Flowstate /North Brooklyn Artists

S1 E1 | FULL EPISODE

Fred Tomaselli

It’s July 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic. Psychotropics and politics meet when host Sophia Kayafas visits Fred Tomaselli to talk about art and his ever-changing Williamsburg neighborhood.

AIRED: February 22, 2021 | 0:15:29
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TRANSCRIPT

(upbeat music)

(waves crashing)

(soft music)

- My name is Sophia Kayafas, I'm a figurative painter

and I moved to New York six years ago

to pursue my career as an artist.

Now, I've been painting in my studio under lockdown

for the past three months and I'm starting to lose my mind.

I feel completely isolated and creatively depleted.

(soft music)

And I keep wondering, what other artists are still out here?

What are they making?

And if they're feeling the same way I do?

(dramatic music)

How are we going to survive 2020?

(upbeat music)

So I decided to hop on my bike

and take a trip to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Once known for its artists and hipsters,

DIY spaces and huge loft parties.

But riding around here now,

all you see is condos and yuppies.

I'm going to visit Fred Tomaselli,

he's an incredible painter and collage artist.

He grew up during the '70s and '80s

and he makes work about how we perceive reality.

He's been at the Brooklyn Museum,

he's even part of the Collection of the MoMA.

In fact, he's shown work all over the world.

Fred's been based in Brooklyn since 1985,

so he knows more than a little something

about what it means to make it in New York.

(soft music)

This is your garden?

- Yeah, yeah, I've lived here since 1997

and I've been in the neighborhood since 85.

(soft music)

- This is such a paradise that you've built, you know?

- Is not so bad, right?

- I know. - And what's really great,

is I really need it right now.

(soft music)

You know, there's an idea of ordered chaos,

that a garden is nature but it's also

kind of a culturally mediated form of nature.

(soft music)

It's constantly being mediated through

this sort of cultural lens and I sort of feel like

there's this, like the canvas can be a kind of a similar

or sort of wild and ordered area.

(soft music)

Plus I'm really into altered states and psychoactivity

and so many plants like this one here,

this is the San Pedro cactus, this is a Bolivian cactus.

It's illegal but it contains Mescalin basically,

so I like the fact that there are these magic plants here

that can't alter reality but just by looking at them,

they almost alter reality.

That guy over there, it's a datura

and this is a pan global hallucinogen

popular in the Wiccan community and some metal communities.

- [Sophia] It's so cool.

(soft music)

- [Fred] There's a Monarch migrating through.

(soft music)

- [Sophia] Do you feel like you're commenting on reality?

- I'm commenting and questioning.

I'm responding to evanescent impulses

and into intuition and mysterious sort of mechanisms

that I don't even understand sometimes.

So it's not always, it's not like...

Like, I may start with a conceptual idea about art making

in general but the actual practice of it

is way more intuitive.

I think the older I get the less sure I am about everything.

(laughs)

I think I was way more sure of myself when I was like

snot-nosed punk rock kid who thought

I had it all figured out.

- I feel like I've learned a lot

about what it means to be an artist in New York.

And that's so different than what I thought it was

'cause I thought it looked a certain way.

- I didn't really understand what New York was

when I moved here because I came here sight unseen.

One of the things I noticed was there were people

that were making art for the market.

That was really strange to me because in Los Angeles

where I'm from in the 80s, there was no market.

So when I came here, I didn't know why I was coming here

other than I thought New York might be

an interesting place to go,

since I had broken up with my girlfriend,

I'd lost my loft and I got fired from my job.

- It's all coming together. (chuckles)

- And when it all came together, I was like,

"Well, if I'm going to move, I'm going to move big."

And I just came here sight unseen, right?

- Yeah.

- And so when I moved to Greenpoint that was like,

people were like, "Why did you, wait a minute,

you came 3000 miles to New York

and you missed Manhattan by two miles?

You're such a dumb ass.

Like, nobody's going to come out to Greenpoint

and see your work."

- What year did you get this studio?

- Got it in November of 1985.

- Oh, wow.

Is the area very different?

What was it like back then?

- Oh, it was primarily Latino.

Greenpoint is often referred to as a Polish neighborhood

but they really weren't in this area at that time.

- What did it used to look like?

Has a lot of things changed?

- It looks like this.

(laughs)

It's still like, kind of set in amber.

(pigeons cooing)

You would hear gunshots and it was no big deal.

- How many times have you been mugged?

- Three times.

- Three?

- Yeah-

- [Sophia] Did you think you going to die?

- I never thought it was going to die,

but New York was rough back in the 80s.

- I heard there was wild dogs running through this area.

- I got bit by a dog and the owner actually told me

that I could shoot his dog and pulled out a gun

and he was really mad at his dog.

He's like, 'cause I'm the third person

the dog had bit that month.

The dog's name was Zorro, I still remember it.

So I was like, "I don't want to shoot your dog, man.

I just need to go to the hospital."

- Oh my God.

- And then ambulance up and they said it would be 100 bucks.

And he said, "Well, I'll pay."

So I got a car service for five bucks, went to Woodhull

(laughs)

and kept the 95 bucks,

which I used to pay off my medical bills.

- Wow!

- And that was Halloween actually, in 1985.

- [Sophia] Wow.

- So then I went outside and everybody's egging each other

and there's fireworks and there's mayhem in the streets.

I mean, New York was wild.

I had to dodge eggs and my leg was all messed up.

And I ended up at a party in the East Village

at some friends of mine.

I told them my story, they were like,

"welcome to New York, man."

- Oh, that's so punk rock though.

- Yeah you're in New York now, you're getting bit by dogs.

You're dodging eggs, you're there.

And then two weeks later I signed the lease on this place.

(sirens wailing)

- [Sophia] But you've seen gentrification, basically.

- I mean, all of us artists

we're the viruses of gentrification.

As much as we complain about it,

when we move into these areas we are looking for cheap space

and we like, I liked it, I liked this area the way it was,

but we set into motion or our friends

would come and visit us and go,

"Oh wow, that's what a great deal."

And they move in and next thing you know,

the place is getting gentrified and you're part of it,

whether you like it or not.

(soft music)

- You've been here long enough to see New York

especially probably Brooklyn re-invent itself many times.

- Yeah. (chuckles)

- [Sophia] Is that happening again right now?

- I think maybe, but I don't know for sure.

I think we're in the middle of something

that we don't really quite understand.

(soft music)

I mean, right now, it's tough to be in New York

because this is not a city that lends itself

to social distancing.

Of all the cities in America,

New York is the city that it's about social closeness.

It's what makes the city great, right?

- [Sophia] Yeah.

- This is why New York is a great place.

It's the very antithesis of what the virus is demanding,

is what the city is about.

But maybe with COVID, maybe there'll be, maybe rents

are going to come down a little bit.

Maybe it'll be a little bit more affordable, you know?

'Cause the city needs to refresh itself.

It needs to have...

It needs to be alluring to the young,

it needs to constantly reinvent itself.

But I mean, it can't just be a bunch of like baby boomers,

just sitting around like holding on, you know?

It needs to have other new younger voices

that make things interesting.

(soft music)

- I feel like with the pandemic,

it was almost like a dream come true.

All of a sudden I had zero responsibilities,

I had nowhere I needed to be, I had nothing but time.

- [Fred] Oh yeah?

- Yeah. - [Fred] Yeah I guess so.

- Because I had no job, so it was just quiet.

- I was working on big large scale resin works

in my studio, which I'm still working on

for a show that was supposed to open up in May.

And it was at James Cohen Gallery

and I was working like night and day, weekends,

like just trying to get this work done.

Obviously my show was postponed

and so I took a bunch of supplies

and I moved them to upstairs to a little bedroom,

little spare room that we have.

And I began re-investigating the New York Times,

it something I'd abandoned for a couple of years.

I started making these drawings that were about

these giant horrific headlines coming about like,

working out my anxieties, I guess, through these drawings.

The virus isn't just biological, it's social.

We have a really toxic government

that's taking a bad situation and making it much worse.

We have like all these issues that are coming to the fore

right now, over racial inequality, over social inequality,

over our lack of a health system that functions, you know,

and the pandemic is just laying bare all this crap

that we've been sort of like living kind of with

in a sort of like kind of coexisting with all this crap

and somehow or another, it's all coming to a head right now.

So I feel really unsettled, but part of me is hopeful.

Part of me feels like that maybe this is...

That maybe the pandemic will force people to understand

what's needed and what the next stages of society should be.

You know what I mean?

- [Sophia] Yeah.

- It's just like, I don't want it to go back to the way

it was before, maybe the pandemic,

maybe it's a chance for us to like address

some of these issues that have haunted this culture

of ours for so long.

(soft music)

- I keep hoping that if I like mature as an artist,

that I will find some kind of balance in my life

that I will actually be able to walk into my studio

and not feel overwhelmed and not feel like

the weight of the world is crushing me.

Did you ever feel that, do you feel that at all now?

- Yeah, I do.

(soft music)

But I don't know if that's necessarily a bad thing.

- Yeah?

- I mean, I'm mostly really puzzled by it and annoyed by it

and I feel like I'm not quite getting it right

and it's kind of elusive.

So I kind of just...

It's a itch that I keep scratching,

so it's a weird thing that rarely gets satisfied.

I satisfy it from time to time but mostly,

I mean it's perpetual state of dissatisfaction

of trying to achieve my...

Something that has to do with how it is to be me

in the world and how it is to be

and what this world is all about.

And I feel like it's constantly, it's eluding me,

but I keep going at it.

(soft music)

- It's been a year of constant devastating headlines.

Fred seems to have made order out of the chaos

or his own logical chaos out of the order

by taking those headlines and reinterpreting them.

He gets to retell our daily narrative

and create a conversation about our own perceptions.

But I also realized talking to Fred

how a community of artists is so important,

especially now at a time of social isolation.

I feel like I might've missed out on that community

of artists back in the day,

but maybe in a post-pandemic world

space will get cheaper again and we can have our studios

and a stronger, more vibrant artists community.

(soft music)

(pigeons cooing) (sirens wailing)

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