Another Contemporary Co-Existing Histories

Chris Johanson


Brian Mumford photo by Anne Marie Chrisman

"Lawn Sculpture" by Harrell Fletcher


Chris Johanson interview with Harrell Fletcher

Chris Johanson: Ok, Harrell, here we are in your pad sitting across from each other and communicating verbally and also through cyberspace. How does that make you feel?

Harrell Fletcher: I feel good about it. Do you want anything else to eat besides the banana?

CJ: No, I am cool right now. But what do you think about that? Is it a millennium moment, or something? So here we are sitting in your pad in Portland. Care to share why you ended up here of all places on Earth?

HF: I was looking for a new place to call home. I wanted to leave the Bay Area, which had been my base for over a decade. I felt like I couldn't sustain my lifestyle in California. I wanted to move to a city that would be relaxed, where I could buy a house and maybe find a teaching job, but with an airport close by so I could continue to travel. I went around doing projects in various cities looking for the right one. I tried Seattle and Minneapolis, but then when I came to Portland it just felt right. I was still having a hard time deciding and was about to leave town when I found out that some people I'd met were selling a house they owned. I went and checked it out, liked it, and the price was right, so I bought it and have lived here ever since. I feel really lucky to have stumbled on the house. I like the neighborhood and I found a teaching job that I like too, so things have worked out for me. Now I just need a dog and a little less time on the road.

CJ: You mean the folks with the lawn sculptures. I really loved hearing the story about them. Would you care to share it? By the way, I think that connection you had with those folks is indicative of the nice communication that happens here. Jo and I often talk about how people smile at each other here and how it helps the day.

HF: Okay, well, I was working on my show for PICA. This was the summer of 2001, I think, and I walked by these lawn sculptures here in the NE of Portland. There was a boy, a man, and a frog and they all had their hands crossed in their laps. I noticed them and liked them, so I went back about a month later to look at them again, but when I got there the man, who was smaller in size than the boy, had his head and legs broken off. I knocked on the door of the house to see what happened. A woman answered. Her name is Joan Williams. She told me the lawn sculpture had been vandalized, but that they were going to keep it in their front yard. She invited me in and we talked a while. I told her I'm an artist and that I was working on a show. Somehow we came up with the idea to make some new lawn sculptures that were modeled on the old ones but that looked like Joan, her family, and neighbors. So I took photos of everyone and worked with a local guy who makes lawn sculptures and we made twenty of them. They were included in my PICA show and then I made cement versions that went in the Williams' front yard with the originals. They are all still there. I was hanging out with them when the project was done and they mentioned that they had a house that belonged to Joan's husband's mother who had recently died and they needed to sell it. I took a look at it and decided to buy it. The house is just a few blocks from the Williams'. It was a nice way to be brought into this neighborhood.

CJ: That is a really positive story. You brought back the sculptures, made friends, mutually helped each other out. I love that kind of thing. Someone recently asked me to describe my art making or what I was doing and in the course of articulating my answer I said that living was basically the art. Life is what it's all about. Not a painting or a private life of art shows and selling art. It's really about having good energy and a community where opportunities are shared and my good fortune is cultivated with others. I know a lot of people who feel this way. It's like a collective consciousness of fortunate art life that tries to include others and grow the circle. Am I clear enough here?

HF: Yeah, that sounds ideal. And I think it's possible, at least in the way you and I go about our lives and work, but I'm not so sure the larger art world works that way. That's another reason why I like living in Portland. I'm away from the central art world places. I like visiting NYC and LA, but I don't want to deal with the weirdness of that dynamic all the time. I guess I'm biting the hand that feeds me, but I think the way the art world is structured in a pretty much opposite way of what you just described.

CJ: It's true that the art world is in some ways horrible and brutal. It is a microcosm of the larger world, which is undeniably horrible in some ways, but there is also so much love. How many awesome friendships do you have because of it? This is my favorite part. If it wasn't for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts hiring me as an art handler, and you doing Creativity Explored, we wouldn't have met--which brings us to a very special place that unfortunately alienates a square and close-minded part of the art world, and world in general. Let's get this out on the table. People should understand that you are absolutely proud of the work you have done with Creativity Explored. I consider projects we have done to be some of the most important creative projects I have done in my life. Would you like to explain the history of your work with Elizabeth Meyer and what led to the two of you doing this project?

HF: Elizabeth introduced me to Creativity Explored (an open art studio for developmentally disabled adults in San Francisco) when I was in Graduate school. She had already been volunteering there. I was really amazed by the people I met and the work they were doing. It was particularly exciting in relation to what I was experiencing in Grad school, which wasn't very exciting to me. Elizabeth and I started making a Xeroxed magazine, devoted to the people we met at Creativity Explored. It was called Whipper-Snapper Nerd (named by John McKenzie, one of the artists we met at CE). We also made videos that we screened on cable access TV and in small film festivals. One of the people we worked with was David Jarvey, who is an amazing person and artist who also happens to have Down Syndrome. He was really interested in Star Trek and had created a personal mythology that involved a particular Star Trek episode. He wanted to make a video about it so we did, in a very low-tech way, at his house. Later we were asked by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to do an extended version. That's when we brought you in. I knew you had been interested in working with David, and I figured he would like to work with you. That project wound up being "The Forbidden Zone," which started as a show with three video pieces, drawings that the three of us did together, and sculptures David made. Later we turned it into a single channel-screening piece that includes the early videos, too.

CJ: It hurt my feelings when I found out people thought the project took advantage of David. As I learned he is not only a really charismatic person, but he could be manipulative. He is adept at getting people to do work for him, like write out his sentences on his art work. I wonder if the people who criticized this art collaboration understand David as a whole human being. That project was so enlightening for me. I remember that time the project caught some negativity at UCSD. It blew my mind because I figured that since you were lecturing to a bunch of critical theory Grad students they would be able to understand the project and be excited by it. Instead, there was this really shame-based, reactionary, upright conservative energy. It really made my jaw drop. Christopher Garrett, too.

HF: That was a pretty weird lecture. I guess that kind of thing comes with doing projects people aren't used to seeing. For us who worked on it, and for those people who get it, the project was wonderful and positive. For other people, it was uncomfortable. But I think that's a good thing, too, because it was a chance to expose those people to something new and maybe in the future they will be more receptive and understanding about the capacities of developmentally disabled people and the positive effects of collaborations like this.

CJ: What are your thoughts on the idea of life being completely political and how does that affect your actions, if you agree with this comment?

HF: I think that everything we do has political aspects. I was just talking to some students today about how language shapes people's mentalities and perceptions. How, for instance, using words like "retard" as a pejorative term creates a sense that people with developmental disabilities are bad or stupid, and separate from non-developmentally disabled people. You and I know, from our experiences with David Jarvey, that given the opportunity, we can connect with people who have developmental disabilities. They can be just as smart and amazing as anyone else. For me, once I had my eyes opened in terms of using "retard" as a negative term, it became very unappealing to hear it used that way. There are, of course, other examples of politics and everyday life intersecting. There are political and moral aspects. Then, there are more specific political acts that go beyond normal bounds. I'm feeling more and more, given the current political state, that it is important to not just be conscious of our personal/political acts and responsibilities, but to also extend beyond and attempt to make positive political change in more active ways, including our work as artists, since, unlike people most other professions, our work is public forum to air our opinions and challenge conditions we don't agree with.

CJ: Creating is empowering. It is an awesome way to spend some time. Sometimes people can be shy about it. When I think of you and Miranda July's project "Learning to Love You More" I think about people getting gently pushed in the process or act of getting into creating. I think it is a really nice project. Would you care to share some information about the website (

HF: Sure. Miranda and I came up with the idea for the web site about four years ago. We both were doing smaller scale projects that involved giving quick assignment type instructions to people at our lectures and performances. It was working out well and seemed appreciated, so we figured that a web site version would allow anyone to do the assignments and the results, what we call reports, could then be archived on the site. To some extent, it is a way for us to see the things that we would like to see but that aren't really available, like photos of strangers holding hands with each other, or life stories written in less than a day. The whole project has gone really well. Yuri Ono is the web designer and does all of the updating, without her it never would have happened. At this point we are in the process of publishing a book and possibility becoming a non-profit, so that's all pretty exciting.

CJ: Back to politics. I believe that co-existence makes being alive political. There is no escape. I love the way you deal with co-existence in your art. It really inspires me. I have a strong belief that being a part of society makes a healthier, more peaceful world. Your way of making things happen with other humans, like these events and projects, has rubbed off on me. Looking back, I can see a change in my art making and living. I just thought I would share that before I asked you about your Vietnam War project. I remember you talking about the survivors' perspective and how it was more forgiving than one might expect.

HF: I think I've been really affected by knowing about your art and knowing you as a person. I think your influence led me back into my own ways of doing things after having been in a long collaboration that had begun to feel somewhat distant from my earlier intentions. So I really appreciate that, and I'm happy that I had some positive effects on you, too. As for Vietnam, I was really interested in talking to people who had personal experience with what they call The American War, but most people I asked about it didn't want to talk about it. They said it was over and they had no hard feelings towards me, as a US citizen. They said they never felt like the US public was to blame, just the US Government and Military, which they saw as a very different thing. People kept telling me that if I was interested in the War, I should go to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and that would give me a good idea of the Vietnamese perspective on the war. So when I got to Ho Chi Minh City one of the first things I did was go to the museum. It was devastating. I went back a few more times, and decided to photograph all of the images and text in the museum and then re-present it in the US, which is what I did. At this point the project is traveling to six venues across the US and there is a book version out and a web site. I've also been doing events with Vets, Vietnamese immigrants, students, history proffessors, etc, as part of the project. I've learned a lot about that war. It's been very interesting to look back at that situation while the US is involved in a similar war in Iraq.

CJ: Harrell, it's an important thing to share. I hope it helps to raise people's awareness about how wrong the current war is. It's been good to share some thoughts. Peace be with you and take care.

HF: Thanks Chris.


"Forbidden Zone" by Harrell Fletcher

"Cellphone" by Dana Dart-McLean

"Machine for Astonishing Me" by Dana Dart-McLean

"ShitWorld Vodka" by Kal Spelletich



A few statements and rambling observations
By Kal Spelletich

All glory comes from daring to begin.
--Eugene F Ware

Art, it is about collaborating, be it with a friend, a gallery owner, a television crew, your neighbours, or a stranger. When I am asked to exhibit my work I think, I am blessed. Each show is a gift, a miracle.

It is about giving back, and sharing. It is life and death. Just like my day-to-day life. Junky friends OD'ing. Friends dying of very simple medical conditions. Drugs in the arts community are like a plague, like AIDS. We sacrifice ourselves for something bigger; the suffering necessitates the creating. In the end, it is supposed to be hard. You make and make and hope you can inspire your audience, to be a catalyst, and send someone on their journey. Not your journey, theirs! Why are you on the planet? Why am I? To help others find their purpose--probably the most important thing for us to do.

Artists generally don't have much money, but they are wealthy. They have soul, heart, passion; they follow their muse--something people who only follow money do not follow and will never understand. So we are wealthy! Money can be a good thing, but you have to waste a lot of time making it.

This life, it is amazing, confounding and transcendent. I'm writing this in a field full of stones from an ancient lava flow in Namibia, Africa, May 9, 2006. I never dreamed my art would take me to such spectacular, transcendent places, where I meet such astounding people. These are the rewards. Another reward has been teaching. It keeps me a perpetual student. To stay in touch with different generations, to help people get where they need to go, and not whitewash it with bullshit and lies.

I am always impressed by artists, that they have the balls, the guts, to make something, to even attempt to create and add to our language, to make something out of nothing, to face demons, to contribute, to give back, to enter into a dialogue with humanity. The real glory is to begin. Then, to exhibit, to present new ideas. The secret of success is constancy of purpose.

Our stories, written words, songs, pictures: we repeat them through the millennia, sharing what bits and pieces we glean, looking for poetic moments. Out there, we look for that DEEP thing that isn't visible in day-to-day life: an undercurrent, another dimension you know is there, a source for real knowledge, and the quest for a connection with that. As artists, the more you take in the more you are able to give back. The longer you stay in it the richer your oeuvre.

Change your destiny
Find your soulmate
Find your fortune
Stop injustice
Remove tyrannical governments
Help you realize yourself

"They" can censor us. "They" can CUT US OFF, but that will never stop creativity. Sometimes the land has to burn in order to regenerate.

Art is so much like science:
The Philosophy of Science can be divided into two areas. The first: the process of scientific research and discovery.
The second: the fruits of that process, the things we discover, the insights we gain.

#1. We are concerned with the proper procedure for acquiring knowledge that can justifiably be called "scientific."
#2. We are concerned with the ultimate use and purpose of that which is discovered.
#3. It is metaphysical: the study of any question that cannot be answered by scientific observation and experimentation.
Artists add even more to the mix.

There are three principal means of acquiring knowledge available to us: observation of nature, reflection, and experimentation. Observation collects facts; reflection combines them, experimentation verifies the result of that combination.
--Dennis Diderot

PEOPLE WANT TO BE TESTED. They test themselves. They go out looking for challenges. How can the mind transcend the limits of the body? By addressing its fears. Fear--not baseball--is the great American pastime. Politicians use it masterfully to manipulate the people. I use fear as a medium. I am interested in empowering people with it, not humbling them. It is one of these inexplicable paradoxes that we pay good money to rid ourselves of our fears, when we should be inspiring people to face the limits of what they are capable of dealing with, to experiment with the body's limitations as well as the mind's. Each piece I make, I make it like it is the last piece I am going to make. My final statement.


Keeping a workspace has always been paramount to my art making. I have lived and worked in numerous squats, and illegal warehouse studios. Living in my studio was and is the only way to swing the bills. My current studio has existed for 16 years. Hundreds of people, if not thousands, have worked there. We have squat gardens on abandoned derelict lots, neighbourhood events, endless BBQs, classes, shows, exhibits, political events, on and on. Having a play space, party room, a sacred zone where I can escape and focus, overrides all comforts. I have always booked my own shows, trying not to count on the galleries or museums for validation or income. Having a studio space has helped infinitely.

Art is like voting: "good" art creates discussion, "bad" art creates no discussion. Either way, you are at least voicing an opinion, like voting. If you don't try, nothing will happen. I have always thought the original artists, after children, are native Shamans. They worked with and for their community. For art to go anywhere, it needs to go beyond the white box, reach past the tyranny of capitalism, products, production, consumption, consumerism, and business models. I doubt any Shaman envisioned their work in such a format of with these constraints. Nothing works in isolation. If everything is dynamically interconnected, each action and reaction is vital. It appears we are past the tipping point with the environment, and the US government is the leading terrorist on the planet, but if we are NOT on our true paths, then are we terrorists also?

Virtually all of my work is interactive. Stuff that just sits there, on the floor, a wall, or a pedestal, always seems mute. There is a Buddhist belief that the central delusion of human existence is that each of us exists independently of everything around us. Interactivity is closely related to that. Interactive work demonstrates interconnectivity because it cannot exist without the input of a participant. We must ask how art can be interactive. Can a white cube, a truly artificial space that isolates art from our day-to-day lives present a valid view of our culture? Is this a role model for success? Does most art depend on this sort of space for its context--this self-contained space without real life references or interventions? Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls the essence of non-duality "realizing the nature of inter-being," or surrendering some of your personal identity to free yourself. We are not isolated, just as political administration isn't: artists, and the ripple effect our lives cause. I do not let Robert Oppenheimer off the hook for creating the nuclear bomb, or current American politics terrorizing the planet, any more than I do Andy Warhol for creating product-driven, consumerist "art." Being dominated by economic ideals, competitively struggling for shows, income, personal survival, and conducting business in art fairs is a far cry from inter-being. If artists enjoy the journey by surrendering some personal identity, they will collaborate more easily with each other and the universe. That collaboration makes you free.

Immortality is to labor at an eternal task.
--Ernest Renan

Scott Snibbee, Bill Viola, Suzi Gablik, Zen masters, and others who have snuck into my subconscious, inspired these writings.


"Seemen08" by Kal Spelletich

Scott Myles

Chris Johanson

Hayley Tompkins

Jo Jackson

Christopher Garrett

Marie Lorenz

Chris Corales

"Disco Balls" by Jim Schatz

"Red Chairs" by Jim Schatz

Doug Anson

Ashley Macomber (both)

Jo Jackson

photos from Kavi Gupta opening