Saturday, March 15, 2008

Art Space Talk: Kalliope Amorphous

Kalliope Amorphous is a performance artist utilizing photography. Kalliope focuses on the self portrait as a means of exploring identity, archetype, myth and gender. Her approach to photography is entirely intuitive and autodidactic, and changes shape almost everyday. Prior to working with the still image, Kalliope was a spoken word artist and performed extensively in New York City in various theatrical presentations and poetry slams. She later began to dabble in the still image as a catalyst for all of the moods and personalities she had previously expressed through theater.
She Would Wait Forever by Kalliope Amorphous

Brian Sherwin: Kalliope, you spent much of your youth in New York City. Would you say that the environment you were raised in has influenced the artistic direction you are on today?

Kalliope Amorphous: I was born in Providence, RI and later moved to Rehoboth Massachusetts where I attended high school. It was a very small town, and I was an absolute misfit and unable to fit in whatsoever. I essentially ran away to New York when I was in my teens, hoping to find a place to fit in. I put on every item of clothing that was in my closet at once, snuck out of my parent's house and got on a bus.
Through my late teens and early twenties, I spent a lot of time very involved socially in the theater scene in New York. I've always been attracted to the old days of vaudeville and early Hollywood, and I saw glimpses of it in the cabaret and theatre scene. I think this inclination toward the theatrical and nostalgic, both in my personality and in my aesthetic affinities, reflects in my work today.
First Feathers by Kalliope Amorphous

BS: Did you have any formal training in art? Are you self-taught? Perhaps you could expand on life experiences that have guided you with your work...

KA: I am self-taught. Art is a primarily intuitive process for me, and it has always been more of a necessity for fulfilling catharsis rather than something I sought to learn or decided to do. I have always had a hunger for knowledge, and am self-taught on a variety of subjects and arts. The focus of my study has leaned heavily in the direction of mysticism, philosophy, poetry, ancient history and sacred texts. These interests often reveal themselves in the images that I am drawn to create.

I've always dabbled in one artistic form or another. I've been writing poetry since I was three years old and spent many years devoted solely to the written word. In New York, I experimented with performance and slam poetry. My writing took on more of an activist slant while living in San Francisco, as I was very actively involved in various anti-war and human rights efforts there. I'm all over the map in regard to life experiences that influence my work today. I've tried on so many different masks in my life, and I think this contributes to the work that I am doing with conceptual self-portraits.

The issue of self-expression is a thread that has been weaving through my life since I was a child. I think I have always been considered rather eccentric, and art is the only place that I have ever felt comfortable. It never crossed my mind that I might one day use photography as a catalyst for manifesting my desire to evoke and provoke, but now I see that it is the most powerful tool for me.
Fame by Kalliope Amorphous

BS: Kalliope, you use yourself as a model for your work... yet you have stated that you do not view your photographs as self-portraits. You also make it clear that you are a performance artist with a camera-- not a photographer. Can you go into further detail about this and about the motives or philosophy behind your art?

KA: Technically, these are self-portraits, but it is very difficult for me to identify with them as such. So much effort goes into the creation of these characters that I quite literally get taken out of the picture and they become separate entities with their own stories. I don't see the images as images of myself at all, and I think that those who view my work might also have a hard time figuring out who Kalliope is as a personality/individual. Certainly, the images are reflections of my ideas and imagination, but I do not identify with them as 'self', because I don't think they are... I like to consider myself a screen that I invite these various identities and moods to play on. The paradox is that these images are self and other at the same time. I think sometimes people associate self-portraits with narcissism, but I view my self-portraits as exactly the opposite. They are a release from the cage of the self, and the illusory nature of ego and identity. I really have to drop the idea of 'Kalliope' in order to be able to convincingly become these other characters and moods.

What I am most intrigued by about the process of creating these images is that I sometimes have very little control over the final outcome. My process is always filled with huge amounts of serendipity. Sometimes I set out to create a certain image or feeling and get something completely different. I do as much as I can to evoke a vision, but things will often manifest that I had no intention of creating. Some characters come through very strong, and seem to really hold their own personalities and stories. When I look through my images at the end of a shoot, I am always surprised to see what turns up.

I do consider myself a performance artist with a camera rather than a photographer, because the focus of my work is on the creation of separate entities and characters. There is so much more involved in the creation of the image beyond the act of actually capturing it. Often I will spend hours in makeup and costuming before even turning on my camera, or I will spend days trying to find the perfect backdrop or prop. The photograph is a way of enhancing the concept via light, shadow, and the capturing of nuances in the still image. The performance art comes first, followed by the photograph. This is why I prefer to refer to myself as an artist with a camera instead of a photographer. I am not just capturing images that are already there, I am transforming myself into the actual image and then using the camera to make it tangible. The whole process is alchemical for me, in the sense that so many different elements are combined to create the finished work as a single image.

I like to explore what I define as self and other by playing with ideas of identity, gender and archetype and the countless ways in which they can be represented visually. I am absolutely fascinated by all of the variations in mood and personality that we human beings are capable of. I can really touch and explore those idiosyncrasies by physically and mentally transforming into them.
Birth by Kalliope Amorphous

BS: So your work plays with the idea of identity... are you influenced by psychology in that sense? Any specific schools of thought?

KA: I am more influenced by spiritual philosophies that explore the duality and non-duality of identity and consciousness, particularly Eastern expressions of belief such as Advaita Vedanta and Tantra. These tend to focus on the idea that everything is connected or one with a divine source. I don't cling too firmly to any one belief system or religion, but I have always been drawn to exploring the higher nature of consciousness, and the pulling apart of the ego. Teachers like Ram Dass and Nisargadatta, as well as my own experiences influence me in that regard. I am also a big fan of people like Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary and their thoughts regarding memory, perception, reality and consciousness.

Because of my inclination toward 'all is one' philosophies, I am absolutely fascinated by things of a paradoxical nature, and I think this reflects in some of my work. I enjoy subtly juxtaposing seemingly contradictory elements to create images that may come off as disturbing or unsettling. I also am drawn to the surreal and the bizarre, so these elements become part of it as well.

BS: My understanding is that you have worked in other mediums and that you discovered that photography is more artistically fulfilling. Can you go into further detail about this? For example, as a performance artist why choose photography over video? Or are you searching for a specific moment... containing a specific memory?

KA: want to be able to say in one single still what might take an entire video or performance to say, but to leave it up for interpretation to a certain degree. For me, it's all about being able to mix the elements of theatrical makeup, lighting and facial expression to provoke a response to a story that may not necessarily be the same for each viewer.

When I write poetry, there is a lot of imagery that is used, but it is not tangible and touchable. It can be seen in the minds eye, but it is not fixed and manifest. Creating these images is similar to poetry, except that it becomes tangible and viewable, and I really enjoy that manifestation part of it. There is an extra dimension there that I love playing with. The still image is the best way for me to translate the visions in my imagination in a very direct, immediate and lucid way.
The Moment Before I Was Devoured by Kalliope Amorphous

BS: Tell us about your Eastern Mysticism series... can you tell us more about the connection that you feel with it?

KA: I have always been drawn to Eastern culture both spiritually and artistically. I am very moved by the devotional images and methods of worship in Buddhism and Hinduism as well as the architecture and fashion. I find it all incredibly beautiful and resonant, and always have since I was a child. I am also very influenced by the imagery in devotional, or bhakti poetry, such as that of Rumi, Kabir, Hafiz and other Sufi poets.

After many years of having an affinity for Eastern philosophy and culture, I followed a female Indian guru for several years and further studied Vedanta. All of the images that I have created for the Eastern Mysticism series are based on various mystical visions that resulted from meditation and being on the devotional path. Much of my poetry also reflects these experiences, as well as the eventual break up of the guru-devotee relationship, and my own personal revelations, which followed thereafter.

The images in the Eastern Mysticism series are probably the most personal ones for me, and the creation process there was not only an artistic one, but a sacred and spiritual one as well. In various traditions, devotees dress up as their chosen deities in order to celebrate and honor them. This was the spirit in which I entered into creating these images.

You will notice that images of the goddess Kali dominate much of the series, and this is because I have always resonated with her metaphorical iconography. Kali is probably the most misunderstood deity of the Hindu pantheon. She is often misinterpreted as a purely wrathful, grotesque and dark deity, though her symbolism goes much deeper than that. She represents the perfect balance of elements, as a creatrix who contains all within her, dark and light, horrifying and beautiful. Kali is the ultimate paradox. My self-portraits as the Goddess Kali were done in the style of Hindu temple statues, or murtis, which traditionally have a very life-like and animated appearance to them.

The Eastern Mysticism series, like mostly all of my series, is ongoing, and new additions get added to it as the mood strikes.

BS: Can you tell our readers about other influences? Do any specific performance artists influence you?

KA: A lot of people ask me this question, and automatically assume that my biggest influence is Cindy Sherman, who is known best for her self-portrait work. However, it wasn't until people started drawing connections between our work and insinuating that she was an influence that I became familiar with her. As an artist, I feel it is important not to be boxed into a particular category or comparison. I feel that my work is completely individual and not influenced by any other artists in particular.

My art comes from visuals that I create internally, which are heightened by things like poetry, music, memory, nostalgia and things that I love. If I feel drawn to a particular energy such as a historical figure, a feeling, a time period or culture, I am drawn to interpret that visually. I think that I am inspired most by my own imagination. I can be inspired by anything from the lyrics to a song to a memory of a dream I might have had. Something as simple as a hat I find in an antique shop can start visions of a character in my mind, and the concept will snowball from there.

There are several artists that I admire tremendously. Leigh Bowery would be at the top of my list because of the way he constantly reinvented himself without regard to social conventions or acceptance by any particular art scene. Bowery was literally a living art installation and an absolute original. I really admire the effort he put into manipulating his own image for the sake of art. I also am a fan of the artist Harris Glenn 'Divine' Milstead, who is best known as simply 'Divine' in the films of John Waters. Divine is someone who certainly saw no boundaries when it came to being visually provocative, which is exactly the type of ravenous passion I admire.
I would also have to count the legendary San Francisco theatrical troupe, the Cockettes as a group of artists that I really admire, especially the elaborately magical self-creations of George Harris Jr., a Cockette known by the pseudonym 'Hibiscus'. I am also a fan of Man Ray, DaDaism, Avant Garde, Pre-Raphaelite, Visionary, Outsider, Tramp, Lowbrow, Surrealist and Pop-Surrealist art.

My influences and the things that inspire are me are all over the map, which accounts for such a wide range of concepts in my art. I am drawn to everything from the bizarre and disturbing to the romantic and beautiful to images that are just completely over the top and bordering on kitsch. This might make my work difficult to fit into a particular niche, but I find it impossible to attach myself to one particular feeling or mood.
One Last Dance with Devi by Kalliope Amorphous
BS: What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your future series of work?

KA: Right now, I'm working on a series that seeks to visually explore ideas about gender and sexuality. I also just started a series using Venetian masks, which is evocative of the Commedia dell'Arte, a form of improvisational theatre popular in Italy during the 16th through the 18th centuries. I consider all of my series to be ongoing in the sense that they may get revisited as the mood strikes. For example, a new clown may get added to the 'Circus Ghosts' series if I am inspired in that direction. I am always creating new series while revisiting established series every now and then.

I tend to have spurts of near obsessive creativity and inspiration, which accounts for such a large body of work in such a short period of time. It's only recently that I have started putting my art out into the world, so I have been focusing on the marketing aspect just as enthusiastically as the creative process. Other than creating new work, I am always trying to make my work visible, and to find platforms for it via publishing and exhibiting.

I am currently on exhibition with the Floating Art Project here in Providence, RI, where I am currently living. I also have a solo show coming up at the Hive Gallery in Providence this summer.
Clementine by Kalliope Amorphous
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the direction you are on?

KA: My goals for the future are to continue to create art that is mentally, spiritually and psychologically provocative. I'm very grateful for resources such as and other virtual platforms that are giving artists a new space in which to share their art. Part of the joy of creating is putting it out into the world for others to view, so thank you for your interest in my work and for this interview!

You can learn more about Kalliope Amorphous by clicking on the following links--, You can read more of my interviews by visiting--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

1 comment:

jordan ewert said...

Hi Brian, bery good interview. Would it be alright if I published this on my website, Unreal Conceptions (, a site that deals with conceptual photography. I would give you credit and link back to you. I would prefer to copy this on my site and refer to you instead of just linking to you so everything seems more consistent. Of course, I understand if you feel the need to keep it exclusive. In the meantime I'll link to this interview from Kalliope's page. Keep up the good work, -Jordan Ewert