This week I interviewed Chris Bartlett at Turbo Goat. I have up the audio (in video format for technical reasons) and also a transcript of the interview. Creaky chairs and passing sirens notwithstanding, it was a fascinating dialogue and a wonderful experience.
This is Q&Art. I’m Russell Pirkle, and this week I’m interviewing Chris Bartlett, studio artist and owner of Turbo Goat, the art gallery/bicycle repair shop here in downtown Ruston.
As it happens, Chris Bartlett also just won a blue prize ribbon at the Peach Festival Art Exhibit which is up this week at the Ruston Civic Center.
Chris, could you describe that piece for me?
It is a hand constructed of wrenches and sockets and things that I procured from my grandfather’s toolbox. It’s gently, you know, the gesture of it is it’s gently pressing down on a copper cube. The hand is intentionally rusted to homogenize the surface also contrast with the polished copper cube.
I see. And the piece is a sort of self portrait, is that right?
Fundamentally, yes. Um, I wanted to start a conversation about my skill set and the origins of my skill set. And I don’t, I don’t necessarily claim it ’cause I feel like it’s something that was handed to me. I feel like it’s genetics. I wanted to kind of tip my hat at that, and by using the tools that my grandfather used to make money to support his family, I thought was a strong way to do that. And you know, the viewer is kind of robbed of all that knowledge. So then it becomes . . . So I feel like the viewer, being the objective party, can kind of connect to it just as a beautiful object.
I see. And um, what part would you say family history plays in the meaning of the work that you want to convey to the viewer?
Uhh. I want to say absolute, uh, I don’t think that’s the case, but it is a huge part, in the way, huge part of why the work looks the way that it does. Because of the things that I was exposed to, things that I saw, because of the industry my grandfather worked in, the industry my father and uncle worked in, um, I steal from that a lot, and not really by choice. I just respond to heavy industrial clunky things. They take me to a place that’s warm and cozy. The other half of that is, I feel like it’s a dichotomy. In contrast to that, I’m very aware of, um, consumption and consumerism and everything that that means or my reference in industry contradicts that. If I’m being honest, the work is about that contradiction.
As the decendent of sort of blue collar workers, I’m curious, what useful purpose do you feel art serves?
Art exists (I’m quoting somebody) art exists for the same reason public libraries do. Some people want that. Some people need that. The stimulus, they need things to think about, and I identify with that in a huge way. I stumbled across art. I was having a conversation with my folks the other day . . . I didn’t really start making art until, I’m twenty-nine now, I didn’t start making art ’til I was twenty-four, and I had this skill set that I knew that I was very much attached to, that I don’t mind my fingernails being dirty all the time. It’s not something I’m ashamed of. But, in the academic world it’s cumbersome because there are very few curricula that cater to that skill set. So I took some art classes and realized that, um, I’m good at making things. Then there’s the intellectual side of it. It’s not just about making beautiful objects and being proficient at a craft. You need to be saying something. So that allowed some freedom, freedom of thought which I think is a big hunk of my generation, whatever generation – x or y, whatever it is. We want, we have a desire to express ourselves, and I think that all that came together, and hit me like a ton of bricks whenever I slipped into the art curriculum.
I’m curious, do you see any sort of overlap or maybe like supporting dichotomy between the craft that’s so important to you and the sort of intellectualism or the concept of art?
Yeah. I think that one without the other is . . . How best to answer this question. I think about, you studied, I studied art history, and sculptors like Bernini and David. I’m using those two people specifically because of their craft. And I look at the things they made and the time in which they made them and the technology they had to use, and I feel like if I made something that wasn’t at least comparable to that, that would be, it just wouldn’t be right, wouldn’t be fair. And then, you know, then the intellectual side of it. Think about the world we live in. You know, we carry around the internet on our hip, and what that means. You know, all the information is readily available. We’re continuing to evolve, but not in a physical way. We’re no longer at odds with nature for the most part. We’ve developed ways to control it or at least cope with it, so this evolution that’s happening is in our psyche. We’re becoming desensitized to stimulus, so to not, to not hone a craft, to not be able to make things with the same proficiency of all the artists that came, all the artists before me, to call myself an artist would just be a lie. It would be absurd.
On that note, what part do you feel that technology, and even new technology plays, or maybe the absence of it, plays in your work?
I love that you said the absence of it because I think that that’s . . . You look at a guy like Tim Hawkinson, who is a kinetic sculptor, so he will disassemble a fax machine, and rob all those little machines and all that technology out of it and program these really complex moving wall sculptures. And I look at his work, and I love his work because of the movement and just how brilliant it is. But I have no desire to learn that craft, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s me avoiding, maybe it’s that idea of consumerism kind of creating a mental block about where to steal technology, and if I am stealing it am I hoarding it. So if I’m using this stuff and I’m making things out of brand new material and brand new objects, then it’s contradictory to my world view.
And what, what would you say is that world view?
Yeah. How do you say that in a concise way. It’s the pursuit of stuff I have a big problem with. I feel like that’s put us in the energy crisis we’re in right now. It has made us who we are today, and I’m talking only about the United States because that’s really all I have exposure to. And being naive enough to say the entire globe thinks this way . . . Clearly it doesn’t. So, being brought up as a, you know, middle class white kid . . . Where am I going with all this? Haha. You know, I do understand it’s a capitalistic society, and it would take more effort to live outside of that than it would just to abide by it and play the game, make the money, buy the stuff, have the stuff. But deep down inside, I really want to be done with that. I want to be done with the pursuit of gaining material objects.
What do you see as, maybe broadly or just in your case, as the artist’s ethical commitment to his community. Or is there one?
Absolutely. I moved the bike shop into this space because it would work as a venue, because I could show art. And I don’t charge people. I have concerts . . . It’s multi-faceted. Concerts, poetry readings, art exhibitions. Think about Nick Bustamante’s exhibition where he came in, he had an artist lecture, and Dougie Roux and this exhibition and how anti-academic art it is. It doesn’t matter to me. It, art and that stimulus, that visual stimulus or that cultural, let me say it this way, not just dial in on the visual, but that cultural stimuli is a big important part of my life, and I want it to be available to other people. To those other people who feel the same way about culture as I do.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Turbo Goat, um, how it came to be, what your hopes are for it?
The shop was started by Neal King in 2007. Neal also started the Frothy Monkey. And this is, he’s a creative person and this is what he does. He builds businesses, and he develops buildings. He came to me, I was working for him and he came to me in 2009, asked me if I wanted to buy it. And I thought, well, you know, it’s a turnkey operation. The amount of money that he wanted for it was less than a graduate degree. And I thought, well bicycles are close enough to motorcycles that I can probably do this. So it was a big risk, but it was one that I gladly took because I wanted to know how to operate a business. And this is all contradictory to my world view, but at the same time it was a challenge, and I live for challenges. I can’t see myself settling in to one thing and being content for the rest of my life. So what that says about the shop, I’m not real sure. I think an honest statement is, this is going to sound philosophical, but I am the shop and the shop is me. And I feel like I would like to say this: small business people are very much stereotyped into the greedy, shallow capitalist swine, as I joke, about every dollar counts and every opportunity is to make a dollar. That is not my philosophy about the shop. What I want to do is I want to provide a service to the community on multiple levels while sustaining my lifestyle, and that’s what it’s doing. So I will do this until I feel like I’ve done everything I can do with it, and it’s as grand as I can make it, and I will sell it to the next guy for the same amount of money that I paid for it, and give somebody else the opportunity. This isn’t where I’m ending up.
You said you’d been making art for about four years. What were your interests and aspirations before you became an artist?
Um. I was all over the map man. Honestly. I was interested in the engineering curriculum. And that was a big part of the, that was mostly to do with my folks. At three years old, I found a philips head screwdriver, and without assistance or supervision I took a doorknob off a door. So immediately my parents said ok, this kid’s going to be an engineer, and probably I could have been if the curriculum was taught out of a metal shop, and they came in every day with a whiteboard and said ok this is the math that you need to know to build the thing that we’re building today. But that, like I was saying earlier, that’s not the way academia works. So I dabbled in engineering; I dabbled in geology. And, as I think back, you know like, you have to study yourself, and part of the academic art world is studying yourself to figure out why you make art, why it looks the way that it does. And geology is a spatial thing. It’s something that you have to imagine. You can go and look at mountains, but then you have to understand that there are physics. There’s a timeline and there are physics there. And I feel like if you look at the work, that thinking, that analytical thinking is present in most of it. It’s not something I can hide.
When did you realize that you would rather be an artist than whatever else, an engineer or . . . ?
Almost immediately. I took my first drawing class, and I had never drawn. You know, kids draw, right? And I’m going to branch off here for a second. I was watching an interview with Charlie Rose and Tim Burton, and Tim Burton had some really brilliant thoughts. He said, you know, you look at a kid at five years old, and he says something like I can’t draw. Well, why do you know that? Why do you think that? Why did you say that? And, his point was it says a lot about what society says about art. And artists. So as a kid I drew, as a kid I played with blocks. And so I took my first art class and realized, you know, this is . . . I still don’t like to draw. Drawing I feel like is something I do before I make something. I could draw. I could look at whatever it was that I wanted to recreate, and I could recreate it, with relative ease. And that was an empowering moment. I’ll probably remember that for a long time because for the first time in my, you know I started at tech in 2000, and in 2005 I took that first art class. So over five years, I failed out of school a couple of times, and my GPA was sub one, you know what I mean, it was a point some odd. And I got into the art class, and I was successful, and that was all it took, was that reinforcement. And then I got to experience the intellectual side of it. So it wasn’t just about making things. It was about thinking about things and just like, you know,I made reference to the geology and the amount of spatial thought and mental, the use of mental landscape that that takes. I think it’s a pretty obvious answer that, yeah, it took me a while to get here, but I was probably always an artist. I was just never allowed to or never encouraged to think that really.
Um, you mentioned about the engineering, about how if you had been able to go into a metal shop you would have probably been able to learn it, and then you have this bicycle repair shop, and you do mechanic work . . . You have a motorcycle, is that right?
I’m just curious, um, how do you feel that this sort of physical lifestyle and working with your hands and exercising and things like that play into the um sort of more creative and cerebral part of your life?
I watched an interview, and I can’t remember where it was, it was a documentary about artists. And this guy was sitting down with a bunch of different artists, a bunch of different media, right so these were musicians and visual artists and poets and things like this. And I remember this one woman was sitting there and she was antsy. She just could not sit still, you know. The question was why do you make art, and she said well, I quit doing drugs and I started riding my bike all the time and i started making art and realized this is really the lifestyle I want. And I identify with that in a huge way. I have an enormous amount of energy. I don’t sit very well. And again, the reason why classrooms were my worst nightmare was I gotta dial in on what one person is saying and be engaged for longer than fifteen minutes. It is an effort. So I think that genetically my, who I am, I am an anxious person. And that, you know, you say that, anxious. There are all kinds of negative connotations associated with that. I don’t think that. I think that anxious energy can be a very powerful thing if focused in the right direction.
Tell me about the Itty Bitty Bike Race that’s happening this Friday.
The Itty Bitty Bike Race. A year ago, there was a road bike race over Mt. Driskol, which is south of Simsboro. It’s the highest point in Louisiana, right. So that was the big mark and pitch. My roommate, Steven Mirr, he’s kind of, he helps run the shop, and he put this thing together because he is an avid bike racer. And it was an enormous effort. And he caught flak. Everywhere that he went, the answer was no, but he was determined and he pulled it off. Well, he couldn’t do it this year. He couldn’t be the race director, so another guy attempted to pick up where he left off, and recreate it. But it just didn’t happen. And a big part of what happened last year was it was my duty to, part of the race was to be in the city limits of Ruston, through downtown, somehow incorporate downtown Ruston, to plug the community, give people . . . Bike racing is Lance Armstrong to the general populace, right. They’ve got this ESPN version of the sport. What we wanted to do was expose them to, give them a real time experience. And the RPD was, you know, all on board until it came time to actually doing it, and then they pulled the plug and said you can’t do it, can’t do it, can’t do it. So all this negativity about just trying to do a cycling event gave Doogie, the guy who has the exhibition in this shop now, he just walked in the door . . . We were sitting in the shop one day, and Shawn and I were riding itty bitty bikes around the shop, we were just chasing one another around the shop. And, you know, this is, that is the shop atmosphere. If there are no bikes to work on, we’re going to go do wheelies on the side walk. Or we’re going to act like boys on bikes. And that was it, that was all it took was him chasing us, so we said itty bitty bike race. And we put some stipulations on it. We didn’t ask permission. You know, we marketed it to people that we wanted to participate. We didn’t tell the city. We didn’t tell RPD that we were doing this. We didn’t ask permission. We were just going to do it. And to hell with the consequences.
And where is it going to be?
It starts at the shop, and there’s a checkpoint at the Lady of the Mist. So you have to go to the checkpoint, pick up a straw, a sticker or something, you know, show proof that you’ve been there, and then come back to the shop.
And when, um . . .
Pedals turn at seven. And there will be a post-race party at the shop.
Cool. Um, what, how would you define artistic success? Maybe as specifically as a piece or general as being a successful artist?
This is completely subjective . . . I don’t ever want to quit making things. I don’t want to be discouraged about the idea that, too often I stop myself from making something because I think, well, who’s going to see it, where’s it going to go. What’s going to happen with it. After it’s done, you have this thing. Especially with being a sculptor, storage becomes an issue, and . . . So success for me would be to chew back that neurosis, chew back all of that, and just keep making stuff. Because I feel like, if I can continue to make things, the desire to have them be seen, I don’t . . . Making money off of the things you make is reserved for an elite few. You know, I’m aware of that. It’s just like being a professional athlete. That’s never going to stop me from enjoying the sport, if I can steal a metaphor there. I love making things. I love problem solving. And I don’t ever want to stop doing that.
What are you trying to do with your art? What do you hope that a piece of art accomplishes?
If I’m answering honestly, and this is probably on the, this is while I’ll never be in the MOMA, but I feel like it’s per piece. There’s an aesthetic, there’s a trend that I follow. Things look the way that they do because of who I am, but I feel like each thing that I make is a different statement. It’s a different comment. It’s a different observation. And if the viewer grabs that, that’s all the better. But just like I referenced Michelangelo’s David, the power of a beautifully crafted object is something that I’m very attached to.
And, um, what part do the materials you use play in the meaning of the work?
I do my best to limit myself to found objects. And if we, you know, if you think about, that really awkward explanation of my world view, I feel like that’s hand in hand, man, and you can follow that thread all the way back.
I see. Um, this is kind of a weird question, but if you could be anything else besides an artist, or even in addition to an artist, what would that be?
I don’t really know. I guess a bikeshop owner. Haha. I, teaching, teaching is the end goal. I really want nothing more, you know, the bike shop is fun, and it’s what I’m doing right now, but it’s very much a temporary thing. I really want to end my life in a classroom, teaching people, you know, teaching people how to make things and everything that that means. So that’s teaching people a craft, teaching people problem solving skills, teaching people, um, that confidence is an internal thing that you choose. And then how to think, how to think critically, how to think independently, all that external stuff.
On the subject of teaching, are you happy with the art school set up and structure as it is now or could you envision maybe some sort of alternative teaching method or organization?
I went to two different universities. I took some classes at University of Houston, and the structure was the same. Granted, I took sculpture, and the guys who taught the class, they were both graduate students. So it was a little more relaxed than like a professor would be. I don’t know. And that’s something that I will . . . How do you change academia? How do you tackle that, a machine of that scale and try to change it? It’s just like fighting capitalism.
That’s true. How do you feel about the ethics of um college and especially art school training us for jobs that almost don’t exist?
Haha. The question, right, so what’s your degree in? I have a BFA in sculpture. What do you do with that? Well you go to graduate school. That’s a tough one. Mainly because I have such a soft spot in my heart for the school of art at Tech, and I feel like some of this is going to be public information, and I don’t want to, I don’t want them to think that they neglected me in any way. I think one, if I had a complaint, if there’s one thing that I would want different, it would be to stop holding people’s hands. Stop dragging people through and graduating them because you need the money to support the system. If a person is not progressing, fail that person. And I failed a lot of classes before I figured out I was an artist. It took a lot of classes to figure out that I was never going to be an engineer. And the engineering curriculum is great about that. They will drop your ass in a heartbeat. Because that’s Tech’s bread and butter.
So what was the original question?
Haha. Uh I think I asked you about the ethics of um charging us and training us for jobs that don’t exist.
Yeah. I guess my opinion . . . Ok, I guess with all that said, it’d be, you know, you’re in a situation where you choose your destiny. And don’t get me wrong. I understand that making money off of the things that you make is reserved for an elite few. But there are jobs available. There are curating positions. And, you know, economically the nation is weak right now, and a big driver for art is disposable income, and that’s not something that people have a lot of right now. So I think that, you know, we’re in a temporary situation. This is something that we’ve dealt with before. Not our generation, not me personally, but I hear stories about, from my family, about . . . You know, the old man, in the early eighties, when the bottom fell out of the oil and gas business he was without a job, and that rocked our family in a significant way. So this isn’t the first time that jobs are hard to find. You think about pre-2008 when people were spending money like water. We will get back to there. It may be several years. It may require us changing how we think fundamentally, but people will go back to the things that they enjoy. And there is a very small population of people that enjoy art.
Any closing thoughts or any remarks?
Let’s not stop making things. Let’s continue to do everything we can do to make the world a more interesting place, create distractions from the daily grind and the pursuit of stuff and money, and money and stuff.