Sam Bartlett channels his energy and creativity in many directions at once.
He makes toe-tapping acoustic music. He performs unusual feats of physical daring he categorizes as Stuntology. His art, meanwhile, fuses his many interests into pieces that express action, imagination and appetites.
Bartlett’s exhibit “Low Stakes: Everyday Comix and Plywood Cutouts” ends its run at the Gordon Art Galleries after May 6.
Bartlett, a Bloomington, Indiana-based artist, recently shared insights into his life and creative process.
These cutout sculptures are packed with vivid characters — animals, musicians, dancers, lovers. It’s a world of homespun sound and wild physical energy. In your imagination, do these characters lead joyful, satisfied lives?
People seem to see joy in the whacked-out imagery. I feel flattered by that, but I will tell you that is not the first thing I’m thinking when I make art. I am mostly trying not to think about anything. I am trying to spontaneously create and trying not to think whether it’s good or bad. There’s this deep itch to make. You watch a kid make art and they’re just going at it. It’s not about good or bad, it’s just the ITCH. For a lot of people that itch goes away as they become more aware and self- conscious. My itch is still there!
There’s lots of munching and crunching happening in this exhibit. Is the consumption nourishing or threatening … or does it depend on which side you’re on?
Munching and crunching is definitely from my subconscious landscape. I’ve had recurrent dreams about being bitten by unexplained scary creatures. It seems like an old archetypal struggle. Looking at some of my favorite paintings by Peter Breughel and Hieronymus Bosch I can see that being bitten by the creepy unknown was alive and well in the early 1500s …
Have you ever been tempted to bite a banjo?
I have had an intimate relationship with the banjo since I was 14 …47 years! I strum it, wham it, claw it, draw it … I suppose biting might be next. What am I saying though? I’ve played the banjo with my teeth. That must count as biting.
Are the acrobatic, “Hee Haw”-meets-Cirque-du-Soleil feats performed by your characters related to your passion for “Stuntology”?
I am a great fan of all the possible and impossible contortions a body can pull off. I particularly love group contortions. Stuntology is the study of what people do to push tedium aside using everyday objects. I think creative contortion is very Stuntology at its core.
In your work, music and art intertwine —just like many of the characters in scenes you create. Do you find that the two pursuits strengthen each other? Would you ever give up one to concentrate on the other?
I usually bounce back and forth between music and making art. I use one to procrastinate what I need to do with the other. I think of it as creative, productive co-dependance. I will say that the two disciplines really help each other out.
The late folk musician Mike Seeger gets a nice salute with the piece “Young Mike,” in this exhibit. Seeger lived his last years in Lexington, Virginia. Did you know him well or get to spend time with him here in the Old Dominion? Do you have special memories of him?
Mike was a friend of mine and a true friend to old-time musicians. He was the founder of the New Lost City Ramblers and he loved clogging, going to festivals and contra dances. He was intrigued by the way I played the tenor banjo for old-time music. (The tenor banjo was pretty common in the 1920s but frowned upon in the old-time music revival.) He was only curious and said to me “you get the wildest sounds out of that instrument. I have no idea what you’re even doing.” Mike and I also shared an interest in the jaw harp. He was an AMAZING jaw harp player! I had a particularly good harp that I bought at a Hungarian flea market in the 1980s and he was always trying to buy it from me. It became a running joke between us. When Mike died, Mike’s wife Alexia Seeger gave me a bunch of Mike’s jaw harps, including ones from Siberia and west Africa. They feel magical.
Your wall comic headlined “Great News! You Have Nothing to Worry About!” predicts a 15 percent reduction in suffering if you do something kind for your fellow man or woman. Do you create to reduce suffering?
Absolutely! Creating art is a refuge from so many of the things that bother my brain. It is wildly therapeutic. My friend, songwriter Bob Lucas, says, “Stories tell us,” not WE tell stories. I wonder similarly about Art creating us, not the other way around.