Knox Garvin: When I was five years old and exploring a pile of rubble in my backyard, I found a small stone. Its shape resembled the sculpture I would later learn was titled the Venus of Willendorf . I picked it up and put in my pocket. I have carried it there ever since.
Detail from Intervals, A Public Art Installation, First Landing State Park, Virginia Beach, Virginia. Red Drum Skeleton from Eastern Shore and resin, 60”x9”x9”. 2006.
What kinds of Artwork do you make?
Tough question. So two answers:
Answer #1: The honest, yet smartass sounding answer: I make stuff with whatever is around me and about whatever compels me.
Answer #2: Still honest, but more reflective answer: After doing answer #1 for many years, I think it is safe to say that what compels me are particular places and objects that seem to be palimpsests, their own history still written on them. Things like the agrarian Isle of Wight countryside slowly being erased by a Walmart strip mall mini-mansion version of hell, or the natural history hidden just below the surface of mossy tangles in the swamps of First Landing State Park. Or it may be, as in my most recent work, the hallowed halls of the Hermitage Art Museum and its connection to a few fading Lewis Hine photographs of little kids working in knitting mills.
Cotton Furrows, Isle of Wight, Virginia, Acrylic on canvas, 60”x72”. 2004.
How would you define yourself as an artist?
I wouldn’t define myself as an artist. Others can make that determination. I am always embarrassed in conversations when I feel forced to say that I am an artist. It feels pretentious – like saying I am a special person who operates on a higher plane than the rest of the world. Nope. Not an artist. I am just one of those people who wakes up every day and decides to make something that didn’t exist the day before.
Sea Foam at Sunrise, Atlantic Coast, Virginia, Archival photographic print on Arches, 20”x40”. 2012.
Who were the artists that spoke to you as a youth?
Salvador Dali. At first, it was because his surrealism blew my pre-adolescent mind. Then in high school, it was because my friends thought it was cool to look at his work while they were stoned. When I was twenty-something, staring at The Sacrament of the Last Supper inthe National Gallery, I finally realized what a really good painter he was. Now, Salvador Dali still speaks to me. But mainly because without him, I would have never discovered the work of Vermeer.
What artists are you looking at now? Who is speaking to you now?
Two weeks ago, I was down with the explosive works of Cai Guo-Qiang – he made me want to go outside and make drawings with my shot gun. Then last week, I rediscovered my love of Samuel Mockbee – he made me decide that art should save the world from itself. This week, I would say Tony Orrico. In particular, a piece of work titled Penwald: 4: unison symmetry standing | 2010. If you have five minutes, go to his website. The video of the work speaks for itself.
Hard Times – Homeless Men Remembering a Dead Friend, Norfolk, Virginia, Digital Photographic Print, 2010.
You seem to be able to transition from photography to sculpture to design work and curating. Why do you choose so many methods of expression in art? Do you have a favorite?
You have found my weakness. Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none. I love them all. At different points in my life each one of them has been my favorite. Now, I really don’t care to call myself a sculptor, or a photographer, etc. I find that all of these disciplines carry valuable ways of learning to see the world. For me, form and process are simply ways to teach me something that I didn’t see or know before I started.
Tell us a little about the Exhibition Threads at the Hermitage right now: How did the collaborative exhibition become what it is?
In 1911 Lewis Hine came to Norfolk, Virginia, to photograph the knitting mills. In his photographs we see the faces and read the names of the children whose labor helped to fund the Hermitage Art Collection. Appreciation of this labor enhances the significance—and perhaps even the beauty—of one of America’s great art collections.
Threads is an artistic collaboration developed in 2013 in an effort to reveal the dignity and struggle in these underlying, often forgotten stories. The exhibit explores the relationship between art and labor as part of a larger human struggle – one that can still be connected, like a thread, through time and art to change the way we see the valued objects of today.
Detail Altar 1, Red oak, resin casted hands, fiber optics, situated near portrait of Florence Sloan, Hermitage Museum and Gardens, 5’x15”x15”. 2015
Who are the other artists in the exhibition?
Kristin Skees and Diana Laurel Caramat.
How did they contribute, expand or express the ideas?
I knew they admired Lewis Hine’s work and that they would bring ways of thinking other than my own to the exhibition. I didn’t want to present a monologue. Thank goodness they agreed. The exhibition is broader, deeper, and brighter because of them – both physically and conceptually. We were a good team. This question reminds me that I should probably buy them a drink for having to put up with me for a year.
Where do you go in town? Where is your special place?
Anywhere that the creative writing department of O.D.U. goes, I go. I keep hanging with them hoping to get smarter by tagging along. I don’t think this plan is working so well. They keep leaving me in odd places around town.
“We’ll be right back,” they say. “We need to go outside to smoke a cigarette.”
I always used to know where to find them, but now that Cruzer’s Karaoke Bar has been swallowed up by the Chelsea scene, I can’t seem to find them anywhere.
Detail Diddley Bow 2, Reclaimed barn wood from Holland, Virginia, nail, baling wire, amplifier, turn of the century spindle, sound activated EL wire, 6’x10”. 2015.
What is some advice you can give to young artists?
I used to hate it when adults said, “Go outside, play, and don’t come home until the street lights come on.” I would argue, “But I’m bored and my friends are all busy.” Their response was the same, “Entertain yourself.” And so I did.
Nowadays, many young people spend their childhoods being entertained and manipulated by outside forces – smart phones, 24 hour TV channels, and organized play dates. A version of hell for most of them would be to be left alone with their own minds for 24 hours.
My advice will make me sound like a grumpy old man, but here it is: Go get bored. Get lost all alone. Don’t come back until well after the street lights come on. Stay out there until you know you are going to be in trouble when you get back home. At the height of your boredom–in a sense the height of your freedom– you will find what you are compelled to do in the world when no one is watching, paying, or caring.
Just make sure that you don’t find yourself compelled to toilet paper my house.
For more of the artist, this is his website.