On Her Way to a Documentary, Morrisa Maltz Asks, 'Why Do We Make Things?'
The art world and its stock market-like unpredictability will quickly make even the most well-intentioned artist cynical. These days the world is filled with aspiring art stars. The lifelong drive to make something valuable is easily diminished by a discussion of finding a gallery, pricing a work of art as an investment, and the business of being an artist. The resulting disillusionment is a feeling video artist Morrisa Maltz knows well. Feeling frustrated with the system and uninspired, she decided to get back to the basics and ask people who don't play the game, who aren't seeking fame and fortune from the work they make, but who nevertheless refuse to give up the act of artistic creation. She's been traveling across the country, peeking over fences, knocking on doors and hunting people down to ask them a simple question: "Why do we make things?" The plan is to eventually compile the interviews into a cohesive documentary.
On a recent trip to Texas, Maltz stopped for a few days in Dallas and was out for a run when she noticed a few interesting sculptures sprouting up in a backyard along her route. That's how she discovered Jack Evans, who has built a veritable treasure trove of small works of art, each packed with meaning, many of them made specifically for his wife, Bonnie. Maltz spent the next few days interviewing them to make the video at the top. We chatted with her about the project in full and her discovery of Bonnie and Jack Evans.
What was the original inspiration for this project?
About a year ago, I found [myself] a bit saddened or overwhelmed with my life as an artist/filmmaker. I'm not sure what the correct word to describe that feeling was. I had started making a living from my film and art work in the last three years and progressively over that period of time I found myself not enjoying making things anymore. Of course you hear this all the time from creative people as they start to make a living from their work- and I felt this very very deeply. I had started making art after my father passed away suddenly in high school- I had always enjoyed making things but I became very serious about it after that experience. I knew it was what I wanted to do after that happened. And it was my whole world. I loved it- for years and years and years all I wanted to do was make things and it made me happy.
And then I found myself unable to access that pure sense of enjoyment and purpose from it anymore. I wasn't sure if it was living in LA, or the pressure we all feel to succeed at a certain age- Im still not really sure. But I felt like I was getting to a point where I didn't enjoy it so much anymore that I desperately needed to do something about it. I felt the best way to address what I was feeling at that point was to start to ask this question: why do we make things? Where does that need, that purpose, that longing, come from? So I started scouring the internet for people who just make things, with no purpose- no end in mind- just make things. I started searching local newspapers all over America for small stories about people who may help me to answer this question of why, where does this come? The people who make things with no end game. I had no idea what kind of project it would turn into- but finding lots of people like this seemed like a fair place to start.
How did you find Jack & Bonnie?
So in the last year whenever I travel I either try to visit someone that's on my list- (I have an ongoing list I made overtime) or find new people in the area. I had recently done a residency and put up an art show in Marfa and planned on spending the next month or so looking for these people while I'm in Texas. Funnily enough, the night before I found Jack and Bonnie I had a two hour conversation with a photographer who has photographed similar-ish types of people to try and get some guidance if there was anyone in Texas that fit my description. He ended having no real leads in Texas cause it's just too big. There are hardly any people that he knew of in Texas cause it's too spread out and there are just far too many "middle of nowheres," where these people could exist. A little saddened, I decided I would venture up to Oklahoma next where someone on my list was, but that was farther away- and I was a little disappointed. Long story short, the next day I was on a run- and literally a block away from where I was staying in Dallas these weird sculptures were hanging over the someone's fence. They were really strange looking- and then Jack saw me spying and peeking into his yard through the fence. He asked if I wanted to come in and the first sculpture he explained to me was the large one about his wife- that he made for her and i was hooked.
How did he fit in to the project?
As Jack described his sculptures to me the first day I came by his yard it was clear that he did most of this for his wife, with his wife, so clearly out of love - and he enjoyed it and took it very very very seriously. This was clearly how he spends all of his free time- meticulously making things and he wasn't an artist but somehow found this and now this is what he wanted to do until the day he dies. Therefore he fit the bill- no end game- he just loves it- so he was a perfect candidate to pick his brain with this stuff-and also happened to have a great warm personality which was ideal for the camera.
It seems like because these are people who aren’t out there pushing their art, they might be skeptical at first when you ask them to be on camera. Have they been more or less open to it?
Most of them have been. Surprisingly, the majority of the people are over the moon that someone came to see their work, or whatever they want to call it (a lot of the people don't even consider what they are making to be art). But I have noticed that the majority of these people, no matter what they are doing or creating- do take a lot of pride in what they do, or they wouldn't continue doing it. They think it's special and they are excited to be appreciated, which I love, I think this is such a basic human trait. So a lot of them do enjoy having a camera on them. The only one who hasnt so far – my other favorite –was a guy named Tim in Montana. But he didn't want to be on camera for personal reasons. (he had become a cross dresser since the last time he had his picture taken about 20 years prior). So he just wanted his art on film.
I never push anyone though- I'm only comfortable if the subject is comfortable. So whatever they want is exactly what happens. If they don't want the camera on them- I don't want it on them either!
What have you discovered about these self-motivated makers? Where does that drive come from?
Oh my goodness, my heart starts to pound with this question cause it's been so amazing. I feel as if I've learned so much and truly feel helped and guided by these people to better understand the question I set out with. It does definitely vary from person to person. Some of it is the same reason my grandpa still needs to go to work every day, to "keep busy." I remember my photography professor at Columbia, his name was Tom Roma, said 'isn't making art just a way to pass the time, to do something?- like everything else.' Yeah that sounds like a stupid ivy leauge thing a professor would say, but I think there is something to that. We all need to have a purpose every day and some of us find this in making things.
Tim, in Montana, didn't even respond when you asked him questions about art making. He did not think he was making art. And I thought his structures were not just art, but could be amazing film sets and so much more. But to him- he just had a lot of "things," "memories." He had built a whole town in his backyard in rural Montana out of stuff that was given to him and every little thing had a meaning, a memory, a person. It was a way to organize his emotions, his thoughts and his world. You can't not cry when you leave Tim's. And you can go to town with Proust on this one, cause he basically just built a world of memories. And it was not art to him- it was so human- it was a way to organize his world and his emotions. I related to this in such a sincere way. That's been such a source for me to make art from for so long- and probably for so many people- a way to organize my memories. A way to put everything in a place. It's the same thing as keeping a ticket or a birthday card, but what do we do with it? How do we organize our stuff? Jack also touched on this. He had a few pieces that aren't in the video that related to this sense as well. He talked about making things out of stuff that directly had a memory attached. His next project was to make something out of some bricks that he took from his old office building when it got torn down. A way to keep that memory alive in the same way Tim did.
Any others stand out to you thus far on your journey?
Another guy named Elmer in Barstow, California. Lots of his sculptures included his dead mom's jewelry or old things from his childhood. And another guy I met in New Jersey, in the woods, had a few pieces that carried this theme- his mother or father's "something." It really makes you cry- cause it's so relatable. Although, I would say I found more of Jacks work to be from places such as love for his wife, and keeping himself busy, of finding a new purpose for himself in making things. And he literally made half the things in his collection for his wife or inspired by his wife, or named by his wife- I hadn't seen that before. Just out of such love. Making things out of love? Or inspired by love is so beautiful - and again so human.
Also, Jack consistently was so moved that someone "liked," his work. He wanted to make things people "liked." Didn't really care about it being an art show or if it belonged there, but he wanted people to "like," it. I thought this was also so beautiful and I related to that so much. It's clearly quite a part of our makeup to want approval and appreciation from others in what we put our energy into. I'm guessing that's what gets blurred down the road- fame and success is the extreme of this basic instinct. So I loved that Jack and quite a few of these people, want you to like it- they want to be appreciated for their purpose- they may not care about art shows or even know they are making art- but they want you to "like," it.
Where is the project headed next?
So I have a long list of people I'd like to visit, a few of them would be considered "outsider artists," but I really am not a fan of that term and would hope to stay away from it cause that gives these people another context. But yeah on that list are a few what would be considered "outsider artists," others are random people I've found through all of my internet scouring and a few are people that I have met on various adventures or been recommended to on my journeys with this subject. I am going to keep filming people as I go along and take this project really slowly.
I think it's really hard to make something true to the purpose of this project and I want to really know what I'm trying to say and have clear understanding before I start to string together a longer documentary. There have been a few documentaries lately I've seen lately about this type of thing. But they are hard stories to tell, because you don't want to make fun of these people- and I really want to figure out what the story is, and what my purpose with this question is as i start to put footage together. And the more people I visit, the more I can start to picture what that is, but want to make sure I take my time. Long story short- the goal is a feature length documentary about these people, but I think a good start to that is making shorter pieces along the way that introduce these people to the world and help me to better understand the project. One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Rilke, "Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."
This project is truly to me about living out this question of Why We Make Things? And one day gradually- hopefully with the help of these people I will be somewhat closer to that answer. (in the form of a longer doc)
But in the near future? After Jack- I'm just onto the next person on my list to see what they can answer for me through their desire to make things..
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