Discovery Series: Aaron Mason
by Christina Dideriksen for COMPANY
(November 11, 2011) Emerging Art is a difficult term to define—even our own multidisciplinary approach created controversy last year. We stand behind our last “30 under 40” choices and have been thrilled to watch our choices, including Jazz-Minh Moore and Federico Solmi go on to receive further recognitions. With reality shows like Bravo’s Work of Art bringing art discussion to mainstream audiences, we decided it is time to look back on our own evolving description of the “Emerging Art Scene.”
We begin that investigation with a new Discovery Interview with an artist a bit outside our typical demographic of recently graduated or artists just embarking on a career. While we love talking with fresh voices like Joyce Ho and great Emerging Art non-profits like NutureArt, we decided to check out someone who represents a large majority of artists today, the unrepresented and embarking on a “second career” as an artist: Aaron Mason who recently self produced an exhibit of his own work titled “Show & Tell.”
Since he moved to New York from his hometown of Denver, Colorado about 15 years ago, Aaron has worked as an actor, proofreader, DJ, and technical writer, in addition to painting. He earned his BA in Liberal Arts and Sciences from St. John's College in Santa Fe, NM. Aaron currently lives with his husband and 2 dogs in Jersey City, where he paints in a home studio.
COMPANY: Aaron, thanks for taking a break to talk with us! What does it mean to you to be an “emerging artist?”
Aaron: I’m no expert, but I think of emerging art as conceptual or very postmodern, where the message is more important than the medium. Also, emerging implies that the artist is on the cusp of doing it as a full-time career. For me, I still feel like I’m learning to work within the medium (semi-abstract acrylics), and it’s not a career for me, at least not yet. So maybe I’m emerging as a pre-modern, part-time painter.
COMPANY: Do you consider yourself a “hobbyist” then?
Aaron: No, I don’t consider myself a hobbyist, although I like that term much better than “amateur” or “dilettante.” I’m more of a part-time painter who aspires to integrate making a living with an exploration of creative avenues and outlets. And if you define “professional” as making any amount of money through your art, that’s what I am, since I sold my first couple paintings and funded my last show.
COMPANY: How long have you been painting?
Aaron: On and off since high school, although I may have started as a young kid. I think my first painting as a child was of a sunset. I remember winning a local poetry writing contest in the 1st Grade. I think the assigned topic was love, and my simple rhymes praised the beauty of a Colorado sunset, as well as the beauty of love between people. Grand Lake Reverie, a landscape on paper I did at least 10 years ago, is a kind of visual follow-up to that poem.
So I’ve always had a way with both words and visual communication. I didn’t go to art school but my undergraduate studies included an art history survey with hands-on composition and life-drawing exercises. It was there at St. John’s College where I met Delia and Justin Dehnert, 2 of our Show & Tell collaborators.
The well-rounded, unique liberal arts program at St. John’s was a good fit for me. As an 18 year old, I certainly wasn’t ready to specialize or pick a career path. Of course, that BA didn’t prepare me for any one career, but it definitely helped me travel on a path of communicating for a living, whether through acting, writing, spinning records, painting, or creating an art event. In the world of ideas, both the word and the image rely on each other to tell the complete story. In the pharmaceutical advertising agencies where I used to work, each writer was paired up with an art director. Makes sense.
More recently, I’ve been able to do my medical writing job at home, and that’s really fueled a prolific period of painting. I feel lucky and grateful for that.
COMPANY: How would you characterize your painting style?
Aaron: I used to call it psychedelic pointillism, although it’s expanded quite a bit since then. What Seurat did I don’t have the patience for. So points are only one of many tools I like to use.
I don’t think my style is message-driven, because many of my paintings are mysterious, even to me. What my art is “saying” is something I haven’t completely figured out. I do see a lot of motion and recurring shapes like spirals, but this might mean more to my unconscious mind than to the viewer. Maybe my childhood fear and fascination with tornadoes and snakes explains the spirals to a degree.
One thing is clear: I use painting as an escape from stress and from the analytic, hyper-critical aspects of my psyche. It’s almost like I go someplace else for awhile. “Trance” feels like too strong a word, although I used to love dancing to trance music.
Even the name “Show & Tell” has a few related meanings. It’s about untrained creativity, which is what I feel that I have. And in that sense, I am a non-thinker at the canvas, experimenting yes, but with my own subconscious playground as well as with the relationships between color, texture, pattern, perspective, and shape.
In addition to reminding me of those dreaded and occasionally hilarious grade school sharing exercises, the theme of Show & Tell is a simplified way of describing both an art show and a storytelling event.
COMPANY: Who influenced or inspired you?
Aaron: I cried the first time I saw a sizable collection of Van Gogh’s work at the Art Institute in Chicago. I was 20. It just moved me they way you could feel so much palpable emotion in his brush strokes. Many years later, on the day we were engaged, John and I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Those are both big moments. Unlike me, he used oil and lived in a time before anti-depressants, but that’s probably a discussion for a much longer article.
I also love Bonnard’s fanciful colors and elongated shapes, and Pollack’s exuberantly masculine playfulness.
My late uncle Brent was my gay role model. He moved to NYC from Colorado, just as I did many years later. And in the 70s he danced with the Trockadero, an all-male company that spoofs the classic of ballet. He was also wickedly funny, warm, smart, and successful.
COMPANY: He was an artist in his own right then. Now that you are spending more time with your art career, you decided to self produce a showing of your work: “Show & Tell”—
Aaron: I produced it, but it was a group show of my work and some other artists.
COMPANY: Did you always plan to collaborate with other artists?
Aaron: Yes, collaboration was always part of the plan, and I guess being the sole event producer allowed me the freedom to hand-pick friends who could each bring a unique talent or interpretation of the theme. [Philadelphia based artist] Delia King, for example, took Show & Tell from the classroom to the bedroom with her glass Pornaments.
Yet, when I paint, I am in isolation from people, in the same room where our guests sleep and where I sit at my work laptop every weekday. It’s the same room that houses our books, printers, CDs, and office supplies, as well as all my paints, my easel, etc.
Again, there’s that motif of integration of multiple tasks and disciplines… Gathering and sharing with others is also more theatrical (I love theater) and also took some of the pressure off me, since it was my first time showing my work to a public gathering of people. It’s also more fun, especially if you get the right mix of people involved, and I feel that we did have a great crew.
COMPANY: Why did you decide to produce your own show?
Aaron: The purpose was to show as many forms of artistic expression as possible in an integrated, fun, party-like atmosphere.
COMPANY: Being an unrepresented artist, you have to wear so many hats to get your work shown—finishing your own collection, working with other artists, and producing the show itself.
Aaron: It’s definitely a challenge to produce an event like this, but it can be satisfying and worthwhile, too. By going around the normal avenues, you get to have much more creative control. You’re not trying to fit in with a pre-existing scene. Finding the right space can be tough, but you also get to create your own vibe, do whatever inspires you without worrying about being accepted or rejected by a gallery or group of artists.
It’s hard work to carry and hang 16 paintings then repack them up and move them again 5 or 6 hours later, especially since I also danced toward the end of the night. I thought our DJ, John Deely aka “Vinyl Ritchie” did a fabulous job. So if it’s a short-term exhibition and you have to travel, I recommend lightweight, portable artwork. Maybe drawings on paper, as Eva Schicker wisely did for our show. Or small paintings like Delia King brought.
Another limitation was that the rental space available when I needed it was expensive. So I could only afford a 1-night exhibition. Clearly, a longer exhibition period after an opening party is ideal, and an established gallery or group show can give you that.
With a 1-night show, it’s probably a bit harder to keep the collaborative momentum going after you leave the space and people go their separate ways. It depends on the people I guess. I was able to get some wonderful folks to contribute in so many different ways. In fact, I reconnected with a couple who own a studio space in Brooklyn, and they might help me host a follow-up to Show & Tell in March of 2012. That would be wonderful.
COMPANY: Were you trying to sell pieces or was the event purely to show the work to an audience?
Aaron: Selling artwork was a priority, but a secondary one for me. All the visual artwork at Show & Tell was for sale. Even printed poems and CDs of the jazz performer and DJ will go out to our financial backers. We planned to print out title cards and price lists, but the shiny paper we chose ended up not holding onto the ink from my laser printer. It just bled and smudged. Next time, we’ll have business cards and price lists to hand out. It’s kind of a missed opportunity, but we still sold some work.
COMPANY: The event was self-funded. Did this affect the way you went about curating the show or what you chose to sell?
Aaron: Actually, although I fronted the show, I raised money from individual backers. I reached my Kickstarter target for fund-raising, which means I personally will come very close to breaking even.
COMPANY: What is Kickstarter?
Aaron: Kickstarter is a website that helps groups or individuals raise money from the community for a particular project. I had some experience backing other creative projects through Kickstarter. But I didn’t decide to use it for Show & Tell until I raised only a third of my budget by sending out packets directly to potential investors, that is, a few of my wealthy friends. The first investor said to me, “I think you’re just going to have to get a bunch of small contributions.” He was right. And that’s what Kickstarter is designed to help you get.
In setting up our event page on Kickstarter.com, I made some minor mistakes. Our video is poorly lit and the sound is hard to hear. I made the time limit to raise money too long. Once you’ve decided, you cannot shorten or lengthen the length of time the page will be open. I also neglected to read all of the fine print: Once the page is closed for pledges, it can take up to 3 weeks for you to receive the funds. But it’s still a great site, especially if you already have a diverse network of friends online.
COMPANY: You used the space at Studio 580 to feature your group show. With the collection of artists you collaborated with, the exhibit felt like part pop-up gallery, part impromptu performance, and part dance party. How would you describe it?
Aaron: I like all of those, although the poems were written in advance and performers definitely rehearsed at least once. So impromptu might not be totally accurate.
Ultimately, Show & Tell was the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself when I turned 40 in January of this year. The promise was, “This is the year you will exhibit your paintings.” So I gave myself a deadline and 12 months in which to accomplish the goal. It sounds simple enough, but the doing of it was not. In the months leading up to my 40th birthday, I remember thinking that it would be a good time to take action if John and I decided to have children. Yes, we have dogs. But the baby fever passed.
So, in a way, Show & Tell was my baby, at least for 2011. And next time, we’ll have to do an extended period of exhibition, although I like the idea of a “pop-up gallery,” because almost any space can serve that purpose, just like a subway platform or Carnegie Hall are both venues for music.
COMPANY: Why not just throw a party and invite your friends? Does it mean something different to have a “party” where your art happens to be on the wall versus an “art exhibit” that people socialize at?
Aaron: I think I wanted people to feel comfortable. My vision of a great art scene is one that’s accessible. When it comes down to it, I like gourmet snacks and Belgian beer and fanciful cocktails and my husband’s home-made chocolate cake. So that’s what we offered to our guests. It might sound pretentious, but it’s really the opposite. It’s just creating a warm, welcoming, entertaining atmosphere. And if that helps to sell the art on the walls, that’s a great bonus. I know I’m always more likely to spend money in a store if I like the music, if the staff is friendly but they let me browse without hounding me.
COMPANY: What advice would you give to someone who wants to self-produce a nontraditional gallery show?
Aaron: I think you have to be committed and not give up. And be willing to ask your friends for help. I have amazing friends, because most of them said yes when I asked. Even if you have the vision, you can’t necessarily implement it alone. I know I couldn’t.
For up and coming artists, the challenge of balancing creativity with making a living is even harder in the current economy. However, we need art even more when times are tough. Sometimes you have to be daring and create your own opportunities. And when you start to do this, people will appear from all kinds of unexpected places to help you out. Also, to me, having confidence in your own talent is not about being mean, egotistical, or manipulative. It's about taking chances and opening yourself up more. And collaboration can be wonderful, giving and receiving. That's the magic of a great group exhibition.
Thanks to Aaron and the artists of “Show & Tell” for sharing their work with us. It can be easy for the art world to overlook this ever growing segment of the community, yet their work is no less valuable. As Aaron so eloquently promises:
By supporting this creative venture, you are giving a handful of artists a boost and a leg up in taking our work to the next level…Celebrations like this bring people together and serve as a reminder of our common connections, of our inner creativity, and our need to celebrate artistic expression in its various forms.