Ron Ulicny is an artist based in Portland, Oregon, and I first learned of him on this eponymous ‘Series of Tubes.’ His oddball sculptures often make waves on various Tumblr and art blogs, but Ulicny is far more than a digital-age phenomenon—he’s a hard-working artist that doesn’t give a shit about much else than making art. And why should he? Why should anyone? He’s got an inimitable surreal style which juxtaposes the pedestrian with the non-sequitur, and we recently exchanged notes with Ulicny to learn more about his style, his background, and how he stays motivated when nothing else makes much sense. (And why should it?)
You have three words on your website to describe yourself and your work: visceral, surrealism, and fabricate. Is there any one of these things you consider the ‘most’ important? Why or why not?
Well, it would take about a thousand more words, give or take a few, to actually accurately describe the “push pull push” of being myself, but as for my work, I would probably have to consider “Visceral” the most important of those particular three words. I have always felt more than thought in almost all aspects of my life.
My gut and my heart have been two of my biggest assets—and two of the biggest enemies. Sometimes they can get you into as big of a bind as the ones they help you get through. That’s the Yin and Yang of feeling, if you will.
When it comes to creating the things I do, I really feel like the piece has already been decided, or already been made. I just need to bring it forth—to “produce” it. My hands and I are just the vehicle for the piece. I’m the mechanic. I’m the draughtsman. The worker. Fate is one of those suspicious words you usually either do or don’t believe.
There are a few other words I think would put around my work as well: time, moment, chance, experience, instance, happenstance, design, form.
(Oh, and a bit of a side note: of those three main words, “Fabricate” lost by the very slightest of margins. My work is, in a way, a lie, or a fabrication. The gun doesn’t really play music and the trumpet doesn’t really shoot bullets. None of the things in my art are used for what they are supposed to be used for. A lot of the pieces might look as if they may function in one way or another, but they don’t.)
Do you believe that all art is interpretation, then? If so, where might you receive things from?
I don’t believe anything is all something. For instance, design, composition, color, and content are all equally as important to art. ‘Interpretation’ is a tricky word, too. One can interpret in such a wide variety of ways. You can use your senses to see, touch, hear, taste, smell. The results from what you sense are really just answers to questions. I truly believe ‘think’ and ‘feel’ should be added to the list of senses. It’s a large part of our nature to want to know why, what, and how. We are just curious little beings. Interpretation is a major part of that. It’s not something you can control. It’s a constant happening. An artist is doing it in his work. The viewer is doing it in his viewing. The gallery, museum, or individual collector is doing it in their presentation. I would actually argue that more than ‘interpretation,’ the word should be ‘reaction.’
The inevitable genesis question: how did you get into art making?
I think it has always just been there. Inside me. Like I have been fated to be an artist. In Japanese Anime, there is an interesting theory that each person’s ‘soul’ shares that soul with a specific object, and the two can bond in perfect harmony: a doctor and a stethoscope, a baseball player and a glove, a musician with a guitar, a writer with a pencil. It’s the idea that each person has something inside and just needs to nurture and hone it. For me, I actually can’t remember a time I wasn’t being creative in some way. If you ask anyone that has ever known me, art has always been the constant. The one thing about me that stood out. I played with Legos. I colored. I sat in my bedroom drawing more than any other kid I knew. I built model cars and planes. I was kind of a loner when I younger, and I suppose I still am, so I guess I could always find solace in creating things.
Are you an artist full time, or do you also work in the day to support yourself?
This is sort of loaded and tenuous question for me. I don’t really consider myself a “full-time” anything and I have always been kind of a “Jack-Of-All-Trades and Master Of None.” I enjoy painting, drawing, photography, graphic design, playing music, and carpentry as much as I do making sculpture, but most recently (and at this current time), I have been able to just squeak by with my artwork. Yet, the reality is that I’m still always one trip to the doctor away from financial ruin and I’ve pretty much always lived month-to-month. I’m not much of a money person and as long as I have the basics in life and can still make things—as opposed to buying them—I’m just fine. I’m very thankful and appreciative of all the opportunities and recent tidbits of success I’ve been having lately. I try to be thankful for what I do and try not to get caught up in things, losing sight of my goals and aspirations.
Do you think fiscal concerns can affect art making? Should they?
I think the answer to that question is complicated. It depends on the situation, and where one’s priorities are in life.
(A quick disclaimer: I might not be the best person to ask about this particular subject. Becoming a sculptor was my back-up plan to becoming a Rock Star. Fiscal responsibility is not my strong point.)
As for my personal situation, YES! I feel it affects my art—and my life, for that matter. Positively and negatively. There is no real way around that in modern society. Monetarily speaking, you’re talking about haves and have-nots—accessibility and opportunity at its core, but that’s a conversation better left for another time. I’ve never had any money so I don’t really know what’s it’s like to create under a different situation. I mean, if I had a lot of money, would I make bigger, better, stronger, more powerful works of art? Would I have ever made the pieces I have already made? I’m not sure. I’m the type to spend my money on tools, materials, and supplies before spending my money on ‘normal’ things, like food, bills, insurance, clothing, shelter, and the like.
I understand you’ve been pretty busy lately—what have you been working on?
Yeah, things have picked up around here lately. I’m currently working on a piece for a charity group show, and I have a bunch of pieces for a show here in Portland, OR at the end of August (2012). I’m working on a couple of commissions, as well as some pieces for a solo show next year in San Francisco. I also have a few other cool things in the works that I don’t want to let out of the bag quite yet. I’m working on a website refresher as well, and I’m on the hunt for a larger studio space. Being busy is a good thing for me, and hopefully I just keep getting busier. I’m sort of an ‘art-a’holic’ and always prefer to be in my studio than in some other place.
Do you believe art is something that can be taught?
I do believe that art can be taught, but I don’t believe you can teach someone to be an artist. One doesn’t choose art—it chooses you. Almost everything can be “taught” to a certain degrees, but the success of that teaching lies within the student. Like the famous saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” A person has to have the passion, will, commitment, and desire to learn something.
On the other hand, experience is much more valuable than ‘education’ when it comes to art—or life, for that matter. You can take in as much information, method, and technique as you’d like, but applying those things to real-life situations is where you can see what works, and what doesn’t. I’ve found that the more ‘experiences’ I have in my life, the more I learn—especially from failures and mistakes.
Finally, what advice would you give to artists who feel like giving up?
My sage advice is: your acumen” and your mettle are all you have! Life is hard. Get yourself a sturdy helmet.