About Elisa Shoenberger

I am a writer, historian, oral historian, and more.

You Are Beautiful

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matthew Hoffman, the creator and “custodian” of You Are Beautiful. You’ve probably seen the little silver sticker with the words “You Are Beautiful” around Chicago or seen the large signs popping up on fences with the same message.

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ES: How would you describe the work you do?

MH: I like to call it public installation or public art.

ES: Do you consider yourself a street artist?

MH: Definitely in the early day, all the stuff was done without permission. [I’d] call some of what we do street art  but it’s also arts in community, community art/public art, where we are getting neighborhoods chamber commerce [involved]. It’s work in the public and work in the street.

ES: You’ve mentioned how you were committed to be anonymous early on in part to keep the focus on the project rather than yourself. Was there any desire to keep anonymous due to legality of it?

MH: All the installs I was doing initially, I was doing something 100% legal, making the community a little more beautiful, definitely adding to it. Many works were large words in wood screwed into the sides of boarded up buildings or two inch tape. I did a lot of different messages, not just “You are Beautiful.”

ES: Could you talk about how you got from your initial sticker to the final design with the Helvetica font?

MH: I’m definitely someone who believes in making, doing, and refining. You can easily hide and keep it in a sketchbook forever. I take things and get them out even if they are rough. My feedback and other people’s feedback refine it from there. The initial ones were absolutely horrible. It took a bunch of trials with different ideas, with different stickers [to get to the final version]. It took somewhere from 6 months to a year.

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ES: Why stickers?

MH: Stickers? Who doesn’t love stickers? There are a lot of fun, versatile, not messy. I have done wheatpastes and not enjoyed it. Stickers stick to anything. You can have a whole pack in your pocket. In 2002, when the sticker culture really exploding, all these kids started trading stickers, mailing each other stickers. It was an interesting way to interact with people on global scale; you put theirs up, they put yours up, and then send photos. It was a cool way to collaborate with other people.

ES: Much of your work focuses on words and lettering. Why are you drawn to lettering?

MH: I studied graphic design. I learned a lot of visual language, sharing your ideas, being able to tell your story. I love typography; there’s a lot you can to do with it. Words can be very simple or appear to be simple but you can read into them. It can mean a lot of things depending on how you read it inside your head.

ES: How does it feel that it has its own life – 3 million printed as of February 2017?

MH: We’re up to 3.75 million [as of June 1st]. We are doing a big show in September so there will be another printing before that, 4 million with that order. It’s super cool how the community has really surrounded the project and the message. It’s a great feeling to know so many people think the same way you do. It’s fun making a difference in the world. That’s pretty crazy.

ES: You describe yourself as the custodian of “You Are Beautiful.” Could you elaborate?

MH: Somebody has to keep the lights on and the floor clean; There’s a lot of thankless work to get everything going. The project is taking a life of its own; there is a community that can do way more than any one person can do.

ES: Where is the best place you’ve seen a sticker?

MH: I had never been Minneapolis. We went last year for a wedding. As we were walking to the art museum, there was a four lane road with a median and a sign between where we were and the art museum. I got sticker out of my pocket to put it there but when I got there and looked up, I saw there was already one. It was really funny. It’s one of my favorite placements.

ES: Could you talk a little about your woodworking?

MH: The Cliff notes version of that was I was always a tinkerer as a little kid. I made junk creations; I never knew much about art or understood it. In middle school, I took classes in woodworking (and metal) and loved woodworking. I learned how to do all sorts of things, built furniture. In my  last year in high school, I took courses of graphic arts, photography, computer programs, [and went to] school for graphic design. I feel like all those things have come together into what I do now.

ES: For two of your projects, you took people’s input and made them into wood pieces. You mentioned in a different interview that you felt like you were “helping people tell their stories.” Could you talk a little bit about that?

MH:  That was a fun  project. It’s been on the back burner. It’s fun sort of collaborating with people. If they are already coming to you, they have an idea from past works and know what they are looking to expect. It is interesting what comes out of that.

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ES: I wanted to ask about the shows for “You Are Beautiful” at Galerie F. Could you talk about that?

MH: I absolutely love collaboration. I have to let go and things happen that are unexpected, which can surprise you, good and bad. Most of time, it is really good. We are working on another show for November.

ES: There are other campaigns that have gone on like “Anything is Possible,” “Love,” etc. Could you talk about them? Do you have a favorite?

MH: I really like “Go for It.” It’s one of my favorite, how it looks, how it came together. It was a lot of fun. I’d never made anything like that. There was a lot of feeling of community while working on it. It made me feel really good [that] it was only supposed to be up for a couple months but it’s been a couple of years. People enjoyed it so much that it keeps on living.

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ES: Could you talk about your show in the fall?

MH: There will be a show in mid-September. We are working hard on it, figuring out what it is. It’s a process. We’ll be completely taking over a space, basically to play around… at a warehouse in conjunction with ART EXPO.

Thanks to Matthew Hoffman and everyone who makes “You are Beautiful” possible. Check out their website https://you-are-beautiful.com/ for more details about the upcoming shows in mid-September and November.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2: Spring in Manhattan

The second half of our day took us to the southern part of Manhattan. My mom had wanted to check out the Oculus, the new transport station that was part of the World Trade Center network. The building is out of science fiction – weirdly shaped and white. Inside, there are several floors with high end shops and as far as we could tell, one restaurant/cafe. Very odd. It was a dramatic place architecturally but I’m still confused how you can have a massive transportation depot without food.

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After our tour of the space, we headed to Trinity Church nearby. Inside we found beautiful wooden carved chapel and windows. Outside, we discovered that this was where Alexander and Eliza Hamilton were buried. However, it took some time finding their grave. We learned that there are burial grounds on both sides of church. When we paid our respects to his grave, the lady next to us starting singing the section about Eliza from “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Her grave had pennies all over it as well. Nice touch.

We passed by the Bull of Wall Street and the Little Girl standing him down. There was a line of mostly women waiting to get their photo taken with the Little Girl. I declined getting my photo taken since it was a long line of chaos.

We then went to the National Museum of the American Indian next to Bowling Green Park. The museum is housed in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, which is a pretty astonishing building. Big rotunda with murals. We learned from the guard that Bowling Green Park’s fence went back to colonial times; on the fence, there used to be symbols of the crown that revolutionaries had sawed off! Plus there was an amazing plaque talking about how the rental of the park was only a peppercorn. Back in the day, peppercorn was a big deal.

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I had read about the museum and its current exhibition “Native Fashion Now” in the New York Times a few weeks earlier so I was keen to check it out. They had gone to Native American designers to showcase their work in the show. It was spectacular. For instance, there were these high heeled boots covered in beadwork with hummingbird motif by Jamie Okuma. Another was a kimono that depicted ledger art by Toni Williams. Astonishing. They also had a quiver made in the famous Louis Vuitton fabric. Or a pair of moccasins made from electrical parts. Innovative and astonishing.

The permanent collection had some pretty spectacular objects from a diverse number of groups. There were drums from Mapuche in Chile all the way up to various groups in the Pacific Northwest. They even had a room set aside for Native American Contemporary art where there was a paper jingle dress.

Another special exhibition included pottery from Central America, which was a treat. As I have gotten older, I have grown to love pottery, especially from Latin America. I love all the pots of local animals!

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We then walked from the museum to the Strand, not a small walk. It was delightful wandering around the city. I enjoyed all the street art, as per usual. The Strand was great as always. We met up with a good friend and my parents at a Spanish restaurant in Greenwich Village.

Afterwards, we wandered with our friend to find a speakeasy. There is a trend in bars in NY (and elsewhere) of speakeasies that are accessed in unusual places. The first place we tried involved going through a toy store. Sadly, it was merely a shelf of toys and the bar was extremely crowded and loud.

We then began our trek to find an available place. There was another one that involved going into a phone booth in a hole-in-the-wall hot dog stand. When we got there, there was a line, so it wasn’t truly hidden. When it was our time to get to the front of the line, a man pulled back a wall of the phone booth and I could peer inside. It was a quiet bar with a taxidermied pheasant on the wall. We were informed it was a three hour wait, which wasn’t happening. He ended up handing my friend and I a black business card with a number and the name of the address. Someday we’ll go.

Ultimately we ended up a regular bar, notably only for the strange channel it showed of people embarrassing themselves by doing stupid things. It wasn’t “Funniest Home Videos” but it was an actual channel that bars can request. Strange.

That’s all for now!

The Amazing Geoffroy Mottart

I had the pleasure of speaking with Belgium artist, Geoffroy Mottart about his floral works. He places beards and wigs made of vibrant colors on public statues. With the generous French translation help of Carmen Kingsley, here is our interview.

ES: How would you describe your work?

GM: I style statues with floral compositions, because I feel like I am building a border between this long lasting art, anchored in time and ephemeral, but equally magnificent flowers.

I have been working with flowers for more than 20 years, I’m fond of the artistic creations created with them, however I love just as much the timelessness of the “Sculpture” that exists since the man discovered art .

This “border” between the ephemeral floral art and the lasting art of sculpture affects me a lot.

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Jean Delville – Photo from Geoffroy Mottart

ES: What made you decide to create these flower pieces on public sculptures?

GM: A book called International Floral Art (http://fleurbookshop.com/international-floral-art-16-17.html) spotted me during my participation in florist competitions and asked me to send pictures of my artwork and that’s where things started to fall into place.

ES: You talk about the choice of statue for your work. You mention finding the right kind of statue for your work. Could you expand on that?

GM: It is not so much that I look for a very specific statue, instead I look for statues that could become nearly human when I style them. I appreciate statues that have subtle traits, that have depth to them.

ES: How do you choose the flowers for your pieces? Color, shape, meaning?

GM: I choose flowers based on several criteria:

– The character and delicacy of the statue’s features

– The statue´s color and material.

– The place where it is located.

– The season.

ES: How long does it take to create a piece? How long does it take to install a piece on a statue?

GM: I estimate that for the entire creation of a piece of art; it takes me about ten hours, the installation generally doesn’t take so much time, I work a lot in my workshop.

ES: I read that you take the pieces down after a few days because the flowers will fade and die. You said that keeping them up would give a different meaning to the piece. Could you explain a little more?

GM: My goal is to highlight the statues, and to leave the dead flowers on them would make the passerby much less interested in appreciating them. I am someone who loves beautiful things, color, life; and so it would be senseless to let the flowers rot.

ES: How do you want people to react to your work?

GM: I am not interested in a particular reaction, just the fact that people notice my work is an end in itself, since my goal is to make them rediscover what surrounds them.

ES: Would you call yourself a street artist?

GM: Yes, I define myself as an artist working in public space.

Thanks to Geoffroy Mottart for the interview and thanks to Carmen Kingsley for her amazing French translating work.

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Photo by Geoffroy Mottart

Part 1: Spring in Manhattan

I’m going to return for the next few weeks ago to my travel adventures. Stay tuned for more interviews with street artists!

Now I’ll talk about our amazing trip to NY, NY over Easter weekend. It was full of speakeasys, friends and family, and art. What else can one ask for!

The trip began with a hopeful quest to the Guggenheim on Friday morning. A few weeks prior, I had learned about Doug Wheeler’s PSAD Synthetic Desert at the Guggenheim where he built a room designed to minimize noise. You can enter the room for 10 or 20 minutes and relish in the silence and incredibly bizarre landscape. (Article from NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/07/arts/design/guggenheim-museum-doug-wheeler-synthetic-desert.html)  It is included with admission but you need a timed ticket since only 5 people can go at a time. Advance tickets were gone for the month of April but they had some walk-ins available. So I got to the Guggenheim before it opened in the hopes of securing such a ticket. THere were already lines there when I arrived but a separate line for the Doug Wheeler exhibit. While waiting I met this lovely lady from Oxford and her son who had spent 6 days in NYC and enjoyed the city. They had even more of an adventure getting to the Guggenheim, which involved checking out early from their hotel, getting on the wrong train and ending up in Harlem.

And we all got tickets! My ticket was for 12pm so I had 2 hours to kill. Fortunately, I was in a museum. The Guggenheim had a retrospective of the original art that Solomon Guggenheim had collected with the significant help of Hilda von Rebay, his curator. Much of the art he collected was during my favorite time in art: early 20th century. The first side room that I saw was filled with magnificent compositions by Kandinsky, one of my favorites. I was struck dumb by the beauty of his abstract colors and shapes. Clearly, I had made the right choice.

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I wandered my way up to the top of the museum where the Doug Wheeler room was. There was even a few works from his niece Peggy Guggenheim’s museum in Venice; her collection is a must see any time we are in Venice. It was like meeting old friends that I hadn’t seen in years. They had her magnificent Calder mobile that slowly shifted with people’s movements.

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I really enjoyed my experience in PSAD Synthetic Desert. The 5 of us and the museum staff person were brought into the room through at least 2 doors (requiring a key card). The room was out of Sci-Fi. These white foam pyramids lay in rows before me and on the wall. There was a platform you could stand on and survey the rows of pyramids. All was suffused with a light purple glow. We were encouraged to sit to  minimize movement. Early on you understood why.

The room was so quiet that turning your head seemed magnified. Even the shuffling of feet was audible. It wasn’t so quiet that you could hear your heartbeat but it definitely wasn’t just a silent room. I had expected to get very bored very quickly but I was surprised when our ten minutes was up.

I wandered down the Guggenheim, nodding my head at my old friends and new favorites (Those Kandinsky’s) and made my way to 5th avenue. It was a glorious day in Manhattan. I walked up 5th, next to Central Park, and met my husband in the middle. He had just arrived from Chicago that morning. We both walked back to our hotel, enjoying the fresh temperate air.

Next time, I’ll talk about our adventures at the Oculus, Trinity Church, National Museum of American Indian, and our adventures finding a speakeasy.

 

That’s all for now!

Conversation with Jim Bachor

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to Jim Bachor, a mosaic artist via phone. His work includes setting mosaics into potholes around Chicago and the rest of the world.

ES: How would you describe the work you do?

JB: I’m really thinking about how to leave your mark. It’s almost impossible. You might with kids or the pyramids. [When I] discovered mosaics on a trip in the 1990s in Europe, I was blown away. This is an artform that lasts so long. What a fascinating concept. You could lock concepts and thoughts all your own in this medium and it will look the same and exist 2000 years later. The durability is big. The pieces are heavy too, not [something] that could be thrown around or thrown in the trash. There is literally a weight to them. Big hunk of durability.  I noticed that art form tends to repeat itself; to me a lot of it looks the same. What I bring to the party is taking the ancient art form and doing contemporary subject matter.

ES: Do you consider yourself a street artist?

JB: I guess I am. Partly, not completely. A portion of what I do is street art but not all. It’s one of my hats. I consider myself an artist. [When you emailed me,] I thought that I’m not hip or young. I smiled to be considered a street artist.

ES: In terms of your subject matter, you juxtapose the timelessness of the mosaics with ephemera like snack bags. How did you decide on that theme?

JB: They are snapshots of today. Still lifes. Like fresh packaged meats. The meat is not going to look the same in a few days. It’s capturing a moment in time in this wrapped meat from the grocery store.  In addition, in 100 years, it’ll show folks how we used to package meat in this way.

ES: Could you talk about your series“Fanciest Pothole” and one of its pieces, “Burberry”?

JB: I spent 25 years in advertising as a designer. From that, [there’s a lot of] the branding experience. I like to juxtapose things: everyone hates potholes, so I had the ice cream series and a flowers series. In a similar vein, potholes are nasty, low class. I juxtaposed it with high end brands with identifiable patterns like Gucci, Burberry, Louis Vuitton. It’s the last place you expect overpriced brands to appear. [It’s] a window to my dry wit.

ES: Could you talk about your pothole series that contain words or numbers?

JB: The campaign started off with a branded identity. A classic Chicago Pothole was featured. [The word] “Pothole” in black and white with the Chicago flag graphic. It was proud Chicago in your face. The next series was Serial numbers because the city catalogues the potholes in the city; each pothole has its own serial number. Another series had the phone numbers of nearby car repair shops near the pothole.

“This is Not a Pothole” was a one off. It was an idea I had; it was funny. The location was choice [downtown right off Michigan avenue]. It’s one of the most popular installations by far.

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Photo: Elisa Shoenberger

ES: I noticed humor as a part of your work. Why?

JB: Every so often, I do try to impart a humorous view on what is going on. But I try to make it not beat you upside the head, something more subtle and unexpected. For the cereal box series, I did research on ridiculous brands that existed and incorporated them into ancient still lifes, food stuffs rendered into background of frescoes. It’s a little bit of my humor and fascination with ancient history. It’s capturing a little bit of my personality in mortar that might impart to someone down the road when you are gone. After the people who knew you die off, your legacy is pretty negligible. [These potholes are] a way of instilling a few more clues of what made me.

ES: Has the process changed since you started in 2013?

JB: It’s more efficient, but there is only so much you can speed it up. [You are at the] mercy of weather and concrete. I learned a lot early on: if it is colder out, it takes longer for the concrete to set. There’s a higher chance that a car will roll over it. Safety has gotten better; I have traffic cones and a vest.

The art shouldn’t fail. If it does, it’s because the asphalt around the art starts to break. If the asphalt is stable, it will last indefinitely.

The biggest hassle is finding the correct potholes. Ideal road potholes are those on a stable street, not in the center of traffic, places where people can see them. I try to expand the area that has pieces of artwork but it takes longer if it is further away from where I am. It takes more time to get there, look around [for an ideal spot]. I”m a one man show —time is always an issue.

ES: Could you talk about your commision “thrive” at the Thorndale Red Line station?

JB: It’s a balance between doing something consistent with what I do and giving the client, the CTA, something they be proud of. I gathered a lot of information about the area; the CTA gave me notes from community meetings about what people wanted to see in the art work. I did a little bit of research; that area used to be covered in swales of sand and wild rice used to grow in it. I used that impetus for these plant like veins growing from blue bands that represent Lake Michigan. Those vines grow into “iconic fruit” that represent what is going on in the neighborhood like restaurants, music, schools, pink hotels, architecture, etc.  You see something different each time when you look at it. You notice the little baseballs that are hidden like berries. There is stuff to be discovered.

ES: What do you want people to get from your potholes?

JB: An unexpected grin. [I want to] impart some of my personality. A little PR. I want them to track down and find out who is doing it. You see there are pieces all over the places.  If you like the potholes, you’ll like my other work.

ES: Is there anything you want to talk about that we didn’t talk about above?

JB:  I love doing potholes, it’s simple and goes quickly. It used to be a small percentage of what I do. The rest was fine art. Now it is swapped – 90% of my time.  The potholes are nice; it gets attention drawn to my fine art. I just don’t have a lot to sell right now. I haven’t had the time to do new stuff. To do more commissioned stuff, it takes time. I’m a stay at home day with two ten year old boys. I have a short work day – 6 hours to get what I need to get done before I need to worry about dinner.

He explained that there are some exciting prospects in the rest of 2017. So stay tuned!

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Photo: Jim Bachor

 

Interview with WRDSMITH

I had the chance to talk with WRDSMITH, an LA based street artist, about his work via email. He was in Chicago last summer and put up pieces throughout the city. Much of his work involves a stenciled typewriter with words coming out of it.

ES: How would you describe the work you do?

W: I aspire to inspire others with positive and romantic WRDs painted and pasted on walls all over the world.

ES: I read about how you decided to leave Chicago to go to LA to write. How did you get started as a street artist?

W: In 2013 I was spending an abundance of time sitting in front of the computer writing. While I love to write, I realized I needed an active hobby that would take me away from the computer for stretches of time. However, I knew I’d ultimately come to resent most hobbies if they ended up distracting me from writing too much. So it was conundrum before I got the crazy notion to do word-based street art — an action that would still have me flexing the creative writing muscle, but also making me active.

ES: How did you decide on the idea of the typewriter?

W: When I decided to explore word-based street art, I immediately saw the image of of a typewriter with the page/words coming out of it. To me, it was such a simple idea that I had to research if anyone had done it before. When I discovered that no one had done it, I knew I had to run with the idea and make it a reality as soon as possible. And I did just that.

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Photo from the artist

ES: You mention that you get your inspiration from overheard conversations. What was the best thing you’ve overheard that worked its way into a piece of yours?

W: Not overheard conversations — just conversation I have with others. All the words in my work resonate with me or with something in my life. They are all personal in that way and I like that. It fuels the passion for WRDSMTHing. The fact that these WRDs are resonating with so many people thrills me because I am simply expressing myself and exploring things in my own life/world with my art.

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Photo by Elisa Shoenberger

ES: You talk about the location sometimes inspiring the piece. Could you give an example of that?

W: Sometime I’m walking or driving and I see a great wall or how a wall looks at a certain time of the day, which makes me think of some creative words that pay off that scene/location/moment. Then I work to polish those words and install them. One example is when I saw a plastic surgery company on a busy street and how the sunrise reflected in the mirrored windows. I wrote: “I really, really, really like you just the way you are” and installed it the following morning. Also [I] took the pic just as the sun was rising.  

ES: What do you want people to know about your work?

W: I want them to know I am a writer first and foremost. And 98% of the words you see in my work are written by me. Occasionally I will utilize a lyric or quote to tip my hat at words that inspire me, but I always give credit where credit is due.

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Photo from artist

ES: What is your favorite piece or place you’ve put up a piece?

W: I love putting art up in NYC, Paris, and London. But I also love filling Los Angeles with WRDs. Favorite piece [is] probably a tie between “Aspire to inspire others and the universe will take note” and “I love the way you blush when I tell you how you shine.”

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Photo by Elisa Shoenberger

ES: What do you want people to know that I haven’t covered in the other questions?​

W: I want them to know I am having fun and am just getting started.

Thanks to WRDSMITH for taking the time to talk to me about his work!