An Interview with Jim Neel by Jenny K. Hager

Les Enfants de la Terre: an interview with Jim Neel.
Author:  Hager, Jenny K.
Article Type:  Interview
Date:  Jan 1, 2011
Publication:  Southeastern College Art Conference Review
ISSN:  1043-5158

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 10.32.04 AMJim Neel is the 2010 recipient of the SECAC Artist’s Fellowship Award. His proposed installation, Les Enfants de la Terre (Children of the Earth), is a series of life-size figures in terracotta and iron. This work, intended to draw attention to the plight of child soldiers, will be exhibited at the 2011 SECAC conference in Savannah, GA. Neel is currently Associate Professor of Art at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama, where he is also Chair of the Department of Art & Art History and Director of the Durbin Gallery. He received his BFA in Sculpture from Birmingham-Southern College and his MFA in Sculpture from the University of Alabama. In April, he talked with Jenny Hager about his art.

JH: I am curious about your background as an artist and the experiences that shaped your work.

JN: Oh gosh, you know I can’t think of a time when I didn’t make things–didn’t draw or make things. I mean, Mom sort of saved all of those drawings. They go back to where I’m three or four. I really can’t think of anything–any time when I really didn’t do that. And there were certainly times that–there were times when I wanted to be an archeologist; and there were times when I wanted to be a surgeon; and times when I wanted to be a jet fighter pilot. And, you know, even then, I think that when I went to college, I chose a liberal arts college, the place where I teach, actually. I chose to go there because it had this really great art department. But it also had this really great pre-med program and science program. So I didn’t really–I really hadn’t sort of made up my mind that that’s what it was.

JH: You wanted your options open for a while?

JN: First semester–this is where the love is, and my interests, you know. I still read an awful lot of science. I still read–and, of course, my work has always got some sort of archeology. And it’s got some science in it, at least to a certain extent. Maybe, you know, maybe Discovery Magazine science, but it’s got that kind of thing going in it. So, you know, I don’t know. My background–liberal arts college here in Birmingham, and, you know, a couple of three really, really great professors who are still my friends. You know, an art history professor and the two studio people. In fact, the one who taught me sculpture, I have his job now. He retired and they hired me to follow him. And that was an honor, but it was also just sort of one of those things that I always had in the back of my mind. And then graduate school. I think really through undergraduate and graduate school, I have almost as many hours in printmaking as I do in sculpture.

JH: Yeah, I noticed your prints on your website too. They are amazing.

JN: Thanks. Thanks. I just found a way to sort of do it a little differently now. It’s mostly digital. I really just didn’t do any prints for a long time. I don’t think I did one print between graduate school and 1995. It’s like for 25 years or something like that–22 years or something. I really didn’t do anymore printmaking. And then I did this giant woodcut that killed me because it was so labor intensive. Then I didn’t do anymore for a long time. And then I did a few more woodcuts after that (Fig. 1). It was when I started this project that sort of ultimately led to this color work. You know, I had these Photoshop sketches for the sculptures, and one of my colleagues said, “Jim, why are you doing them that little? Why don’t you make prints out of them, and it’s like a twofer.” I’m, like, “Well, duh.” And from that point, I just started doing them large scale and with a little more detail work in it. But the whole idea developed this vocabulary of individual pieces that would ultimately go together in the larger work. And so printmaking and sculpture are really my background and photography became a part of my life in the middle in there. And it’s just like one of those things where in graduate school you got to put it together–but in the old days you had to learn the dark room and stuff, because you had to make your prints, you know, your slides and stuff to send them out. And the only way was to process them and develop them yourself, and you had to learn to take slides of your own work and, you know, how to make it look good and things like that.

One of my buddies was a photographer, and he went, like, this is how the darkroom works, and this is how your camera works. And so that sort of led to the journalist work, but that was a way to get to Central America–that was the nearest war, and it was a way to get there–to get to experience the thing. I was trying to make art about it without having experience in any of it myself and seeing it for myself–you know. I couldn’t rely on anybody else’s eyes and things. But my buddy was a writer, and we were both interested in the same thing. We were both interested in what was going on. You know, especially in El Salvador and Nicaragua and in other places like that. It was in the early 80’s–late 70’s, early 80’s and so we just, you know, I didn’t own a camera at the time. We just sort of faked our way through some interviews, and they sent us down with basically enough money for a plane ticket and that was about it.

JH: You can really see how that experience affected your work. When I read about it and your experience, and put it all together, it definitely seemed like it had a large impact on your work.

JN: I don’t know. I think we–sometimes I think a lot of us have just one or two things that we do, and we just repeat them over and over again the rest of our lives. I was always sort of interested in this sort of thing, this craziness. You know my family background is really a military background. I was the only person in my family that didn’t have that experience, you know. My brother is at VMI. He’s a command sergeant major at VMI in Virginia–career military, bronze star, you know, paratrooper, and that’s like the most recent stuff. I was looking at Lynn’s family and our family, our son’s heritage. If we put those two together, in his lineage someone has fought in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War–including the Revolutionary War … so that has always been an interest, just one of those things, and it was a natural thing for me to do at that time in my life. I was thirty something and risk seemed okay. It definitely has influenced me, I think when you see the results of something like that. I mean, El Salvador in the 80’s–El Salvador is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere. Haiti is the only country that’s poorer. And in the 80’s the average yearly income for El Salvador I know was $500. Something in the neighborhood of 50,000 thousand people died or disappeared during that war. The United States government was putting in about $500 million dollars a year into it in terms of money. Both sides just did atrocious awful things to each other …

JH: How long were you there?

JN: Well, we went in and out. We would usually be there two to three weeks at a time. We didn’t go and stay there. We didn’t live there. We were both teaching. So we had to go when we could, between classes, summers, and spring breaks or Christmas or something like that.

JH: What was the experience like while you were there? What was your kind of day-to-day experience, I guess?

JN: Mostly, it was really good. The second day … Dennis had gone once or twice before. But the second day I was there, we got caught in a fire fight and–

JH: On the second day?

JN: Yeah. Yeah. It was just crazy. We were actually going into a little town in the northern part of El Salvador called La Palma. It was really close to the Honduran border. I know that the border was in territory that was rebel territory–government territory, just off and on, depending on what day of the week it was. There was a small town called La Palma in which an artist, Fernando Llort, had organized the town members. They were producing these crafts, and you can see them all the time now in places like Pier One and places like that. They were these little bright colored village scenes and animals and crosses, especially at Christmas, really beautiful little things. So he had organized the people up there to kind of paint these things and make these things as a cooperative. We were heading up there to interview them or to talk to them. So when we stopped to talk to some of the FMLN rebels that were sort of on the side of road–stopped and talked to them–they were attacked. And for a half hour, we were sort of hiding in a drainage ditch and doing things like that. It was a profound thing for me. Not only did I just sort of experience that–I have to say that I didn’t have to stand up and shoot back. A lot of people in my generation are Vietnam veterans. One of my closest friends is.

JH: My father is too.

JN: And, of course, that experience is a little different–a great deal different than pointing a camera and shooting something, than actually fighting for your life. Although I thought that was probably over at the moment. And I made art about that experience for a while. But there were just other things–interviews with “Mothers of the Disappeared” and looking through their albums of corpses and things like that. Everyone had a horror story. Everyone just had a horror story. And there were a couple of people that we knew–journalists that were injured or killed afterwards, you know. So it was one of those experiences that sort of leads continually to the work now.

JH: Well, the new body of work that you proposed for SECAC exhibition, Les Enfants de la Terre, seems related–you said that you made art like that for a while, and it seems you may have come back to that or to think about that again.

JN: Well, the Babel piece (Fig. 2). The piece that I made for Kohler is about the craziness that we do as a species, like hubris–using force to conquer and maintain as if it’s going to last; as if it’s going to last longer than any one particular reign. The Qin Warriors–I mean, Qin’s rule really only lasted a few years. In that time, he enslaved a lot of people–murdered an awful lot of people. But, you know, it references, of course, the Egyptians and Ramses. He conquered a lot of stuff, and lot of what you read about him is what he said about himself.

JH: Right.

JN: And, again, his kingdom is gone and Shelly writes in the poem, “It’s covered by sand.” It’s that sort of cycle that you just can’t …

JH: I’m curious about what effect would you like your work to have on your audience?

JN: I think that the Babel thing–I like the fact that people smile when they see it first–you know, fifty chimpanzees standing in military formation. I sort of like that people sort of laugh or grin or smile when they see it first. Because it’s the same thing with the prints, the monkey prints (Fig. 3) and things like that, I want you to sort of chuckle or laugh at least at first and then maybe discover that they are more serious than that. And maybe that is the way to get there.

JH: Yeah.

JN: I don’t think that the children [from the Les Enfants de la Terre] (Fig. 4) are going to have any kind of element of humor. I can’t find a way to humorously look at children dying or being used for whatever reason, and there’s just no humor in at all.

JH: You’re approaching this one very differently.

JN: Yeah, just pretty much straight forward. I think that although the children I’m using–the first two, my niece and nephew, are living up the street. Their father is African-American and Lynn’s sister is white. And so he’s 6’2″/ 6’3″ and very dark, and she’s Lynn’s size and fair like Lynn. And so Atticus, the little boy is very light skinned. And Esme is sort of mocha. So ethnically they really look like–they look sort of neutral for me. That may be a dangerous thing to say. I wanted them to look ethnically neutral. I didn’t want little white kids. I didn’t want them to look like little African kids or little Southeast Asian kids.

JH: Because then it has a more universal read to it.

JN: Exactly. Because I want them to look like “your children.”

JH: I think that’s really powerful.

JN: Thank you. I want to see the work. I want to get them done. But I think the idea for me is to make it that way, so that you look at them, you see that they were really tiny. They are tiny. Children are small. The guns are big, and the children are small. I told people since the 80’s that one of the scariest moments I had in El Salvador was not necessarily the firefight. It was a roadblock where the person who was looking at our credentials with a M16 pointed at us through the window of the car, was about 14.

JH: Oh!

JN: I taught 14 year olds. I know their judgment.

JH: Right. That’s really scary.

JN: No, it was very unnerving. Scary may be the wrong word. It was unnerving. I was very nervous. Especially, since it seemed to be pointed at me. And, you know, I could tell he couldn’t read when he was looking at the credentials. You know a photographer, six weeks before, and these were–a photographer had been killed there in a firefight, you know. Accidentally? I don’t think so.

JH: Probably not.

JN: So I think that was one of things that I wanted to do. I really wanted to continue. I guess at least since then. Since those early days, the stuff I generated about the conflict in Central America was, I think, since then 90 percent of the work seems to be about things that concern me. I think it is about things that I want to talk about. I want at least some dialogue. I think there’s not a lot of difference in what we did as journalists and what I do as an artist. But I think that for a long time I tried to be sort of neutral in the work, and these are the images I tried not to really say, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I’m sort of trying.

JH: To push it a little?

JN: To push it a little and not be quite so circumspect or not try to be subtle. Here it is. These are the children; they are armed. Why? You can kind of fill in the blank there if you want to.

JH: How many figures are you making, do you know?

JN: Well, I have five models at this point (Fig. 5). I think I’m shooting at least for November for three. I’m shooting to have three separate ones done. And my intentions are to make multiples of them. I would like to have five. I like odd numbers. But three is a really good number too. I really like three.

JH: Now are these going to be your prototypes?

JN: Prototypes?

JH: It won’t be like Babel?

JN: No. No. No. I don’t think so. Ultimately, what I would like to do by the time I’m finished–ultimately, what I want to have is five terracotta figures and five iron figures; but they’re the same. So they are the same. So that they are back to back. So in the center of the room then they face both ends. That’s the way I see it. Right. That’s the way. It’s up here [in the brain] right now. What I proposed for the folks at SCAD was really sort of a long rectangle on the floor of dried clay with three of them standing in one end. So they are standing in cracked, baked clay like a riverbed sort of thing or desert. Standing at one end of that, facing with that across there. So that’s what I’m looking for right now.

JH: It’s interesting to place them in these different contexts too and create a different narrative depending on how you–

JN: I think that’s what I would like to do … so I could have these figures. I would like to have multiples–so that I can rearrange them. Another interesting thing–Lynn and one of the other art history professors at school, we took twenty college students to London and Paris in January. So we went to all the museums. Paris was an interesting place. The first time we saw it, Lynn and I were standing, actually, we were sitting at the plaza out front of Notre Dame. I looked up, and there were three French paratroopers who were walking across–diagonally across that sort of long rectangular area in front of the cathedral, walking diagonally across, three of them sort of in a triangle, armed in jump boots and uniforms. And they were just kind of walking straight ahead very slowly and kept this little triangle. They wanted the point in the front and walked diagonally across.

JH: Oh, wow.

JN: And then the same thing happened again when we were at the Louvre in the big courtyard next to the iron bay. They were walking–another trio were walking. It’s a sort of typical military formation. It was this triangle thing because there’s a point, and you’ve got everything in front of you. They were very quiet, and they didn’t interact with anyone. It was very–no smiles, no joking around, just kind of making their presence known. But at the same time, you know, scanning, making sure that nothing was going to happen. And, of course, they were gone, and we were sort of left by ourselves. It was one of those things that I had experienced. That’s what I had seen in terms of the kids. That’s what I had seen. This sort of formation. And then it happens, and reason forced it a little bit–even though it was adults and everything, but still.

JH: I like hearing about how you deal with multiples because I’m an iron artist. How do you think about the multiples and how you’re using them in your work?

JN: Well, you know, I’m not sure that I’ve done a lot that way. Quite honestly, I do generally work, like, in a series of things. But the Babel thing was sort–that was really sort of new to me. I have done things that require–like in the 80’s, those abstracted figure things that I did in the 80s–lots and lots of sticks and twigs and things like that, where I would tie and wrap 600 of them together. That was kind of mantra like. I would come home and tie knots until I couldn’t tie them any more and then go to bed.

JH: And then tie them in your sleep …

JN: And then once I got all of them tied, I would tie them together, you know. I would have to stitch them together and wrap them around something. So there’s always been that sort of thing, even in my graduate [experience]–a lot of times it was a singular thing. A singular [object] made up of parts, segments maybe, that may be a better way to say it, similar or identical forms that go together–that make together–to make a larger form. The majority of my graduate work was that way. That was like a million years ago. And then at some point in there I started making individual things.

JH: These are going to be individual children too?

JN: Yes. Yes. And they can be individual or go together in a group. You can place them in a group, but they will be individual pieces. I think that’s the way I looked at the monkeys too. I call them monkeys; the apes and chimps. Babel. I had envisioned them initially as all being complete; all being individual; that they would go together in this formation of 50 of them. I thought 50 was a good thing, 50 states. That resonated with me a little bit. But that was the reason for the number, to be honest. There were 50 states; I thought there ought to be 50 monkeys. And, plus, I thought that five by ten would make a nice shape. It’s a nice grouping.

JH: You think about the space a lot. I can tell that you are mindful of the space and how you are going to place these objects.

JN: I can’t help it. I think about where it’s going and the overall thing. Especially, coming through graduate school at a time when minimalism and very site-specific things was the direction. That was the thing; that’s what I was. In graduate school, I was this minimalist who was all about the forms; but also about the–you know, the site that it was going in and how those two things reacted architecturally, almost and that sort of thing. So I still think that way …

JH: So walk me through your process on these terracotta figures. Tell me, are you going to work from life?

JN: Well. So what I have done is take photographs of them. And that’s where I am right now. I have blown them up to life size. So I will have those in the studio with me cut out on a piece of foam core right there for me to see (Fig. 6).

JH: Cardboard cutouts?

JN: Yeah. My colleagues have been moving them around the art department (Fig. 7). So that they are coming out of somebody’s office–a six-year-old with an AK-47, but everyone is basically in black and white or at least monotone or browns. I can sort of see the form and measure it if I need to, one view from the front and one from the back and one from the side, so I can get the profile and things like that. And I work pretty simply. The way I do the monkey is I cut a piece of plywood in the shape of figure from the front. And I cut out the silhouette from the profile and I put those two together and then I add the clay to it. That makes it go really quick and fast and then the plywood disappears. I’m not constantly going back and saying, I need to move that arm up. It’s there. I just put it where it’s supposed to go. Because I’m going to have to make the figures in more than one mold. The monkeys have a body, legs, base, two arms and anything else that goes on top of that is another mold or whatever. These figures, I think, I’m going to do that with these to a certain extent, at least the arm–the gun–the arms and the guns will be sepa rate molds. But then they’re made with separate pieces so I can screw them on. So I can model them and then take them off, and then I can make the mold of those separately and then make the body. But I’ve done them together so that they fit, and they look right, and so they look real. You know, it just seems to be easier for me to work that way.

JH: We all work different ways. How will you go from there? You’ll work at Sloss and then create–

JN: That’s my plan, to sort of work with them. Once I get the terracottas done, then I can use the same mold for the waxes … Ultimately, it’s just about getting the work done. For me, it’s really important to get the terracotta and iron done, because of those two materials and the connotations that go along with them. It’s important to the work. It’s just important to the work that we have iron and earth. You’re an iron artist–

JH: The history inherent to the materials.

JN: And all of the associations that come along with it. And, of course, weapons. I mean that’s the first thing that we did with iron basically. We might have used it to make a plow first, but I think we used it to make a knife, arrowheads. We used it for things like that first. That’s sad but it’s history. So I don’t think you can look at iron and not look at that …

JH: Well, I noticed that you write about your work too. On your website, I think it’s really interesting, the kind of prose written about your work.

JN: Thanks.

JH: I’m thinking of the large crow piece?

JN: The Insurgent piece (Fig. 8)?

JH: Yeah. Yeah.

JN: That’s probably an influence of my friend, Dennis Covington. I don’t know whether you have ever heard of him or not. He is actually on the faculty now at Texas Tech in Lubbock and creative non-fiction is what he’s known for. We worked together on a book called Salvation on Sand Mountain in ’95. He and I have known each other since we were, like, 15. We went to high school together and he went off–

JH: Good friend!

JN: And he went off and did stuff to write and I went off and we ended up back in Birmingham and good friends ever since. And he’s the guy I went to El Salvador with. So we have all these experiences together … you know our friendship is very old. It’s based–I think it’s based on a lot of stuff–history–but, you know, mutual respect. I think he’s an incredible writer, and so we talk on the phone pretty often. But it’s a great relationship. So I think the fact that I try to write about the work is because of him; that influence of him. I’ve learned a lot from him. I like to write.

JH: It was really nice to read that. I really liked having that when I was looking at the images–to have those thoughts behind it. It was almost like looking at a sketchbook and seeing someone’s thought process behind each work.

JN: I think, quite honestly, I work like that–really like a sketchbook. When I’m working on it, I’m writing those things and trying to find a way to do those things.

JH: Communicate them and visualize them?

JN: Both ways I like. Society is one in which we artists are denigrated to a great extent.

JH: Definitely.

JN: What passes for education in this country–we’re the first to go; the last to be added. And it’s always a luxury and never seen as something important, even though paleo-anthropology may suggest that art came first. It came before counting. It came before language. It came before lots of other things. Making has always been part of us, and making objects came at least 70,000 years ago, before we moved out of Africa. I mean, the first is from South Africa. It’s a little piece of clay with a design scratched in it 70,000 years old. It is a piece of terracotta. So it’s fundamentally too who we are, but it’s not really respected, except by basically the advertising agents in this country who manipulate us all with those visual things. So I think that maybe a part of the impetus for the writing is; one, that I like to do it but; two, sometimes I think that allows me then to–the image is here and the words are somewhere on the wall. This is not really what I’m trying to do, but this is what the work is about. Something like the way I wrote the piece about Insurgent. I really don’t like to write artist statements … I like film a lot too. So I’ve been accused of being cinematic or something like that. Because, I think, I see the big rectangle of the gallery as opposed to–

JH: What’s in it.

JN: I tend to see it as this big rectangle–this cinematic screen or something.

JH: Well, your work is really narrative–

JN: I worked a lot in the theater too and doing sets and things like that over the years. One of my best friends was an actor and director. So I did a lot of set design and things here. And I think that honed a lot of that–me thinking about it–because it was in this small black box. You were right here and so everything had to sort of like look absolutely not real or it had to look real. One or the other. It had to be, a couple of chairs and a box out there, or it had to look very real.

JH: Right.

JN: So it sort of honed that idea of that space as something that wasn’t just an object, but you had to move through it and operate within it.

JH: It’s almost acting like another character in the performance or in the narrative.

JN: Right. So I began to see theater design and installation of exhibition. So you start thinking about how someone else is going to move through it and will they be objective about it when it’s somebody else’s work.

JH: True.

JN: So the first time you start doing that and you start thinking about how does this work together: Which ones resonate? How is the space? How does the person walk through the space? So it’s like how like an actor walks across a stage because those things have to be part and parcel of the whole thing …

JH: As a wrap up question to our conversation, I’d like to know what is the most important thing to you about being an artist?

JN: Oh, gosh. I don’t know.

JH: She might know … [indicating Lynn, Jim’s wife]

JN: Do you want tell her? Go ahead.

Lynn Neel: What drives you?

JN: You know, I don’t know. I’m not sure what is the most important thing.

Lynn Neel: You can’t make art, unless it’s about something. You want to save the world, like a lot of artists.

JN: I think that’s just my voice. I guess that’s it. I think it’s what I said earlier, you know. It’s how I speak best. You know, but I’m an artist and a teacher too, and I can’t separate those two. I mean, I’m a real teacher too. I’ve got students in a class and things like that. I make art. I’m an artist teacher or a teacher artist or whatever. But I think all artists tend to be teachers, tend to be a little didactic. I don’t know. I think it’s got to be more than just–what’s the word? I think it’s more than just some sort of narcissistic thing of making stuff. I think it comes with a lot of responsibility–socially, culturally. I think that’s it. I think we are maybe less so than we used to be but maybe not. I’m not really sure. I think there are so many of us. I think that our culture is so big it’s hard to really have a voice. I think a few people do out there, but I think that’s it for me. I think it’s a way that I get to have a chance to say something, you know.

JH: Communicate your ideas?

JN: Communicate my ideas–that’s the most important thing. This is the world as I understand it, and I don’t want to say more than that. I think a part of it is that I still want to teach with the work. I still want to say, “Look, how important is it?” Are we willing to sacrifice our children for that? Is it that important to you that you are willing to offer up your sons and your daughters? I’ve got a niece who is about to go to Afghanistan. Is it worth it? Is putting her in harm’s way worth–I mean, what are getting for it? I mean, really it’s an equation. And so that’s the question that I want to ask. I think that my job as an artist is as an interrogator. I think my job is to ask the questions. And if I can change the world by one person–if I can have one person out there question something that I think is important–I think that’s what I want to do. Now, I don’t think that I can change the world. I don’t think so necessarily. But there might be one person.

Lynn Neel: Well, the Kohler piece, it’s installed there and they’re going to build a new wing to install it. And his [Jim’s] favorite part when he was there was watching the children. They would bring classrooms in and sit down on the floor in front of the piece and ask questions. And it would go back to the basics. And I think you loved that.

JN: Children are definitely the people I prefer to talk to about it.

JH: Well, their minds aren’t shaped yet, their opinions aren’t formed.

JN: No, they are curious, and they ask the questions–they want to know what it’s about and how you made it. And why does that monkey have a bomber on his head for a hat? And they are not afraid to ask questions about what they don’t understand. They’ll just ask the question and sometimes they are just–they are the best questions. So I absolutely loved that while we were working on it. We went back up a month ago, and I made some changes to it and all. So a lot of people brought their kids to the museum. It was fun because they were curious. I couldn’t let them in because things were all over the floor. But I could go over and talk to them.

Lynn Neel: They said it was one of the most important pieces that they had ever acquired.

JH: That’s amazing. It’s great to be able to ask a question that is open ended enough with your artwork, and to not put people off but to make them respond and ask questions and be introspective about it. You’re in a really good position when you can do that, when you are not putting people off right away. You’re inviting them to think of things instead of pushing them away.

JN: At times I have to be careful because I do want to use a sledge hammer.

JH: But you don’t.

JN: The old barrel pieces; they have been a little over the top. More like a hammer anyway. But that–I was sick of it. I think it is one of the things I get angry enough about. I think for me, it’s like percolation. I put all the ingredients in here and I read and I read and I read. And I study and I watch and I listen, and at some point, it percolates up and things have to come out. And I think that the process is more like that. I’m not really sure everything is conscious. I believe the most important part of the process is something that is really intuitive–and so, I think that’s really as much of my process as anything. I don’t think it’s very rational and/or organized or anything like that. It just keeps filling up and at some point, it overflows and mixes up together and gets puts in bizarre situations. I mean the monkeys started with just trying to find a way to do something and talk about something. You go see the Tut exhibit in Chicago and then, of course, the bodies need to be Egyptian bodies; that makes sense, of course. And then this and this and this and “Oh, wait a minute. This makes sense with evolution and paleo-anthropology.”


Making the thing is one thing. Making 50 freaking monkeys was work. It was just work. It’s laboring. Now, the creative thing–

JH: Is much harder.

JN: Months ahead of time and much harder and more difficult to work. But now that I’m making the real things, now the creative thing starts to happen because I’m looking at the real stuff; and I’m starting to go “But I need to change this, you know. They should have broken arms.” And, “Wait a minute.” You know, it should look like an archeological dig–more like what the Qin terracottas looked like because it was pieced together. They were smashed. They were shards and now they are put back together. And now these monkeys have missing pieces. Soldiers have missing pieces when they come back.

JH: Right.

JN: It’s all one thing after another. You can’t just say, “I came up with this idea and then I made it.”

JH: It never happens that way.

JN: And, you know, Dennis and I used to laugh because we never got the story that we went after. We’d go there and someone would disappear. He’s not there. He’s not there. We can’t get in there on our own. So you never got the story that you went after. It’s the same thing with art. Things evolve. Your ideas evolve. You have to be open to it. For me, I just can’t go, “This is where it starts, and this is where it ends, and I’ve already seen it.” No. No. It changes.

JH: To me that’s one of the best things about being an artist. You pose a question and you don’t know what the answer is going to be. It’s the unknown that keeps you making stuff. If you knew the answer, then you probably wouldn’t make it.

JN: Well, it’s Socratic. It’s like every time you ask a question–to answer it, you wind up with another question. Like the work winds up being a question instead of an answer. It’s just another way of stating it. It’s just pictures instead of words. So I guess that’s why I make– why it’s important to me, I don’t know. I can’t think of a time that I didn’t make stuff. I made my toys as a kid. I made artwork as a kid. I got reinforced for it. “That’s pretty … make another one.’

JH: Yeah, I was lucky enough to have that kind of experience too. My parents were really supportive about me doing something I was passionate about.

JN: I just–every time I talk to other people who are artists, they’re happy with what they do, whether it’s being a lawyer or whatever. It’s always a teacher or other parents, usually both, who encouraged them. I can still kind of remember the day I got my diploma, and there was my dad; and I knew he was going, “an art degree?”

JH: … like, “Good luck. I hope that works out well for you.”

JN: He didn’t let it out, but there was something in his eyes, “Well, I know he can weld. Maybe he can get a welding job.” But I knew that I had their support, and they would have been just as happy if I had 20/20 vision and gone to the Air Force Academy to learn how to fly jets. They may have been more worried about me, but as long as it was what I wanted and what I needed to do, it was good. So I think that just always seems to be the key. It’s that you’ve got somebody that supports you–that dream. That definition that you might have of yourself might be a little different than everybody else’s. You might be the black sheep in the family. I used to have this buddy who was a painter. There were five kids in his family. He was older than me. He was this incredible portrait painter and set designer but all of his brothers were surgeons. The three brothers were surgeons; his dad was a surgeon; and the sister was this major business-woman and he was a portrait painter. He was the complete black sheep of family. He was the only one that I could stand. He was the only one who seemed to enjoy life. He really enjoyed life. He was happy, I thought, most of the time.
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This entry was published on 01/01/2011 at 4:18 pm. It’s filed under antiwar, Children, Exhibitions, jim neel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.