Sunday, December 28, 2008

Spencer Sutton Interview

As part of a larger research project in teaching methods and pedagogical experimentation, I began interviewing a select group of students taking my art history survey class at Connecticut College. See further discussion in earlier posting. My first subject is Spencer Sutton, a junior fine arts major, whose connection to alternative music I found most compelling. I've learned a great deal from this interview, confirming some notions about how intelligent and creative young people today engage with culture. I found especially interesting the retrospective nature of discovery, the processes (even the media) through which cultural history is acquired, the relationship between visual and musical taste, and other such topics. I should also note, that Spencer listens to a lot of the same music that I do. The generational difference between us, however, makes this all more fascinating because his discovery was not contingent on a contemporary urban public underground scene; it was privately cultivated through a kind of historical research not different from art history. Rather than highlighting all the interesting things that Spence has taught me, I post a transcript on the whole interview. I thank Spencer for his willingness to be interviewed and for allowing me to post our conversation. I also thank Spencer for sending me samples of his art (below) to help the reader understand his creative process.


December 2, 2008
4:15-5:00 pm

Cummings Hall, Office 207
Connecticut College
New London, Conn.

KK Why did you take the art history survey class (AHI 121)?

SS I’m an art major. So, primarily, I was taking this course because it’s good to always have a retrospective view onto various styles of art that have progressed throughout time, so that you can incorporate that kind of stuff into your art, and that’s really a focus of my art because I do narrative things, big theological things. I would borrow a lot, things from the Ancient Greek periods. Even recently, when I went to the Metropolitan, there was the New Guinea exhibit that I sort of stumbled upon. That was just so cool for me. Those kind of things that I can blend into the religious iconography of my art.

KK What’s your relationship with the music scene? Is it connected to art, or is it separate?

SS Well, it’s connected in a way. I always draw and listen to music at the same time because it does influence the trajectory of the piece. The darker scenes are influenced by darker music, obviously, same thing with the lighter stuff. I came to music in high school. I guess, I felt always fairly alienated from popular music of my era certainly, because there is a certain lack of feeling and emotional content. I was always retrospective as I a min the art history world. I listened to Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana and then even later I got into the Gothic stuff of the seventies like Joy Division and The Cure and things like that, which I felt had so much more feeling than the current stuff. I was drawn to it through alienation.

KK Did this happen at the same time you decided to do art, or was it separate?

SS Well, art, I’ve just been doing forever from Ninja Turtles to today. When I established myself not just as someone who draws cartoons and things like that on the weekend to someone who did it consistently, like a vocation, those coincided with when I got into music. Yeah, they definitely went hand in hand.

KK Tell me about your pre-college experiences. Was there something that influenced you from either the art side or the music side, that came from your environment, from where you grew up. Did you grow up in the city? Was there a certain scene or group of people that introduced you either to the visual arts or to the music stuff?

SS I grew up kind of all over the place but mostly in suburbs. I went from suburb to suburb around the New England area and the funny thing is that I never really entered the city until college, surprisingly enough. I was always oriented in the suburbs and kind of isolated from the bigger scenes in Manhattan. Now, in college, I have moved in there, because mostly my friends and I have gotten a little wider connections with those sort of resources. So, I’ve moved in there. I was really not connected to any musical scene other than what my friends were listening to at the time. And we were listening to the older stuff, too, so I latched on to that.

KK What was the medium of that discovery? It sounds like it involved some research on your part. What were the places where you did this research? Where there record stores you used to go to, or through the Internet? Was it albums, CDs, downloads?

SS It wasn’t downloads. I assume that most people of my era would answer the question as download, download, download. It’s fine. I would listen to old albums of my father’s, for example. He had all these vinyls, Jimmy Hendrix and things like that, The Beatles. And it sort of progressed from there into things that interested me more. Not that those things I’ve abandoned because they’re near and dear to my heart. But then that were outside the realm of what he enjoyed and more of what my friends enjoyed like Nirvana and things that I would pick up from someone on the bus. But it was definitely the album which was interesting because the album kind of disappeared in my generation. We have just singles. Singles, singles, singles, singles.

KK When you say the album, do you mean the CD or vinyl?

SS It was both. I think first the CD. My dad had a lot of stuff like that and my friends had their CDs. I remember the first time I saw The Ramones’ album Rocket to Russia that my friend Quinn had. And he would just play it on and on repeatedly on the bus and I would pick it up from there. Then it went to the vinyl stuff. It’s an odd sort of progression backwards even through technology.

KK Going back to the art side. It seems that your first experiences came through popular culture, cartoons, Ninja. Is it something that grew out of your connection with American graphic culture?

SS Yeah. It did have its roots in popular culture, things like the hero culture. I was five, six years old and would do Superman and things like. And then it went to other things. Then I became religious and followed those sort of imageries.

KK Did you have any training like art classes in high school?

SS Yeah. I had the education in high school and in college but really, my first kind of formal education was with my father. We used to do self portraits of one another. That was the first time I ever came in contact with the academic side, fine tuning the skills. And then, I had art majors and minors in high school and guidance there.

KK Was there ever any intersection between…, because, I know, a few weeks ago we were talking about The Minutemen, SST Records. Especially in Black Flag, a cartoon type of drawing entered things like album covers.

SS Yeah, The Misfits kind of thing, inspired by B movies, right?

KK In fact, Raymond Pettibon, who is now a very established and collectible artist, is the brother of Greg Ginn of Black Flag, and he started doing Black Flag’s show announcements and also the album covers for the Minutemen.

SS Oh really?

KK So, I was wondering if there was ever a moment of intersection for you between the music culture and the visual side, like in terms of illustration. Or was the visual culture completely independent from the music in terms of narrative or story line, having nothing to do with musical expression. Do you know what I mean?

SS Right. Whether I was drawn to both the imagery of it and also the music aspect. A little bit. Sometimes. If someone’s got a really bland album cover, you’re always turned off by it. I don’t know. But that was never the primary influence. I would first hear the music. If it had a great album cover… I love the Joy Division album Unknown Pleasures with the waves. That kind of cover creates a mood to the music. I would never use that image to degrade the music or toss it away but it definitely creates a setting that bolster the experience, certainly.

KK So, if you were to describe some kind of aesthetic, some kind of greater project that you have, whether artistic or musical, what would it be? You said spiritual, you said that your art is pretty much about the spiritual side of things. You mentioned alienation from high school. Would you say that there is a kind of aesthetics that characterizes you. Something that is above and beyond both the visual and the musical? Would you brand yourself under some category? Would you say there is a Punk aesthetics, or New Wave, or Grunge? would you say that you’re part of a larger thing?

SS Well, that gets to be really hard because there are these categorizations that I have drawn from, you know, the Gothic stuff, the Punk rock stuff, the New Wave stuff, and the Grunge stuff. But I don’t know. I come to school either in a T-shirt or a college shirt and don’t see myself as a preppy because of it and Id don’t see myself as a punk rocker. I am influenced on a daily basis by, you know; I’ll wear a Sonic Youth shirt one day and then do the button down.

KK So there is no style that you have to embrace?

SS But again, I feel that there still is that somewhere, but I just have never really focused on it.

KK That makes sense. It is interesting. It sounds like you see yourself as a kind of historian. You are a historian from a young age.

SS I thin more and more everyone’s doing that, everyone is becoming retrospective.

KK As a historian, a visual historian or a musical historian, describe how you do your research. Does it go from one thing to another? Do you have a system? a discipline of how you organize all these sounds or visual symbols?

SS I feel that I am more of a purist when it comes to art. I’m able to go out and look at it and say this is fantastic. But then, when It comes to music, there is a little bit of a filtration unfortunately. I’ll meet someone with whom I have common interests and we’ll discuss our favorite groups, and if I’ve never heard of one, he’ll tell me what it is and then I’ll go out and listen to it. And then I’ll make my analysis at that point. I feel that there is lot of stuff that I’ll never even get into contact with because it’s just not within my realm, which is unfortunate. I feel that I should be broader in my views. So, I feel that I’m kind of snooty when it comes to music, like I wouldn’t willfully accept one form of music. I wouldn’t listen to an album enough because I’m annoyed by a certain taste or a genre. Whereas in art, I can say forget about the genre, it is what it is and I can just characterize it that way.

KK So you are more flexible with art

SS Yeah, more flexible. And I wouldn’t want to admit it but I have to.

KK That’s interesting. Going back to art history, would you take more art history courses? Do you see any benefits in the structured way of learning about art? And I’m asking this completely honestly, I’m not trying, as your teacher, to push you answer into a certain direction, but there are different ways by which one learns about art. One is to sit in the classroom and have to learn the canon, another one is discovered and is, therefore, more compelling. I would be curious, which method you would prefer better. Does the structure work for you, or do you prefer a personal discovery. Be honest.

SS Right, because I am in the academic setting. Well, I feel that initially, I thought it was important to make categorizations and figure out how one style is distinguished from the next. And I do still feel that these are important. But now I’ve reached a point where I really want to take it for what it is and be able to just… and not always apply this and that, and what this guy said, and what this historian’s perspective was on it. And be able to experience art on a solely visual perspective basis. Yet, I still feel the value in categorizations, taxonomy and things like that. So, I don’t know, I’m on the fence, I guess. It’s hard to say. Because I feel I wouldn’t have come to this conclusion that art should be appreciated for what it is without the academic perspective in a way.

KK I am wondering if you envision a kind of art history class with less structure, or less chronological rigor. Can you imagine an art history class where there would be freedom of movement between periods, and through which you can create your own research. Which goes back to my question, how do you do your research as an artist?

SS Where you relate things that weren’t related before?

KK Yeah. Can you imagine a classroom setting that would be more of an open-ended art history class? I guess that’s what you can do on your own, but I always try to think about the discipline of art history and how sometimes it can be itself so structured that it pushes people away from the beauty of the material.

SS Yeah. That’s really the trouble. I feel that such kind of course would be valuable, but it would have to be a high level course, like one of the 400 level courses, or something like that because, like I said, that foundation is essential for a student to be able to interpret art. I don’t know, not really be able to interpret it, but just to have a grounding. Then you can get into the free form stuff, which really, you know, makes you the art historian, where you can get out of all there restraints that academia has put upon them.

KK And ultimate, it’s true that the survey, even the text book is just s o…

SS It’s like that’s how it is

KK Right. That’s how it is, move on to the next period. But if you learn to do the analysis on your won, you could potentially do it yourself. Like you said, you had an assignment to go and look at an ancient piece at the Metropolitan Museum and you ended up in an exhibition on New Guinea. It got you somewhere else…

SS …where you had never been before. Right, somewhere you had never been before; never seen that stuff.

KK Good. One final question. Now, professionally. Are you a sophomore?

SS I’m a junior. Yeah, I’m old.

KK Have you completed your art history requirements?

SS Yeah. Actually, this one and the other one I’m taking, the Northern Renaissance, course would be it. I’ve now taken three. And all were very different and I’ve enjoyed them all.

KK In the future, you probably will never take more art history, but the more important question is, once you graduate, what do you think about doing? an MFA program? I know it’s a hard question, what would be your ideal job?

SS The ideal job? Hm. I always wanted to do something in animation. I always realized that becoming an artist is just impossible. I’d love to do character animation, things like that, but I feel that I’ll always use my education in applying art.

KK have you ever taken any of the computer science classes? I know there is a major at Conn College that’s very technological and art based.

SS I haven’t. I’ve done internships, figuring out Photoshop and things like that. It’s funny. I hear that they have this Maya program where you learn a lot of this stuff, but the teacher that once taught it is no longer here. I’ve really been wanting to take that course, but there’s, you know, just the computer.

KK Does this mean getting more education, or getting more internships, going to New York, perhaps in high design or animation?

SS Yeah. I’ll probably have to have more skills in those fields, but it’s amazing that just the techniques of drawing are really valuable now days. I mean, people base everything on just simple drawings. They are scanning these things; there is also the computer aspect, but people haven’t abandoned the raw techniques. So, I hope to be able to contribute that.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States