"The reality of what my art is, is communicating. Communication is the art, and the rest is just the medium."
Communication is the Art Form
A conversation with MAKER Grant recipient, Damon Locks
Chicago Artists Coalition is pleased to announce the inaugural FIELD/WORK Residency Artist Mentor will be Damon Locks! Damon’s experience as a visual artist, educator, vocalist/musician, and deejay will provide a deeper, personal context to conversations throughout the 6-month residency and his knowledge of the art world and non-traditional approaches to career development will be an invaluable resource to residents. We are very excited and grateful for Damon’s collaboration and mentorship, and we’re taking a moment to revisit his 2016 interview with Jennifer Depoorter, in which Damon discusses his creative process and career after being awarded a MAKER Grant.
Applications for the FIELD/WORK Residency are open until Sunday, September 25. For more information, please visit the CAC website. CAC will host an Info Session about the program on Tuesday, September 6th from 6-7pm. RSVP here!
In 2013, the Chicago Artists Coalition and OtherPeoplesPixels created the MAKER Grant, which provides two unrestricted cash awards given to Chicago-based contemporary visual artists who demonstrate a commitment to a sustainable artistic practice and career development. This year, Damon Locks is the recipient of the $3,000 award.
Damon is a Chicago-based visual artist, educator, vocalist/musician, and deejay. He attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he received his BFA in Fine Arts. Recently, he has been lending his artistic and/or teaching talents to organizations such as Prisons and Neighborhood Arts Project, Art Reach, the Center for Urban Pedagogy, and at the University of Illinois at Chicago. With the aesthetics of a printmaker, he calls upon whichever medium suits the situation best whether it be screen/relief/risograph/digital print, photography, ink, pencil, voice, drum machine, sampler, or turntables.
In this interview, Damon talks about winning the MAKER Grant, becoming a fulltime artist and its challenges, and what it means to be a Chicago artist.
What projects are you working on now, and how will the MAKER Grant play a role in achieving or affecting those projects?
I’m in a transitional period right now. This is a great, exciting time period for me because last year I taught a lot, and I knew I wasn’t going to be teaching this semester, so this was me entering 2016 to work on this new body of work. I’m also trying to work with new materials as well, to figure out if I want to incorporate it into a new work.
I work with the organization called Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project since 2014, and I did this project called Freedom Time. That year, in my mind, marked a shift in some sort of public consciousness where we opened this door to this very public video/social media showing police violence and this onslaught of black people getting killed by cops. I was going into prison, working, and seeing a lot of black faces, and then I’d come out, and people were getting killed. It’s been a very intense experience, and it made me stop and reflect on my art practice, where I’ve always worked to make it socially engaged and reflective of my own interests. I feel like things got extra real, and I needed to work in a different way while I processed it. The way that I worked was through teaching art and creating projects through Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project, and that was really helpful. I knew by the end of last year I was gearing up to make a new body of work.
In terms of the MAKER Grant, it’s all part of a grand scheme of me putting things into motion. I’ve always had the mode of operation; I’ve always just made art and made for it however I know. But I thought maybe I should strategize, apply for grants, and structure a set of work. So that’s my plan for this year, and the work that’s coming up, I have a lot of ideas for, and this year will just be me working through those ideas. I plan to move forward.
Do you have any advice for other artists wanting to apply for grants/fellowships?
One of the best pieces of feedback I got while I was writing my application for the MAKER Grant is to talk about how you feel about things, how you specifically respond to the questions as opposed to what you think somebody would want to hear. It’s what you’re bringing to the table, individually, that will make a difference to the people evaluating it.
What new materials are you planning to work with?
Last year I did a sound piece called Sounds Like Now that utilized records, samples, instruments, and voice in order to hear the past in present tense in this exhibition called Making Niggers: Demonizing and Distorting Blackness Through Postcards and Images. I saw this show, and it was an intense show of these postcards that had these stereotypes that started at the birth of postcards that are still here today. I was looking at this exhibition and thought, “What if I did this performance in here?” It would be charged with this thing, and I wanted that challenge.
While I was preparing for the show, I had ideas about new artwork and my brain started to create these installations. Because of that project, my brain started to create an environment the sound piece would go in, which I’ve never done before. I want to challenge the idea of what exhibition for myself is and try to not only think about the work as stuff that’s up on the wall, but also try to create an experience in real time for people that are actually there.
New mediums may mean that I may have to make a table or lately I’ve been envisioning things you can see through. Maybe I’ll have to figure out how to use glass, but that’s what I mean when I talk about new mediums.
Do you find that there’s a benefit to working with different media?
I don’t think about it too much because I just pick the tools that work for the project.
When I was younger, people talked about getting a sound that people will identify and then want. I never cared about that; we never cared about that. We followed whatever trajectory we felt like going in. I found over twenty-five years of making music that regardless of how much the sound changes, it still sounds like you because you’re still making it. So I don’t care which medium I choose because it’ll still come out looking like something I did, which is very liberating. Also, you just get to learn more when you use different medium.
How do you know which medium is right for the project?
You just have to listen to what the project is, and try to find out what’s the coolest. Sometimes I gage something on what would be cool. With the Freedom Time project, I knew it was going on exhibition, and I thought about what would be cool and decided on animation. Even though the work seems to have an emotionally, politically, and socially engaged message, stuff still has to look cool.
Do you think art should be emotionally charged or intense?
Different people have different strengths/intentions. I just have to follow the one I do. I like mark making, and I think that’s why I started being an artist. Mark making and intention and saying something is really important to me. I don’t expect everyone to do that, but it’s the only way that makes sense to me.
What do you do when you’re stuck in a rut creatively?
I think I might just have been going through that for a while. I had to wait, and work in other mediums, and just be aware that I’m processing. Processing is a part of art making. It might take a while to work through how everything matches up, and sometimes you just have to accept that. I did things like make music and teach, so I kept myself involved and still thought critically.
Would you say teaching has helped you as an artist?
Teaching has been great; it makes you have to think about everything all over again so it’s not just your assumptions. You have to make it clear or figure out ways of sparking those connections for other people.
What’s it like to be an artist in Chicago?
Chicago has been good for me because it allows room for ideas to gestate. In other cities, I’ve noted that you have to be prepared out of the gate, but in Chicago, I feel like you can be plugged into the grid or not plugged into the grid. If you’re not plugged in, you can spend your time working on the thing you’re interested in, and then you can present it; whereas I don’t know if other large cities have that leniency. I think you need to have time to let things grow.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being an artist in Chicago?
I don’t know if it’s more difficult in Chicago than anywhere else, but being an artist is not an easy job. I had many other jobs, but around nine years ago, I quit my job as a music publicist because I wanted to figure out how to put art and music at the forefront. I had always done art, but it was always on the side, and I was always in a band, as well. I needed to put the things I really cared about at the forefront. I think the idea of becoming an artist fulltime was a crazy plan. It’s a lot of hustling; that’s the hardest part. But also, investing in your own art is difficult because you’re not sure if it’s necessary to anyone else. You just have to know that you want to do it.
Have you ever regretted becoming a full time artist?
No, it’s been great. I’ve never been happier creatively than now. It was probably the best decision for my psyche. I always think about people who speak so well of their craft, and I always wonder how they get there, but I realize they get to work at it and think about it 100 percent of the time.
Do you think artists have to be somewhat of a narcissist to believe that somebody will want to view their work and passionately care about their message?
I think you have to accept the idea that no one might care; playing music for a long time has prepared me for that.
I had a band called Trenchmouth that played in Chicago for a really long time, and I currently have a band called the Eternals. I also play in a band called the Exploding Star Orchestra. Trench Mouth lived through the alternative explosion, and a lot of bands in that scene got signed to major labels. Everyone had a chance to go for the gold because you never knew what was going to happen, but we never got popular, but that doesn’t mean we were a bad group. We were just not something people popularly liked, but often the general population has really bad taste. Artistically, Trenchmouth and the Eternals learned to hunker down and do the work that we cared about, which taught me, for many years, that I don’t have an expectation, or do my work with an expectation that people will like this. I try to do work that is truthful to me and then just try to reach the people it might be interesting to.