In his first interview, Julius Kalamarz talks candidly about his background, his journey from writing to painting. the joys of working free from constraints and precision and the notion of self-identity.
Can we start by going back in time? Tell us about your upbringing.
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in a blue-collar town with good, hard working people. I was intrigued about drawing. I used to make up these picture books about forest creatures and bring them into my teachers. My third grade teacher read one to the class. It meant a lot to me, having an authority figure in my early days reinforcing my work.
Did picking up those pencils and drawing come naturally to you or was there some influence?
It came naturally. Mom and dad weren’t necessarily into art but dad was always reading. He was intellectual and very smart. Mom too. Curiosity was always prevalent in the house. I think drawing is natural to any child as a form of expression.
What significance, if any, was there in those forest creatures?
I wanted to draw my favorite animal at the time, a beaver. I don’t know why. Maybe because I had buck-teeth as a kid I wrote a book about beavers. It morphed into a whole motley crew of raccoons and foxes.
What else were you into as a kid?
Baseball, like a lot of American kids. I had aspirations to play in the big leagues but I wasn’t really very good. I would watch This Week In Baseball on TV eating my cereal. I had all the cards and sticker books.
How would you have described your personality back then?
I was a reserved, quiet kid and kept to myself. I was very shy. I have memories of field trips in early grade school sitting by myself on the bus and putting my head against the window. It would bump as I sang songs to myself. I was probably a bit of an odd kid, the opposite of my brother who was very outgoing and personable.
What was your earliest thought of what you wanted to be in life, apart from a baseball player?
I never wanted to be a policeman or anything like that. I thought for a long time that the drawing could take me somewhere but I didn’t know where it would lead me. Working class and neighborhood people weren’t running out and making a living from drawing. I wanted to pursue it but I didn’t know how.
What kind of a teenager were you?
I was still pretty awkward. I was a bit of a loner but comfortable that way. It didn’t bother me too much. The transition from middle school to high school was rough and I found it hard to meet people. I wasn’t very sociable. I ended up getting into sports, which helped. I was always pretty reserved. I get that from my dad. We both find comfort in solitude. I have no problem being with someone and not having to talk. I don’t need to fill the space.
Did you go through any teenage rebellion?
Not so much. I was a pretty good kid. My parents gave me a lot of freedom. I never had a curfew. Their philosophy was to trust me until I did otherwise. I got great grades in high school. I was always a good student and they trusted me in that. It gave me a tremendous amount of freedom so I didn’t feel the need to rebel.
What role did drawing play for you as a teenager?
By that time I had shifted gears to writing. I remember trying to write poetry. That angst! No-one understands me so I’ll write these poems that were just awful. My dad wrote poems back in the day. He’s now switched to fiction. Part of me was trying to emulate him. From the junior year of high school through graduate school I was primarily focused on writing and thinking, “How could I make a living from this?” I went from short stories to novels and back to poems.
I’d like to explore the writing versus painting dynamic. What does each one give you?
Writing for me is always very controlled and concise. I treated my novels like poems – every word had to matter. It became very burdensome. For my MFA thesis, I had to write a novel. Other students were turning in 75, 100 pages. For one assignment, I turned in two pages. Sam Lipsyte, my thesis advisor, understood. He is always a very precise writer and he defended me and went to bat for it. I love finding a sentence that runs true to me. There is a lot of beauty in that and the pursuit of it is a noble goal but I kept stumbling over my words and limiting myself.
At some point I couldn’t work like that any more. Accidentally, a series of events came together that led me to the visual arts. I didn’t have a whole lot to do with it. To help with the writing, I had been keeping notebooks since 2001. I started painting a canvas and had no idea what I was doing. I was trying to do some kind of drip technique. It was fucking terrible. Some magazine pages fell on top of the canvas by accident. When it dried, I ripped off the pages and it was quite cool so I started ripping up my notebooks. It was so liberating. The process of creating visual art was so freeing. Interesting things were coming out of it that was outside my control as it was by chance. Like John Cage, I have always been enthralled by randomness.
Visual art gave me the freedom. It evolved naturally. I had a renewed excitement in the creative process. When I was still pursuing writing I wrote every day for years. I transferred that passion and it was rekindled with visual art. I turned my basement into a studio. I felt this need and drive to go there every night and make something happen. I was compelled to do it.
Who was the first person you showed a painting to?
My wife. She was like, “What are you doing down there?” Then I started putting stuff on Tumblr. I was getting feedback, which we crave. There is a vintage shop in my hometown in Milwaukee. I reached out to them through Facebook to see if they would show my paintings in the store. The owner said yes and I had my first solo show. It went really well. It was small, but it was great. A friend of mine went to the show the next day and met up with me that night and talked about how a guy came in and was really digging the pieces. People were responding to the work outside my social circle.
At this time in your life, what was your self-identity?
I saw myself as floundering. For so long I thought I would write a book. I don’t know how many thousands of pages I have written. I identified as a writer from the time I was 23 or 24. For so long I identified as a writer although I wouldn’t say that about myself. Even after my MFA I never said it. I never really talked about it to anyone or beat my chest or made it known. When the switch to visual art happened, I felt like an imposter.
I am an experimenter. The best work comes from my mistakes, from the pieces I don’t know how they came about. This morning I went down to the basement for 15 minutes. There was a piece I was working on that I was going to toss but I started working on it again and it began to come together. The happy accidents and the mistakes are the best. I was so thrilled in the beginning with those pieces that just sprung together. Even now, I still don’t call myself an artist. My twitter handle says, “Imposter.”
I want to ask you about your pseudonym. How did it come it come about?
It’s my grandfather’s name so one reason for it is to honor him. He thinks it’s hilarious because he had to cash a check or two from some publishers; early on I didn’t make a habit of telling them it’s a pseudonym. Secondly, I like the idea of someone apart from me creating those works so I don’t have to take responsibility for something that does or doesn’t work; it’s not necessarily me. I can deflect and redirect anything through that alter ego. I like the idea of the uniqueness of the name. Steven Hanson is the most common name in the Midwest. The only Julius Kalamarz in the Milwaukee phone book is my grandfather and I like that aspect of it as well.
What are the guiding principles behind your work now?
It’s shifting. I am feeling my way and experimenting. I have gone through a lot of phases in a short amount of time. I have experimented with collages, turning women from adverts into revolutionaries. I’m experimenting with geometry, architecture and lines, trying to find my voice, just like in writing. You have to write hundreds if not thousands of pages to find your voice. I really follow where my curiosity takes me. I abandon things really quickly if they are not working but I also start things up really quickly like the altered ads and photography.
I was just cataloguing some early work and came across Daniel Day-Lewis from 2014. That was my first piece. I got the supplies from Home Depot, rather than buying expensive paints and materials. Maybe it’s the working class mentality. That piece came together over time. It was days and weeks. I was sanding, scraping, repainting and drawing over and over again until I felt I shouldn’t touch it any more. At that point I feel like I’ve earned the piece, especially with my fear of being an imposter. If I’ve put the work in I feel I’ve earned it.
In certain situations and pieces I get to apply the written word. It hasn’t left me. It’s still there. I don’t write anymore but the passion to get some words down is still there. It satisfies me.
I’m curious and fascinated by the titles of your work. From where do they derive?
I don’t know. A lot of it is trying to find that beautiful phrase or sentence. I like the idea of any type of subversion. For example, I like the juxtaposition of every day objects or pop culture with political figures or philosophical concepts.
So what about your painting Daniel Day-Lewis?
I’m a huge fan of him and have seen all his movies. I like that you can’t pin him down. I relate to that and like it. He is a mystery and the piece is a mystery to me. I don’t know how I got there, there was no planning. At the time there was a novel I was working on. In it, there was a band called The DDL, The Daniel Day-Lewis, and they all wore masks of him while they performed. The lead character couldn’t be pinned down, he was an enigma and a mystery. I feel the same way about the actor and my process. I had that piece and really liked it but didn’t want to show it to anyone because it didn’t have a title. It sat in my basement. Then all three things came together and then I thought, “That’s it.”
What does success mean to you as an artist?
I don’t know. I can’t help but paint so I’m going to do it anyway, regardless of success. I like getting any kind of recognition, everyone wants that at some point. To get any spark of recognition is a huge, huge deal. I’d be lying otherwise. I would argue with myself, “Can there be any pure art without any ego involved?” Only for outsider artists who create just to create. I love that idea and wish I could be as pure at that. Every artist, writer and dancer feels a compulsion to do what they do but there is notoriety and ego to it. What would it take for me to call myself an artist? What would that entail? What would make it acceptable in my head to call myself an artist during a dinner party conversation? I’m still trying to figure that out.
Gallery representation. To say that someone likes your work enough to want to sell it to people is huge in terms of defining success. What did success mean to Henry Darger? He created so much work and never showed it to anyone. That was creation for creation’s sake. Even when I was writing, I thought the end game was a published novel. It was easy for me to define success. I’m still trying to define what it means for my work in the visual arts.
What does being creative mean to you?
It’s something that you can’t put a finger on but you can’t help but create and make. You get that spark.
Is there anything else you want to share with people?
My influences. I’ve talked about John Cage and his process. I’ve been in love with Dada and surrealism for as long as I can remember. Then there are the other artists I’m fascinated by like the Henry Dargers of the world, the people that just follow their impulses. I heard this great TED talk by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. She was talking about the poet, Ruth Stone and her creative process – about poems coming at her from over the landscape.
As [Stone] was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out, working in the fields and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. It was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming, cause it would shake the earth under her feet, she knew she had only one thing to do at that point. That was to, in her words, “run like hell” to the house as she would be chased by this poem.
The whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. Other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she would be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house, and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it, and it would “continue on across the landscape looking for another poet”.
Every time I try to control anything it just doesn’t work out. When I let it flow, interesting things happen and more often than not it’s beautiful in my eyes. I need to incorporate that more in my day-to-day life. I feel absolute freedom down in my basement studio. People talk about time standing still and the cliché of being in the zone but it’s so true. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t have a destination. Writers start writing without knowing the destination. They let the characters decide. It makes a lot of sense. I remember being told in my MFA classes, “If you don’t love the process, you’ll never become a writer.” Now I feel more freedom and welcome all mistakes. As a writer, a mistake in a sentence would send me into a spiral. As a visual artist, I can just paint over it. I love the freedom. It’s beautiful.