“Astronauts are cool-looking,” according to artist B.D. White, who gilds a disconnected, floating spaceman out of gold leaf while Ralf Jean-Pierre discusses White's street art beginnings of stenciling lamp post bases in Williamsburg.
This episode of "Flowstate"
is proudly supported by Abbot Paint & Varnish.
Jean-Pierre: This time of COVID
doesn't seem to be settling itself.
It just feels like everyone in Brooklyn is floating alone
in infinite space, and can't seem to find any purchase
under our feet.
Maybe there's an artist out there
who can at least translate
what this time feels like into something tangible...
into something we can identify.
[ Radio chatter ]
White: Astronauts are cool-looking.
[ Both chuckle ]
And I also just really like painting them,
and using them in pieces because of the different meaning
that people can pull from it.
And I like the way they look.
It's so wild how that image becomes this iconic,
arcane, unknown figure.
Have you yet met a real astronaut?
Uh, no. No.
That would be pretty cool, though.
I follow a lot on Instagram.
Have any of them gotten any of your pieces?
Oh, no, no, no.
Oh, man. I can't wait for that to happen.
None of them follow me. I follow them.
Is that interest in them, is that purely...
how do I put it?
I mean, I'm very interested in it, that's for sure.
I think it's, like, one of
the most interesting topics out there.
Space travel and --
Yeah. Yeah. Definitely.
And I feel like time is one of those resources
that people take for granted.
I got to say, it's nice doing this with a mask on.
Because normally, I have to hold my breath every time,
This stuff is toxic? Oh, no, no.
It's so light that the tiniest little bit of air
will just make it go flying.
So, that's maybe something you're gonna hold on to,
even after this is done.
[ Chuckles ] Yeah.
It's nice to be able to breath and gild at the same time.
Gold leaf is that light.
Yeah, it's so light.
Like, you hold it up,
and it's just almost transparent.
It's crazy, crazy thin.
What did you study?
I actually dropped out of college.
[ Chuckles ]
So you didn't study art in school?
No. I didn't go for too long. Mm-hmm.
I only have nine credits --
not enough to have a major, or anything, so...
Yeah. Oh, wow. Studied nothing.
Are you totally self-taught,
or did you study, like, an institute or something or...?
No. But I've been doing art classes
and extracurricular art classes, like, throughout my whole life.
I would take art classes,
and art lessons, like, outside of school,
'cause it was just something I was always into, you know?
But as far as formal schooling for it, no.
That's still really impressive, 'cause, like,
your work is, like, I want to say, like,
a little bit photo-realist --
or maybe a lot photo-realist.
That's a lot to just teach...
just to completely learn on your own.
Yeah. It takes a while.
I don't think art school's -- I mean, like,
I don't think art school's necessary to learn skills.
You can either learn them, or you can't,
regardless of who's gonna be teaching them to you.
I feel like art school is really great for a community,
you know, for, like, getting all artistic friends in the area,
for knowing gallery scene, and all that kind of stuff.
Like, that's a huge leap ahead.
So, that was the thing that, like,
I was really lacking when I first started, you know,
that I'd wish like, "Oh, if I'd gone to art school,
then, I would kind of have these connections."
Because a lot of times...
people don't usually work with you until they meet you.
Did street art help with that?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. Definitely.
That was, like, my whole foray
into getting art friends, and gallery notices,
and all that kind of stuff.
How do you guys find each other?
Instagram. [ Chuckles ]
I, like, met all of my New York artist friends
through Instagram. Oh, wow.
I always thought it was just people under fire hydrants,
or on roofs, like, "Hey, I'm doing it, too."
Wow. I admire that, you know,
'cause it's so edgy, and you're, like, out there,
and you, like, throw something up, and it's dope,
and nobody knows how it got there.
When you look back on that part of your career,
do you miss it?
Do you kind of feel like a little bit of it
was foolish, or a waste of time?
How do you feel about that part of your career,
when you look back on it now?
I definitely don't miss it.
[Chuckles] That's for sure.
Staying up late at night,
having to wait till 1:00 in the morning
before I can even go out, and start working.
That kind of sucks.
It's not super fun.
And then, like, it's never really --
I never had fun while I was out doing it.
I only had fun once I got away with it.
Like, once the night was over,
and I was, you know, home,
then, I was like, "Alright, that was great."
But, like, while I was doing it, I was just, like, nervous,
pretty much the whole time.
Wow. So, what drew you into it?
What drew me into it was just, like,
moving to New York City,
and, like, just discovering the street art.
You know, I didn't realize people were putting, like,
actual paintings on the street, you know?
I thought it was just graffiti,
and that kind of stuff, which I wasn't interested in.
But then, I found out about, like, real paintings on there.
I got excited, 'cause it was a way
to finally, like, get a public opinion on my work,
you know, that wasn't just, like, friends and family,
which I liked a lot.
Was there any, like...
I think -- I think someone like me,
sometimes, I'll assume that there's some sort of political,
subversive meaning alongside the street art.
Yeah, I mean, street art is a great place for political art,
to be honest.
You know, I did a lot of that
when I was doing the street art stuff, too.
'Cause political art is very...
you know, it ages very quickly, you know what I mean?
So, it's good to have that in a more informal environment,
rather than on a canvas that's gonna last forever,
because, then, the issue you were fighting about,
or talking about, could be, you know,
totally over a few years later.
[ Engines rumbling ]
In that entire time, is the astronaut emerging
in that time, or did you already have it?
I had one astronaut piece, but it was very simple.
You know, I was doing all real simple work for --
for the street.
The very, very basic stencil of an astronaut.
So, there's one astronaut there,
but is the astronaut already, like, in your mind?
No. No. Not at all.
I honestly don't even remember
why I -- oh, I do remember actually.
I didn't want to paint.
Wanting to paint figures,
but I didn't want to paint, like, a person,
like a man, you know, 'cause I just didn't want to.
Yeah. I always felt like...
a lot of times, with figurative work...
...sometimes it feels like you need to know
who the person is
to want to own the painting or something, you know?
And I like the idea of the astronaut being anonymous.
And so, it was kind of like a way to have a figurative work
without it actually being someone's face.
It's fascinating, 'cause it almost makes the painting,
like, abstract, in a weird way,
even though it can be as realistic as possible,
'cause you don't know how they feel in there,
what they're doing in there, what emotion they're giving off.
It's, like, such a mystery.
Yeah, that's exactly what I like it,
'cause I like that people can draw from it...
what they want to.
I like that a lot.
I wanted, like, my artwork to be like...
I wanted to give the same kind of feeling and sense,
like, when you're, like, listening to music,
you know, like, you hear, like, a good song.
Like, you don't think about
what the writer of these lyrics, what these meant to him.
You immediately just, like, equate it to your own life,
and your own experiences.
And I wanted my artwork to be the same way,
where the viewer wouldn't necessarily
be trying to think of,
"Well, what did the artist mean when he was painting this?"
But more what it means to them,
because of what emotions it draws
from their own life experiences.
I so get that.
That's, like, a very selfless way to make work,
to sort of take yourself out of it,
so that the viewers are like, "Oh, this art is amazing."
It's like completely remove yourself,
so they just have that figure, and they can --
they can deal with their own emotions about it.
And make up their own stories. Exactly.
A lot of the work from the first series of astronauts
was more somber, and kind of sad,
because of what I was going through in my life.
But at the same time, you could have looked at
some of the pieces, and thought they were, you know...
happy, you know what I mean? Sure.
And so, I was totally fine with that,
'cause I wanted people to be able to pull
what they wanted from the pieces, you know?
It's startling to think how much I relate
to the image of the astronaut these days --
trying to stay brave, and hopeful, and productive
in a time where time and space are vastly unknowable.
I can't shake that feeling.
But at least when an artist
turns that feeling into a composition,
I can observe my own struggle from the outside,
and understand it a bit better.
Great art helps tether us a bit in a moment when it feels like
we're all hopelessly adrift.
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