continue moving artistically in order to keep his work interesting to himself.

charcoal on paper drawing by Jon Burgerman (photo by Becki Fuller)
a recent painting by Jon Burgerman

And clearly, whatever he is doing is working. Burgerman currently has two street installations on display here in NYC: his own rendition of the Garden of Eden in the courtyard of Factory Fresh in Brooklyn and Groundbreak in Manhattan, along side artists Abe Lincoln Jr. and Ellis G.  He is also set to head out to two European exhibitions later this month: Heitsch Galerie in Munich, opening on the 13th and Galerie Issue in Paris, opening on the 28th.  While in Europe, Burgerman and his musical collaborator Jim Avignon will also be performing as Anxieteam in London and his hometown of Nottingham.

"Pens Are My Friends" (photo by Becki Fuller)
A peek into Burgerman's book "Pens Are My Friends" (photo by Becki Fuller)
Single Line Drawings (photo by Becki Fuller)
Putting Pen To Paper (photo by Becki Fuller)
some of the smaller paintings that Jon has been working on (photo by Becki Fuller)
Anxieteam, in the felt, by The Felt Mistress (photo by Becki Fuller)
Jon Burgerman's installation for Groundbreak
Jon creates the Garden of Eden in the Factory Fresh Courtyard

I hope that you all enjoyed this look into Jon Burgerman’s studio as much as I did! And if you need another fix before the next time we see him, just step into the Burgerplex.

Studio Visit: Destroy & Rebuild

Descending the stairs into the Brooklyn basement that is home to the Destroy & Rebuild studio, your senses are immediately assaulted by loud beats and the pungent odor of paint fumes and smoke. Once you’ve acclimatized, you find yourself at the center of a hotbed of activity. The three-man collective that is Destroy & Rebuild is busy putting the final touches on an impressive, large canvas for the Red show at Manhattan’s Cheryl Hazan Gallery and the energy in the room is palpable. Anthony Vasquez washes screens and Mike Baca waves a dryer over a corner of the canvas, while Fernando Romero paces back and forth, spouting suggestions for improving the composition of the piece. I spent an afternoon in the studio with the guys and, contrary to my initial impression, came away firmly convinced that there is definitely a method to their madness.

Destroy & Rebuild (photo by Luna Park)
Destroy & Rebuild (photo by Luna Park)

In late 2005, Anthony founded Destroy & Rebuild after a stint in jail. His friend “By Hand” – now part of the 624713 Art Collective – introduced him to street vending and taught him the finer points of stenciling and silk-screening. Using his archive of graffiti and urban landscape photographs as a primary source, Anthony started working on creating his own screens. While he now has the capacity to burn screens in the studio, in the beginning he relied heavily on the Lower East Side community arts center ABC No Rio. By 2007, Mike had joined Destroy & Rebuild and between the two of them, they had enough material in production to start vending on their own. When Mike ran into some difficulties with the law, Fernando jumped in to help out … and the collective as it exists today was formed.

Destroy & Rebuild (photo by Luna Park)
Destroy & Rebuild (photo by Luna Park)

Spend enough time with Destroy & Rebuild and you’ll quickly realize they are a tight unit. Each canvas is created collaboratively, with each member taking turns adding and blending various elements. Fernando favors the paint brush and is responsible for laying down the colored or textured backdrops that form the foundation of a canvas. Mike contributes graphic elements and specializes in modes of transportation (think box trucks, taxicabs or police cruisers). Anthony concentrates mainly on architectural elements and newspaper collages; he’s also developed a rust patina to age and distress canvases.

Destroy & Rebuild (photo by Luna Park)
Destroy & Rebuild (photo by Luna Park)

When asked what motivates them, Fernando said it best: “It’s about the freshness of each new piece … the excitement of creating something new … and it’s a surprise every time.” Not a day goes past when they’re not painting, he said, and it shows in canvases that have become increasingly more refined. At their vending spot in SoHo, Destroy & Rebuild do a brisk business with their canvases. They sell to young and old, tourists and New Yorkers alike – “Even the Law loves us!” Mike chimes in, clearly amused that SoHo beat cops show an interest in their work.

Destroy & Rebuild (photo by Luna Park)
Destroy & Rebuild (photo by Luna Park)

The city of New York looms large as a defining influence on the work of these three native New Yorkers. Although they make use of some of New York’s many iconic images, that is but one element in their repertoire. Combined with their pride in New York’s graffiti heritage, with each canvas they capture a fleeting yet defining moment of New York at the end of a decade. While gentrification has run rampage in certain parts of New York, we all know that there are still plenty of raw spots to be found. This wild heart is the core of Destroy and Rebuild’s work and it’s powerful enough that it speaks to everyone.

Destroy & Rebuild (photo by Luna Park)
Destroy & Rebuild (photo by Luna Park)

Anthony, Fernando and Mike have big plans for 2010 – watch out, Europe, here they come – and a strong enough work ethic to pull it off. You can find them at the corner of Prince and Greene Thursdays through Sundays or online at http://destroyandrebuildnyc.com/.

Many thanks to the lovely Julie for her hospitality!

Happy Holidays from the Street Spot! Stay tuned for more good things next year…

Studio Visit: Cake

On a recent rainy weekend near the end of October, I took the train up to Connecticut to visit the artist Cake in her studio. Although she only started putting her work on the street about two years ago, Cake is no stranger to the street art world. Through her circle of friends at Pratt Institute in the early 2000s, she had a front-row seat to the burgeoning street art scene then taking shape in Brooklyn. At the time, she was working on completing her degree in painting and very much focused on her studio art. With this in mind, I was curious to learn more about her artistic development and what motivated her to take her work out of the studio and onto the streets.

cake

Encouraged to pick up a brush by her grandmother, a noted Chinese landscape artist in her own right, Cake immersed herself in a world of art from an early age on. Taught to paint using watercolors, she now paints exclusively with acrylics. Before embarking upon her course of studies at Pratt, she began experimenting in painting abstracts. She continued producing abstract paintings at the same time as building a body of more figurative work.

cake punch

One could even say she was building bodies both figuratively and literally, as anatomical elements began appearing as a motif that bridged both areas of work. From a structural standpoint, she used skeletal outlines to differentiate between foregrounds and backgrounds in her abstracts. She admitted to relishing a certain “creepiness” associated with skulls and skeletons that, especially when incorporated into her portraits of babies and children, radiated vulnerability on the cusp of impending violence. The heart also features prominently within Cake’s work and represents her attempt to put a “medicinal spin on an emotion.” Through her art, she aims to therapeutically transform raw and loaded emotions into functional and neutral symbols; for Cake, the heart is a symbol far removed from stereotypical notions of romance. I sense an incredible hidden strength in Cake’s work – her delicately drawn female forms, with open hearts, visible bones and arms akimbo, belie their apparent helplessness and exude a toughness that I find very appealing.

enriched yellow cake

Befitting of someone who pours her heart into her art, Cake eschews the mass production methods of some of her contemporaries. Her pieces are all hand drawn and colored – in a word, each is an original. Given the incredible amount of work she invests in each piece, I asked what had changed since her days at Pratt and why had she decided to start getting up. For Cake, it was the realization that the street is not only more authentic than the gallery, but also where she feels most at home. Beginning with hand-embellished stickers, she quickly moved on to wheatpasting first small, then increasingly larger pieces as her confidence and comfort level rose. Like many street artists, she was soon completely hooked, enjoying the sensation of paint and paste on her hands and reveling in the adrenaline rush following the successful installation of a piece. Finding it liberating to let her work go, she made a conscious choice to start putting up more work and to stop worrying about what happened to it. Her work has clearly found resonance amongst her peers, as she’s already completed a number of successful collaborations (notably with Veng of Robots Will Kill, Feral, and Passenger Pigeon) – with no doubt more to come.

cake vampire heart

Cake was recently one of three artists, alongside Chris Stain and Cern, tapped by Art in General to provide murals for the arts organization’s fundraising gala. She is participating in Brooklynite Gallery’s upcoming group show, Go Get Your Shinebox, as well as in Anno Domini’s annual invitational group exhibit and art sale, Fresh Produce. You can see more of her work on her Flickr.

piece(s) of cake

Studio Visit: Elbow-Toe

I recently visited Elbow-Toe in his sunny Brooklyn studio to talk about inspirations and processes for his latest series of linoleum cut prints. He put up his newest street piece, You Never Wash Up After Yourself, this weekend and here’s a little insight into how it came to be:

you never wash up after yourself

For this particular series, Elbow-Toe has taken imagery from classical children’s literature – in this case Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle – as a point of departure. This type of imagery resonates with viewers, he explained, because it is something people are predisposed to recognize. The challenge is to subvert the imagery by re-contextualizing it in an urban setting and to imbue it with a new set of meanings. A cursory glance reveals a cute hedgehog hanging her laundry, yet closer inspection reveals that all is not what it seems.

elbow-toe sketch

In composing a piece, ET begins by sketching a study. He prepares himself by reviewing photographs of his subject from many different angles, absorbing clues for anatomical structure and making notes for possible color schemes. Individual elements are not worked out in great detail, as he prefers to leave room for improvisation in transferring the sketch from paper to linoleum. Having created a reverse image on tracing paper as a guideline, he commits his image to linoleum in charcoal, setting it with a fixative when he’s satisfied with the outcome.

elbow-toe sketch detail

Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle has been transformed into a homeless woman surrounded by belongings recycled from the detritus of society. She lives in a makeshift shanty built out of an upturned cardboard box with an aluminum baking pan for a roof. Her cart is a converted sardine box with buttons for wheels; in it, she has collected garbage with a syringe. In place of the heroine’s missing handkerchief, the central item in Potter’s story, a pair of girl’s underwear imprinted with cherries flap on a makeshift yo-yo clothesline while a used condom lies discarded in the foreground. While these elements cast a decidedly dark shadow over the scene, ET insists the imagery is open to interpretation. There is a message to be gleaned from the piece, he says, but not necessarily a moral.

elbow-toe linocut detail

Using a utility knife, Elbow-Toe begins the painstaking process of carving the linoleum. The knife allows him far greater control to create fine linework and a level of detail he cannot achieve using a gouge. A piece of this size can easily take him several weeks of 5 to 8 hour work days to complete. Having suffered from painful carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of having carved large woodblocks in the past, ET now engages several interns to assist in carving. Yet critical details such as hands or faces he carves himself. He also inks and pulls all of his prints, preferring to use sign writers bond because it holds ink well. The final step prior to bringing his pieces to the street is to hand color each print with acrylic paints, thereby enhancing the print with an added layer of definition.

I encourage everyone to reflect on the next piece of Elbow-Toe’s work you encounter. You can be sure that each detail has been deliberated, each symbol carefully weighed and all elements delicately balanced into a unified whole. To the keen observer goes the reward of multiple layers of meaning waiting to be discovered…