Xiomaro | Art Studio | New York
   

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How did you get involved in The Sketchbook Project?

An artist friend of mine told me about it.  It was something she wanted
to participate in and thought I might be interested.

How did the idea for Alligators develop?

I kept a list where I jotted down different concepts.  At first, I was going to do a graphic novel around the theme of school bullying.  When I realized I wouldn't have the time, I decided to do a story about workplace bullying in more of a comic book style.

What happened that changed the comic book idea?

The deadline to submit the Sketchbook was one week away, and I had done
nothing toward even starting the project other than the list of concepts.  My work
schedule, up to that point, had been completely overwhelming.  I didn't want to forfeit
the opportunity to participate or lose my registration fee.  So I figured something was
better than nothing and quickly put together what became Why Not Paint Alligators?  
And the theme moved to spiritual bullies.
"

Wouldn't it have been easier to draw a comic book or graphic novel?

One would think so.  But I haven't drawn for many years.  And one week is not enough time for me to warm up to drawing again so that the renderings would flow in a way that would look naturally expressive.  So, instead, I used the computer, which has been my daily creative tool for many years.  So comprehensive is my use of the computer that I can barely handwrite my name anymore.  For many people, the computer is technically intimidating and all the options offered by its software are overwhelming.  But, for me, it's as immediate as grabbing a pencil and drawing.
   
So, if you had the time, you would have preferred to have employed hand-drawings?

Actually, I'm glad I used the computer even though it was a "second choice."  I think it turned out better than if I
had done a graphic novel or comic book.  I can say things on a deeper level with text than with bubbles or captions.
 
   

For a short story, it manages to touch on many themes other than religion.  

I once heard someone say "beware of the thin books because they are the ones that contain the meaty ideas."  Since Alligators is only about 1,800 words, it's actually a lot less than what would technically be considered a short story.  But, yes, some things keep popping up like hair, weight, regional and cultural differences, secular academia and theology, and politics.  It's all interrelated.  I had taken down notes randomly over time.  When I was ready, I distilled them to the craziest incidents and, from there, I was able to write out the story pretty quickly in a stream-of-consciousness fashion.  I only went back to tighten up sentence structure, word choices, or to elaborate further for clarity.  When I read the finished result, it was interesting to see certain ideas emerge and repeat.

   

You also reference the John Bunyan classic, The Pilgrim's Progress, but your's is a
journey that ultimately goes backwards.  How much of Alligators is autobiographical.

Alligators is not a documentary, but everything is based on things that really happened.

But all those incidents with the pastors - their comments about hair, the JFK
assassination, getting paid double and, of course, the comment about painting alligators
- all of that is fictitious, right?

Sadly, all of that actually happened.  Even the stories about the toupees, the smell of roach spray, giving the "whole thing" and "God told me so"... all of it is real.  But rather than presenting my story as a documentary, I took creative license to change the chronology a little and to build composites of many people and situations.  

You describe these incidents as sad, but you tell them with humor.

These are difficult subjects for me, so I find it easier to deal with them comically.  And the humor is there anyway.  I mean, maybe he was wearing cheap cologne or something, but, to
me, it really smelled no different than Black Flag.  I've always been sensitive to smells, so it
was funny to me at the time and I never forgot it.

So why did you select the theme of "Revenge"?

The Sketchbook Project requires that a theme be selected from among a number of predetermined choices they offer.  I can't remember what the other themes were, but I didn't like them.  So I selected their "Revenge" option and decided to turn that on its head.

   

Tell me about the photos.  What are they actually?  Did you make them?

I used to do collage - snipping photos and graphics from magazines, newspapers, Christmas cards or cereal boxes and putting them together to create new images.  But just as the computer replaced my pen and pencil, it has also replaced my scissors and glue.  The collages I create now are done digitally.

   
What are your source materials?

I started out with photos mostly from the mid 19th century and early 20th century.  Some of the best known ones are the Mathew Brady photos from the American Civil War - you can see the originals at the National Archives.  Others are photos of Billy Sunday, the famous Prohibition era evangelist.  Then, I took stock photos of apes, digitally snipped off their heads and pasted them over the human heads.  I used familiar primates like chimps, gorillas and orangutans as well as some obscure ones.  For the Give The Whole Thing photo, for example, I used a Red Colobus monkey.  The Opera Singer with Fake Cancer photo looks like I used a lion's head, but it's actually a Patas monkey. 
   
The photos look very smooth.  They don't look as cut-and-pasted as in a collage.

I went through hundreds of photos and selected monkeys that already had expressions matching what I wanted and that looked appropriate with the gesture of the human bodies.  In a few of the monkey heads, I distorted the features a little to either get it more precise or for comic effect.  In Osama and His Ilk, you'll see that I stretched his face to make him look dumber, more simian and primitive than he already is.  Another technique was to take the heads from the contemporary stock photos and to blend them in with the look of the vintage photos. I converted the heads from color to black and white, adjusted their sizes to the proportions of the bodies, and blurred them to match the softer images onto which they were pasted.  It wasn't always possible, but I also tried to match the direction of the lighting.  With Osama, I actually reversed his photo - a mirror image - so that the shadow on his face fell in the same direction as the shadow on the chimp body.  And if you look closely, you'll see that the chimp is a female.  Osama's culture has such a low regard of women that it is only fitting he be cast not only as a monkey but in the very gender that he and his ilk despise.  It's my version of slapping his face with a sandal.
   

Click any image to start slideshow

   
Why did you decide to use these old photos?

They were already in my head because, at the time, I was studying the history of early photography.  And I like how they relate to some of the themes in Alligators.  The patina in some of these aging photos is a visual cue for the decrepitness in the contemporary mindset, cultures and institutions I wrote about.  The same can be said for the clothing, poses and gestures seen in these old portraits.  They have a pomp, stiffness and militarism that I think is representative of the preachers I've known.  The Civil War photos, in particular, sum up the internal conflict between the "anointed" ones behind the pulpit and many of the average truth seekers sitting in the pews.  The Sketchbook itself, which is a type of notebook that has long been popular with artists such as Picasso, Van Gogh and Matisse, also looks old.  The book's small size, the texture of its cardboard covers and cream colored pages, and the stitching along the spine all give the impression of a bygone era.
   
Interesting.  And why did you pick monkeys?

That was an easy decision.  The people I describe in Alligators are partisans not truth seekers.  That enslavement to a strict party line impairs their ability to reason.  So I thought it would be funny to portray them as knuckle-dragging primates... creatures that science considers to be lower on the evolutionary scale.  It also makes for a clever nod to the whole Scopes trial controversy that raged contemporaneously with Billy Sunday and that, to this day, is the bane of many a preacher.
   

   
Tell me about the other elements you used in designing the book.

To keep the vintage look consistent, I wrote the main text with "Chenier," a font I've seen used in old books.  I printed the text on parchment paper sheets, which were then handcut and individually glued onto the Sketchbook pages.  The collages were also glued on, but I applied black embossed photo corners to give it the look of an old family album.  What's funny is that within a couple of hours of having completed the gluing, I was reading a history book and happened to come across a paragraph explaining how during the time period of the Civil War, it was common for publishers to illustrate books by gluing photos onto the pages.  This obviously predated the technology to simultaneously print both images and text.
   
You placed your collages in
isolation from the text, though.


Yes.  Although the collages are used to illustrate Alligators, they are placed without any text or other collages appearing on an adjacent page.  This is because I think the manipulations of the photos stand on their own.  I want them to be viewed as independent art pieces without any distraction from other elements.  You can see a similar aesthetic in the way that Andy Warhol artistically altered well known photos in his print series of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Jacqueline Kennedy.  In his case, he applied different color combinations via the silkscreen process.  In my case, I used different photo combinations via the digital collage process.  Warhol used photos of iconic celebrities.  I used photos that are iconic to either other photographers or to evangelicals.
   

Apart from technique, what makes the collages art pieces?

There are many reasons including subconscious ones.  Some of the best insights about my work are revealed to me by others.  So I'll let the viewer make his or her own discoveries.  What I can tell you is that many people assume a photo represents objective truth and reality.  So I used actual photos and, through digital collage, re-presented them in a manner that is weird, unsettling and, perhaps, even a little scary.  And that reinforces a line of thought in Alligators... that people, especially leaders, are not always as they appear.  And that documents presented as truth - whether they are photos or ancient texts - can be re-presented or manipulated into something false.  It's why these photos, like many church services I've experienced, leave one with the feeling that something just isn't right.  That it doesn't square with reality.  I've been to churches that rail against the moral ills of society or are ensconced in their own spiritual growth. Yet, I've seen half-hearted efforts to provide physical or spiritual aid to the surrounding community through what they claim to be the "Gospel" ...the Good News, their monopoly on truth.  That juxtaposition is both incongruous and ironic.  From what I've heard preached, I would expect action akin to those of the brave firemen, police and other emergency workers who, to their own peril, rushed into the towers on September 11 to save lives.  That leadership, commitment and heroism buoyed a nation.  

   

Are you concerned about any readers finding Alligators offensive?

It's not my intention to hurt anyone's feelings.  I'm not an artist who creates work for the sake of being offensive, controversial or shocking.  But I can't change what I experienced or how I feel about it.  Religion is still a big part of what America is about and it's much more overt as you move outside of New York.  So my intention, through the Sketchbook tour, is to simply share my viewpoint.  As we discussed regarding the interpretation of my collages, different readers will come away from Alligators in different ways.  Those having a religious background may feel uncomfortable about confronting "the elephant in the room."  Or in this case, the elephant in the sanctuary.  Those on a safari for truth, will find that Alligators confirms their sighting of the elephant.  And for those who get offended and make a big fuss about it, I leave them with Shakespeare's caution in Hamlet - "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."  Sometimes the people who are the most insistent with their objections are the ones who are least secure or knowledgeable about what they believe.

   
But can you see how someone may take it as an attack?
 
Xiomáro

  Anyone can take it as anything.  There is nothing I can do about that.  It's more of a challenge to a mindset
  rather than an attack on individuals, institutions, beliefs or principles.  Jesus said to love God "with all your
  heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind."  Love is a trinity, but that third part about the mind is often   neglected.  It's why so much of what passes off as theology has been reduced to trite bumper sticker slogans
  and a sentimental, nostalgic pining for a past that never existed.  It results in an insular fear of anything new
  and different.  The enemy is not science, humanism, or people living in "blue states."  The enemy is in the mirror.  
  It's the religious establishment and those complicit in its control.  Martin Luther challenged the Catholic Church
  with his Ninety-Five Theses.  That "offense" led to his excommunication.  But it also led to the Protestant   Reformation.  He learned well from Jesus who, Himself, challenged the Pharisees.  I'm far from being a Luther or
  a Jesus.  But the lust for the inappropriate control of others is part of the human condition.  So questioning and
  defying that control has been going on for as long as people have walked the earth.  In that sense, I'm not
  doing anything original.  The creativity is in how I chose to express myself.

   
Given everything you have explained, what can we draw from Alligators about your own spiritual state?

I'm going to leave that conclusion up to the readers.  But I can say that I'm encouraged by the examples of others both known and unknown.  I mean, think of how much more equitable society is today because a minister named Martin Luther King dared to shake up both the religious and secular establishments.  Then there are those I read about in the news who risk life and limb to help impoverished areas of Mexico, the Philippines or the Middle East.  Best of all are the small handful of people I know who don't have all the answers, but they're honest.  They're not just talkers, they are doers as well... quietly and humbly striving to do the right thing.  
   
© 2017 Xiomáro