D.C.’s free arts festival Mayor Muriel Bowser Presents: Art All Night: Made in DC kicks off at 7 p.m. tonight, blanketing streets and spaces with pop-up galleries, live performances (see: fire breathing in Dupont), and interactive exhibits, inviting D.C. residents to grab a brush or graffiti can and let their creativity loose until 3 a.m. (map out your artistic Saturday night here).
Below, BYT brings together two participating artists from wildly different backgrounds — Elmer Calata immigrated to D.C. from the Philippines at 16 and uses markers and paper to draw intricate designs currently hanging at hot spots like Himitsu — while filmmaker Bryan Elsom, a Baltimore resident by way of South Carolina and D.C. is getting ready to unveil his hugely anticipated video installation, Blue Screen, at 1301 Street NE for Art All Night.
Tonight Calata is showing some of his ink pieces at Pekoe acupuncture studio in Shaw, where Art All Night got started in D.C. 11 years ago. Now eight neighborhoods are in on the action, with Deanwood and Minnesota Avenue participating for the first time.
The artists have crazy cool and diverse resumes: Calata was a sushi chef at Sticky Rice and some of his art is found at the Paraguay Embassy, inspired by his time volunteering with the Peace Corps. Meanwhile, Elsom’s video talents have taken him to the bottom of the globe to film Chevy truck commercials in Patagonia, all the way to Syrian refugee camps to document distress.
The two sit down with Tierney Plumb to interview each other about technique, inspiration, and how they’re prepping for their first Art All Night DC.
Tierney Plumb: I’ll kick it off. What’s it like to be a working artist these days in an expensive city?
Bryan Elsom: As an artist we have two parts to it, one is making art but the other is business. You need contracts and agreements and it has to be a living wage. You get people to agree to pay on time. Just like working at a restaurant, you don’t expect them to say, ‘I will pay you next month’.
Elmer Calata: It’s almost always a gamble, and depends on the nature of the work. For me I have a couple commissions now, and it is luxurious for me because I have another job with the government. Every transaction is completely different, and it also depends on who you are dealing with — if it’s some who’s never purchased art before but really apppreaciates your work, you have to work with them. Then this commissioner is going to pay this bill, and then this is what will get me a beer. It really depends on how you play the game.
BE: It is both sides of your brain.
EC: Yea, you have to be a good businessman, if not you will go nuts.
BE: You are doing markers on paper so your costs are way down.
EC: Yea, it’s nothing. I don’t use space. I have traveled and drawn pieces in Paraguay and Nicaragua. I can go anywhere but with my financial health I can’t be somewhere right now to draw and make a living. But I think I can do that at some point. That is the goal.
BE: I am curious about your process — are you drawing from representational inspiration?
EC: Depends. Lately it’s been things going on in my life and then you kind of put a positive twist on it when shit is going down. For example I was having a hard time at work. Somebody’s not treating people right so I am like, well you have to fight the good fight. The whole snake with the eagle — my work is usually light but that, for me, was really strong — the eagle doing the right thing and getting the snake to get up. What’s amazing is you find other representation — apparently it’s the Mexican symbol of injustice.
BE: Do you think that was in your consciousness?
EC: Yes, it just came out. I left the U.S. to go back to the Philippines because it was too much. I couldn’t deal. Thats when I drew the red chicken — when I was growing up my nickname was the rooster because of the way I stood as a child with my chest really up. The rooster became a symbol for me. I woke up one morning and knew I had to draw something. Red for me was passion and strength then you just look at how a rooster looked and it was like the comeback for me. I could have stayed in the Philippines and not dealt with the U.S., but I was like I’ve got to come back and get shit ready. Then for the love of travel I did a map.
BE: When I start a piece I don’t know how its going to end up.
EC: Or when it’s going to end up.
BE: Right. And so it’s always that process of discovering, because as you make it, something in yourself is coming forward and it comes out.
EC: Yes, like similar with mandalas. I didn’t even know what the word meant and what it represented. I came from a really hard background — my environment growing up was stagnant, drugs everywhere. I was born and raised in the Philippines and moved to the states when I was 16. I wasn’t in the ghetto but was was close to it, everyone scrounging outside of Manila. It was a fisherman town, not a lot of education or opportunities. But I’ve always drawn. So when I moved here and I was getting my education, was able to travel and learn different languages and I wanted to share with other people why I did Peace Corps. The first instinct is how you are going to utilize all this knowledge, experience, and talent. In Paraguay I saw how their culture wasn’t appreciated by young people. I was around a lot of artists in the bar crowd in the capital, but I was also all over the country. I noticed this traditional lace of Paraguay and thought, what is the best way to promote their culture? It started coming out of me.
BE: [pointing to Elmer’s mandala tattoo on his shoulder] What is the background of the lace?
EC: The mythical history is that it was a gift for the princess and a grandma made it for the guy who became the husband. In literal terms, it’s the spiderweb. So in modern times, there are old towns with old women who would just sit there and do the lace and I thought it was awesome. I started getting inspiration from that to promote that kind of culture. I didn’t know I was doing a mandala. I thought, what the fuck is a mandala? I started researching it. Whatever comes out of me I draw it, I didn’t know until when got deeper into it, it’s the representation of your soul.
BE: You can’t not do it, you have to do it and get it out. I am a completely different medium. It’s really thinking about how images go together and I start to create a narrative. For me, my narrative is not a beginning, middle or end. This video installation on H Street is exploring how something feels and memory. When we think about things we’ve experienced, we don’t remember them in a linear way. It’s what was that moment like. The ability to stand outside of it and look back at that event or possibility of that feeling. In this piece I am exposing that ability to look back while simultaneously experiencing it. It’s interesting because I’ve never seen it before, I’ve only seen it on small screens in a studio. So I’ve never seen it big.
Describe the piece.
Three screens are 12 feet wide and eight feet high and they are projected on both sides. It’s set up in an arrangement so you can’t ever see all three at once and you need to walk amongst them. So for me traditional video has always been sitting down looking at movies and TV and you don’t have to walk around. This experience requies you to actually move around and you never really know what is always going on. There are three sides to every story but you don’t have all three in front of us all the time. We need to change our perspective in order to see what might be happening somewhere else, to move around. That is what I’ve been exploring, this experiment of how do we have knowledge of something that is or isn’t happening. So this thing of walking around it is really kind of interesting.
Inspiration for that came from thinking about how I wanted to explore this theme. The physical part was very interesting — how you pick up on it. We were shooting another project and there was a scrim we had set up and the grips and electrics were moving the lights behind the scrim, and someone was in front of it and we saw their form in front of it and behind it. I thought, whoa that is an amazing image lets take a mintue and play with this idea.
EC: It’s an experiment.
BE: Yes it was a mistake in that we were tearing the set down and I was like, no let’s start playing with it, move it around, then let’s start filming it. I took film back and looked at it and thought, this is really interesting let’s push it. My medium is pretty expensive — it’s hard to sketch in film.
I got people who are performance artists to be involved, with three actors who started rehearsing and built a narrative around the rehearsal. It’s all based on one thing we didn’t tear down. That mistake, that crack in the ceramic, those two pieces of paint that came together one on top of another, that juxtaposition of imagery is something you use to jump off of and see where it takes us.
EC: Sometimes it’s not really you creating the work, it’s the work creating you and guiding you.
BE: Right, it’s a ‘shut up and listen.’
EC: It’s a very meditative and almost existential experience and that an hour or two could be eternal when I’m drawing. Because every art does that. It’s a great help for working through a block when you are trying to think or feel something, when you are there the emotion comes and goes. You have to recognize it and that is the part that calms you down.
BE: When you are in your zone it’s very peaceful.
EC: I can find it on top of surfboard or rock climbing, yes, but drawing, wow.
BE: You can turn around a piece in what, two to three hours?
EC: No, like 10 hours.
BE: Mine are two years. So that period gets extended. Not everyday but sometimes it’s that idea when I go to it, working on it, go back and try to get back to that thing that got you there in the first place.
EC: For me the process is you don’t force the work, the work will tell you to work. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and there is nothing else in the world I’d rather do but this, until I do this then can I can do anything else.
TP: Where are you finding your day-to-day inspiration — is it the world we live in?
EC: For me it’s the injustice — working in the government it’s the injustice that is happening as an immigrant. I have a personal account of how it is to be oppressed. And I feel like one way to combat that is do the work. There was a period last year where all my work, while they look aesthetically pleasing with patterns and what not, if I have to tell the story of each piece it was a dark place I was in. And I turned it into a positive experience.
BE: I was looking at your work and patterns. I spent time in Istanbul and I don’t know if you know but the patterns and that connection to detail and intricacies of Islamic art is evident.
EC: I lived in Grenada, Spain where I learned to speak Spanish when in was in college at VCU. I was like, I can get an education now? I can travel while in school? When I went to Spain, I couldn’t sleep one night because I was like holy fuck I am in this experience, I am not the kid from the streets in the Philippines anymore, I am the guy living the life who never thought this could happen … you find your god, whatever you call it, when you do your work. For me that is how it all comes together.
BE: I find myself first an observer in order to engage and create. I love the movement of people and how their bodies react to each other, even if they don’t know each other or if they do know each other well, or maybe know each other too well, I pick up on it. You can write a whole story about that watching what is going on. That is what this piece I did is — Blue Screen is exploring body movement. We all have interesting patterns of how we move as well, we present ourselves in different ways. Your name came from the rooster because your chest was up, now you might walk down street like that. I am aware of my size and age and things in my body. Watching other people and observing as an artist I pick up on it, it’s fascinating.
EC: What is so little to some people is really a great experience I want to project on paper.
BE: It’s the small moments you end up making something out of. Social injustice is hard to wrap your head around. Then there is a specific moment or part of it that hits you. I was shooting a Syrian refugee camp outside of Istanbul. As an artist it’s like there is somebody here in this situation living in rubble without food. The look in the woman’s eyes or child. So that look, that specific place and time you can’t not look away. It will always be with you. It’s whether you will run with it.
EC: It affects you. Where did you come from?
BE: I moved to D.C. in 2001 from South Carolina, a month before 9/11. I moved to Baltimore four years ago as an economic choice. Baltimore has got its own funk and deep sense of diversity people I get to meet and play with artistically. Washington has a great scene. It’s got..
EC: You are being nice haha.
BE: It’s such a dichotomy with what is going on on K Street and politics. The city’s economy is based on the government and everything surrounds that. It’s a pretty straight-up culture inside that circle. Outside of that circle, that square, it starts to get pretty interesting.
EC: I am from Richmond and there are not a lot of quirky out of the box people here, everybody is in their own box.
BE: Baltimore, on the other hand, is a pirate town.
EC: Gotta love that though.
BE: They are quirky and crazy. Everyone in New York pretends to be crazy but they are sane, in Baltimore they pretend to be sane but they are really crazy.
BE: Economics are different. Baltimore is poor, not economically vibrant.
EC: We always say it’s the big Richmond. I will fight you guys’ personality, with some bat crazy shit. We have everything in Richmond. Baltimore is pretty much not our rival but if have to compare someone it’s Richmond, it’s got its own fucking weird character. But one of the best things in D.C. being an artist is you can promote more art.
BE: Here I am doing Art All Night, premiering in D.C. — because this is the bigger more influential market than Baltimore. It’s on the bottom of five floors of condos selling for $500,000 to $600,000 apiece. It’s like, that is H and 13th Street now? There’s a Whole Foods? It’s all real estate driven.
EC: Yea I used to live on that block. Now it’s the new Wild Wild West. My setup for Art All Night in Shaw is more relaxed, more grassroots. I was invited by a friend who owns the space to help with the art setup. It’s called Pekoe its an acupuncture place. I was like, well my pieces are already in it, it would be perfect and the kind of ambiance I want to have.
BE: Are you showing any of your clay pieces?
EC: No they are at home. Here you don’t really have the same access with clay as much as when living in Latin America. You move by the way of your environment. I try to find clay, couldn’t find clay. Couldn’t even find places to put it on a kiln. Here is not the same experience, there in Latin America it’s more communal.
TP: Talk about how your stuff landed in restaurants across D.C.
EC: I moved to D.C. because of Sticky Rice, I was their sushi chef in Richmond for years during college and helped open the one here. I was a chef so I want to support the restaurant industry and be in there. The first location for me was Purple Patch because it’s Filipino restaurant. They have first drawings I did during meetings on Post-Its when I remembered I could draw. Then like two years later I am in Himitsu. I like what they stand for. I also have a piece at the Paraguay embassy that represents the Peace Corps.
BE: I go to the [Sticky Rice] in Fells Point, I live there. Thames Street Oyster is great too. And that whole Inner Harbor area is great. Last month I was on a container ship in the middle of the Atlantic filming for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. They are great guys and are working class people in the sense of they are going to this academy to get a full ride like Annapolis or West Point but they are training to run ships. Their senior year is spent on a ship, so we filmed at the academy and got all that white tight stuff they do but the real fun was we got on board the ship to join a couple of cadets. The ship was doing its thing, coming from Houston, and we got on it and sailed in the middle of Atlantic then got dropped off. It was fantastic. I’ve also shot Chevy truck commercials in Patagonia. You are at the bottom of the world shooting a Chevy truck commercial and you turn to yourself and say what are we doing here? I’ve done cell phone commercials in South Africa and Hong Kong and shot some fashion in Prague.
BE: It’s just really fun. I am interested in using the medium to explore. Now I’m in the position, with my age, to have fun with it. Artists are a little too concerned about the audience when they are young. And they worry about what someone’s reaction is going to be. It’s like, give it up.
EC: Yea whether someone’s going to like it.
TP: This weekend you are showing a never-before-seen piece.
BE: Yes, and it’s a big setup. We are taking 3,500 square feet. It’s all glass which is not good for the video, so we are going to drape it black and bring in three big screens that are 12 feet by eight feet. I want the floor to pick up reflections of the video, so we are putting down gloss. The screens are double sided, so projections go through both sides. We just mixed sound in LA this week — a composer just finished that up. He’s flying in because he wants to hear it in the space. He sent me a text saying he’s bringing four different mixes in case that doesn’t work. Because you just don’t know. Sometimes you need to step away and give up control. Saturday is the show and it goes down on Sunday morning. Ideally we’d like to get it picked up [by a museum] but the first thought is, let’s get it up and see what happens.
TP: Where is your dream location to show?
EC: Anywhere in the Smithsonian would be cool. What I really want is a space to invite all people who commissioned me to show my pieces so everyone can see my progression. I went to MoMA once and this security guy was like you justttt missed Diego Rivera — he had a show with pieces people have acquired. I was like that would have been an amazing fucking experience.
BE: That must be weird to let your pieces go.
EC: Oh fuck yea I’m like nooooo, because it’s your soul, and I have a story with every piece. Every time I sell a piece that is not commissioned I always ask people what is your connection with the piece, what is your story behind it? Not just that you like it. Because for me, the love of making a piece is it represents something in my life or what happened to me and it’s amazing to hear when other people explain to me why they acquired a piece — it’s because it reminds them of their uncle or a longtime family tradition. I am like, oh cool. That is how you connect with people. There are pieces now out I don’t remember anymore. I went to a friend’s place and I was like, fuck I did that?
BE: Yea, it’s like “where did that come from?”
EC: Because you’re always changing and growing. And it brings you to a place to think, where did that passion come from? If you tell me do the same piece twice I couldn’t do it.
BE: Yea it’s not physically possible.
EC: I am working on map of the Philippines and D.C. right now. I am like, shit I have done this so many times but it’s not going to be the same. I try to block this kind of thinking of ‘how do I top it or make it better, or will it be less better?’ I am just doing it.
BE: No, you can’t go there.
EC: I’ve been starting at it and started last night. I’m like, don’t fucking touch it unless you are ready for it.
BE: That is the problem with digital pieces. Because I can always fuck with it. So you’ve got to be able to go, no, I am not going to touch it again.
TP: How awful is that Brazilian museum loss from the fire?
EC: Fuck, yea! I started to become an artist in Latin America, and a lot of friends are South American artists who are just blown away. Their passion for art in Latin America is completely different. It’s their identity.