Monday, February 15, 2010

MYARTSPACE Art Scholarship Award Winner Damon Mohl

First Place MYARTSPACE Graduate Division Art Scholarship Award Winner:

Damon Mohl

Graduate student from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Damon, will receive a $5,000 cash award from

Frenetic energy is apparent in, Damon Mohl’s haunting installation depicted in the photos of his project on called:

"The Dust Machine"

The Photographs of this work are enigmatic; but stand on their own as a continuance of the installation's narrative. The details expressed in Damon's work serve as a metaphor of the decaying physical world with the mythical landscape of the mind.

Questions and Answers:

Q: Can you tell me what aspect of your art you’re working on these days?

Damon Mohl: I’m in the midst of working on my graduate thesis project, which has two parts. One part is a group of physical objects, theatrical installations, mechanical sculptures and paintings created for an experimental art film titled, The Dust Machine. And, the other part, or experience, is the movie itself. I’ll be exhibiting the objects for my thesis exhibition this April and then working all summer to finish the movie.

Overall, I’ve been working on the project for two years now and it has included filming underwater, footage shot from a airplane window and manipulated to look like one were floating on the edge of the atmosphere, as well as building a small six wheeled remote control listening machine inspired by NASA’s moon rover. I recently spent two weeks filming the remote control machine in the Mohave Desert and other various desolate locations in Nevada, Utah and Northern California.

Q: While in the Mohave did you go out every day?

A: Yes, a friend of mine flew out from Los Angeles and then we slowly made our way from Boulder, Colorado back to his place in Venice Beach. It was a great trip. We camped out every night and drove around filming all day long. They were often long and tiring days because setting up and filming in any location requires a lot of hard work especially when it's over a hundred degrees out and you’re going on four hours of sleep because a pack of yelping coyotes woke you up at four in the morning. But it was also really exhilarating to be out there. It always is, I absolutely love the desert, the emptiness and expansiveness of the landscape. It’s a landscape that I have mythologized in much of my work especially in my painting and writing.

One other thing about that trip, it was interesting because I often had very specific places in mind in terms of where I wanted to shoot but I always got sidetracked and ended up somewhere else. Instead of going into a national park we would end up in an abandoned motel or burned out trailer along the highway. One afternoon we took a wrong turn and ended up shooting a junkyard of rusted jalopies in Nevada for half the day. It was great because most of the locations we found where much better than what I had in my head. That was kind of what I was hoping would happen. I’ve taken enough trips to know that you never know what you are going to find out in the desert. You just have to get out there and discover it . . . old bank vaults sitting in the middle of a field, trees covered in shoes, pretend Mars research stations, abandoned resorts with rooms filled with green water, you name it . . . it’s out there.

Q: Could you talk a bit about the work in the gallery you submitted to

A: The work I submitted consists of some of the objects I built for my thesis project, specifically, the two main life-sized installation rooms as well as a few of the mechanical sculptures including a working miniature conveyer belt and a dust collection machine. For this project I also made paintings with moving mechanical parts and a number of miniature sets, all of which have their own internal lighting, movement and sound. That’s what I really enjoy about working this way. There are so many directions one can go and so many aspects to consider from set design, to costumes, to lighting and sound. At every stage there are numerous details to address and those details are extremely important because it’s their accumulation that creates a real sense of place.

Q: If you were a contractor you’d be doing 20 jobs.

A: Yeah, it can be a bit overwhelming at times. If I try to think of everything the project involves at once I feel a bit like my head is going to explode. It’s best to compartmentalize, finish one thing at a time, and chip away at it a little each day. I guess I have a lot of patience these days and I’m at a place where I really enjoy the type of complexity where each individual piece is somehow interconnected to the next to form a larger structure. I don’t just want to make the picture that hangs on the wall. I want to make the actual wall and I want to know about the room where that wall is located and I want to know about the person that goes into the room to look at the picture. I want to follow them outside and see the landscape that surrounds the room, see what the weather is like and what type of birds are sitting on the power lines.

Q: You mentioned having patience, how long does it typically take you to finish your pieces?

A: It varies greatly although I tend to like to sink into an idea. For instance the thought process I employed in The Dust Machine could be related to the opening narrative structure of Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice in Wonderland. A rabbit hole in the ground leads to a tunnel, a tunnel leads to a small room with a tiny door, etc. With my thesis project I wanted to set up the conditions necessary for a chain reaction of ideas to occur over a long period of time.

In one of the life sized installation sets there are alarms that go off which then cause dirt to pour out of tubes built into the walls. After building this I suddenly had all these questions like where does the dirt come from? Who collects it? What do they do with it? Soon I had made these doorways, small passages in the room

and I got to discover where they went. It felt a little like building a house in reverse, starting from one room and moving out.

I think I enjoy working this way because of the creative complexity that can occur when ideas bega

n to build on top of, inform and complement one another. By living in, or in another sense, inhabiting

an idea one can arrive at a place creatively that they could have never reached merely by investigating the surface of an initial idea and then after that idea is materialized, moving on to another initial idea.

Instead, each completed work informs and is part of a greater structure, which usually takes the form of some type of narrative in my work. The narrative of the piece, whether it is literal, symbolic or extremely abstract and dream-like, becomes the catalyst holding and linking each work into an overall sequential order.

At the end of the day, I’m really interested in making the work that’s transportive, that takes the viewer on some sort of imaginative journey. I think that’s why I’ve been so drawn to representational painting, writing and movie making, because they all deal with creating visual illusions and telling stories.

Q: I’m curious when these pieces are done what kind of sound will they have?

A: The physical pieces all have their own internal sound built into them, from humming motors and fans to fish bubblers and squeaking gears. The soundtrack for the short film is another story. That’s something I’m really excited about, when I get to that stage of editing when I’m able to merge image with sound. I’ve been collecting sound for over a year now and I’ve done all sorts of things, like attaching a microphone to a telephone pole in the desert to record the electrical vibrations of the wires or recording dirt and rocks falling through empty tubes.

I’m not a musician but I think I have a good ear and I know exactly what types of sound will help sculpt and create the mood that I am after. I’m really interested in dislocated sound or sound that you wouldn’t normally expect to hear in a specific environment, but that somehow works in a really beautiful way to heighten the mood and feeling of a place. I’ve always messed around with electric guitars, wind chimes, Korg synthesizers, music boxes and old organs. Actually, just recently, I found a full sized Wurlitzer organ by a dumpster and hauled it off to my studio. I recorded over two hours of sound from it that I will definitely be using in my soundtrack somehow.

Q: What are your plans after the movie part of the project is finished?

A: I hope to enter it in a number of film festivals. Probably as many as I can find that look like they would be worthwhile. Basically anywhere I think there is a potential for an audience to see the work. I think you have to be careful though, film festivals are a dime a dozen these days and there is a lot of independent work being shown to empty theaters.

Q: Could you talk a bit about your MFA program? How has it been to get input from your professors?

A: I have really enjoyed my time at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I’ve worked with great artists like Francoise Dureese, Melanie Walker, Chuck Forsman and Alvin Gregorio who have really supported me and always looked out for my best interests. I’ve been fortunate in terms of getting funding to create my work through the university. In truth, my time in graduate school has just flown by because I’ve been really engaged in what I’m doing. Graduate school is not like the real world, it’s a protective bubble where an artist can really research and produce work without having to deal with many of the drudgeries that life can often present.

On another note, the entire art department just moved into an amazing new visual arts complex, so it’s great having the new studio space to work in during my last semesters, as the opportunity to be the first graduating class to exhibit in the university’s new museum.

Q: How about a bit of your background before graduate school. Was art always a part of your life?

A: In a sense, there are artists on both sides of my family. I was always drawing or building something as a kid. I grew up in northwest Pennsylvania and my father was a self-employed potter. He invented and built a number of machines in order to mass produce oil lamps and when I think back on my childhood a lot of my memories involve being in the workshop part of his studio and looking through countless boxes of stuff that he had collected, boxes of door knobs, rubber gloves, light switches, shoe laces, etc.

I remember building a three-foot tall wooden robot with a tape recorder in its chest, so that when you pushed down on a dowel rod in the shoulder it would activate the tape recorder and the robot would talk. I also remember making a mechanical hand in which each finger was comprised of springs, ropes and a motor. When a button was pressed each finger would move independently.

When I got a bit older I couldn’t really wrap my head around doing anything else except making art. I did my undergraduate work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and studied with artists like Bruce Samuelson, Sidney Goodman and Anthony Visco. That was an invaluable experience for me because I was exposed to such a high level of work. The Academy was the first art school established in this country so there is a really long lineage of artists that have studied and taught there. David Lynch studied there for awhile; he’s always been a creative force that has deeply inspired me.

Q: Did you have a job before attending graduate school?

A: Yeah, odd jobs here and there to pay my rent. I usually only worked a few days a week, just enough to pay my bills. I tried to live as simply as possible so that I would have a lot of time to devote to making my work. There were a number of years that I didn’t have a car and used a bicycle to get around. Early on, I wasn’t so concerned with starting a career or trying to earn lots of money. As long as I could buy materials and spend at least four or more days a week making the work I wanted to make. I was pretty content.

I think it’s really important for a young artist to work as much as possible so they can discover what they like and what they don’t like and start to develop a voice. What an artist needs more than anything else is time and there are a lot of distractions, a lot of things in this life that will try to take that time away from you if you let them. I’ve always been fiercely guarded and protective of my time. I think all artists have to be a bit selfish in that sense.

Another thing about life before grad school, my first love was painting and drawing but then in my mid twenties I got bit by the writing bug pretty bad and wrote over twenty fictional stories as well as a novella. In a sense, that was great research for me, like mapping out the lay of the imaginative landscape in my head. A painting is a frozen moment in time but in a written story you get to see what happens before and after that specific moment. There are hundreds and hundreds of images in a story. This really helped in terms of discovering the type of pictures and narratives I was interested in depicting.

Q: After you graduate do you have any short or long terms plans?

A: My wife and I are planning to stay in the Colorado for at least a year while we figure out what’s next. I will be applying for teaching positions in the area and I think I am going to have to be a little less picky about where we live in the future if I really want to teach. I know if nothing opens up I am considering looking into a PhD degree program in studio art. Those are starting to appear around the country as well as in Canada and Europe. That would give me time to focus on another large project and the job climate might look a little different when I am done. What I really want is a small warehouse so I can build a thirty-foot miniature forest, but I think I’m going to have to wait on that one for a while.

Q: So your wife is also an artist?

A: Yes, her primary focus is small metals. She does a lot of drawing and printmaking as well. She already has her MFA and is currently teaching two drawing classes at the university here, which has really helped us out.

Q: So there’s no particular place you’re thinking of moving to?

A: No, but we are definitely mobile right now since we don’t own a house or have any children. I have been so focused on my current studio work I really haven’t given it much thought yet. I know one thing; we are going to have to move out of Boulder, Colorado if we want to have some studio space to work next year. The rent here is extremely expensive for college students; we could be renting a house in one of the surrounding towns for what we are paying for an apartment here.

Q: It’s kind of interesting how artists are continuing to disperse themselves from expensive city areas to more spacious, lower cost of living spaces while the Internet is growing and allowing artists to connect and represent themselves online.

A: Yes, I think the Internet is a really important tool for artists these days in terms of getting one’s work seen. Of course there is no substitute for experiencing the actual work itself but the fact someone can mention an artist’s name and you can look them up online and see their work in a matter of minutes is great, like one giant virtual gallery. definitely exemplifies that idea.

Q: Great, anything else you would like to add?

A: Well, while we are on the subject of I would really like to thank you and everyone else who put together, juried and sponsored the scholarship competition. I know there are many extremely gifted and talented artists on your site and I feel deeply honored and humbled that my work was chosen. The life of an artist can be a pretty fragile thing. So much depends on one’s life situation and circumstances in terms of being able to produce work, so awards, grants and institutional scholarships that provide funding can be tremendously helpful to an artist and affect their lives in a really big way. So thank you!

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