mbg: Looking at your work, one gets the impression that you were literally alone there (there are practically no people in your work, except for one drawing where a few people look almost like litter on a mountainous landscape, absurdly touristy, unnatural voyeurs of a natural world), and that you were in personal proximity with a wide range of wildlife, including the fairly exotic and dangerous. How much of that was actually the case?
JBJ: The summer months are the beginning of the wet season and nobody was there. Very few tourists, few volunteers, few rangers and several scientists. My contact ranger gave me the key to my studio/efficiency, a canoe, a bike and an emergency phone number to call if things got weird. After that it was all me. I desperately wanted to make some connections with some rangers or scientists and tag along on some research expeditions or whatever, but to no avail.
mbg: Did you make most of the art when you were there, or afterward based on your experience?
JBJ: I initially had the idea I would get there, post up, set up the studio, and proceed to knock out this badass body of work pulling from my new crazy surroundings. Piece of cake. But it was not as slick as that. The first couple weeks I was really trying hard to make something I thought looked cool. It wasn’t happening. At some point I realized, fuck the studio. Get your ass in the canoe and go be an alligator for the day. I told myself I could make the work later, but only had so much time to hang here in the glades. I started spending most of my time outside, exploring different areas on my Everglades map, crossing off the different areas like a to-do list.
mbg: Could you tell us a little about your experience there; were you ever afraid?
JBJ: I never really found myself in any real danger. The scariest moment may have been when I was walking around this extremely secluded swampy pond, dyed red from organic material and surrounded by cypress trees. I found a dead heron that was mauled up pretty good. Just a ton of feathers left and some bones. Then I found an alligator egg. It was the size of my fist, leathery and soft and still had wet yoke dripping out of it. It must have hatched recently. Then I found another one. Then I noticed about 20 more all around me. I was a little nervous. The last thing you want to do is get between a momma gator and her babies. So I scoped the area and got away from there.
I had recently witnessed the stealth of another momma while photographing baby alligators in a stream. The momma was watching the whole time. I noticed her after about 15 minutes of admiring the adolescent reptiles. I would turn my back on her, take a couple pictures, look back at her and she was closer. I did this several times; never actually seeing her move, just noticing the space between us was decreasing. I got some cool pictures, and then I got out of there.
I also saw a 15-foot Burmese Python in the middle of the road. Half the snake was in the road, half was in the water. It was not terribly concerned with me. I waited until its head was 15 feet away then I touched its tail out of shear curiosity.
I was also shocked to see a shark fin pass me while I was canoeing through the mangroves once. It was just a bonnet-head (a mini hammerhead). Nothing to freak out about but pretty exhilarating.
mbg: What did you make while you were there and what was your process and medium(s)?
JBJ: Hardly the bulletproof seamless body of work I predicted. But I spent the next year pulling from that experience, fleshing out the work, making paintings and ultimately putting together this book.
If I were to do it again, I would just bring a backpack of pens and sketchbooks. It was much more about soaking in the extreme conditions than it was about taking advantage of the shitty studio I set up on the screened porch. But I did create some pieces eventually I liked. And I couldn’t spend every night looking for panthers, or shining my flashlight into the water near my studio and seeing 300 sets of alligator eyes moving around. I finished a bunch of drawings, several paintings, wrote a handful of songs on my guitar and wah-wah peddle, and made a couple costumes out of paper and faux fur I had brought with me, including that of the elusive skunk ape.
mbg: As an independent publisher, I have to say I love your DYI style, the way you’ve raised money and essentially said, “I want to make a book,” and then did it. It makes one think, hell, I can do that. How realistic is it?
JBJ: The book was an organic follow-up to the Everglades experience. I had been talking to Morgan Coy, who runs Monofonus Press and from whom I also rent my studio, about making a book for a while at that point, but I had nothing concrete. The main thing I was working towards was a solo show at a gallery here in Austin upon my return from the residency. That is what I was making things for and the book was in the background.
Once I returned to Texas after six months of cruising the states, I learned the show I was working towards was no longer going to be a possibility. I was bummed and felt a little defeated. Then I started talking to Morgan about a book again. I decided, “to hell with a gallery show, I’ll take this whole thing back into my hands and do it myself.” So after talking about the scope of the book, Morgan turned me on to Kickstarter.
At first I was apprehensive because I felt weird about asking people for money. But Kickstarter has a pledge/reward system built into it, so I wasn’t only asking for money, I was asking people put some money down in exchange for a cool product.
This was weird too because now I was sending out this giant email to everyone I know asking them to buy this book, that wasn’t even made yet. But my people turned out. They had the faith and got me to my minimum goal in a couple weeks. It as awesome, empowering and flattering.
I set to work completing a bunch of pieces and had my boy Drew Liverman (who I could not have made such a sweet book without) do the design work and it all came together. I was also making music in the Everglades. Kind of a new breed for me. It is lonely music. I recorded frogs and birds from all around the park and threw some guitar on it. After I left the Everglades some friends and family helped me beef some of the tracks up and had my cousin Nate do a lot of the finalizing and got this weird audio CD to go with the book. So that is the multi-media element.
But yeah books are strange animals. I learned a lot.
mbg: How have you handled distribution, marketing/promotion, pricing, print-run, and criticism/reviews?
JBJ: As far as distributing, I’m going to let Monofonus handle most of that. I have my finger on some spots I am looking to get the book, including the Everglades bookstore. But we haven’t got that far yet.
mbg: Logistically, were you worried about scale (dimensions), color, design, paper, cover, how did you handle all of those issues? Scale seems so vital to your work, so how does the scale of your work translate into the book? Did you ever feel you had to compromise in any way in the book-format?< p>
JBJ: Yeah there were a lot of early ideas about the book that had to get cut back a bit due to financial restrictions. Not really scale. The book is a 9×12 format, hardcover, and 98 pages. Any more pages and I’d have to put this thing out next spring. And a lot of my paintings are over 6 feet in one direction or another, including that planet-toad. But I think the paintings look cool so small. For me it is refreshing to be able to look at several of them back to back with the ease of a book. It is kind of a pain in the ass to unroll and roll them up in my studio. So of course they lose the one-to-one ratio with the viewer that I like, but there is a real intimate element that the book provides that I like, too.
mbg: I’ve heard you had a live kayman at one of your shows, if that’s true, could you tell us how that worked out?
JBJ: Yeah, we got two spectacled kaymans for the Fluent~Collaborative show Beast-Footed Feathered-Serpent I did with Caitlin Haskell. The handler got his knuckle thrashed up a little by one of the kaymans when I asked if he had ever been bitten. On that note, at the book release on July 11th, I have the same reptile guy coming with a baby American alligator, a Burmese python, a gopher tortoise, a Florida soft-shell turtle and an Everglades rat snake.
Sampson Starkweather is co-founder and editor of Birds, LLC, an independent poetry press. He is the author of Self Help Poems, forthcoming from Greying Ghost Press, and The Heart is Green from So Much Waitingfrom Immaculate Disciples Press. He is an editor of physics and chemistry books.