Art, Fire, and a Hurricane: John K. Lawson

October 26, 2011

"The creative cave is the looniest, loneliest place in the world. Ultimately it’s the scariest and safest place as well."

I grew up in a special type of loony, lonely cave. A place where contradiction was king. Creativity enabled me to envision another world, a future where all the confusing fragments of my life might perfectly align. Was I a hungry kid on the streets, in the gutter, or scraping by in a refugee camp?  No, I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana in the 1970's under the emotional thumb of a mentally ill mother.

It certainly could have been worse.  

Today artist and writer, John K. Lawson, tells us that the creative cave is the looniest, loneliest place in the world. So why the heck am I hanging out in it when I'm still trying to divorce myself from all the lunacy and loneliness of my childhood?  

John also says it can be the safest place. 

I'm not a expert on psychology but hasn't it been said that we often feel the urge to go home again?  I've been simultaneously running away and toward home for years, and it's caused me a great deal of inner turmoil. I don't know what it means or which way I'm supposed to go. My writing and art have given me an outlet for that turmoil, and that's why I'm painfully sensitive about it.  Why I want it to ultimately be meaningful and have inherent value.

I'm one of those borderline philosophical sad sacks who spend pathetic amounts of time thinking about "what it's all for," and "what it all means."  I look at the thousands of words I've written and the art I've created, and ask myself, "Am I pouring years of my life into something that means nothing?"  When I die, will it all turn to dust and blow away?  Am I just a misguided idiot wasting precious time?  Is John?

With regard to creating art, John says,  "It takes guts and sometimes stupidity. You  have to have an ego strong enough to accept that the creative force is not always a pretty smiling greeting card, and what you are making might not fit over the proverbial couch or match the newest art fad."

So if it doesn't fit over my neighbor's couch or become an art fad, is it wasted? The answer is supposed to be no. But why? Is the answer no because it's healing my soul, because it gives me something to do, and provides meaning in a meaningless world?  Is that enough? 

Lately, I'm confused about what I should be painting, what I want to paint, why I want to paint, etc.  Trying to resolve those questions is slowly driving me nuts.  What I do know is that I need to paint.  I don't want to stop.  And if I had to stop for some reason, I'd write.  They are avenues to funnel out a tiny spec of all that rages in my head. If I didn't have a way to relieve the pressure, I'd explode.

John also paints and writes, and he believes that "the continual fire to create, in whatever shape or form, draws from the same source regardless of medium."

Yes, that's it.

I'm burning; there's a fire pit in my soul that just won't die. It's sad to think that it may never actually cook up anything phenomenal.  But I realize now that it doesn't matter; the fire is all that matters. It rages on. 

I think John gets it ... has it ... needs it like I do. 

What's your story (in a nutshell)?

Inside the nutshell, a curious child wonders alone in the busy cracked sidewalks streets always wanting to know what's around the next corner, or why he doesn’t feel cool inside and out because he questions everything, hoping his parents won't notice his rusty safety pin ear rings, his hands covered in spray paint and the poetry books he is reading.

Whispers of lovers, foreign lands filled with new cities and the genuine smile of strangers, beckoned me onward with the chance to experience new thoughts and experience new ideas regardless of the outcome.

Was the journey on a straight or twisted path?

Upon reflection there were many times when the puddle I jumped head first into was really a bottomless pit with slimy cracked walls, armed uniformed thugs, the stench of raw sewage and no toilet paper.

Crawling my way out, I lost many a battle watching the skin on my face and knuckles reveal bare bloody flesh, a locked and bolted door, or worse, a condescending pat on the back making me feel like a snail crawling along the edge of a razor blade.

Unable to look away or behind me keeps the journey constant even though there were many times when one step forward and two steps backwards was the only way to go.

I always knew from a very early age I had to create something. In Working Class England the word artist was never really in the vocabulary. Folks started calling me that long before I considered myself one. These days I accept the label and dig my heels in deeper.

How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist?

Twenty five years ago the concept of working part time and creating art was new to me. Europe was under the rule of Thatcherism and the main reason I stayed in the USA was the abundance of part time work. I didn’t have any formal art training, knew nothing of the gallery scene but was given plenty of opportunity to work with my hands. I made a point of living as frugally as possible, often in ghetto situations, a friend’s van, or abandoned buildings where I could use the money I made to create art.

Quite quickly all I was doing was making art and to my surprise folks started buying it. The day job disappeared and these days it would be impossible for my mind to conceive of doing anything else.



Are you surprised by your success?

I tend to use the word gratitude rather than surprise. Every morning I look out of my studio window at all the folks working really hard, thankless jobs and inwardly thank the Universe for my lot in life.

Success for me is being able to do my job without any consideration for what others might think, not caring if it sells or not, and enjoying a good bottle of Chianti for breakfast.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

The adventure is stepping off the crumbling cliff top ledge and plummeting towards the abyss, into the unknown, realizing you have no wings to fly as the inevitable rushes closer. I try to observe the descent, feeling the air fill my lungs, feeling the knots explode in my stomach as I taste the goods. If I’m lucky something comes out of this fall, something new is translated, and some kind of expression manifests. I guess I am an optimist in the sense that as I enter the creative cave I think the end result might be worthy of daylight.

It takes a lot of guts to create something new and refreshing; the “ah- ha” moment is waking up every day and slogging onward.

You have also written a novel, Hurricane Hotel. Please tell us about the book?

Hurricane Hotel is a rollicking street car ride into the underbelly of New Orleans and was started many moons ago while living in a small dive hotel on St Charles Avenue in New Orleans.

The attraction to the hotel aside from the cheap rent was the 24/7 bar and dance hall conveniently located downstairs. An assortment of outsiders, lost souls, artists, sailors, oil rig workers, poets, dancers, ravers, DJ’s and circus performers haunted both at the bar and in the rooms.

During an exceptional hot summer, a mandatory evacuation was given due to an incoming Hurricane. Several of us decided to stay at the hotel simply because we had no place else to go. The flood water came in very quickly forcing us to go upstairs, basically trapping us from the outside world for several days. Without power the intense humid heat and lack of emergency provisions started taking it’s toil on us.

Everything became really wacky when all the booze and drugs ran out. Back then there weren’t cell phones and the hotel was far from Internet savvy. We were trapped like rats on a sinking ship. It was during this intense time that I started writing the novel.

For personal reasons I had to abandon this project for almost 10 years.

Then in the summer of 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit and we all know that story.

I was on a family vacation in the NE at that destructive time and for some strange reason, I had grabbed a box containing all my poetry and the Hurricane Hotel manuscript before leaving the city. My New Orleans home and studio sat in nine feet of floodwater for six weeks and during that time, living in a friend’s apartment in NYC, I started reworking the novel. By Thanksgiving of the same year I felt it was finished and showed a tattered manuscript to my cousin, author Andre Dubus III. He read the novel, told me it was brilliant, and proceeded to write the foreword. During this time, I made 12 hand made copies of the book and gave them to friends as gifts. Their critical response convinced me I had something worth publishing.

The rest is history and for some a good read.

What do you see as the similarities and differences between writing and painting?

Expression means translating a feeling, a fleeting moment, a response to something personal and accepting the end result is simply a snow flake landing in a puddle of tepid lake water.

I believe the continual fire to create, in whatever shape or form, draws from the same source regardless of medium.

What does each bring to you as a creative individual?

Continual room for improvement.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations (issues), or both?

The creative cave is the looniest, loneliest place in the world. Ultimately it’s the scariest and safest place as well. For the few who can let go of society’s demands and dogmas, and really dig deep enough into the self, eventually a primal place is found. This place can be described as a fountain if you like of unlimited resources where everything is possible and nothing else really matters.

For many years I wrestled with some formidable demons, being a passenger in a strange land and the jaws of poverty kept the monkey on the back, so to speak. I am lucky.  Somehow my art, a small group of loyal friends, and the kind folks at Charity Hospital in New Orleans kept me alive, kept me coming back for more. It would be fair to say I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for my art and a few folks believing in it.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

From the very beginning no one understood why I had to make art, why I had to scribble on bathroom walls, deface posted signs, or kick down the barbed wire fence. It’s a very selfish pursuit. It takes guts and sometimes stupidity, you have to have an ego strong enough to accept the creative force is not always a pretty smiling greetings card, and what you are making might not fit over the proverbial couch or match the newest art fad . My friend Bob Hogge, says it best, “If you’re not excited or driven by what you make, why expect anybody else to be interested.”

I think these are very exciting times to be a visual artist. The electronic world has numbed the raw sense of immediacy. Film and television has opened the doors for artists to express their ideas to hundreds of thousands of people, but neither of these mediums can replace the visceral place a painting or sculpture holds.

Alone you have to go into the studio and do battle and in that struggle there is no room for caring what other people think, if you pause you lose. Period. Sure it feels good if some folks dig the end result, but I avoid trying to make art that competes against other art. If my work has any truth to it at all, if what I am saying actually can stand on its own two legs something positive will manifest.

It took me a long time to master the trick of not taking negativity personally. It comes with the ride so get used to it. Everybody is driving their own car and has a right to their own opinion whether I agree with them or not.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your creative goals? If so, can you tell us about it.

Discipline can be achieved through daily routine.

Every day I work on something.



Where do most of your ideas come from?

Good question.

Perhaps in the way an opened can of half eaten sardines, imported from Thailand, drowned in red wine, resembles the nape of a lost lover’s neck.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers?

The inability to sit still and do nothing.

So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

Luck, continually working it and helping folks less fortunate than ourselves.

Do you plan to write more or will your main focus continue to be art?

The 1000 or so coffee stained poems, sitting in a cardboard box, beside me now, salvaged from natural and unnatural disasters, ex’s ex-husbands, and sometimes their wives, mice, and the neighbor’s cat, continue to grow legs and constantly scurry across the floor, walls and ceiling of my rented womb resembling sniveling pesky cockroaches.

No matter how many times I’ve doused them in tequila and lighter fluid, plucked their wings, singed their tails with hot cigarettes, trapped them into remote dusty corners or flushed them down the sink, Providence demands that they fly.

Hurricane Hotel, for all its flaws, can be described as a deranged epic poem.

The fact that Hurricane Hotel continues to be read and is rapidly becoming a best seller is beginning to fuel the notion the contents of my cardboard box is worthy of publishing.

It has been suggested on many an occasion I should incorporate my poetry into my paintings and this may be the next logical step.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life?

Gratitude.

Why is this important to you?

It combats greed and beats stealing from the poor.


"Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature's monotony.  The sublime idea men have of the universe would collapse with dizzying speed.  The order which we find in nature, and which is only an effect of art, would at once vanish. Everything would break up in chaos. There would be no seasons, no civilization, no thought, no humanity; even life would give way, and the impotent void would reign everywhere."  - Guillame Apolinaire

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