Last May, I wrote about a special art installation; the unique kit containing pins and pieces of art had arrived in the mail, and for days before the install, the concept consumed me. I weighed out different ways to organize the installation. I debated where to hang it (somewhere out the way of the dog’s tail and children’s grasp, but somewhere that we’d see it often). It’s still installed in the original location, and we admire it and it’s uniqueness every day entering and exiting our bedroom.
RobRoy Chalmers is the original artist of the project The Sporozoan and has a cool background and artistic vision. Both Pete and I have been following his work and admiring the installations over the past year, and I’m stoked that he agreed to be interviewed for a workpad post. His work style and situation are a little different than a traditional artist, and I had lots of questions. And then more questions. And I just love his enthusiasm and responses, so I hope you do too.
Well timed, RobRoy just launched his new website: robroychalmers.com, complete with a great gallery and online store. Check it out.
Onward with the interview. Enjoy!
1) Tell me a little about your background as an artist, and how your series of sporozoan swarms came to exist.
I have been making art for over 20 years now. I knew that was the passion I wanted to follow when I was about 16. I have never wavered from this path, although I have been more focused at times than others. My current project The Sporozoan can be traced to a print I made in 1991. I was working from a live model and broke him down into component parts. I was fascinated with the chest cavity and just kept pushing that visual element. The Swarm came later and grew from my interest in creating large pieces from many small bits. It also came from necessity. In 2008 my family and I moved from Massachusetts to Seattle and got stuck in the financial downturn like so many, all of my materials in storage, no place to work, but I refused to stop making art.
When a local shop invited me to display, I followed my passion and began to create with what I had: a portfolio full of proof prints from The Sporozoan Cavities suite. Tearing paper until my hands ached, I put up the first incarnation of The Sporozoan Swarm. Unemployed at the time, I barraged the neighborhood and soon had locations for two other installs. Through an online assault using flickr and twitter, I grew interest in The Swarm. Three years later it has been installed in over 15 locations including one permanent install and two semi-permanent installs. In March of 2011, I traveled to the SXSW conference in Austin, TX to give a presentation revolving around its birth and growth.
2) Has the series been your main focus since 2008? How many have you installed, in what parts of the country/world… What is the average size of your installations, and how many man-hours does it take to design, plan and execute? Seriously, I have loads of questions.
I have been focused on this project since 1991, as I just mentioned, I just didn’t realize it until 2008. Sometimes you are working on a project without knowing it and you can’t see it because you are in it rather than outside it. Something like being lost in a hedge maze but not even knowing you are lost or even knowing you are in the maze at all.
The Swarm has been installed in 9 public spaces on a semi-permanent time frame, 1 location permanently and displayed as part of solo shows, in which I have shown other components of The Sporozoan 3 times. Clusters of The Swarm are cared for by Keepers all over the world and can be seen here on flickr.
The Swarm installs range in size from not much larger than a mailing envelope to thousands of linear feet. My largest install was at Mithun Architects in Seattle and ebbed through 2 stories and was about 1,300 feet in length. That install took me about three solid eight hour days, although I am getting much faster at installing. I usually have a sense of how The Swarm will look in a space almost upon entering it.
3) I’m having a hard time fathoming what 1,300 feet looks like. That’s about 400 meters. One-quarter of a mile. Or one full time around the average school track. Is that right? And it only took you three days? It almost took me 3 days to install my little swarm. My mind is spinning. What are the other dimensions of The Sporozoan? Any examples?
First off we should be clear about 1,300 feet. From the entrance door to the completion of the piece in a straight line was probably little more than 350 feet. The Swarm does not move in a straight line though, it wanders and meanders pushes up against boundaries and overflows. 1,300 feet includes all the meandering and corner turning and exploring of the space. Another thing I should be clear about is that after having been installing this piece for almost four years I have found a path that allows me to install quickly. I never tear or pin the paper on site, unless I need something very specific, that is all done behind the scenes. For instance on my recent trip to New Jersey for a show, I spent the entire plane ride there and back tearing paper. It is amazing how little or how much paper one can tear, depending on how you look at it, on a cross-country plane ride.
My intent is for The Swarm to achieve a mass of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 torn pieces of paper. I think I am going to be tearing paper until my hands stop working.
The Swarm is one dimension of The Sporozoan which is a term I use metaphorically to describe the serendipitous and infectious moment of seeing, which tempts us all to look just a bit more closely. The Sporozoan is my sole focus right now. It includes 5 dimensions: Cavities (a suite of 16 intaglio prints), Swarm, Performances (on going random public performances using a series of Sporozoan Boxes), Trophies (Cavity prints turned into sculpture and mounted on plaques), Shrines (large scale site specific objects that incorporate all aspects of The Sporozoan.) The Swarm dimension, due to its public structure has engaged me the most since 2008. Examples of all dimensions of The Sporozoan, with the exception of The Shrine only because it is still just an idea that has not become physical yet, can be seen on my website gallery.
4) Your workpad situation must be a little unique. Instead of having a dedicated studio, your installations are done on-site, right? How does that affect your work style?
I do have a dedicated studio, which I use to make drawings, paintings and sculpture. I also work in a printmaking studio to create and print the work that is the foundation of all that I make. It is when I leave these spaces and work in the fish bowl of installing in places that make me visible to the public that my workpad really changes. I need to silence the outside world and become part of my head. I put on noise canceling headphones and play some music and try to not let the passers by effect my train of thought. Moving from working in absolute solitude and not ever wanting anyone to see work before it was finished and properly displayed to being on display from start to finish is a leap into the unknown that was at first disturbing and has now become refreshing. I can have it both ways I make work in my studio in complete solitude and perform the act of making work in the open space of life as it is lived.
5) How much of the installation do you have meticulously planned out before you’re standing there, working on a public venue? Do you have a well-organized plan down to the number of pieces of art that you’ll need to place, or do you proceed by gut and intuition and make it up as you go?
I usually walk into a space and see the install immediately, that doesn’t mean I know every piece and its place in the space. I simply have a feel for what the space needs from The Swarm. When I am in a space I sometimes have epiphanies that might change. The Swarm’s direction but more often than not changes are small and deviate little from my original vision. I believe this to be less about me not wanting to revise an idea and more about the fact that my minds eye is usually dead on with regards to The Swarm’s placement.
6) What are the tools of your trade? What does your toolbox look like?
My tools range drastically depending on what I happen to be working on. The Swarm tools are simple: a bag full of torn paper pieces, stainless steel pins and a hammer and of course headphones and my music. It is truly amazing how noise-canceling headphones can help keep you on a train of thought.
7) Many of us have a hard time balancing work/passions/family-time, especially in moments of surging creativity – any tips for the readers?
Don’t sleep. I mean it sounds weird but you just have to force yourself to give up something during the day. When I am on a roll everything else comes second. Don’t get me wrong, my daughter still makes it to school and has a good lunch and I still make sure basics are done but I forego anything extra. The only way you can arrive at your goals is to deprive yourself of certain things.
8) Clearly, you’re tremendously ambitious and that’s one thing that I’ve always admired about artists. Passion is amazing. Do you have a favorite installation?
The Install at Mithun in downtown Seattle is without question my favorite for many reasons. Primarily due to its scale and the floor plan of the space I was working in. I was truly able to let The Swarm breathe in the space that had 20 foot ceilings and non 45 degree angle walls. I would love to revisit that space or to find a space similar and push my boundaries again. (The photo below demonstrates a small piece of this installation, see many more photos from Mithun here.)
9) And most importantly, where can people see and support your work?
My website has links to all my major Swarm Installations as well as examples of The Sporozoans other five dimensions. My site also allows you to become a Keeper of The Swarm by purchasing Clusters both Contained and Free. I am slowly building out the site with content so if you see something you interested in and don’t see it in the purchase section please feel free to contact me.
Keep up to date with RobRoy’s most recent activity (and show him some love) on facebook, twitter, flickr, Linkedin and Pinterest.
All photos in this post (except for the first one of my hallway) are copyright of RobRoy Chalmers.