Don Wilkinson of The Standard Times and South Coast Today interviewed me remotely to get a fee of where I'm coming from. Below is the complete text.
Thanks for doing this. I have a gang of questions for you...there are no right or wrong answers.
1) Can you talk about your USCG and how you made the transition from the disciplined life of the military to the bohemian artist lifestyle? Of course, this is somewhat in jest as it appears to me that as a visual artist you are quite self-disciplined. Did /do the lessons and rigors of the military and your current employment feed your art?
In a way, my core-being never really transitioned to the discipline of the military. I did accept the structure, and truly valued the efficiency and communication of the service, but the Coast Guard as I knew it then was blanketing the bohemian in me. So I served my four years, and got out to use the GI Bill. The morning of my last day aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Reliance, I climbed to the top of the crow’s nest and entangled my deck shoes in an antenna. As I cast the last line from the dock sending the ship underway, the Executive Officer yelled, “Buchanan, are those your shoes!?” I gave a snarky glance up, and replied, “I don’t know XO, can’t see them from down here!” That’s about as long as I could wait to grow wings again, not feel like a piece of government property anymore.
Since I first reached for one of my mother’s copies of National Geographic, I was driven toward landscapes, adventure, and the unknown. I carry with me an imagination that turns most experiences into some form of art because of it. The Coast Guard and the maritime industry do drive the majority of my focus, but I try to refrain from romanticism and fantasy that usually depicts life on the water. I want to portray it’s grit and ruggedness, but not without sensitivity. It’s very diverse as a commercial sector, and quite frankly, has to operate as such. If one person goes down, the whole ship could. You never know who is going to pull you from the catastrophe just out of sight. That forces you to care as a family. Love them or hate them; you’re tied with those experiences and memories for life.
2) Did your interest in knots begin with the USCG or did you have an earlier fascination as a young man? Were you ever a Boy Scout; have you rock climbed?
I was a Boy Scout! My mother had me in everything growing up. I took martial arts, played baseball, soccer, went to surf camp, and made every Cub Scout and Boy Scout camping and hiking trip available. Rock climbing didn’t come until later in my 20’s. Knot tying was formally introduced to me in basic training for the Coast Guard, but it wasn’t until 2006 that I’d discover my first copy of the Ashley Book of Knots. I found it on the research vessel, Atlantis with the ALVIN sub for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution while sailing off the coast of Manzanillo, Mexico. I made a decorative necklace for a scientist I was fond of. I later made a lanyard for the ship’s whistle, and a bracelet for a buddy.
3) Clifford Ashley is an undeniable influence. Are there other artists that work with rope as a primary medium that have impacted you?
As a contemporary, I can’t say I’ve experienced knots or rope represented in art enough as I’d like, and the few examples I’ve seen (usually via an email or post where someone forwards something that reminds them of me) haven’t sparked anything profound. I will always think of Huguette May when I think of rope. Her drawings are undeniably rich and beautiful. Also, if you talk about Clifford Ashley, you must also talk about another great knotting artist, Hervey Garret Smith. He’s a close second for me behind Ashley.
4) Beauty often rises out of practicality. And knots, beyond their practical applications, can be quite beautiful, And knots are loaded with symbolism, history, perhaps even something approaching the mystical. Can you elaborate on the "meaning" of knots beyond the practical?
I think much the allure has to do with a combination of things. You have tradition, tactility, pattern, curves, and at times a method that can be complicated and discouraging. I like to begin studying things in primitive form. The trefoil knot would be a great example of decorative knots in their most simplistic form, but’s it’s also the primary example of topology in mathematics. Beyond aesthetics in the areas you mention, beauty can be found in the act of leaning down to teach and tie a child’s shoelace. It’s everywhere man! Even the monk’s are sporting knots.
5) Not only are you a superb sculptor but also an accomplished printmaker, photographer and site specific installation artist. What artists- be they visual, literary, musical or otherwise- influence you? Who were your most significant mentors and colleagues? What lessons did they impart?
This a very deep question for me, so I’ll have to summarize a bit. When I attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, I was taken under the wing of, Jim Dow, an accomplished large format photographer and art history professor. He encouraged me to go with my instincts and not pull any punches. I owe all my technical photographic knowledge to him. But once I started drifting away from my lens-based practice to pursue sculpture, I found myself starting from scratch. Dan Wills, a wood sculpture artist, suggested I incorporate my already existing life experiences of the maritime industry into my work. I immediately found myself embossing rope into paper under Peter Scott and screen printing under Michael Hecht (who is a good friend of mine today). I was then accepted into a competitive, intensive painting studio program for my third year under the great illustrator, Ethan Murrow. I ran into him in 2016, and when I said I hadn’t created much that year, he didn’t hesitate to share his disappointment by staring me in the eyes, straight faced and slowly saying,” Tisk. Tisk. Tisk.” Eva Hess is someone I’ve always been fascinated by. I studied her work in the library regularly, along with Donald Judd. Mags Harries who taught at my school, got me to see the realities and possibilities of life as a public artist. Walid Raad and Joan Fontcuberta are two of the coolest artist in my book. Speaking of books, they were introduced to me by my friend and head librarian, Darin Murphy. They’ve also sort of inspired me to map out a large installation I want to pursue titled, Nantucket Sleigh Ride; a full scale whale boat acting as a sleigh, equipped with tools for massaging and stimulating whales instead of harpooning them. Colleagues who I continue to have a deep respect and appreciation for are Dinora Justice, Azita Moradkhani, Daisy Patton and Catherine Tutter.
6) What can you tell me about your Azorean studies? In layman's terms, what is "feminine semiotics in historical maritime culture?"
Well, through the Traveling Fellowship at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, I flew to the Azores in search for a feminine influence in maritime culture and art. Semiotics has to do with the way we see symbolism and signs visually with some sort of meaning. It’s completely open to interpretation. For example, I’m thoroughly convinced those small doors with diamond shaped windows used to indicate a residential basement speakeasy. Anyway, I had the intention of finding a maritime heroin like we have in Ida Lewis and Katherine Walker serving as lighthouse keepers, saving the lives of shipwrecked sailors. I spent several days researching in the Ponta Delgada library viewing thousands of tangible and digital archives covering historical records and photographs. It didn’t seem like anything was panning out. Then while I was just finishing the entire section of art catalogues and textile books, it hit me. I was looking for literal symbols, but began to realize that back then it was all about ethnographics. I visited the scrimshaw museum in Horta, Faial and discovered the most prominent scrimshaw artist, Fátima Madruga Gomes. Gomes has carved hundreds of Sperm Whale teeth; usually of old whalers’ family members. She also exhibits her paintings in Portugal regularly. I was going to try and meet with her, but then the Corona hit, and my wife had our baby! The story is to be continued.
7) A followup of sorts to Question 4- The actual physicality and presence of your ropework is laden with meaning. Do you agree with the old Marshall McLuhan saying "The medium is the message."?
With my earlier work? 100 percent. In a way I’ve paid tribute to the material that made it all possible, and the retired ropes hold so many crazy stories! Lately, with my incorporation of Morse Code and ranging concepts, the rope has become more of a vehicle. Though if we’re on the topic of philosophical ideas, shouldn’t we ask what the medium of delivery actually is? Is it the material being used, or the senses transmitting to the brain (viewing versus touching tactile objects)? I included text in an exhibition once stating that I wanted people to want to touch my rope pieces, but not actually do so. That feeling of want was the concept I pursued and compared to being out at sea and longing for loved ones back home. Most people still touched the rope.
8) In something you recently wrote on Facebook, you talk about dichotomies (ugly/beautiful; staged/uncontrollable, etc.). You even used the dreaded "J-word": juxtaposition. Can you speak to your thought process there?
It would be a cliché if I went on about balance and juxtaposing this with that. In that text I mentioned how the beautified counterparts, such as sunsets, stuck out like a sore thumb, this was mainly what I was after. Two worlds of chaotic rusty dredge barges and soft, vibrant celestial events somehow working off of each other. Those are the dichotomies I track and try to fit into a frame. I’m out there doing a myriad of tasks, but when I catch a glimpse of some natural beauty in my most industrious state, it stops me in my tracks every time. I’m just surprised more people don’t “stop to smell the roses” as they say.
9) As a relatively new husband and even newer father, how do you balance domesticity, your maritime job and artmaking?
Oh man, balance is the goal! Domesticity exists because I have an incredible partner who taught me about love languages. Small acts of kindness and affection go a long way. Communication is key and she’s extremely supportive of my ever-dreaming mind. I usually take care of an evening meal, devote some time to checking in with everyone’s needs, and then I’m spent. When I’m on for work, we focus as a family on how I’m doing it for us, and trying to save up while so many incredible people in the world are living in extremely troubling times. That in itself makes me go through a ton of emotions. I try to stay humble and grateful. For art lately, I’ve also had a tough time dealing with my medium. In March I took some material home because I’ve been working with new ropes, and my studio isn’t clean enough for natural cotton. I was originally slated for five shows this year, not including one group show that took place in January. Then the pandemic hit and they all got postponed or cancelled like everyone else’s. When the protests started I was already working full time on the night shift and I had a thought that never hit me before. What if the material I was so passionate about using, a tactile fiber so satisfying to see and touch had the opposite effect on oppressed cultures? What if the sight of my ropes gave people heartache and discomfort? I honestly haven’t picked it back up since. It’s been eating at me. I felt bad for using it, and felt bad for neglecting it. Photography gave me back my creative drive at work. I’m able to kill two birds with one stone, and take a breather when I’m with my loves. The current series has been brewing for some time, but I guess it took this cat having to be cornered for something to give. I think as long as I have the sensitivity for others and good-intent, I’ll go back to the sculptural series, but for now the images are providing some back story to the sculptures while offering a real lens into a lesser viewed maritime sector.