Can you tell me a little bit about you?
I’m originally from Oconomowoc, WI. I got my BFA from the University of Minnesota and my MFA from MICA. I moved to New York in 2014 and I live in Brooklyn. I grew up hunting UFOs and Bigfoot through the fields and forests of Wisconsin with a very conservative Catholic father. I’ve been in living in New York for 5 years now and it is still so surprising and weird to me. I’ll probably live here for the rest of my life.
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
My mom took me to a Pop art exhibition at the Milwaukee Museum of Art when I was about 8 years old. I was blown away. I found it all so ridiculous and fun, and I remember thinking “These guys get to spend their time making all these weird things and people appreciate them for it. I have weird ideas all the time. I want to do that!”
What do you like most about working where you do?
I work in a dumpy studio right across the street from my apartment in Brooklyn. That kind of convenience is extremely rare in most cities, let alone New York. I like my studios dumpy. I feel more comfortable taking risks and making a mess. It’s my own little controlled garbage cave where I can step out of reality and make weird things that I think are important.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
I’ve been considering our current era of abundance in the frame of science fiction for the past couple of years. I think it is remarkable how we have access to so much information and physical goods and how quickly we have come to expect it all. In relation to 99.9% of human history we live in an especially ridiculous time. We still mostly have a 20th century mentality, but we practically live a 24th century Star Trek: Next Generation replicator lifestyle.
What is your process like?
Almost every day after work I walk into my studio, take off my everyday jeans, put on my dirty shorts, turn on some music and pickup wherever I left off the night before. My ideas don’t come from one place or procedure. I kind of wish they did, I’d probably make a lot more work that way. I start paintings with specific ideas only about half the time, but they all begin with a background and then they sort of evolve through building layers of forms.
Is there any subject or theme you’ve been particularly interested in lately?
I’ve been really into sci-fi and fantasy art from the 70’s and 80’s lately. It’s all so ridiculously over the top and technically impressive. I feel like I learn more looking at that stuff than any trip to the museum.
What is the strangest thing you’ve ever had to do for art?
Before I moved to Baltimore for grad school I lived in Minneapolis and I had a lot of large sculpture I needed to throw away. I couldn’t afford a dumpster and I didn’t have to time to gradually throw it away so smashed it all up and buried it in the backyard and basement crawl space of my apartment. It was very cathartic.
Do you have a day job or other work that you split your time between?
I’m a Curator at Adelphi University which is the best day job I’ve ever had. I really enjoy being able to create exhibitions and provide opportunities to artists. I’m also a terrible sales person, so creating exhibitions in an academic setting is perfect for me.
Do you have a mentor, or a piece of advice (or both), which has influenced your practice?
Advice I followed: “Fuck graphic design. Just make art.”
Advice I ignored: “Did you know there is an established artist named John Duff? You might want to consider going by a different name for your art career.”
Is there any piece of advice you would offer to others?
Make whatever you want, because most people don’t care if you make anything at all.
What does it mean to you to have a “community?”
My art practice is very solitary. I like it that way, and I feel like it is a requirement for some of the weirder things I make. Having a community of other artists to empathize with and talk about the mundane things like crappy studios and loneliness can be more helpful than discussing things like concept and success. Knowing others are having the same experience can be supportive. It feels good to know I am a part of a big group of weirdos on a goofy endless mission to make art.
Do you have any routines or rituals in the studio that get you into the mode or mindset to make your work?
I get into the studio almost every day after work for about 3 hours, and then I will put in 5 hour days on weekends if I stay in the city. I play really energetic punk and electronic music to keep myself moving and get as much done in those 3 hours as possible. If I have more boring labor intensive work to do in the studio I will listen to sci-fi audiobooks and kind of mentally detach while my body gets the work done.
How significant has attending art school been on your practice?
Grad school forced me to take my practice more seriously and gave me a boost of courage to really commit to an artist lifestyle. Also, it’s a great excuse to escape the Midwest. I met some of the best people of my life at MICA and had access to residencies and exhibition opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I don’t think an MFA is necessary, but my life has been made better by my grad school experience and I have never regretted the student debt.
What do you find most daunting, challenging, or frustrating about pursuing art?
Celebrity worship in the art world bums me out. “Do you know so and so?” No “Oh really? That’s crazy. How about so and so?” Nah. I didn’t become an artist because I want to party with the Olsen Twins someday.
How would you define “success” in art?
Being able to afford a studio, housing and feeling confident about the work you are making. I feel really lucky to be able to afford this lifestyle and not feel miserable. I think we need to be more aware of our privilege and appreciate life a little more. It is important to remember there are ton of people in the world who probably have better ideas than you do but can’t afford to make them happen.
What is the most exciting thing you’ve done or accomplished so far, related to your work?
Skowhegan was a blast.
What are you working on right now?
More paintings! I’m addicted and loving it.