Interview: George Kozmon


Name: George Kozmon

Where do you live:
Currently in the woods of Gates Mills, a village near Cleveland Ohio, USA.

Known for:
In the context of the art-world, I’m known for my monumental works on paper or canvas.

Currently working with/on/as:
Perpetually engaged in my studio practice creating new works as an independent artist. I’m at the early stages of an exploration of really dark black-on-black images, a continuation of my Mountain series. The series started as offhand experimentation using a variety of materials, from marble to resin, and has evolved into large-scale works and digital experiment.

I tend to work in series, where the examination of one idea serves as catalyst for the next evolution of thought.

When did you realize that you were going to work with this/in this area?
Being an artist wasn’t a choice; it was a state of being. Going through several evolutions, from architectural images to figural works, I’ve focused on our perception of time and permanence. The recent series focuses on mountainscapes. The monumentality, seeming timelessness, sense of awe that high altitude primal wilderness evoke I find compelling. The metaphorical nature of the time-scale of geography compared to human scale, the perception of place in various forms of depiction (images, maps), are fuels that have been percolating in my mind for decades.

If you could choose one place only to live, where would that be and why?
Landscape is important to me; I’m a nature-boy at heart, and need the awe, humility, and depth of raw unspoiled places. However, culture is equally important. So half of me wants to live in the backcountry in utter isolation making art and climbing ice-blasted ridges, the other half of me needs to go to the museums, hear orchestras, engage with the creative community. So my solution is to live somewhere in-between, to travel regularly on wilderness excursions, landscape-based adventures, and a week later travel to immerse myself in art fairs, galleries and museums.

How would you describe your creativity?
The creative process is of deep interest to artists and the thinking portion of our societies. There are numerous components and much is contextually driven, but I think there are common traits: curiosity, questioning, dissatisfaction, a desire to affect change, to problem-solve.

The toddler is able to knock down a tower of stacked blocks, learns that they are able to be an individual agent of change. Soon building a tower using those blocks becomes a more controlled, productive dynamic of change. An accomplishment. This reinforces the human genetic desire to assert identity, the seeds of creativity. Then the curiosity, the question “what if,” the desire to solve problems, the marriage of intuition/instinct and analytical thinking, the immersion in the process. This last sentence with the inclusion of the word “visual” preceding “problem-solving”, may describe “my creativity.”

How and when did you start to work with this in a serious manner?
Both nature and nurture conspired to make my being an artist inevitable. I was the cliché artist baby, born with drawing/painting tools in hand. As a kid, my mom would yell at me to go outside to play since I was perpetually making art, but I was very fortunate that both my parents encouraged my fanaticism. No obstacles were acknowledged; I remember as a 12 year old finding some orange cones, using them to block the suburban street we lived on to scratch a 60 foot image into the freshly paved road, rerouting traffic around the block so I could work. The audacity of youth.

After graduating the Cleveland Institute of Art, extensive adventures abroad on a traveling scholarship, and with the afore-mentioned audacity (or some might say delusion), I set to officially building a career as an artist. This was a seamless process begun in earlier years when selling artwork as an enterprising teenager.

I wanted to live my life doing what I love.

Early on I chose to isolate my studio conceptually, so it’s an uncontaminated sanctuary; nothing is allowed in that doesn’t directly feed the evolution of my work and visual ideas.This is important to me; since I chose to enter the art marketplace with my work, commercial considerations were -and are- left outside of the conceptual/aesthetic decision-making process in all aspects: content, medium, scale, need to happen without external influence (unless of course works are commissioned).

Art has always been serious to me; as a smart-ass in most aspects of my life, the intensity of my art practice continues unabated. So does the audacity. I performed an on-site painting, 8ft. x 80ft. on canvas for Ingenuity Fest 2013.

What do you do at the moment?
Always making new work, and with a belief that art is a medium of communication, I actively exhibit at both commercial and institutional venues. At the same time, expanding the idea of communication, I teach 2 Design classes at Case Western Reserve University, a life-drawing class at the Orange Art Center, am Director of the Cain Park Arts Festival, owned/operated/directed my own 5000sq. ft. gallery showcasing the best regional artists (not a vanity gallery), have curated numerous exhibitions, written/published articles and essays, and most recently launched a collaborative arts-advocacy video series interviewing gallerists, curators, art fair directors.

Most recently, a lecture I gave on contemporary artists engaged in digital explorations in conjunction with a solo exhibition of my work at The Hungarian Museum, was just released on video. This and the above-mentioned videos can be viewed here.

A recommendation for those who think about starting and running a creative business?
Commit. No half-measures. Either you believe in yourself and your ideas, or you don’t. If you’re not sure, then you don’t. Sounds harsh, brutal, judgmental, and uncompromising. It is.
Specific to fine art, contrary to popular perception, the world is full of aspiring artists, way too many that really don’t understand art. The delusion that anybody can make art, that everybody is an artist, permeates our society; and despite Joseph Beuys assertion, if we apply that idea to any other human endeavor, it seems downright silly. Anybody can be: physicist, surgeon, competitive athlete…I think not. Elitist? Yep. That’s why we have museums…

Put in that 10,000 hours.

So first, know what it is you’re engaged in. Know it deeply. Know art history, from ancient to contemporary. Understand where you may fit into the stream of creative problem-solving that has come before, and where you see yourself in the context of contemporary culture. Learn and understand the art-world; how galleries function, non-profits, art fairs, art auctions. From local to international.

Learn business principles. This last is important, because the art-world is universally hostile to market principles and capitalism, so fuzzy thinking is ubiquitous. Profit is not a dirty word. By the same token, decide whether you want to make work to satisfy market preferences, or whether you want to create independently, pursuing your own ideas. Sure that can get blurry, but the clearer your aspiration, the more true your intent.

Tell us how it all started.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making art. It wasn’t an activity, it was/is my identity.

Does “talent” exist? Is it innate or nurtured? Both? I’d answer yes to all-of-the-above.

My immigrant parents who fled Hungary with one suitcase after WWII, felt that an individual should be an informed, cultured, productive contributor to their community, and raised my brother and I accordingly. We regularly attended the world famous Cleveland Orchestra, Opera, Ballet, and of course the incredible Cleveland Museum of Art. Plus music lessons, art classes, and a host of other cultural activities. Add to this a European upbringing, speaking Hungarian at home, active in various facets of the Cleveland Hungarian community, primarily Boy Scouts, and living in Switzerland for 4 years – which is what planted the seeds of my passion for mountains.

As children, my brother 2 ½ years older, drew very well and was a source of inspiration; he switched to piano then on to other interests while I stayed in the visual medium. My parents supplied me with whatever materials they stumbled across. My first studio space was a desk in the corner of my bedroom, dedicated to art-making; I’d do homework elsewhere. I was constantly experimenting with various images, media; drawing/painting, brush & ink, watercolor, acrylics, oil, clay… I never stopped.

I am truly fortunate, and am acutely aware that many are not as lucky as I.

What is the most important thing in a workplace/studio for you?
Previously I mentioned that at my childhood desk, I only did art, not homework. I think it’s important to have a dedicated space; it doesn’t matter how big/small. What matters is that when you’re in that space, you’re prompted to think about art-making. A singular focus; there is nothing else to do in that space, no distractions. Everything within that space should only be there if it facilitates the creation of art objects.

It’s kind of like a gym membership; when you go to the gym, what else are you going to do there but workout?

What is your favorite film?
That runs the gamut;Hollywood standard favorites would include Matrix, Deer Hunter, The Lord of the Rings, most films by Sergio Leone, Terrence Malik, the Coen brothers, Christopher Nolan… Clearly I have a soft-spot for generally poetic, philosophical action movies. At the same time, more esoteric films can be compelling; BélaTarr is a filmmaker’s filmmaker; Sátántango is brilliant. Vintage French, Italian, and some newer Korean and Russian films can be compelling. Independent, experimental films push the boundaries; my friends Robert Banks and Kasumi make incredible films.

I find that context matters a great deal in considering art, and that includes films. So my experience with certain films brings with it an association; for example, watching Peter Jackson’s trilogy with my kids, or as a teen, vintage Clint Eastwood, guy’s TV night with my brother and dad, eating a 5lbs loaf of my grandmother’s fresh-baked crusty, steaming-soft-interior bread with Hungarian salami, onions, peppers…Damn, I’m salivating…

Who would you like to invite for a dinner and why?
My friends, people I respect, deep thinkers, people who are doing interesting, challenging things. In any field. At the same time, conversations I enjoy mix depth with humor; I like to laugh and to make others laugh.

Being very gregarious, I thrive on the exchange of ideas, not small talk or celebrity gibberish, so can engage with anybody, but am discriminating. Time is a precious commodity, so being a judgmental bastard, I prefer to not spend too much time with those who don’t have much to contribute.

How do you like to spoil yourself?
Hitting the mountains with friends, camping adventures.

I find that just as ideas in the studio need to constantly balance experience with pushing past comfort zones, I need the same challenges physically in raw environments. It’s the same process; full immersion, living in the moment where the rest of the world doesn’t exist, extreme focus, intuitive decision-making coupled with analytical thinking. There’s a recognition of our primal connection as biological organisms surviving in an environment, the awe of grand landscape, that is invigorating and humbling at the same time. And like art, this engagement needs (for me) to be shared with others. We’re pack animals after all.

I know everything just described sounds completely opposite to the idea of being spoiled… I prefer to earn my satisfactions.

What is luxury for you?
Luxury holds no interest for me. You couldn’t pay me to go to a spa. On the other hand, a great museum, tremendous meal, stunning landscapes, though not luxurious per se, are very satisfying experiences.

Like the previous thoughts on being spoiled, luxury falls into the same category; they’re both concepts that to me are a reflection of a self-indulgent, wealthy society. They’re not productive endeavors. Feeling better about yourself without having earned it is hollow and meaningless.

See what I mean by judgmental? But admittedly, it’s partly semantic, open to interpretation, like my choice of activity that I consider spoiling myself.

What is the nicest compliment you’ve received for your creative work, and from whom?
I’m not sure. Compliments like critiques are completely source dependent. By that I mean if the source of the comment is not from somebody who I hold in high esteem, someone I respect, then it’s irrelevant.

Anybody that has purchased my work has in a sense complemented me, whether I’ve met them or not. People, galleries or curators that have chosen to exhibit my work also. All-of-the-above reflects that those people see value in my work, that what I’ve devoted my life to has meaning. That’s both complementary, but more importantly, affirming.

What do you fear most?
Lack of time.

What is a happy life to you?
One day I’ll get old (I hope), so old that I’ll have little to look forward to and will spend more time looking back in my mind. I want no regrets. I want to look back and feel I’ve added to the human community, that I’ve been a productive contributor to my society, that I did all that I could with what I was given, that I enriched the lives of others, whether philosophically, creatively or even with humor. That my work has meaning beyond my self-indulgence. That I’ve positively influenced future generations – especially my kids. That I’ve lived fully, as Thoreau stated “…suck out all the marrow of life…”.

A happy life is a meaningful life.

What does a regular day look like for you?
My kids (years ago) being early risers, messed up my normal circadian rhythm, and I’ve become a morning person. Depending on whether it’s a teaching day or not defines my day. If it is, then I leave the house by 7am, hit the gym or the park for some self-abuse, engage with my students, and around 6pm get into the studio back at home, which is an outbuilding/small barn I rebuilt into a workspace (I’m spoiled, I really am, so I lied about it earlier…), or get in front of the damn computer which seems to parasitically suck more and more time. Unless pulling a late-night drinking with friends, I’m in bed reading before midnight.

If it’s not a teaching day, then it’s divided between studio and computer screen. Back-in-the-day, it used to be that at least 80% of my art-related time was spent making art, and less than 20% the administrative side. Now it’s closer to 50-50, and keeps getting worse, so it may be that it’s 60-40, and studio time keeps shrinking. So I generally work 10-14 hour days 6 days a week. Which explains my answer to the question about what I fear.

Tell us about your dream project.
I think all artists want to do is make work, unencumbered by any practical consideration like financial responsibility, or any other responsibility for that matter. Nothing should distract or detract from creative engagement.

I have no specific dream project at the moment; each work is a dream project. The ideas I’m pursuing will be different from the ideas I’ll find compelling in 2 years, so my focus is my current exploration. The dream project would simply be if any exploration I embarked on would be generously funded… So it seems I’ve got the project part covered, but the dream part needs work…

Who is your professional role model/inspiration?
Earlier I mention parental support for my fanaticism; much of it was passive – letting me indulge myself in art. But much was active: my mom took me to art classes, and as I got into my budding teen years, they sought out who they might have access to in the art field, who they could point to for inspiration career-wise. My mom continually reiterated a Hungarian expression, which I’m sure, has many counterparts: “nemrepül a sültgalamb a szádba!” which translates roughly to: “the roast pigeon (duckling, chicken), will not fly into your mouth.” Basically, if you want something to happen, then get off your ass and make it happen. Thanks mom.

I was captivated by comic books, so my parents set up a meeting with the editorial cartoonist Ray Osrin at the Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s daily newspaper. Ray was tremendously gracious reviewing my portfolio, to the point where he set up the paper to do an article on me; I had a cover and 2-page spread in their Friday Magazine section at age 12. Ok, so I was REALLY spoiled…

Later around age 16, Victor Vasarhelyi was in Cleveland, and my parents took me to the hotel where he had a press conference or some such public event. Vasarhelyi is Hungarian, so my parents introduced themselves, with me standing there like a befuddled idiot, portfolio in hand. He invited us up to his suite and looked at my work; we talked art in Hungarian for maybe 2 hours. Pretty cool.

There were other opportunities for which I’m grateful, but in distillation, the main lesson learned was that one could build their lives around what they loved to do. So as a student and young adult, I gravitated towards those teachers and artists that were active in their fields, doing what they love. That includes my wonderful high school art teacher, Vincent Ferarra, teachers at art school, Ed Mieczkowsky, Julian Stanczak, Larry Krause, Ralph Whoerman and others, and my friends A.D. Peters, Guy-Vincent, Sue Wall, Robert Thurmer…this is by no means an all-inclusive list, and many more should/could be added…

How would you describe your work style (academic field or fashion style, or both, or something entirely different)?
I’ve never quite found it necessary to define the style I work in, to the contrary, I don’t like limitations. My work is rooted in Renaissance foundations but as a contemporary artist, my concerns and modes of expression reflect the context in which I function, today, in this era.

I’m relatively traditional in that I make 2 dimensional objects, am interested in depiction and how we human beings perceive images.I love mark-making. But rehashing 19th century ideas that were considered 150 years ago I don’t find compelling. Art is always a reflection, a mirror of the context in which it was created, so reflecting on a non-contemporary context/time doesn’t make sense. It’s nostalgia.

That doesn’t mean rejecting what came before; it means learning it, absorbing it, assimilating it into our current vocabulary of expression, then using aspects of it – or not – to speak to what an artist wishes to say today about the human condition, or art itself.

Which is the one thing you can’t live without?
Creative thought/visual problem-solving – by me and/or others.

What inspires you?
Creative thought/visual problem-solving by others. Great art. Great thinkers. Great doers. Primal landscapes. Adventure. Challenges.

 A book that has changed/made the most impression in your life?
That’s a tough one, because I read every day. Countless art books have been devoured over the years, but most of my reading is not art-based, but science-based. It feeds my art in a different way.

Like films, I jump back and forth between lighter fare and depth; so I can devour John LeCarre one week, and ponder E. O. Wilson the next, then jump over to Jared Diamond, Umberto Eco, Stephen J Gould, Brian Greene, David Quamen, or get nostalgic for fiction authors like Robert Ludlum or Frank Herbert.

And going further back in time, if I have to choose specific influence/impact, I’d have to say comic books. I learned anatomy, perspective, composition, narrative, and all the principles of art and design by the time I got to high school. The great illustrators knew their stuff, and gave me a solid foundation which immersion in formal education expanded upon.

All creatives have their story, the story of why they are creatives, the journey on how they got to be creatives. We may be hard-wired, but still need to find reasons, explanations. The above is mine. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.

Check out George’s 6 minute documentary on Cloudscape right here
Watch his Cleveland Art Institute alumni profile here
Do check out his Project Gx2 exhibition & read articles on it here

LAUTERBRUNNEN,-archival-inkjet-print-on-paper,-54in-x-84in SELF-PORTRAIT1 WESTERN-RIDGE,-acrylic,-handground-maple-charcoal,-composition-leaf-on-canvas,-8ft-x-16ft CLOUDSCAPE-work-in-progress GEOGRAPHIC-RUST,-mixed-media,-48in-x-72in


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