Feature Artist Interview: Anthony R Grant

Anthony R. Grant will be our feature artist for the backyard show on June 17th. This interview by Kei Terauchi is from issue #5 of the zine which will be available for purchase at the show.
What makes you make the art that you make? Where does it start?
Why do I create what I create… For me, it started out with things that I feel or words to describe them but don’t necessarily have a place to go to. Sometimes you experience something - maybe it’s the first days of spring and there’s a scent in the air that quickly reminds you of something, but in that moment as you’re experiencing, if you’re by yourself, there’s no one to say that to. Even if you’re standing next to someone and you’re having a conversation, that would be a complete divergence from what you may have been talking or thinking about. I always find art making as the place for those things, for the things that don’t have much context, or for the things that don’t really have a conversational place. I keep coming back to the word belonging - things that don’t necessarily fit with anything else. To me, that’s where the art making starts. It grows into other other aspects as well - speaking for people who are not spoken for, saying things that are going unsaid, which is a little bit different from the initial experience, things that definitely should be said but are hard to verbalize. Sometimes when it comes to social constructs or systems, there are things that are clearly there, but it’s really hard to connect those dots, but you do feel them, you do sense them. Even if you were to try to talk about them in any kind of sequential order, you could be talking forever. Sometimes an image can bring many disparate thoughts and ideas together in one place, and cause people to sense all the thoughts at once.
I’m also hearing the meaningfulness in the process of art making for you. Where does that come from?
I’ve always been kind of crafty - looking at things that might not necessarily be art and bending or folding something. I remember when I was a kid and my mom worked at a photo studio, I’d go there every day after school. It’s not like, you know, editorial photography. I’m talking like - people need passport photos, people from the neighborhood need their quinceañera documented, people just need a roll of film developed, that type of photo studio. I was always surrounded by these really boring utilitarian pieces of junk - little film canisters, random pieces of wood that would be used for propping up photo subjects. Sometimes without asking, I’d turn those items into things that I could play with. I would build wrestling rings for my toys out of pieces of leftover wood, nine inch nails, and nylon fabric. You know one of the early tiny Macintosh computers? The owner of the studio bought one but he’d never figured out how to use it. So I would just draw things and make rap music on it. Like my current collage practice I was trying to put just these random artifacts together to create an experience—playing with both physical items and technology. At that age I was just trying to connect dots. Over time, though, the craftiness, the working with my hands kept evolving.
I found collage in my late teens, early 20s - that’s when I can remember the first time trying to communicate through it. I used to just find it fun to, you know, take one person’s face and mash it with another person’s face - haha, that’s hilarious. But then over time I started doing other things, like going through entire magazines and finding anything that had the color blue in it to create abstract objects, finding the different values of blue to create some sort of dimension or structure. Once I started doing that, I was like, Oh man, this is really interesting. I kept it in my back pocket and never really led with collage. I just always experimented with it and used it as an illustrative medium for a short period of time, thinking that I was going to be an illustrator. If I had to create illustrations, I’d often use that method for editorial publications that I art directed, and do some sort of collage character. So it kind of always followed, and then over the last few years, I came back to it out of necessity. During the pandemic I couldn’t go to my art studio, and I was having this moment where I wasn’t really creating. At the time, I was painting a lot more, so I was just like, oh man, I can’t really paint here in the house, there’s not enough space. Well, what about that collage thing? I used to really love that and I don’t need a whole lot of space for that - I can do that in the garage. And it was that moment that reignited my passion for the medium, and that brings us all the way through to today.
What are your inspirations? Do you already have a vision and you look for things that might work? Do you surprise yourself?
It’s a combination of all of those things. If I were to throw it into a math equation, it’s probably like, intuition plus planning multiplied by serendipity…I’m making this up—clearly, but a lot of the time, time is the determining factor. How much time do I actually have - mental headspace or time to physically be in my studio? How much time do I have to think about and execute an idea? This is why I have fallen back into making collages because, even if I don’t have the time to work on a bigger idea that I may have, I might have enough time to just make something out of all of the scraps that I have nearby, out of all of the vocabulary and language I’ve been building up over the last few years. I can take things from there, I can retry a piece that I made a while ago, try it again, try it with a different technique.
Can you tell me more about that? Are they literal scraps? Do you physically collect things as you go? What are your vocabulary and language?
Yeah, the source material is an interesting part of the process. Compared to how I was making collages before 2020 probably didn’t have the same source material and the same approach I am taking now. The thinking behind what I’ve been making for the last two or three years - I’ve been trying to make sure that I find people of color and or pull from source material that I remember having around my household as a child. When I was making collages, I never thought about where I was pulling the materials from. I noticed that a lot of the source materials were being pulled from American pop culture from the 50s and the 60s were very white, of one perspective, one note. I never really thought about this before. I just loved ripping things apart and mashing them together, but then I started realizing even in this form, where you can literally use anything, people are still pulling from the same places and, ultimately, showing the same things. With that thought I started to notice what I wasn’t seeing. Why have I been creating this way? What can I do differently? I had a similar thought in the workplace when I was doing a lot of branding and communications. I’d put together all sorts of landing pages, marketing material, and you always need photos, but you almost never have the budget to take the photos that you want to take. So you’d go and look for stock photos. If I do a search for a “woman holding a mobile phone”, I get thousands of white women holding phones, laughing, smiling. I don’t see much else, not many other nationalities or skin types represented there. Why is that? So I’d search for a black person holding a phone, an Asian person, an Indian person, and the return that I got back was so finite in comparison to just the initial search. So those two things were always in the back of my mind and I never quite put them together from an art making perspective until 2020.
I had a similar experience with my music making. I was a classically trained pianist and the pandemic really made me think how limited that is as my only artistic expression. So I went through a period of making my internal feelings, like inside jokes and memories from my childhood into musical pieces. That helped to get me out of that framework that I was so used to.
What other aspects of your work do you want people to know? Is there anything in particular that you want to share?
I’d say first and foremost, look deeper, look and scrutinize everything. Don’t only take what is spoonfed. All of these things have been tied to very specific memories for me. When I was a kid, I remember my mom playing music at home. And I knew that there were just two “Black” radio stations in the city but I also realized we weren’t only listening to those radio stations. So that simple act told me one thing; just because something is labeled as for you, it doesn’t mean that you can’t find joy in other things. You can find joy in something else, it’s wholly possible. I would always look at categories or groupings with great scrutiny. I think about how we grew up in the era where there were a few media outlets, and they were all mainly talking at you and forcing things down your throat. There were very few opportunities, outside of going to your library or being one of the very first people to have some sort of internet connection to really seek out alternatives to anything. It was really hard to go against the grain in that sense. But the way I would do it, I started with music - I would sit by the radio and turn the dial really slowly, because my uncle taught me about Jamaican pirate radio stations. So I was like, oh, wait a minute, if I just find the right frequency, I could find something completely different that no one even knows about. Expanding on that idea over time I found college radio stations that were playing house music or hip hop till the wee hours of morning. All of this just to say keep looking—this is one of the bigger ideas I keep trying to push and that also applies to my art making. Just because you don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean that you can’t inherently appreciate it. That’s the start of simply being able to understand who’s next to you, what makes them tick, why they do what they do, why they believe what they believe.
I can almost hear your interaction at the photo studio with your mom and with your uncle and turning the radio dial. Are there family and community aspects in your work?
Going back to that whole equation that I was mentioning earlier about time, whether or not I can afford to plan or just be more on the spontaneous side, kind of factors into a lot of the output of the work. For the most part, what I’ve tried to do is make sure that I find imagery that not just addresses the issue of inclusion, but it’s also about finding people that remind me of my people. For example a lot of the women in the images that I use remind me of my aunts and my mom, my grandmother, my uncles. I think about them, and I think about all of the people like me that don’t get to necessarily see themselves in the media as well. So when I’m making pieces, it’s almost as if I’m using the figures and faces as proxies for my family without actually using their photos. Some of that is about me trying to shape how I see America through my experiences and memories as a black man. It’s really easy to co-opt those typical images of American pop culture, sure, you can recontextualize them and do interesting things with them, nothing really against that, but I just think that there’s a whole other aspect of America that exists, that is just simply not represented, not even in this form of art (collage), where we could choose to do that. I also know that it’s very charged because there’s also the appropriation factor, like, if a white person uses black imagery, is that okay to do? If I, as a black person, started using images from any other culture, is that okay? It depends on the intent, depends on what’s being made. I find it funny that those questions stop people from even trying—it stops the possibility of someone gaining insight or awareness of another culture.
I’ve sat in on what was supposed to be a lecture by a photographer named Doug Rickard. He did what I thought was a really interesting photographic show one time, where he basically took Google Street images, and got them as big as he could on his on his computer screen, and then put his camera in front of his screen and took a photo of the image and then blew up the image even larger, and it created this almost painterly/digitized looking photo. But the problem was, is, that he primarily focused on African American neighborhoods, and he is a white presenting male photographer, and I think he showed this work at some major galleries and probably made hefty sales of the work. I can totally understand why there would be controversy there, but the poor guy didn’t even get a chance to speak. I’m not defending him and I’m not against him. I’m looking at it purely objectively through that lens - here’s someone who, I don’t know what his intent was, but tried to use figures of people other than what he presents himself as, and got a great deal of scrutiny for. This instance makes me wonder, well, does that stop people with fully well-intended purposes? Does that stop people from seeking to relate to those other than themselves?
Let’s talk about the future. What are you excited for? What? How do you see yourself and your artwork evolve?
I am excited about showing at B0ardside and being in your zine! I am a fan of independent publications and I’ve been lucky enough to meet other folks who are making publications as well. That’s great and I hope that that proliferates in other ways, from zines to gallery spaces to independent music publishing, etc. There are markets people who are interested in damn near anything that someone can create. It’s just a matter of putting it out there, but also taking advantage of the fact that there’s so many channels nowadays, that people can share that work through. So I guess that excites me for one thing. In terms of my artwork, I’m just excited to keep creating even if I have just 10 people liking my stuff. What I’m looking forward to doing is just creating more. Also when it comes to independent publishing, I’m looking to put a book together of my work simply because I feel like there’s an opportunity to tell more of this story of the work. I love buying monographs of artists that I really like—they are very accessible. I bought one recently by an artist, Brett Amory, who I’ve been following for a very long time, and he put out this really beautiful giant book. I just love the fact that I can look at his work anytime I want. There’s a lot of work in my studio that I’ve started scanning to put into a book. So that’ll be fun. One of the last things that I really want to get back into my pieces is screen printing. It’s something I learned to do. I’m not incredibly fond of it simply because of the amount of time or preparation and equipment that you need to make it happen, but I do appreciate it a lot and I do like how it actually physically feels, so I want to employ some of that into my future pieces as well.
Before we end, can we talk about some of the physical tools and how you combine the physical with the digital?
That has grown over the years. It used to purely be me cutting pieces of paper and putting it together and maybe using a photocopier to duplicate and enlarge, but I’ve grown to use digital tools to composite images together, print those out, and then do something physically to that then rescan, to try something else digitally, but also as a way to continue to build the language and have source material that I can readily go back to. So that’s where that push and pull comes with analog and digital. I think they go great together. I’m not a purist when it comes to collage. I don’t even know if that’s a thing, but I know that there are some people that are very dead set on glue, paper, scissors, and that’s it, which I can appreciate - limitations are good they help us to generate and create amazing things. I still see what I have immediately around me, I mean, I might have a computer and printer, but I still see that as as a limitation for me, because there’s so many other things I could do that I’m either not doing because I don’t have them or I just can’t do because they’re too big or not accessible to me. So it’s all relative, I guess. When I was talking about screen printing, since I don’t quite have that setup, and I like to work fast, so I use other methods that involve a lot of rubbing, which add another physical aspect to the work. Sometimes you’ll see burnished images onto a piece of cardboard, if you look closely, you’ll see the actual scratch marks, because I don’t necessarily have the clean pull of a squeezed screenprint, it’s more of like forcing this image to leave one substrate and go on to another.
All images by Anthony. Find his work at https://www.argstudios.com/art-work