Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Art Collaboration with Layet Johnson

On Wednesday November 20th, I had the privilege to collaborate on an art project with Layet Johnson on an idea of his. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

Here is his original email.

"----- Original Message -----

Dear Professor Overwijk,

I'm an artist from Little Rock, Arkansas, though I recently moved to New York to pursue my career as an artist. 

In November, I have a solo exhibition at Good Weather Gallery, a leading contemporary art space in the South, in North Little Rock, Arkansas. (http://goodweathergallery.com/)For my exhibition, I would love to collaborate with you on a series of drawings. 

I propose to travel to Ottawa with large chalkboards for us to draw on together. You draw a circle, and I fill the circle in, making each a new shape or symbol. The process will be performative in a sense. I will document the event with photographs and include them in the exhibition. Though I will foot the costs of production and shipping, I believe the collaborative act of each work will make us 50/50 authors. So if any works sell, you'll get half. 

I found your youtube video over a year ago and have thought about it since. Because in college, my painting professor told me about how Zen monks would meditate, then draw perfect circles using sumi brushes and ink. I took this story to my own students, when I taught drawing courses in graduate school. I used it as an example of how drawing is as much a mental as it is a physical act. Though I must say, I value your method more. The economy, the physics, and the gesture of your circles are exactly the type of energy I now prefer in my own work. If you look at my portfolio, you'll see that I enjoy a type of conceptualism and humor in my own art.(www.layetjohnson.com) Though I appreciate traditional drawing strategies, I often look to outsource other materials and methods beyond myself and my abilities. Collaborating is one of these methods. I love the idea of splitting the idea of a work of art between two people. It makes it more layered. For example, if you draw a circle and I add the lines to make it a peace sign, then we are in fact exhibiting "peace." That may sound corny, but I believe it's the sort of ironic touch, or paradox, or joke, that I like all my work to possess.

I'll quit rambling now. I hope this email finds you well. If you have any questions, please write me back, or call (sorry can't share) I'd love to chat. The last thing I"ll add is, I LOVE basketball. Maybe if I visit, we can hoop. Or maybe we could complete the drawings in the gymnasium. The half court circle is another circle I look at quite a bit...

Thanks for your time! Hope to hear from you soon! Sorry if this email's a doozie, but I'm in my super super hot studio in Brooklyn right now and the heat makes it kind of hard to think.


Layet Johnson"

Artists......of course I was interested.
My response email:

"Hello Layet,
How are you?
Please call me Big Al.
I would love to do this with you.
I have had amazing things happen to me because of this viral video - would love to share and collaborate with you.
I am currently on summer vacation with my family but would love to chat and set this up.
My summer number is (sorry can't share this with you). Home number (sorry).
I still play ball once a week with my friends on Thursday nights and would love to have you join us if this happens. Congrats on your move to NYC - I was actually there in September teaching the hosts of the Today Show how to circle draw. It was fun!
Looking forward to making a connection with you.
Big Al"


Meeting Layet in person was awesome. He is a talented artist who thinks very deeply.
He rolled into Ottawa On Tuesday November 19th, had dinner with my family and then played some basketball with me and my friends that night. And of course we hit the pub afterwards.
On Wednesday November 20th, Layet came to GCI and spoke to a couple of art classes and at 3 pm that day we started our art collaboration.

He brought these with him.
8 blue chalk boards.
I was drawing the circles and then Layet was doing the artwork.

Here is where it got interesting for me.
I was not used to drawing circles the size of these boards.
I struggled-for a long time. I kept looking at Layet after I drew a circle - looking for his approval. Not very confident in my ability even though I hold the claim as The World Freehand Circle Drawing Champion.We eventually took a break for dinner.

Then Layet said something to me, " Al, I am an artist, you draw circles. Let yourself go. I am going to leave for an hour and when I come back have 8 circles ready for me. See you in a while."

Alone, in the Glebe auditorium, I found the freedom and creativity to draw 8 circles in no time. It was like he gave me permission to be creative - to do my own thing.

Here are some photos from our art collaboration:

Layet unpacking his blue chalkboards.

Layet setting up our "makeshift studio."

Our Final 8 with Layet's caricatures of him and I.

Final 8.

Final photo at the airport.

My signature circle on the wall behind the auditorium. Wanted Layet to know that I actually could draw a perfect circle. He was cramping my style by the size of his boards. How did he put it "teacher meeting student"?

Boxed up and ready to go to GoodWeatherGallery.

On display at Good Weather Gallery.

Layet at the exhibit in Little Rock @goodweathergallery

Interesting name for Layet's exhibition "TRIP". I do hope that he had a great TRIP to Ottawa and a great experience collaborating with me. It was a great experience for me!

A little about my TRIP:

1) That moment when I finally was released to be creative. All of a sudden the pressure was off and I could find a technique that was going to work for the size circles that were required. I am not sure if I could have done this without being released and without being alone.

2) In hindsight I wonder how often my students look at me for approval as I looked at Layet for his.

3) I met a great person, and a great artist.

For more:

Here is the gallery's take on the exhibition :

To be a teacher is my greatest work of art. The rest is waste product, a demonstration.

                               Joseph Beuys (1969)

The difference between takin’ it easy and makin’ it look easy is essentially (im)materiality. The it in the first phrase refers to a state of mind, the immaterial path of one’s life, or approach to living. In the second phrase it refers to the well executed action or group of actions resulting in a thing (much more involved to make than one could ever perceive) that materially exists. Layet Johnson’s work walks a thin (chalk) line between these — it is this cycle between takin’ it easy and makin’ it look easy where Trip teeters on the transcendent. Eight circles on chalkboards (representing perfection) and eight doodles in and around these circles (smiley face (☺), peace sign (☮), yin yang (☯), basketball, Volkswagen, donut, Saturn, and eight ball) constitute a conceptual exercise, a pick-up game, a path involving two main characters: the doodler ↝ artist ↝ doodler and the high school math teacher ↝ world champion circle drawer ↝ high school math teacher. The results demonstrate ideas of mastery as both a physical (bodily) and mental (intellectual) act and doodling as a repetitive meditation that morphs into an extraordinary ability. What it teaches us is that transcendence is most palpable when one has a sense of oneself and the possibilities within them.