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Seher Sikandar

Shira E Is Electric

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Shira E Is Electric

Shira E has this haunting kind of voice, the kind that immediately silences a room full of people in the midst of hearty conversation. There is a palpable quality to the sound that she emits through her lungs, a thick-like-molasses and indulgent vibration, lulling you into some otherworldly experience. This is what I witnessed when I walked into Launchpad during the Women Love the World Conference last month. I entered into the dimly lit room with this small silhouette of a person standing in front of a large projector, playing the Roland 404 synthesizer, and hand drumming. I was in love with whatever was going on and needed to meet this person.

We set up an interview at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, and sat on a bench under some trees, and got to chatting. Shira shared with me her beliefs about the practicality of poetry, the challenges that women face when trying to tap into electronic music, the simultaneous significance and insignificance of our existence in this universe, and her exciting new Indiegogo campaign to help her spread her awesome new album all around the country.

You mentioned that you recently relocated to NYC. What brought you here? 

I live in Brooklyn, but I swore I would never live here in the past. I was done doing all of these jobs, while writing, and doing music mostly on the side after touring for a bit with poetry. I had fed my artistic life, and eased into a place where I was mostly not doing it anymore. But then, synchronistically, I quit three jobs and then fell in love, and she lives here, and all of that pulled me to the city. I had never felt that way before in terms of a city calling me, but I felt like I wanted to put an intention into art instead of just doing it because I love it. When you make a move like that, you’re putting your pennies in a jar, but you’re actually feeding yourself what you want to be fed.

What are you currently doing in the City? 

I’m a teaching artist: I teach gay elders poetry on Wednesdays at a place called SAGE, I’m also in Queens with teenagers teaching writing and theater, I’m a mentor with Urban Word, and I teach online writing classes to individuals all over the country, which is really fun. I’m also making music.

Music-wise, what are you working on? 

I’ve been working on a record for probably a year. I’m with a new machine--the sampler. Before that I was all guitar-based and with ukuleles and stuff like that. So I’m percolating and recording and just working with people on art.

What sparked your interest in going electronic? 

I just had the desire to do it for so long, and truth be told, I just felt like I didn’t really see women doing it, and it feels kind of funny to say because now I see so many women doing it, but at the time I didn’t. I grew up playing the guitar, so I knew the ins and outs of it; It was something that was safe, that I felt comfortable with. Going electronic, it was exciting and unsafe in a way. I had just dreamt of doing it for so long, and seeing people doing and all of this cool stuff, like someone with six samplers, and one loop pedal...

Part of the intention of moving here was that I was going to buy a sampler. I had never touched one until a year ago. I had asked guy friends to help me, but there were only a few who were willing. You really need to feel a sense of encouragement with that stuff, really with anything, or any art form. Now when I’m playing, a woman will just sneak up to me over my shoulder and say, “can I see?” and I’m like, “come on! Touch it. Look at it. Take out the wires, and do what you want,” because it’s really not our turf.

Why isn’t it our turf?

Stereotypically. I even remember being in high school and being the one female rock player in a circuit of friends. I had to find them, like I made girl bands and things like that, but I guess I more so mean that for me to walk into a guitar center and ask for cables, or something like, a guitar felt way smoother and easier than going in there about gear that I knew nothing about, or felt like were more stereotypically linked to guys. When I thought of that music, I thought of Animal Collective. I couldn’t even think of groups with women before, but now I can probably name five or six.

Can you name some?

I can name Grimes. I can name Tune-yards. I feel like when Tuneyards popped up, I was like, I don’t necessarily want to make that music, but I was so excited just to see the level of intensity of skill that come with those electronics, and I think I also didn’t have an entrance into a scene where that was true. I’m sure there are cities where women are dominating the scene. I just didn’t have the entrance into that.

What was your learning process like? 

I felt so compelled that I just sat with the manual. I’m not techy at all, which is why it was so intimidating. You can even take gender out of it—I’m not techy. I just sat with it, and I would try to spend two hours just with the stupid manual to just figure things out, and then my friend Emmanuel, who’s insanely talented and in Many Mansions, I would go over to his place and he would show me stuff that I had totally intuited wrong, and would re-wire and teach me. With his loving help and just a lot of devotion—I think I was just honestly ready for a challenge. Previously, I would bend the guitar with all of these crazy tunings just to make these sounds that I wanted, and I sort of hit a ceiling, and this was definitely so out of my comfort zone. I was so excited about having so many sounds available, not just guitar, but I could put anything into that sampler, and it would just create a forest of different sounds.

What kind of a sampler do you use?

It’s a Roland 404. I’d say, it’s older, but folks still use it.

Do you now have interests in other electronics? 

Not really. The truth of it was that I kind of wanted a band. If I think that I absolutely need to have drums, then maybe I would start to synch up the sampler with the live drums or get a drummer, or something like that. Right now, that machine is still so new to me still, that I just want to get more cozy with it before I add a loop pedal to it or anything too naughty. Though I really do want to play electric guitar with it. I miss that fuzzed out, delicious, electric guitar. That’s a secret dream.

How does poetry play into music, and vice versa?

My name [Shira] means both. It means poem and song. People have asked me often, which do I love more? Or how do they affect the other? Because I have grown up doing both, I really feel like they are two arms. It’s not like one is more important, but they are just so vital. Even before coming to meet you, I was kind of in a weird mood space, so I just played for five minutes, and it just cleared me out somehow. I think with music, with both of them, there’s a way that I’m in conversation with myself. Like I know myself better because I have these tools. I can’t imagine not having them. It seems I can sit down and have a conversation with myself and then become a different Shira. That’s actually crazy ya know? They offer me similar things, but they also diverge in what they can give me beyond those similar things.

I went out with my friend Beverly, who is 94. I met her at the class I teach, and we were having drinks, and she was like, “okay, you’re in front of God. Music or poetry? And I don’t want anything bullshitty. This is really happening, which one is it?” I felt like, what am I supposed to say? Even though both are so important to me, I think there is a way that music does something--it almost includes the writing in a way, but writing can’t really include the music. It can leap and have it’s phonetic delight, but music just cuts in a different way. It doesn’t mean that a poem can’t cut the way music can, but music does something that’s not word oriented, even when I think of the sounds that we transmit, part of it is not language oriented, it’s just full body oriented, if that makes sense.

What kind of power does poetry have?

Oh my god. I really think, like how people stand up and salute the flag--I actually don’t really know because I was born in Israel, I came here at six, so I’m kind of confused about what people did at schools. If they still do that, I just wonder what it would be like if they started school and everybody had poetry time. It's like the clam that takes the dirt and makes the pearl--to be able to have that process within ourselves, and to give kids that. It’s such a tool, that refines your understanding of how to communicate with people, it refines how much you appreciate life every second. I just imagine everyone, down to the president being a poet. It actually makes me embarrassed and a little weary at how I used to look at poetry when I had idols at 18, and saw folks like Saul Williams and would freak out. Now I see poetry in a totally practical light.

When did you figure that out?

When I moved here, I was right at the age that I was fluent in Hebrew, but was learning English, and so language wasn’t a given. I heard things a different way than someone who grew up here being told, "book means book", and "cat means cat", and that’s what it is, but when you have something else to think of as a language, and you're learning new words, it just tweaks your brain a little bit to handle words differently. They weren’t just things that you would say to your mom as a kid, it’s also how you maneuver the world as someone in a new world.

I remember being in third grade, we were doing spelling, and my teacher was like, "I don’t know if she’s been in the states long enough to be in this spelling group." They gave us kids words about the season, vocab about flowers, and I remember--it sounds braggy, but it was just a fact--that I made something of the words that my mom and the teacher were both like, “whoa! Oh my god.” I think it’s that ability to really care and have love for these objects that people call words that you can move them around and express something and see what they are. You can’t take them for granted. You can do things with them that are brand new.

Does New York help or hinder your ability to find clarity through art? 

I need to make things. It’s my way of being a better Shira, which I didn’t really realize until my friends were like, “yo, you need to make something, because you’re having a hard week.” In that sense, I look at the places that I’ve lived, which are like Brookline and Boston in Massachusetts where I grew up, and I look at Northampton, Amherst, and then I look at here (NYC). I think that I always was making, but the difference here is time. I don’t know if it’s just because I'm getting older, but the constraints and limits of time, but in Western Mass, I worked less, and I could work less because I could pay for things for less, so I had more time to delve into writing. But now that means that my focus is so intense here. When I do sit down, and I’m with my sampler, I’m like, “okay, it’s you and me. We’re stuck in an elevator called tonight, and we’re just going to do this!” So there’s that. I think it’s affected my focus.

In general, the intensity of the city, asks something back, whereas the landscape and colors of Western Mass is just simple ease. It’s the word that I think of when I’m there that allows for a different style of art making, a different response.

How do the people around you influence the way you create? 

I kind of understood something early on because I played a lot of team sports and you really rely a lot on each other, and you have to be available and be kind actually, otherwise it doesn’t work. Your team falls apart. There’s a way in which I saw that, if a person, a fellow teammate could affect me so much, I had that power as well. That is ever-present in my mind. I’ve always been able to have community and people around me who challenge me, and inspire me. When I haven’t had that it’s been horrible.

Can you talk about that?

When I was at UMass I was writing from 12-4 am every night, just on my computer--work that now when I look back cannot be seen by anyone! I was trying to connect with people, but I just couldn’t really find it. In high school, I had a lot of access to very different artists, from vegan nutty nuts, to painters, to someone who was a jockey who wrote incredible essays. It was all available. To shift to a huge university where I just couldn’t really find that was overwhelming. I felt more freedom when I transferred to Hampshire College to pursue art more aggressively.

I first went to Hampshire as a UMass student and joined the five college slam team, and transferred while I was on that team. It’s kooky how it happens, when you find those people, you realize that you didn’t have that before. I had something lovely in many ways, but that type of intensive, “I can’t fall asleep until I share this poem with you. And you can’t fall asleep until you hear it.” The intensity and joy in that was different. The teammates were from all five colleges, and that community became very strong for me. The way that I feel about that community was, I’m sure that when people were around James Baldwin, they were like, “this person is a trove, an international treasure,” and there are folks that I’ve met on the team who I felt that way being around them.

What fuels your passion on a day-to-day basis?

Sometimes I'm dry. Always having my mind attuned to the fact that I might write or I might create something, just that simple fact feels exciting. Another thing that I think of is our human connection. How crazy it is that we are here in the first place? It sounds psychedelic, but it's actually crazy. If I have awareness of that fact everyday, that we are on a spinning blue dot, when I think of that, I am filled to the brim with poems. I feel so fundamentally perplexed at the thought of just being here, that I can get caught up with bills and all that stuff, but when I just take a second to just feel the weight of that and the lightness at the same time, it opens everything. I don't have to ask for inspiration. We are made of it. It's everything.

It's weird for me to think that, "I have to pay this medical bill, but I'm on that teeny tiny dot," that they are someway equally as real. I think that's at the heart of my writing, that both of those statements are true.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Original photo essay by Seher Sikandar

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Jennah Bell: Visceral Music

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Jennah Bell: Visceral Music

Hailing from Oakland, California, Jennah Bell's stripped down and raw sound, her thoughtful lyricism, and unique fashion sensibility are hard to place.  A hint of a distantly distilled deep south twang in her guitar strumming, carries her hardened lyrics through a sweet throat. The honeyed voice, coupled with saddened melodies and melancholic lyrics, will be certain to kill you softly. I was engrossed with her "Live at Mother NY" album that Okayplayer put out earlier this year, and replayed song after song the same way that I plucked through each track on Joni Mitchell's Blue back in high school, wholly ingesting each word and note. Similarly, Ms. Bell's album breaks the monotony of internet singles, and breaking news, and gives listeners a certain stillness that we didn't even know we yearned. 

I met up with Jennah Bell at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe to pick through some classics (her preferred reading), and some old records. With our resident photographer Seher Sikandar there to hang and also document, Jennah told us about her newfound collaborators, Charly & Margaux--the violin + viola duo who we featured a few months ago--who are her busking partners. She also expressed to us her feelings about being categorized as a folk artist, the categorization of music and human identities in general, and the need for visceral music. 

You are such a thoughtful and deliberate storyteller. Do you ever fear being so vulnerable or exposed?

Yes. But I feel like when--maybe this is just me, but when you find what you love, what you really love, and you make an investment towards it, there's always an initial fear that you're going to be vulnerable, because you're going to have to work towards it in a way that you've never worked on anything before. And I think the nature of what I'm trying to do puts the writing as more public than for a lot of writers. It doesn't have to be this way. I've made it a conscious choice to expose myself, and that's scary because I feel like my personality is the antithesis of that. I'm very introverted most of the time. I like being by myself, I play well by myself, but I think that's where it balances out. I can get up there, and I can be vulnerable, and I can be quiet for a very long time too. I think that if I couldn't do that, I would be making even more of a risk of exposing my feelings in such an obvious sort of way.

What do you think the reward is?

I get to listen to myself talk, but much later, like listening to a conversation you had ten years ago, where at the time, you try to be conscious of what you are saying, but you can't hear what's coming out of your mouth. I go back and listen to songs that I wrote even five years ago, two years ago, and I can listen to where I was, and that's as invaluable as a human being trying to grow, and I think that listeners experience the same thing. You identify with a song because you know how it feels, and that same song—especially with songs that you listen to over the years—the meanings change, so you might be in that same place in a different way. Songs are just markers of growth, and I think it benefits everybody to know where they are. Since I made my passion communication, I feel like I'm able to help people to know where they are. That's a great feeling.

...when you find what you love, what you really love, and you make an investment towards it, there’s always an initial fear that you’re going to be vulnerable, because you’re going to have to work towards it in a way that you’ve never worked on anything before. And I think the nature of what I’m trying to do puts the writing as more public than for a lot of writers. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve made it a conscious choice to expose myself, and that’s scary because I feel like my personality is the antithesis of that...

Regardless of your personal preference of music, you’re of the hip-hop generation. How does that identifier play into your work?

It's funny because I've been doing a “Big Poppa” [Notorious B.I.G.] cover at shows. I think that throws people off, because they're like, “you don't make music like that,” but it's the very same thing that you're saying. I'm of the hip-hop generation, and I grew up during The Blueprint [Jay-Z] era. It's very relative to how I think about rhythm and lyrics. I had a friend ask me, “how do you get better at timing in music?” I told her to take her favorite rap lyrics and learn it word for word, rhythm for rhythm, until it's not a thing and you don't think of it twice. And mine was “Big Poppa”, so I learned it word for word, rhythm for rhythm. It's like Dave Chappell who learned that Thelonius Monk song because it's relative to comedic timing.

Tell me about busking. Many people are spectators or witnesses of busking, but most people don’t understand that side of it from the perspective of the performer.

From the spectator, everyone wants to know about something, everybody wants to be a connoisseur. People like to speak from a place of knowing. So when they see me on the subway, all of a sudden they are like, "I know music. I saw Carrie Underwood on American Idol. She sings country. This girl sings country, so therefore I'm qualified to be a judge." It takes them 30 seconds to decide whether or not they are not going to tip based off of what you are singing, how you are singing, and where you are standing. These are all the very intricate parts of being a subway or street musician. It's really crazy.

Sounds like there’s a science to it.

In the morning—the people on their way to work—they don't want to hear anything too abrasive or too much talking. Charly does really well in the morning, because it's the violin—it's all very soothing. For the masses who are transitioning from waking up in the morning to going to work, voice is less conducive to that environment then being a violinist. That's when we play more instrumental stuff. I would say that in the afternoon we do better if I'm singing, and singing top 40s at that. How long have you been playing with Charly & Margaux?

For a few months now. I did it a couple of times on my own with my guitar, but I also don't have the kind of voice where I belt. Well, I can belt, but I don't really like doing it. Once you start doing it, you loose the kind of sensitivity of your talking voice. Your talking voice is at a register where you don't have to use your diaphragm, so when I'm singing in the train station, I have to become a different singer. I don't always like to get my Whitney Houston on, but you have to sing ballads or people don't get it. It's much harder to attempt to do a Joni Mitchell song at the train station than it is to sing Kelly Clarkson. I think it has a lot to do with what people “know” about vocalists from shows like American Idol and X-Factor as I mentioned before.

In our interview with Charly and Margaux, they mentioned that a passerby once said “black and so talented?” as though it was unheard of for two black women to play so well, and to play classical music at that.

You know what's sad about that? At least they said it. For instance, if you are at 59th street or above, like the Upper West Side, people give you a dollar without even listening to anything, and you can almost tell what it is out of. At least someone had the balls to walk by and say, "hi, I'm ignorant," rather than put a dollar and be like, "ah black girl playing the violin,” or “another black girl who sounds really folky." Music is still segregated like that, and black people still "can't play folk" and that's just what it is. There are still gates on those kinds of things, so it’s still crazy to people who wonder how I can play “that kind of music.”

Do you ever get the sense that people are more excited with your music because of the seeming novelty of you being a 'black girl playing folk'?

I think I confuse people most of the time. I think people like being confused. I think anything that's not inside the realm of “I know what's about to happen”, just gets people excited. And I don’t mean that I am consciously thinking, I'm black and I like folk music and country to be different.” I grew up in an environment where all of those things were accessible. A lot of times, people don't play that music because it's not accessible. Oakland is very different than a lot of places and cities in the world.

What do you mean by that?

You can go get Thai food from the Thai temple and be from the block—like straight from the block. There’s an accessibility in the way that Oakland is set up—it's just different. I grew up in a Muslim household, and went to a French Catholic school, but had mostly Jewish friends. To me, I never thought about that until I tell it to someone else, then I think to myself, what kind of environment did I actually grow up in? Who were my friends? Was it relative to an economic background? Most of it was economics actually. I didn't think about how different the Bay Area was until I moved. When did you move?

When I was 17, and then I moved to Boston, and it became very apparent that everywhere else was very different.

What brought you to Boston?

I went to Berklee College of Music.

You said earlier that people like to be confused or challenged. Right now popular music is pretty predictable and void of real risk taking. What do people actually want?

I think people do like a sense of mystery and being confused. I think at the same time, everything has its place. I don't reject music or popular culture, because it's just as relative and useful as anything else. I just think that when things are off balanced, that's when things that are left-to-center, end up coming out more to the forefront, so a lot of what I’m talking about is timing. For me it's a good time for me to do what I'm doing, not because it's so different, but because things have been one way for so long, it seems so different to everybody, but when you think about it, Richie Havens was doing this back in the 60s. I'm not really doing anything new. I study people who I admire, and try to move in that vein, but it's a lot of timing. It took three or four people before Joni Mitchell for Joni Mitchell to sound like she did, because she was ready, and time was conducive to her. Right now, people have been dancing for the last twelve years in the club, and people are tired--naturally. It's going to be a little less dancy for a while, or a little more still and reflective. I love pop music, but frankly, every time I turn the station, it's the same song over and over and over and over again, and I think no matter how resilient you are, and no matter how much you like to dance, you still need to grab a cup of water. Do you consider yourself a folk musician?

No. I don't consider myself much of anything. But I do know that folk has apparent acknowledgment of lyrics—acknowledging the writing aspect of music—and I say ‘folk’ in terms of these things. In that respect, I do think about what I am writing and that side of music, but that's as much as I think about it.

Right now, people have been dancing for the last twelve years in the club, and people are tired—naturally. It’s going to be a little less dancy for a while, or a little more still and reflective. I love pop music, but frankly, every time I turn the station, it’s the same song over and over and over and over again, and I think no matter how resilient you are, and no matter how much you like to dance, you still need to grab a cup of water.

I ask this because I have no idea, but what exactly is soul music? Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, gospel is the soul of the church, jazz is the soul of the so-called "sinners". It's no different, it's just people talking about where they are from. I have an interest in where people are from so I sing all kinds of music. The problem with categorizations is like this: Corinne Bailey Rae, when she came out, she was the comparison to Tracy Chapman. After Corinne, there's Michael Kiwanuka, who's the comparison to Richie Havens (he's black and he plays guitar). And then Lianne la Havas came out, and now she's the new comparison to Corinne Bailey Rae, who's the comparison to Tracy Chapman. But what nobody thinks about, is that to take race out of that, it all becomes very very different, and then nobody is anybody except for just doing what they love. I have been told, “you're like Adele, but black." I'm like, what does that mean? That sounds like a pseudo compliment about your individuality.

Or in some cases it means you're very particular. You are set apart from “others like you”, which is even more offensive because, like I said of the whole folk music implication, it requires a whole consciousness of literature or of education. People are like "oh you're educated," like that’s something otherwise unheard of. I don't think our generation has much to say about folk music. Either you think of Appalachia--or like you mentioned before--Joni Mitchell. Those are two extreme sides of the spectrum.

Right, they are so different. If you want to make real comparisons, you would have to know a whole lot more about music, and I don't think people have as much an investment as musicians do. When I hear certain artists, like Lianne la Havas’ record and "Elusive" came on, I was just like, that's a cover of a Scott Matthews song, which I loved. His fingerprints are all over a lot of her records. You have artists of different races and different genres doing covers of each other’s work all of the time in music. What kills me is when people see me with natural hair, and they know that Solange has natural hair, so they assume that our music is just alike on that alone. I’m just like, I don’t know what you are talking about--

I don’t think they do either—

--It just comes out. It's just diarrhea of the mouth. I get this a lot from folks in the train stations, "I have this youth organization, and you can come in and just like ummmph ummmmmph" [riotous laughter]. I mean, I rarely do any ummmph ummmmmphing, but I might be able to help [shrugs]. For some reason it's always youth organizations with "minorities" or "underprivileged youth" involved, because they assume I’m underprivileged. At the end of the day, it's all some big ignorant misunderstanding.

If you want to know my story, ask me. Don't assume anything. Sounds like an interesting social experiment in the least.

Back to the earlier topic on soul music, is the only necessary requisite authenticity?

The writer in me wants to say something really corny right now. Soul music for me is when I am the least happy. When I am so reckless with my feelings that there is no filter, and most of the time when you are blissfully depressed is when you can't decide what to say. It usually shows in your face, or in your posture, or body. I've often written from those places, and haven't been able to help that I felt that way. There is no analytical aspect of my writing when I'm sad. It's just—I'm sad—and this is what's coming out. That's where my soul is the most raw. I think for soul music on a wider case or spectrum, Gospel is soul music. It's written out of passion, I should say. I have a passion for passion. When I say Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, every culture has been impoverished in some way—whether you're working in the mines, or in the mountains, and songs are written out of that—a lot of it is written in deprivation and a massive sort of cultural sadness. I guess that's the way that I think of soul. It's a reflection of a spectrum from the bottom to the top. If you hear Ralph Stanley's "O Death" from O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), all of the music are from traditional mountain hymns that fiddle players play. If you hear that song, regardless of whatever kind of music you like, you're just feel it viscerally. It's got a grip on some very deep sentiment of interpersonal or massive sadness. I don't know why people understand sadness more than they can understand happiness, but I don't really relate to happy music all the time, because it's a bit more worked on. Happiness is something that you work towards, so when lots of songwriters say they can't write when they are happy, I understand that.

When I say Bluegrass is the soul of the mountains, every culture has been impoverished in some way—whether you’re working in the mines, or in the mountains, and songs are written out of that—a lot of it is written in deprivation and a massive sort of cultural sadness. I guess that’s the way that I think of soul. It’s a reflection of a spectrum from the bottom to the top.

words by Boyuan Gao

Photos by Seher Sikandar

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Scooter LaForge's ETs and Witches and Bears. Oh My!

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Scooter LaForge's ETs and Witches and Bears. Oh My!

Scooter LaForge creates wildly imaginative paintings and installation art that marry your most preverse fantasies with your favorite childhood cartoon icons.  It really shouldn't be a surprise then that his clientele ranges from the likes of Nicki Minaj to the Barney's flagship store. Seeing his work (especially life-size) is like stepping into an adult horror amusement park. His work is jarring, fun, and visceral, but his motive is not just to shock and awe, or even to be ironic. No. Scooter's work is born out of punk counterculture, his lived experiences through vicious homophobia, the nostalgia of hopping from city to city, and the fictitious childhood friends of his era's manufactured pop culture. Our resident photographer, Seher, and I met up with Scooter in his Chinatown art studio to snap some candids, rap about his work, and to see how he gets down in his creative space.   

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in New Mexico in the desert.

I hear it’s a really ethereal place, I’ve never been there. But I feel like people from there have a special quality. Do you agree?

Oh yeah. You can feel it from people born and raised there. There's no state like that in the entire country. There are amazing and beautiful landscapes that you'll never see anywhere else.

How did that affect you visually?

It was beautiful. Mexican paintings--Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera paintings were everywhere. In Santa Fe there was lots of Georgia O’Keeffe. My mother had books and posters of them all over the house. I got introduced to those kinds of artists as a young kid because my mom was friends with a lot of painters, performers, and artists. She was a singer/songwriter. There were always art people around. I would always love looking at all the paintings and wanted to do that in my life at a very young age, but my parents were very afraid for me to go into that industry, because it’s a struggle--a dog’s life--but there was nothing I could do to stop it.

They wanted me to get into accounting. I had applied to all of these art and fashions schools, but they shot that down for me and made me go to this state school, The University of Arizona. They forced me to get into accounting, and I was like, 'there’s no way'. I started getting into graphic design, and majored in painting. I used to flunk out of my classes in high school, with D's and F's, but when I got into college taking creative classes, I started getting straight A's.

It’s interesting that your parents were creative people, but shot down your own creative pursuits. How did that make you feel?

I hated it.

Were you resentful?

Oh yeah. I felt really stifled, and really combative inside because I really looked up to them and wanted to impress them, but it was going against every single grain in my body to do what they asked of me. I’m so right brained, I’m dyslexic, I’m not good with numbers--

And they wanted you to go into accounting?

I hate math. It took a while for them to see me succeed at what I’m doing and to accept my lifestyle. I never had to ask them for money so they are very supportive of it now. Both of them are, but it took years and years and years.

Then you landed in the Bay Area, and then NY?

Right after college I went to San Francisco for like eight years, and lived there and worked as an artist, but I worked in a shoe store as well as painting. I had some success there, but I had always wanted to come here to New York, so I just packed everything up in September of 2001, and moved here by October 2001. I came to New York for a job later in life in my 30s. My job was in Soho. The store that I was going to work at closed down because it was below Houston Street*, you could really smell of the burning sensation of the building. It smelled like burnt sugar, or burnt electric fire.

Later I won a fellowship at Cooper Union. That's what really pushed me into a full painting career and when I decided that 'I'm giving up my life', as far as what I was doing before, and going into and devoting 100% to art.

* Scooter moved to NY right after 9/11 and the attack of the Twin Towers that affected the downtown area

What were you doing before dedicating your life to art 100%?

I was in the fashion industry. I was working for Marc Jacobs and then for Jimmy Choo. I was also doing the windows at Barneys and I ended up doing a big in-store installation for them. At Marc Jacobs, I was a sales person. Robert Duffy--he's the business partner at Marc Jacobs, the money behind the brand and backed the Marc Jacobs line before he left for Louis Vuitton. I was randomly painting portraits of my coworkers, and Robert Duffy was like, "oh why don't you do a window?" He wanted me to paint every single person in the company, and do an installation. Eventually I ended up quitting that job, and quitting Jimmy Choo, and doing this full time, and now I have a t-shirt line exclusively for Pat Fields. That's been going really well. It's all punk rock looking.

Where did the punk influence come from?

I've always been influenced by that style. I've always been punk rock in high school and college, and then into being an adult. Vivenne Westwood is probably my biggest influence. It translates into the work that I make, the clothes, the t-shirts. The t-shirts are all hand painted. I don't really consider myself a fashion designer, even though I made these pants [points to his polka dotted hand-made windbreakers] right before you guys got here. I was like, 'I want to make a cute outfit', so I made them in like half an hour.

With my shirts, they are my paintings on t-shirts. After I quit my job at Jimmy Choo, I was like, I need to make money. I started making these. They took a while to take off, but they did and I started getting better at it, then they started selling, and I was able to pull in some income.

You have some frequent customers don't you? Who are they?

Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Iggy Pop, Miley Cyrus when she got all punked out. Remember she was this blond with long hair, and she went to spiky short hair. Right when she got her haircut, she came in and bought a bunch of my stuff.

You have some reoccurring characters in your work. Can you talk about them? It's like pop culture meets erotica meets childhood fairytale characters?

I love the sweetness with the sick. I like the really sweet stuff, and I like to make them really sick. I like to paint bears. My favorite fairytale is Goldilocks and the three bears. I collect everything, every book that has to do with that. It's a totally reoccurring theme, as well as this cat that I often paint. Also ET, I've been painting him a lot.

What's the fascination with ET?

I think it's the pop culture. That's the stuff that I grew up with as a kid that I loved that just made me feel good to have around me. I really do it for me, so they are really self-indulgent. It's really stuff that I myself love, even though everyone loves ET.

How do you negotiate between the child friendly characters and the erotica?

I just think it's all a combination of things that I've experienced in my life, because I've had some very low low points in my life as a child, growing up being kind of an outsider, an outcast, feminine and gay. I used to put my mom's wigs on and put on her high heels. I was always very femme in elementary, middle school, high school and got picked on. I think it's a combinations of those experiences, and just the trials and tribulations that I've gone through. I used to have a bad drug problem. The new ET painting that I'm working on says "Meth Kills", so I try to bring my experience in a fun way to put onto canvass and spread a message. I just mix everything up. I try to be as authentic as I can by mixing everything up with the experience that I've really had in my life, so I don't really pretend to want to paint portraits of rich ladies, you know what I mean?

When did you begin to give yourself permission to do such honest art?

When I was in San Francisco, I used to paint super tiny using really fine paint brushes that only had like five hairs. I also used to paint really hyper-realistic, and then I went to the Cooper Union Fellowship. They made me throw all that stuff away, use big brushes, paint, and really get into it. That's when I started to say, "you know what? I'm going to paint whatever I love and whenever I feel like it, whenever it's on my mind to get it out and put it onto the canvass." Whatever you put on the canvass, there's no limit to what you can do or express. You can get all of your sick thoughts out of your brain and onto the canvass, with some oil and turpentine, and relay a message.

Often, artists are asked about their final products, which are clean, and neatly put together. What's the actual process like for you?

It's messy, it's complicated, it starts with little drawings. I keep a notebook next to my bed, and when I think, oh I want to paint a witch and a bear and a cat together, I'll just write that idea down. I usually write down a story in words of what I want to paint, then I'll do water color, and then it turns into a big oil painting. That's usually how it works. I also use a lot of comics for inspiration. I just think they are really cool. I read comics and I watch cartoons almost every night before bed.

My mom would love you, she’s really into cartoons.

Oh really? That’s awesome. Well, I just really love this old stuff. I just think it’s so beautiful.

You don’t really see animations like the old stuff they used to do anymore.

No you don’t, and I really get into it. I probably will paint it again about three or four times until I get it out of my system. And then I move onto another icon or something.

What do you mean ‘get it out of your system’?

I get obsessed with stuff. Like right now I’m obsessed with witches. Before that I was obsessed with bears. I was obsessed with doing still life’s of flowers. I kind of toned that down, and then I got into ET. A lot of times I go through these things and I paint them 20 times and then I move onto something else.

Going back to earlier about your experience moving to New York, how did you come into your own, art-wise?

It was hard at first. You don’t know anyone. Everything seems so intangible. It was really hard to break into any kind of art field. I would send slides to all of these galleries, I applied to graduate school three years in a row and always got rejected, and I ended up getting really depressed, but just kept painting.

I always kept going and pushing myself. And then slowly but surely things started taking off, I started going to art shows, and then I got into the Cooper Union Fellowship, and I met some people there and got more confidence. It was like the best thing that ever happened to me. I had my life before that, and then I had my life after. So it’s two different chapters.

You said that you just 'kept painting'. It sounds like despite the difficulties that you experienced, you were still very persistent. 

I was totally persistent, and getting my work out, which you have to be more creative doing that than painting. You have to market yourself. That’s where the true creativity comes in.

Talk about that a little bit.

You have to be so different than anyone else. To me that’s actually even more important than the painting if you want to be successful. I’m still the same painter. I’ll put the stuff out on my tumblr, Instagram and Facebook--stuff that I did ten years ago. People look at it now and they’re like, “oh my god, that’s amazing.” And I would have put them out 8 years ago, I would have gotten not one single word. The reason why I’m saying that is because now they’ve seen the accomplishments that I’ve had, but I had to be creative to get my stuff out there in the first place.

How do you motivate to keep going when met with so much rejection in the past?

When people see the desperation in people, that’s kind of a turn off to a lot of people. You just have to be patient and wait for people to come to you. You can’t force anything on anyone. I used to send stuff out like, “let’s do something!” It doesn’t work that way. They have to be aware of you and ask you. There are grants and things that I’ve applied to for six years in a row and never have gotten them. Sometimes it takes ten years to get them. The guy who's gallery I told you I had paintings in, on his website he has a disclaimer that says, “don’t be offended if it takes ten years for me to accept you into my gallery.”

What would you tell other artists just starting out and figuring out how to market their work? 

You have to really figure out from the inside, what you want to say to the public, and figure out a creative way to get noticed.

For me, I had painted this really scandalous painting that this one gallery owner loved, and he put it in his art show. It was a prestigious gallery, and was what put me on the map. He put that in his gallery and it sold, and then he invited me to do another show that summer, and I gave him another painting, and that sold. That snowballed into me showing at another gallery, having a solo show last year, and now I’m going to do something at the Bronx Museum, a bunch of group shows, and a show coming up in England at the end of the year.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos by Seher Sikandar (except for Nicki Minaj, courtesy of Scooter LaForge)

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