I recently interviewed artist Vasily Kafanov. Mr. Kafanov is a Russian artist who is now based in the USA. He has exhibited in Chicago, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Holland, France and New York. He has pieces in the Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University, Beaulieu Museum in France , and in numerous private collections. Mr. Kafanov's work is often influenced by illustrations of alchemy.
Mr. Kafanov has achieved great success in recent years. He created art for The Smashing Pumpkins album MACHINA/The Machines of God in 2000 and has had numerous exhibits in Russia, France, and the United States.
Q. You work in a variety of mediums. What can you tell our readers about your sculptures?
A. "Fishtowers have always permiated the worlds which I create in my paintings, but over the years they have come to have an existence of their own.
I have always toyed with new materials and mediums. I've made fishtowers out of mesh wire, ceramic and even paper mache. Using wood as a medium is a relatively new thing for me.
Several years ago I set up a studio in pennsylvania which allowed me the space I needed to take up woodworking and other new mediums. The studio is in a house surrounded by woods and a creek, and the environment served as a huge inspiration.
Working with wood was one way to take my work to a more natural, organic direction. The worlds which I create in my art have not changed -- they just found themselves expressed through a new medium."
Q. You also do etchings and woodcut pieces. What can you tell us about that process? I've read that it is rare to find artists who create work in that manner... do you think that statement is true? Do you have any tips for someone who wants to learn?
A. "Creating woodcuts, engravings and etchings is incredibly difficult and time consuming. Some of my favorite pieces are etchings and the final product is well worth the effort.
I don't think it's at all "rare" to find artists who work with etchings and ingraving but I suppose there may be fewer younger artists using these mediums because of the required skill and effort. Who knows.
My only advice for someone interested in getting into this field is to go sign up for a professional class. But choose carefully."
Q. You did artwork for The Smashing Pumpkins album, MACHINA/The Machines of God. You also designed the set designs for their tour. Can you tell us about that experience? What was it like working with Billy Corgan?
A. "Working with Billy was fun -- very down to earth. He's a cool guy and we got along very well creatively as well as on a personal level. I had a lot of fun with the rest of the band too. I even designed a few tatoos for Jimmy Chamberlin while working on the project.Billy is incredibly passionate about his work. He takes it very seriously and plunged deeply into the project. He knew vaguely what he wanted and the general direction of the art. He also felt a pull towards the alchemy theme that runs through the album art. But it was a collaborative process and the works took on a life of their own as we got deeper into the project. I'd say it was one of the best experiences of my life and I would love to work with him again. The works inspired me and the alchemy theme still pops up in some of my paintings done after the project ended.
One of my favorite memories was listening to him play some of the songs from the album on his panio during a dinner party for some of his friends and I."
Q. When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?
A. "I don't know if one discovers art. Themes and a personal style take a while to develop, if they ever do, but I've been drawing ever since I was a little boy. While I didn't develop my own style until University, some of the images in my paintings like the fishtower probably have something to do with my childhood.
There is a story I like to tell about how the fishtowers came to be. When I was a young boy living in Moscow, Russia in the 1950's I lived, as all other Russians, in a huge communal apartment. That meant I shared a room with my grandmother, mother and grandfather, while four other families occupied the rest of the rooms in the apartment. I had always wanted an aquarium and prestered my bother about this constantly, but there was simply no room for one. To make up for it my mother bought me two fish and put them in a pickle jar, where they lived for about a month. One day when I came home from kindergarden, I found the jar empty. I was consoled by my grandmother's assurances that the fish had flown away. So I think that's where the whole flying fish obsession came from.
In Russia, the fishtowers were just fish. I later started adding churches on top of them, though I'm not sure why. Religion was forbidden so churches always seemed exotic. And at the university they used to send us to excursions outside of Moscow where we studied landscape painting.
The fields often had one crumbling church or another in the distance.
In America the chruches became towers. I don't know why. Actually, the first fishtower painting I ever sold was to Michelle Pfeiffer, when she was in Moscow filming "The Russia House" with Sean Connery. Pfieffer's translator was a friend of mine and broght her to my studio. Her boyfriend at the time was an actor named Fisher Stevens. She was drawn to the fish painting because of his name."
Q. How has society influenced your art?
A. "I don't care about society, in an artistic sense. My art is an escape from society. My experiences are obviously reflected in what I paint but I don't try to make political statements with my art.
I recently went back to Moscow for the first time since 1990 for an art show. My art was shipped separately and I had the two worst days of my life dealing with customs and trying to get my paintings back. It was like a nightmare from Kafka, dealing with all the bureaucracy. I sketched scary, ghoulish faces during that time, I suppose indirectly reflective of my experience.
Society is more of an influnce in the commercial aspect of art. I love erotica paintings and drawings but they hard to sell so I can't exhibit them. I once tried to exhibit some along with my regular work at a gallery but some lunatic complained and gallery director had to move them."
Q. Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?
A. "I paint all the time. I don't wake up in the morning, get dressed to paint, finish in the evening and go home to my regular life. Art is my life.
I like to listen to jazz and classical music when I paint, but I almost always have a sketchbook on my lap when watching television or waiting somewhere.
For me, painting isn't about getting into a "mood." It's a regular part of my existence like breathing or eating."
Q. If you could pinpoint the characteristics of people who collect your art, what would they be?
A. "I couldn't. I have had everyone from a pizza delivery boy to millionaires but my work. I even once paid a Hatian plumber fix with a painting in exchange for him fixing a leak in my studio and it was his idea."
Q. Why did you choose the medium(s) that you use?
A. "Acrylic dries faster and I can go over the details in ink afterwards-- which is another trademark of mine.
Working with the Smashing Pumpkins and getting into the alchemy theme also pushed me towards woodcutting. The first books in this world were made on woodcuts and I try to imitate that sense of antiquity."
Q.Where can we see more of your art?
A. "My Web site at http://www.kafanov.com/. I update it whenever I have shows or new projects coming up.
Q. Are you represented by a gallery? Do you have any upcoming exhibits?
A. "I just returned from exhibit in Moscow, a city I haven't seen since I immigrated 18 years ago. I don't have anything planned for 2007 yet.
Some of my works are up on exhibit at the Art Gallery of UJA Federation in New York, but they're part of a 17-man show. My works are also displayed at the Grant Galley in SoHo on 7 Mercer Street."
Q. What galleries have you exhibited in?
A. "All that information can be found on my Web site at http://www.kafanov.com/"
Q. What trends do you see in the 'art world'?
A. "I'm more focused on my world than the "art world" as some sort of entity. I suppose one thing I am noticing is that a lot of younger artists are scrambling to become famous without even finishing formal art training.
It's a difficult field in which to make a name for yourself but in the long run I think it's better to be patient and develop as an artist instead of going for shock value and instant fame. But overall I would say art trends are unfortunately created by art critics, not by art."
Q. Any tips for emerging artists?
A. "Go to law school."
Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?
A. "After September 11 was very hard. Especially since I had a show coming up in October. People were dealing with the emotional and economic shock from the attacks, and the art market took a really bad turn.
It took a very long time for things to return to normal, and I would argue that they never really have. The stock market, the economy -- it's all related to art sales."
Q. In one sentence... why do you create art?
A. "Because I have a terrible voice and no musical talent."
Q. What can you tell our readers about the art scene in your area?
A. "New York City. Enough said."
Q. Has politics ever entered your art?
A. "Sure, but probably it entered my art subconsciously. I never paint political themes, although I have painted Gorbachev and comic paintings of Russian leaders after they were dead. But in Russia it was too risky to do this openly.
My grandfather was a poet who was sentenced to the Gulag for five years -- which is a sprawling concentration labor camp type prison complex all over the country where criminals, intellectuals, artists, poets and anyone with wit were sent. He miraculously survived the experience and returned to Moscow, having wasted his best years in the gulag. Because of this family history I would have been foolish to make artistic political statements."
Q. Does religion, faith, or the lack thereof play a part in your art?
A. "I'm influenced equally by buddhism, judaism and Christianity."
Q. Is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the 'art world'?
A. "As Chairman Mao had said, "Let a hundred flowers bloom.""
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Vasily Kafanov. Feel free to critique or discuss his work.
Take care, Stay true,