San Francisco Multi-Media Artist and Writer Carl Heyward shares his thoughts with D/RAILED about his art, life, and influences, from growing up in Washington D.C., to life in Atlanta in the 1960’s, to modern-day San Francisco in Trump’s America.
Carl Heyward discusses with D/RAILED the importance of the artistic process, the notion of no/MIND, which is central to his work, and workshops. The importance of authenticity in the art process, to create “Raw… elegant” art, the importance of becoming automatic, to organize chaos through it. Carl Heyward also discusses those who have influenced him, from family members, to Salvador Dali, to Kurt Vonnegut and Malcolm X.
D/railed Magazine: Who is Carl Heyward, and where did he grow up?
Carl Heyward: I am a native of Washington DC and lived there till I was twelve years old. I came from a middle-Class background with educators; Father was, eventually, an Epidemiologist and worked at the Federal Center for Disease Control. Education, academics, and discipline were stressed, though, and as is usually the case, my brother and I rebelled, to a great extent supported by the cultural revolution that was the sixties. We were/are both musicians and played everything from strip clubs, to school dances, stadium shows, opened for major acts, recorded and all that; heady stuff for 13-14 year olds, certainly. He, my brother Kent, was actually inspired by mixed-media found object research as a kid, drawing psychedelic mandala-like abstractions while I had no drawing skills nor aptitude. He was called a ‘scavenger” for his penchant of bringing home rusted bottle caps, bits of shiny things, and interesting paper he picked up on the street. Ironically, his predilection foreshadowed my own adoption of this habit and informed my early assemblage work.
As a musician and leader of aggregations, I soon tired of what was, in effect, a marriage of sorts with 3-5 mates and opted for the solitary pursuit of writing and art practice.
While we went to school with the sons and daughters of diplomats and corporate executives in DC, multiculturalism seemed matter of fact –until we moved to Atlanta and experienced a cultural disconnect that was extreme and disturbing. Gone was the multi-cultural homogeneity of our early youth, replaced by the racial tensions of a transition that still has ramifications in this country, if not the world. Instead of being sourrounded by classmates from Egypt, of Chinese and international descent, the melting pot simmered with the historical conflict between black and white, the unfortunate legacy of slavery, racism and inequality that was stark, though in decline.
I look back at that period and am thankful for having witnessed and taken part in that revolution, though at the time I existed in a twilight zone of awe and disbelief. All in all, it matured me, brought me to deal with the American reality, the tempered expectation of natural inclusion and, finally, allowed me to appreciate the value of difference and the necessity of acceptance and humility. It is no exaggeration to say that some of my closest friends originate from that period and many still reside in the Southern United States. These young iconoclasts had the courage to defy seemingly inbred habits and expressions of hatred and fear of the “other”. I came to learn that regions and environments that are most restrictive and repressive are also fertile ground for free-spirited thinkers who believe in the connectivity of the human experience and realize that one of the gifts of diversity is the reciprocal gift of mutual growth.
DM: How did you spend your time as a child and get educated about art as a teenager?
CH: My aunt Edna, the matriarch of the family, a healthcare practitioner, writer, educator, painted as a sideline. Hers was the first art I saw, and it left an impression. It was a small, abstract piece, perhaps representative of a landscape; I could not judge, I had nothing to compare it with, but as an item, as a manifestation of the creative impulse, as an artifact of human possibility, it was fascinating to me. I remember staring at it for hours and could not figure what I was looking at, and perhaps that sense of not knowing was the most fascinating part. I can’t remember ever questioning her about it, nor anyone else in the family, but a seed of curiosity was sewn. Upon return visits, I returned to the piece with the same befuddlement and attraction. Years later as an adult with a little more ” sophistication” about the whole enterprise, I realized that it was not very good, but it served as a valuable impetus for me and the memory of that mystery still serves as a comfort and point of creative entry.
I copied paintings in oil of Dali works. His paintings reminded me of the dream state, and I copied his clouds as an advancement and shift from comic and cartoon culture. These works began to be shown in galleries which, of course, was encouraging to a fourteen-year-old, but I had no clue what I was doing and stumbled upon techniques intuitively finding satisfaction in the process of discovery, a sentiment which remains with me to this day: not knowing, just doing by forging ahead and embracing the process, allowing the surprise.
DM: Have you always been a great observer, or has anything sparked your attention, once you were already an adult, that almost forced you to leave the world of the ordinary and join that of the arts?
CH: Time passes and with consistency and paying attention there is a dissolution between life and art practice, of lifestyle. Art becomes life and art practice informs choices, perspective, and understanding of the world and our place in it.
DM: You are currently based in San Francisco, a picturesque city known worldwide for ensuring protection to illegal immigrants with its sanctuary bill. Has the place where you live and the political consequence’s of Trump’s administration’s local interventions influenced your work in any way, or is your work apolitical?
CH: All art is a political act.
DM: What other meanings are embedded in your research?
CH: I keep it simple. I continue working as an artist because it remains interesting and nourishes my curiosity. It is a way to make sense of the world offering solace and giving clues to purpose or potential. It forecasts events spiritual and psychological, personally and globally, in my experience. It is an anthropological tool allowing reflection of self and the universe tracking the sublime, the painful, the poignant and the ridiculous, you know, business as usual.
DM: How has your work evolved over time, and has it ever incorporated any implicit references to figurative art regardless of its blatant involvement with abstraction?
CH: Never. Only as a photographer concerned initially with technical proficiency and mimicking those who came before me. The fluidity of the hand and materials, of almost being automatic — of organizing chaos — is important to me. Realism, figurative work, and duplication of reality, so to speak, already exists in reality, and there are hordes of artists who do it better than I do, and that’s fine. I am not directed that way. Very rarely, as opposed to my early collage-based work, does a figure appear. Those works, out of Dada or topical concerns are what they are and are of that time.
DM: What do you think while juxtaposing those perfectly balanced shapes to one another?
CH: I know that I am on the right track, and it often is the case, that I have no clue what I am doing, and I like that. It is only days, weeks, months, even years later that I can see what was happening, both the result but more importantly the process. The process is the most important thing to me, the ritual of making and preparing the thinking and cessation of thought or goals other than simply to do. That process is unique in each session yet strangely the same. The best work comes from abandoning expectation and just becoming a manipulator of materials; learning to trust self and the process; building confidence that no matter what I make or how the materials respond on any particular day, I ” can figure it out” or it me.
DM: Are you aware of today’s comparison of abstract art, no matter how expressionistic, to decorative art, and what is your take on that?
CH: It does not matter, and I am not involved in that discussion. There is a place for all art that gives satisfaction, to a collector, artist, or Joe Blow of the Great Public seeking sofa-sized art, or for Margie Homemaker to match her draperies, or Godlike Corporate Officer looking for digestible yet market-worthy wall candy for the boardroom. All art can be decorative, not all decorative work is art. But it does not matter.
DM: Has your work been influenced by any particular philosophers or authors?
CH: I always was interested in creativity in the arts and creativity in living. From Fritz Perls, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, Gysin, Achebe, the Beats, Baraka, Tutuola, Malcolm X all influenced me in terms of revolutionary thought, compassionate handling of difficult cultural realities, escapism, and drug use as a revolutionary act, as authors providing a wider view of multicultural and ethnic points of view, of absurdist and humorous reconciliation of painful truths.
DM: What recurrent elements in your work are conceived to address your personality to the general audience, and how do you think your work is contributing to a positive change in either Western society, history, or culture?
CH: I have a conscious desire to produce work that is authentic, that really comes from me; work that I identify and can be viewed as reflective of whom I am; unvarnished, raw and, at times, hopefully, elegant. That contrast dichotomy produces both something original but also allows an entry into possibilities around the identity of the moment that shifts and evolves, diminishes or is strengthened in time. The notion of no/MIND in my work and workshops is central to my practice, allowing what happens in my interaction with materials to exist in a laboratory as a series of ongoing experiments that continue for as long as I am interested in them or until I exhaust any set of materials.