I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Alchemy NFK’s co-founder, Charles “Rasputin” Burnell. He opened up about his checkered past, which ultimately helped to shape his creative vision. A vision that is now helping to shape the Norfolk Arts District.
Charles Burnell: Yeah what happened in 2012 was an unfortunate detour. I often work out of town. On the way back from New York on the China bus the cops searched it with dogs. I caught a possession charge. The drug war has been tough on my generation. But in a way getting locked up let me see what I could do when I was just left with my mind for a little while.
How long have you been involved in the arts community?
Since I was a kid. I played in punk rock and hardcore and indie rock bands as a teen. But then I got into drugs. Honestly I made a lot of money being involved with drugs but I never liked working for someone else and in that field I never felt good about myself. In 2003 I became an avid art collector but by 2005 I realized it wasn’t a sustainable way to live. Not long after that making clothes and screen printing was the thing that excited me most. I saw stickers and T-shirts and alternative media like portable canvases. Not having to live in the context of a museum or BBQ restaurant or pizza joint has always appealed to me. And in 2007 I came to Norfolk with that vision.
Event planning and scene cultivation are a huge part of what Alchemy does so well. How have you maintained good turnouts and interest in this digital age when often getting people to leave their homes can be a challenge?
The machine of Americanism in the last 20 years has really influenced the direction youth cultures have moved. Over the years embracing graffiti, outsider, and street art styles that haven’t always gotten their due in museums has been important and helped with interest and success. And now I’m watching the tide change daily for places like M.O.C.A., whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with in the past and whom, for example, now have a High Fructose Magazine exhibition set for 2016.
Since 2007, in a lot of ways, I’ve struggled with people not being able to fit their heads around what I was doing as a business. Even though we were screen printing, often without the direct exchange of money in front of people, somehow there was no value seen in generating excitement and events and an interest in art and culture. It’s like if Asian kids and Black Kids and Brown kids and White kids were all getting together it must be because of drugs. When really it was art that connected them and there is a lot of value in that. I got away from drugs as a profession… as a lifestyle because art was my way out. In the darkest times having that outlet and then being able to put myself in the shoes of others through their art… not necessarily having to live their tragedies but experiencing what they have dealt with through taking in their art. That has helped me get beyond getting high.
When cultivating these events and fostering such interest for the arts in Norfolk through Alchemy, how essential to the process is your business partner and girlfriend Careyann Weinberg (pictured)?
She is the solid foundation that holds it together. I can be a loose cannon with wild ideas that sometimes need a practical voice attached to them. She keeps me grounded for sure. She is extremely talented and she gives off an air of confidence. And most importantly she gets it. She understands that things around Hampton Roads need to move and no longer fight against the tide of the young people.
Alchemy has had some issues with the city in terms of capacity issues for events and other regulations that have at times slowed things down. How is that going currently?
When you say the city, if we are referring to the people that make up the staff of the city then we are talking about a bunch of really supportive and amazing folks that want to continue to see Norfolk come into its own and embrace all this new energy and creativity. But if we are talking about the books and the codes we have been building this business from the ground up and we have had some challenges… this not really being a typical money organization. I see a lot of support though. We are proving our value daily.
Who are some of the artists and musicians working out of or affiliated with Alchemy?
We’re proud to have talented people like Danielle Eckhardt, Sharkophagus, Daniel Neale, Diana Caramat, Christine Rucker, The Norfolk Drawing Group, Richard Keel, and Jennifer McDuffie involved. I’m also proud to say that we were the first to host a performance by Sunny & Gabe.
At the risk of sounding to hokey, has art been a type of salvation for you?
Experiencing art taught me humility. It’s like what we talked about earlier: I was able to observe even the rockiest of bottoms through others’ art without rubbing against those bottoms myself. I’ve always had that escape and it has become a connector for me in my professional life. When showcasing an artists’ work, I want to help present it in the right context so people can really appreciate it. It’s like trying to find a laser and then training it on something related to the work and then using that related theme to build an event or happening around the artists’ work. I think in a lot of ways being an outsider in my younger years and having the legal trouble helped me think outside of the box and that did contribute to my success as an artist, producer, and now as a creative director.