“A sense of wonder is really important, both as an experience and as a subject of my art.”
Where did you grow up?
On the banks of Mississippi in St. Paul, Minnesota. I spent summers as a teen at wilderness camp along the U.S. and Canada border in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area where no motorboats were allowed, and in those days you could drink straight from the lakes.
What led you to study art and ultimately become an artist?
My enthusiastic interest in drawing started in elementary school, and I learned basic printmaking in middle school. In high school, I took a serious interest in pottery and ceramic sculpture while continuing to study painting and drawing. My pottery was successful and I made my first $1000 in twelfth grade by having a pottery sale in my parents’ basement. By the end of high school I knew I wanted to be an artist, although my mother would say, “Art is a nice avocation, but you need to find a vocation.” It was probably good advice, but I went my own way.
What kind of work did you make when you were in graduate school?
Crappy painting. School, particularly graduate school, was a step in the wrong direction for me. I had a good direction and body of work before grad school. School just muddied the water. I met some great people; but by the end, my work was a mess. Paying back the loans was the most educational part of grad school.
Which contemporary artists do you admire the work of? Are there any artists that you find influential towards your own work?
I like Roxy Paine’s trees and dioramas. I admire Andy Goldsworthy. I like Roni Horn’s sculptures. I love the performance artists from the 60’s and 70’s like Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden, Vito Acconci. I appreciate Matthew Barney’s form and the relationship between his objects to his performances. I like how he built on earlier performance artists and that his videos contend with narrative cinema. I like folk art very much, and I like the current batch of folk art / fine art hybrids.
When did you start creating the petroglyphs? What lead you to this method?
I started creating petroglyphs after taking some time off in my thirties. Recently, it occurred to me that in my late thirties I stopped trying to succeed as an artist. I still made work but it was more hermetic, small scale, and quiet. I made some outdoor drawings on a camping trip in 2003. It occurred to me that they would last better if they were carved, and in 2007, I made my first carving. In 2008, I began a big project in earnest and in secret in a hidden corner of NYC.
Is that work still on view?
Yes, I check on it periodically. There’s always a new batch of garbage bags and used hypodermic needles to clean up.
You are currently in the process of carving a petroglyph at the base of the entrance to the Beach 60th Street A train station in the Rockaways, New York City, which you won a grant to construct. Can you tell me about the process of creating a petroglyph in New York City?
The first step was meeting with community members to solicit ideas for imagery. Once a primary image was selected, I set out to arrange a composition on the main face of the rock. The main face will also serve as a bench. As I worked on the carving, people began asking me what I was doing and I asked them what they thought I should carve. That is how the basketball was chosen. I continue to study the environment for ideas. I included some planes and I’m working to tie the piece together and activate the space from all viewpoints.
How do you decide on the locations for the petroglyphs?
In 2009, as I prepared to leave town on my petroglyph adventure, I polled everyone I knew to find whether they had rocky land. I had one friend with family farmland on the edge of an oil field in North Dakota. I also knew someone who owned the cafe in a small town—of seven inhabitants—in Montana. I had started a piece in 2008 at a friend’s place in Telluride, CO, and he gave me an open invitation to work on it anytime. A friend in Berkeley, CA had rocks in her yard and she invited me to work there. With this thin itinerary, I gave up my beautiful Long Island City (Queens, NY) apartment, sold my stuff, put my rugs in storage, and moved into my van for a year—which turned into closer to three years.
To answer your question: I go to where the rocks are.
How large does a good size frieze span? Are you working on multiple rocks?
The frieze in Harlem is on two faces and spans 15 by 10 feet. The rock in Nova Scotia is 7 by 7 by 12 feet, and it has images on the five visible faces. The frieze in Berkeley is 8 feet by around 17 feet. I have multiple open projects right now. The Big Fish Petroglyph in Nova Scotia has room for more imagery and I have a lot of room to work in Montana, but that piece is composed of spatially isolated images rather than a frieze.
The objective for a frieze is for it to be complex enough that it cannot be absorbed at a glance. I want the imagery to be diverse and complex enough that it confounds the viewer.
How long does it usually take to complete a work?
Three months minimum—it depends on the scale, of course. But a good-sized frieze with a complex array of images takes some time. My best pieces, in Montana and Nova Scotia, I have returned to many times.
What kind of tools and paints do you use?
I like hard rocks because once carved they last the best, so I use primarily diamond and carbide tools. Regarding paints, I use water-based pigmented colors. I have experimented with oil-based colors and inks, but the water-based colors play nicely with both the paper and rock. The hardest part, which may be impossible, is permanently coloring the rock when I’m done carving and printing it. I have experimented with water and oil based stains and varnishes and currently I’m experimenting with a fixative that shows great promise.
You make a prints directly from the petroglyph carvings. How is the process of printmaking important to the work?
After I carve the rock, I paint it, and press wet paper onto the rock. The color conveys the image and the pressing captures the sculpture as an embossing. Printmaking serves to present the work to a broader audience than might see the petroglyphs first hand. Importantly, to me at least, the prints create a conceptual form where the spatial relationship between the rock and the paper create the broader sculpture. All the carvings and impressions are indexed in a relational database that serves as an index for the work.
I like to capture the texture of the surfaces and depth of the rock in minute detail, and the handmade paper does that excellently. Originally, I used commercial sheet paper, which creates a strong graphic image, but its ability to capture the depth of the sculpture is limited. My friend from Skowhegan, Kate Shepherd, introduced me to Dieu Donne, and they were kind enough to give me a tutorial on paper-making. I thought I could just mix sawdust and glue and get paper, but they set me straight. Now I use cotton paper. I make small sheets, and then assemble them on the rock to make bigger pieces.
Part of your practice is creating time-lapse videos while you carve the petroglyphs and make prints. How does this contemporary “medium” inform your process?
The concept of time is integral to my work, and the videos are an instrumental tool in that exploration. While the videos document the performance of the carving and printmaking, they also capture the time when my mortal body is present at the rock. The rock carvings and prints continue to exist as time passes, but my presence at the rock and—my body itself—is ephemeral. The videos mark the moment an impression is born and they serve as a practical tool for archivists. Future viewers can track the origins of a piece. By being able to slow down and speed up time, focusing on the action; I am able to further explore this concept while producing the videos. I also explore light. Sometimes it is just about the pleasure of watching the light fall on the clouds or landscape. However, the light also marks time like a sundial. The Smelt Brook video shows the first time I used nightfall for dramatic effect and to show the rhythmic passing of day and night.
“There are some billionaire art patrons who run a quaint little store on the edge of town and they let itinerant artists sleep in the parking lot.”
Where do you live while you complete a work?
I camp, but how I camp depends on the location. Originally, I camped in a tent with Persian rugs scattered around and cooked over an open fire. I quickly learned that lifestyle takes a lot of time—roughly three hours per day—so the “housework” was cutting into work too much. So now I enjoy a more Spartan lifestyle. Whenever possible, I pitch a tent. It’s nice to get out of the van; I love the sounds of the outdoors and it’s very “exciting” for an electrical storm to pass while I’m in a two-person tent. Sometimes, necessity keeps me camping in the van. And I like that too. It is cozy, but the van shakes in a strong wind.
Urban camping presents different challenges. In Halifax, I found the Williamsburg-type neighborhood and parked there, but I was very discreet about my comings and goings. Some ladies asked me with contempt why I do not stay in hotels and, forgetting the cost, hotels are gross and I would rather sleep anywhere else. Marginal neighborhoods, like Williamsburg, make good overnight parking areas. Because the van is full of tools and camping gear, sleeping inside of it in urban areas helps protect it.
Border towns are the diciest, both from the population and the police. I do not seem to be able to get through Brewer, ME without some interaction with the police. In Port Huron I was staying at Walmart (when people ask, I say, “There are some billionaire art patrons who run a quaint little store on the edge of town and they let itinerant artists sleep in the parking lot.”) and another overnight guest in a beat up pickup truck struck up a conversation. He was adept at gathering information while dissembling answers to my questions. He scared me; so I split despite it being bedtime. But the problem was: where to go in a small border town full of police and border patrol? The worst part of urban camping, is one loses the respite and beauty of the wilderness. After a day working, it is pleasant to watch the sky darken and listen to the porcupines chewing their branches. The bright lights and video cameras of the Walmart parking lot offer shelter, but not exactly. respite.
My diet is a little special when I am traveling too. As I mentioned, campfire cooking takes forever, pleasant though it is. I have camp stoves, and I will use them when someone gives me fresh meat, but I don’t love them. So basically, I have a cold diet. A certain brand of high fat plain yogurt will keep ten weeks unrefrigerated, even in the summer, and that is my staple. In 2011, I learned one could eat dry oats, so raw whole grains are another staple. I eat a lot of nuts, chocolate, dates. I have found some cheeses that also keep without refrigeration, but they wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. In 2012, a friend gave me a bunch of goose and duck breasts that he had shot, and I jerkied them. I did my best to eat them all—and I ate a lot of them—but they were gross (no one else would touch them) and in 2016 I ditched the remainder. There is a German butcher in Bridgewater, NS who sells dried sausage that keeps indefinitely and I wish I could get monthly shipments from him, but good old-fashioned cured meats are a rarity even in artisanal 2017.
How do your interactions with the local population inform your work?
My goal is to document a place at this moment as durably as possible. This started out as an idea, but it has become elemental to my practice. When a work is finished, the community around the rock sees their lives written down for the long haul, so they enthusiastically identify with the rock. Providing this locus for community identity is really gratifying, so choosing the right imagery is important. Imagery comes through community engagement. Outsiders are not welcomed in all communities, so embedding myself in a community is a slow process. The best imagery comes through informal conversations where people talk about their lives. In Nova Scotia I asked fishermen, “So, what is the best day fishing you ever had?” Other times, imagery comes just from looking at a community and documenting what they are doing; this was particularly true in North Dakota where the oil boom had worn out the welcome mat.
I am really fortunate to get access to small remote communities where old customs and idioms live on. I love idioms and colorful turns-of-phrase and I seek out those characters with rich vocabularies and good stories. Sometimes this brings me in contact with outsiders and outcasts. When I’m an artist in residence at a sculpture garden, or the like, I have an established status which facilitates dinner invitations (for which I am most grateful), but when I’m a drifter in a white van without any connection to a place my status starts very low.
Though, this low status also gives me entry with outsiders; where people with checkered pasts, exciting stories, and colorful vocabularies might be found and friended. Later, when the piece exists and people like it, my status is improved and my connection to the outsiders and outcasts wrinkles some feathers. Ironically, though, it is the outcasts who took a chance on me and befriended me when I was most lonely, and I am grateful for those friendships.
Kevin Sudeith working in Galisteo, New Mexico:
Do you ever have any problems with the locals?
I do not recommend the bar in Eden, WY, despite it isolation and cool exterior. I was thrown off a place with threats of violence in Galisteo, New Mexico in 2015. That was scary, and a bummer because my work was not finished, I didn’t get to varnish a big pictograph of an Amtrak train on which I had worked for weeks.
Because of my ‘low status’, I cannot really rebuff any invitations or requests for help. In one of my favorite places, there is little law and only one punishment: they ‘burn you out’. One neighbor near the rock, let’s call him Bud, was, ‘not well liked’ in the community and I was instructed—forcefully—not to hang around with him. Bud was not really my taste, but when he asked for help with a two-man job I could not really say no. The friend, who instructed me not to hang around with Bud, saw me helping him and that night said—mostly in jest—”I saw you helping Bud today. I told you not to hang around him. I mean it. I have no problem burning up your van.”
The images you choose seem to harken back to a 1950’s nostalgia or a boyhood sense of wonder. It seems that you are intentionally not including devices such as the iPhone or computers—that you are particularly choosing imagery that relates to our relationship to land, sky, and water. What does the imagery mean to you?
A sense of wonder is really important for me, both as an experience and as a subject of my art. Wonder, or awe, can occur with religious experiences, art experiences, and before nature and science. There is the wonder of nature: inexplicable, vast, changing. Being awed is such a rare and life affirming experience, and art is one place a viewer can be awed. I saw a musical performance recently, which was beautiful: it made the hair on my back stand up and sent tears streaming down my face. Humans’ inventions and adventures, like aerospace exploration, are awesome in their own right, but they also explore the wonder of life and the experience of being alive.
At a different scale, a single farmer working is also awesome, especially to an urban person. One man with tools, planting wheat in the fall, watching it sprout only to be frozen in winter, knowing that without the frost the wheat will not bear fruit the next year. The next summer the farmer harvests the wheat, puts it up for storage; then plays the market, delivering his grain to the elevator when price is right.
I try not to include imagery that requires lots of privileged information to decode. For example, how can one simply depict visually what a computer or smart phone “does”? With that said, I hope to make a spaceman with a selfie stick.