In my many facets as artist and arts organizer, I’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with Jason A Maas, a Brooklyn based artist and the founder and Executive Director of the non-profit Artist Volunteer Center. Jason’s an amazing draughtsman and his work as an activist is equally as inspiring. He has dedicated himself to helping others and bridging the gap between the art community and the community at large. We caught up during the hustle and bustle of Armory week to discuss socially engaged art and the antithesis of the commercial art market.
Adam Zucker Can describe your artistic background? When did you decide to pursue a career as an artist and what are you most passionate about with regards to art?
Jason A Maas I went to college for Art Ed and landed a job teaching elementary school right out school. I would take classes at the New York Academy and the Art Student’s League on the Weekends and spent a Summer at the Florence Academy. I quit teaching after six years to get my MFA and by the end of it, realized that making accurate paintings wasn’t very fun anymore. I didn’t want to just make pretty objects that could look great over a couch– it is so easy to get caught in that trap because that is what sells. I started focusing my content on scenes of social unrest. This was around 2011, and the Occupy movement was going strong and it really felt like something was in the air, and I started depicting actual and imagined scenes of protest in my drawings. It felt like I was getting somewhere, but there was still something missing. Then Hurricane Sandy hit and the first floor of my studio building in Red Hook was completely destroyed. I immediately started volunteering in the relief effort and was quickly hired, spending the next nine months running volunteers and cleaning mold and connecting organizations on the ground. It completely changed my artwork and I recognized a need for artists to be supported to participate in direct action with their community. I left Rockaway in July of 2013 to start the Artist Volunteer Center (AV Center), an organization that acts as a support service for artists to get involved and make art about their experiences working with communities. My art practice now involves object making in my studio but also involves the arts administration work I am doing for the AV Center. The organization is in a way an art project. Thinking of it that way helps me to create programs, I will always be an artist first and foremost.
AZ Can you talk about some of the themes in your work and what your main mediums are?
JM My own inspiration is now derived from direct action, mirroring the programs I create for the AV Center. When I was working in the relief effort for instance, I was salvaging objects that were discarded from homes and incorporating them into installations in my practice, which is still fundamentally a drawing practice. Lately I have been focused on crowd interactions as a metaphor for the work I am doing. I use this also as a way to develop my arts administration into an effort that simultaneously operates on a very tangible level and also exists in poetic space shared through personal interactions and the artwork created by those involved.
AZ There is also a very overt political reference in these drawings. I look at images of police and swat teams on horseback or groups of people amassed together in a similar setting seemingly in protest. These to me recall the Occupy Movement at Zuccotti Park. Did you draw these from experience of specific events or is it from your collective consciousness?
JM Both. The image that started this whole series was a photograph taken during Occupy Oakland. Scott Olsen, a recently returned vet from Iraq who was participating in the peaceful protest was struck with a tear gas canister in the head and his skull was fractured. Someone snapped a photo of a group of men carrying him to safety, and when I saw the image it immediately reminded me of Raphael’s “Descent From The Cross”. It was life imitating art, it was a modern pietå, it was a tragic and tender moment, and a symbol of so many things that were wrong with the world at this moment in time. That photograph sparked a whole series about social unrest. Though a lot of the work drew directly from photographs and often a series of photographs that I would cull from the internet or take myself to create a drawing, I sought not to recreate the photographs but create the feeling of protest, struggle, defiance and tragedy.
AZ Aside from your socially charged imagery your practice as both an artist and citizen is very engaged in the local community. Tell me about your work as an activist and how that informs your artistic practice.
JM Looking back on it, being an elementary school art teacher was a huge influence on this work now, it was where I cut my teeth in creating and running programs, leading groups, and community organizing. Creating depictions of social unrest definitely further set up the work I am doing now as an artist, activist, and arts administrator. I seek to create programs that I also view as social choreographies– they provide access to a venue and structure to operate in, but then allow the artist to improvise within and beyond them. The Artist Volunteer Center is fundamentally a project whose main function is to be an artist support service, and my main goal is to improve the careers of artists who want to help people. It is a circular model– giving artists a chance to participate in direct action benefits the artist and the people they are serving, and it gives the artist the inspiration to make art– the Artist Volunteer Center then connects the artist to a network, acts as mentor, and provides them with grants, residencies and shows to showcase what they are doing.
The AV Center is founded on the principle that art is most powerful when inspired by or attempting to establish a dialogue around social justice issues. I feel like that kind of art can often only be made when an artist has direct experience with a subject, and I seek to facilitate those connections.
AZ Tell me about (un)scene, your work in the show, and how it is in relation to the other more commercial Armory Fairs?
JM I have spent the past week working to put up walls and assist in building installations to get the show ready for opening night. Mikel Glass, Daniel Baltzer and Bruce Allen as well as a team of others have been working literally around the clock to make this happen, it’s been an incredible feat to witness and be a part of. The show is not like the other fairs and it is a real breath of fresh air in the current state of the art world. There are old master works next to emerging artists. They put my Oakland piece next to the ten foot 17th Century masterpiece of “The Martyrdom OF Saint Peter” by Giovanni Battista Beinaschi. It is an honor to show next to it and to the Tiepolo paintings in the show and then of course the many contemporary artists in the show like Megan Suttles, Eric Tollefson and Kara Daving. It’s free AND there’s free ice cream by Ben & Jerry, so come by!
AZ What’s ahead for you both with your artistic practice and The Artist Volunteer Center?
JM Lately I’ve been using my studio practice as a moving meditation, to paint before I begin working on programming at the AVC. I am working to unite the two, it is an exciting time! I am partnering with the fantastic organization More Art to present Engaging Artists in its second year. Engaging Artists is a socially-conscious residency program that connects artists with communities through volunteer opportunities and offers them free professional development, art shows and access to grant funding. Last year the theme of the program was homelessness, and our artists volunteered all over the city, and it is estimated that over 3000 New Yorkers were served during the program. Many artists continue to volunteer to this day. There will be an art show of the 2014 residents’ work at Hot Wood Arts Center, in Red Hook Brooklyn opening March 28th and running until April 19th. We will also be releasing the open call for this year’s Engaging Artists residency, which will be open to foreign born and first generation American artists to volunteer in their community and cross-culturally. Stay tuned for the open call soon!