On any given day, you might find him snapping photos in a Philly park, playing the fiddle at an Old-Time jam, editing a film, painting a landscape, building a chicken coop, or cultivating a garden. Drawing from the wilderness for inspiration, local artist Nikolai Fox endeavors to magnify the extraordinary contained within the seemingly ordinary. “There’s something interesting happening in every situation.”
On Saturday, February 11, Fox showcases a set of recent photographs at The Joseph Fox Bookshop in Center City, demonstrating to Philly his gift for capturing the extraordinary moments. It’s open to the public, and runs from 4pm – 6pm. See below for more information.
I recently caught-up with Nikolai to get his perspective on the role of the artist in society.
Tell us a little about your background.
NF – My background is in drawing, painting and photography. I have also always been interested in the life sciences and spending time outside. As a teenager I read books about and by John Muir and the myths that incorporate deities and characters which represent human perspectives on the wilderness. I began to see the difference between the way that our culture projected the idea of wilderness and the reality of what was there. There is an important parallel between the type of focused perceptual sensitivity that must be cultivated to feel at home in the wilderness and the kind of awareness you must have in order to create imagery that is relevant to specific conceptual and emotional goals. What I gathered from these parallel studies is that art and wilderness have a very important relationship, both literally and metaphorically.
Where do you find artistic inspiration?
For most of my life I’ve been learning about perception and culture through the imagery that humanity has created as far back as we have record of. Simultaneously I have been fascinated by wilderness as a place to spend my time, a subject for imagery and a literal and insinuated theme in art. The concept of wilderness and the perspectives that different disciplines bring to a culture’s relationship to it’s surroundings are key points of departure for my work. The sun’s relationship to the earth creates so many different scenarios of light through the cycle of a twenty-four hour day, a month a season and in different regions. This is my most consistent inspiration. Even in the music I play and record I find different insinuations of pattern and temperature that relate directly to experiences I have had in different kinds of weather, landscape and light. Drawing was the first endeavor that taught me how we summarize our experience into simplified concepts in order to communicate specific priorities. We don’t summarize consciously, we are always doing it. So much so that we actually believe that we are seeing what is all around us. Drawing taught me how much we overlook so that we might function in our daily lives without being overwhelmed. I didn’t realize these lessons when I was younger, but lately I have found texts that outline perspectives on myth, art and perception which support the instincts that drawing helped me develop when I was younger.
What motivates you to create?
NF – It is usually a very specific circumstance of light or weather, or a strong emotional trajectory that inspires me to set upon the task of embodying something intangible in a physical form. When I am wondering, “Why do this?” I think about the profound effect that art has had on me through out my life. Reading about history, and the context and lifestyles of artists help me to figure out where I fit in. The fantastic teachers I have had along the way communicated to me that art is a mantel that one adopts. If I am hired to do professional work the goals are often outlined very clearly. In these cases I feel lucky that I have cleared an available path to my inspiration. Or I could say that there is always something interesting happening in any situation. It is the artist’s job to use some kind of craft to shine the spot light on the fantastic thing that makes the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Do you think society values artistic contributions? To what extent?
NF – A society’s value of art is very complicated to assess. The interface of art, politics and everyday life is played out in different ways around the world and through history. People who have influence understand that aesthetics are incredibly powerful. Artists are often called upon to develop ways of communicating certain things in and between cultures. A society will be very quick to claim an artist as one of their own if a certain level of recognition is reached by that artist. I’m not sure that there is consistent opinion about the value of art in any culture. Art can be very personal and ineffective outside of the small circle it is intended for. Art can also be created in a way that allows people with all sorts of backgrounds, experience and education access to it’s fruits. Art is a philosophical practice with a tangible physical record that is not necessarily linear or literal. It often takes years after an artist’s death to figure out the relevance or potency of their work.Some of my most profound experiences with other artist’s work came after years of looking at it and not understanding. Then one day it just hits. This makes me think that works of art can stand as beacons along the journey of life. We are not always ready to understand what we are experiencing. This is a valuable lesson because it teaches us to be humble in regards to our opinions. When the familiar erupts into the extraordinary in a way we didn’t expect, that is the real gift of Art.
How might society better value art?
NF – The value of artistic practice is obvious from an educational point of view, but there is the idea that making art is a time to express your self. The completely subjective nature of this perspective encourages the elimination of of clear critical thinking from the artistic process. This seems more like art therapy than the practice of Art to me. If one wants to engage in the practice of Art then different types of crafts (ceramics, drawing, dance, etc.) must be studied until the basic principles of the practice become second nature to the student. Then bigger questions can be addressed. It is possible to teach craft in a very effective and empowering way. It is also possible to give students a smoke screen of flashy and mysterious ideas and processes that make them feel deep while actually estranging them from the reality of what it takes to master a medium. We are several generations into a culture that promotes the flashy and mysterious. It’s an incredible dumbing down in the guise of intelligence. The difference between what it meant to learn to draw 100 years ago and what it means now is embarrassing. I think that a very clear curriculum starting as early as possible that develops the basic skills in a broad set of disciplines would lead to a generation of students who were ready by the age of twelve to begin focused study. My point here, is that art is an essential part of a well rounded education.
Should the artist be concerned with social transformation?
NF - Every member of society should be concerned with social transformation. A healthy culture is like any other healthy organism. It should be constantly learning from it’s mistakes and working toward a more effective, healthy and efficient system. Agreeing on what that means is the hard part in a world with so many people such varying opinions about how to define healthy. Artists are members of society just like everybody else, and so yes, I they should be concerned with the plight of the society that they live in.
How do you see art woven into the fabric of urban culture?
I believe that there is currently misinterpretation of the role of the artist in culture. Fame and fortune seem to be the calling cards of success. Fame and fortune are achieved not through effective artistic study and practice, but through marketing. There is a lot of lore around the lifestyle of the artist and the magical relationship with one’s muse. It is beneficial to marketing strategies to promote an individual and their work as if they have achieved some kind of connection with the deepest aspects of the human condition in an unexplainable way. This kind of presentation separates the individual from the masses and encourages awe. It’s like a Super Bowl half-time show. All lights and budget, but in the end it is probably the worst performance the artist ever gave. Putting value on glitz and glamor does not encourage understanding but intimidates people who could actually benefit from art. The fashion industry is very honest about this, and so they are actually effective at exploring glamour as a concept. Fashion puts it right on the table. The thing is, that through artistic disciplines we are able to approach an understanding of the limits of our perceptual abilities and therefore define and understand our relationship to our surroundings more thoroughly. This kind of understand couldn’t be more valuable to an individual, a family or a society.
Joseph Fox Bookshop
Saturday February 11, 2012, opening 4pm – 6pm
1724 Sansom Street
Music provided by the Belleville Quartet
Produced by Avi Loren Fox Photography