If you ever met someone who has spent more than 14 months straight traveling on the road, making friends with wild foxes and painting murals in Alaska, the lower 48 States of America, The Yukon, British Columbia Canada, the Yucatan, Mexico City, Tulum and Cuba, then it may be that you are talking to the same person that took a moment to sit on top of a mountain to hand write this interview: Spencer Keeton Cunningham. Never short on things to say, Spencer Keeton Cunningham caught up with 1xRUN Contributing Writer Enriqueta Arias in Mexico City during his latest stretch on the road…
1xRUN: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you’ve been up to…
Spencer Keeton Cunningham: My name is Spencer Keeton Cunningham. I guess you could call me a painter. I have been traveling on the road during the past 14 months, painting walls in various places. I’m in Mexico now. I’ve been traveling around Mexico for the past 160 days. Before that I was all over North America on what I have been calling a “permanent painting adventure.”
1x: How do you like Mexico City and the other areas you’ve been traveling in Mexico?
SKC: I love Mexico. It’s a beautiful place. The people are amazing here. There’s a great energy here unlike a lot of other places in the world. Everything is hand painted here which is amazing. I was doing quite a bit of sign painting here for a period of time in-between larger walls I was painting. I was kind of getting the real feeling of what it’s like to paint here like a local sign painter gets paid (which isn’t much) 150-200 pesos per job, which is around 12-14 dollars USD. But its enough for a meal most of the time.
Also, I visited a good friend of mine recently, living deep in the heart of the Yucatan, that has been practicing traditional Mayan agricultural techniques there for the past 37 years. He has been growing edible food forests and is in the process of creating a Mayan agricultural university on his land. I was out there absorbing some great knowledge from him and shooting a documentary film.
1x: What do you like to study in your art practice?
SKC: I study the world and philosophy. Writing. Cultures. Cinema. Chaos. I like to study old painters, both alive and dead. I like to study simplicity. Simple brushstrokes, negative space. I just read an amazing book on Gustav Kilmt that was enlightening and full of great works of his life. If you would like to know what I studied in college I graduated with a BFA in Film from the San Francisco Art Institute, but I did some painting there as well as a great deal of silkscreen printing and other strange things.
1x: What does art mean to you personally?
SKC: Art to me personally…well, that’s a loaded question but to quote a friend of mine from London: Word To Mother, in his response to being labeled as an “artist” he said “Most people who consider themselves artists are wankers.”
I somewhat agree with this. Although it could be considered a humorous British east end “art thug” philosophy on the art world in general, it holds a very solid truth in it’s brute simplicity. The art world is a system, and like many systems, this particular one is full of layer after layer of ego, self absorbed artist statements, and a whole lot of people and wealthy art collectors that I really can’t relate to in any way shape or form. But at the same time there’s a subverted section of this “world of art” I really do relate to and enjoy engaging with.
I personally make art because it feels natural and I like the potential positive power that art has on it’s audience similar to writing, music and film. The conversation you can start with art is unlike many other ways we have as humans of expressing ourselves. We can only communicate with linguistics to a certain extent. Then once that form of communication is exhausted I feel that we instinctively gravitate towards visual communication.
It’s like a dance in a sense, a communicative dance similar to certain species of birds and other animals mating rituals. I think we are all meant to be creating things with one another sort of like some giant ritual in a sense. I think as humans we become very detached from our “intuitive creative instincts” as I call them.
1x: Can you elaborate on this?
SKC: I think I have gone as far as I can go with that theory. It was a bit of a ramble that I’ll most likely years from now be embarrassed about when reviewing it’s publication.
But, I will say this in regards to art and artists. I like to create art that has a meaning to me personally and not just decorative or a pretty looking art that adorns a rich persons living room. I enjoy a more “radical” version of art. And I mean that in a sense of art that pushes the boundaries of what is considered “safe” or ‘acceptable” in certain realms of the art world. But I don’t consider myself a radical. I like how Fela Kuti put it: “A radical is he who has no sense…fights without reason…I have a reason. I am authentic.”
As far as I’m concerned when there’s an important issue at hand I feel that as an artist it’s my role to take up that issue and run with it. By that I mean, to try to think up creative ways to engage in a dialogue about something of substance to me personally and for the benefit of the working and lower class people of the system we all live within nowadays. Using art to solve social problems and environmental issues is a goal of mine and to do so with humor. End of elaboration. Next Question?
1x: Anything else on that subject?
SKC: Art to me (in the end after we’ve all come and gone) amounts to markings on the wall. We shouldn’t place it on any other pedestal other then that in my opinion. I try as much as I can to stay away from the system of bourgeois curators, galleries and museums at all times when I can…if possible. But being a full time artist means I must survive. And I must play this game and be a part of this system sometimes If I wish to play that game. But to be honest, I’de much rather keep crawling into random unknown galleries and towns and paint on the walls there forever if I could.
I’de like to quote Gustav Klimt and say “Whoever wants to know something about me –as an artist which alone is significant – they should look attentively at my pictures and seek to recognize what I am and what I want.”
1x: Least favorite part of making pubic art and making art for galleries?
SKC: I think I may have partially stated the answer to that in the previous question. But that’s a hard one… I’d have to say my “least favorite part” about creating public murals in sub zero temperatures is that the paint does not like to dry. And as far as galleries, and in regards to Gustav Klimt’s quote, to speak of these matters literally, what I want to do is tear down the system itself (Galleries, Museums, Curators, Collectors) from the inside out, start a dialogue about this system in my work on occasion, most likely in a humorous manner, and in the end hopefully a new system can be created.
I think the system itself is my least favorite part about making art. If that makes any sense. I’m a big D.I.Y. person. Don’t wait around to make things happen. Just go there and do it. Get off the computer and off your iphone. Live the life you want to live through the creative process.
All the big name galleries usually don’t even pay you if you sell a painting. You have to learn what I call the “art” of gallery owner harassment. Make random calls every now and again asking if paintings have sold and make sure to ask the gallery to send your paintings back. Very, very important to remember. A lot of galleries out there actually operate in the manner of a street hustler. Pimping artists like prostitutes. Keeping all the money in the end. With that said I’de like to quote my good friend Adonis. “Its a nasty Art World” – Erlin Geffrard aka Kool Kid Kreyola.
1x: Best part about making art on your travels?
SKC. I think one of the best parts so far on my travels over the past 14 months has been being invited to speak at the local high school in Juneau, Alaska about art. It’s great seeing students in the art classes become more involved and excited about “art” being something that can be considered a full time job. I don’t think it is something that is spoken of often to the high school students in Alaska. In Juneau, Alaska there are plenty of jobs available at the gold mine or in the fishing industry but the occupation of an artist didn’t seem like something they would really consider “professionally” at first (whatever that means). It was an interesting and memorable time.
1x: Your favorite recent art exhibition you did?
SKC: My favorite recent exhibition was in Canada last October at the Antisocial Gallery in Vancouver BC. I created an installation titled “Encephalon” (which is just another word for brain). I basically made a brain out of cardboard in an art gallery. The viewer entered through the ear canal. Inside the brain was a series of motorized cardboard art objects that the viewer could interact with. Including an oversized hammer for the critics if they felt the need to destroy the inside of the brain. There was a sharp toothed television inside of the “Encephalon” with a video of artists and friends, Aaron Glasson and Skinner welcoming the viewers into the brain of the artist.
Skinner licked a knife blade in the video as he welcomed the visitors. Aaron Glasson was feeding a cat slices of ham that happened to be attached to his forehead while he spoke with guests of the brains features. It was a fun exhibit made possible by Michelle Pezel.
1x: Favorite mural painting gathering and why? Could you tell us about your experience in Pow! Wow! Hawaii last year?
SKC: I enjoyed painting at an annual mural painting gathering known as “Forest for the trees” in Portland, Oregon hosted by Gage Hamilton. It was a really fun time painting there last August although my car was stolen during the week of painting I still had a good time. I was able to get my car back eventually from the thieves. Portland is definitely a second home of mine. Although I had lived in San Francisco for 10 years, I still consider myself an Oregonian.
As far as Pow! Wow! Hawaii goes. I missed this past one but the 2014 event was amazing. Painting with Skinner and Aaron Glasson is always a fun time. We created an ocean related mural that turned into a very interesting collaboration in the end. Someone called it “the most imaginative mural they had seen” which I thought was great.
It was interesting getting our wall blessed by a Hawaiian priest and getting taken on a cultural tour through Oahu. I feel like there is an endless amount of Hawaiian history to be absorbed each time I visit. Having family based in hawaii is also a great reason to visit the islands as well each year. I get a chance to see my family every year I go to paint which is one of my favorite things to do. Overall at “Pow!Wow! Hawaii” there is a great feeling of respect and collaboration amongst the artists that exists there that I haven’t seen anywhere else.
1x: How important is the skateboard culture for your creative process?
SKC: Skateboarding is a part of my everyday life. I skateboard every day if it’s dry enough. Coming from Portland, Oregon that was a struggle at times with the rain. When it comes to travel for art purposes skateboarding always takes up a good portion of my time. As a traveler I am always interacting with my environment differently on a skateboard. It’s been that way since I was young. It defines how I look at the architecture of a city. What I spend my time doing and my thought process as a whole.
As far as skateboarding being an idea or object that appears in my paintings, it appears quite often and holds different meanings in different paintings depending on the context it is in. For example I just painted a coffin shaped skateboard n Alaska on a wall. To me, that painting has to do, in-part, with a trip I took to donate skateboards to skateboarders in Cuba. Over there, when someone breaks a board that is literally the end of they’re skateboarding for a long time, because of the embargo and U.S. sanctions against Cuba, there is no place someone can get a skateboard there.
That is, there is no way skateboarding can continue in Cuba unless we continue sharing skateboards with the skateboarders there. The coffin shaped board has a dual meaning. The space on the ramp where the coffin is located is where skateboarders “break themselves off” and get hurt occasionally in attempts to land a particular trick. So in that regard, “death” or the potential for severe injury is a part of skateboarding especially when we get older.
I traveled to Cuba a few months with some close friends to donate skateboards to skateboarders on the island. During our stay I shot a film titled “Patinas Sin Fronteras.” The film documents current conditions of skateboarders in Cuba. In Cuba there are no skate shops of any kind and no ways of getting skateboards or any of the necessary equipment needed to skate. The only way for skateboarders to continue to skate in Cuba is if people continue to share boards, wheels, trucks, etc with each other. This is the trailer for the film shot in Cuba. The title of the film translates to “Skate Without Borders” or “You Skate Without Borders”. Special thank you to Amigo Skate Cuba, Rene Lecour, Will Sprott, Matt Eversole, Roberto Gomez, George Lorenzo, Anthony Perez, Mike Freeman, Rodney, Jimi, Gordito, Jose Rojo, Carlos and Jen at ES7, El Che, Jonathon Hexner, and 23 G. For more info on this project check out their Facebook page.
1x: How can you describe your creative process?
SKC: I’m not in control of it.
1xRun: What are your plans for the future?
SKC: Well… I’m reaching the legal limit for a stay in Mexico. Ive been traveling around here painting for 167 days. Which means I only have 13 days left legally in this country. Still have a few murals in progress right now but I’m leaning towards heading south into Guatemala on the road. I’m sure I’ll pop back up stateside eventually. Maybe even sooner then you would expect.
1xRun: Last words?
SKC: Do what you want with your life. Don’t follow anything or anyone. Spend 100% of your life having fun and living as much as you can while your still here.
To help keep Spencer Keeton Cunningham rolling on the road be sure to grab one of his latest hand-pulled screen print editions Made In Mexico.
Spencer Keeton Cunningham was interviewed by 1xRUN Contributing Writer Enriqueta Arias – follow her @EnriquetaArias
Photos courtesy of Spencer Keeton Cunningham and Paulina Campos.