Interview: Kurt Eisenlohr

Kurt Eisenlohr is a writer, painter, and photographer, hailing from the Portland area. He’s contributed stories to Air in the Paragraph Line for issues 11 and 12, and did the cover art for issue 13. Kurt has a blog called Easy to Use, and his book Meat Won’t Pay My Light Bill was recently republished by Rose City Publishers.

Kurt answered a few quick questions for the blog about the cover painting and his work.

1) You painted “money tree”, which is the cover art for AITPL #13. What’s the story behind that painting? Is there any particular theme or thing that influenced it?

That was something that was lying around my apartment for awhile, a bad and unfinished piece of business I saw every day out of the corner of my eye. One night I starting painting over it, painting it out, because I had nothing to paint on and wanted to paint, you know, and landlords always get pissed when you paint on the walls. I started to paint it out then thought, Oh to hell with it, this is tedious, and I’ll use up too much paint getting back to ground zero. I’ll just leave my old painting peeking through, and use bits and pieces of it, see how that works. I’m kind of lazy, I hate prepping canvas and all that. I’ll paint a suitcase, or on a piece of wood, if that’s what’s lying around. I just tagged it, really. I defaced a piece of trash and made it better.

I like Pop Art; Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring. I like outsider art, people like Howard Finster and Daniel Johnson. I also like Picasso and Matisse, Basquiat, Robert Crumb, Ron English, Rothko, de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and photographers like Robert Frank and Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand and Robert Capa and…there’s more, there’s many.

I’m happy that my painting found its way to the cover of your magazine. It’s all about hydrocodone and sea monkeys, I’ll have you know, and mercury in the water and domestic terrorists and death and taxes and x-ray specs and genetics and plastic oceans and mutated frogs and people turning into robots and consuming and being consumed by all these things. All of us gobbled up and eaten alive by capitalism, old comic books and painkillers. The painting is currently hanging above my kitchen sink. It’s for sale.

2) You’re a talented artist, but you’ve also appeared in AITPL in the past as a writer, and you’ve written your own book and have a blog. Do you consider yourself an artist first and foremost or a writer? Which one do you enjoy more, or have you had more success with?

Writers are artists, when they’re good. I enjoy doing both or all three–I’m a photographer, too. It helps you as a writer, I think, to be able to compose a photograph properly, get the exposure right, nail a moment down, to be a good colorist and know how to use a paint brush, twist it this way, then that way, put it over there instead of the other place. Words are paint; they’re light, shadow…right?

I’ve not been particularly successful ($) in any of the mediums I work. I have shows and I get published but I consider myself first and foremost a forty-six year old bartender/waiter/tap dancing two-way mirror with no other marketable skills, which is fairly frightening. It doesn’t matter as much when you’re seventeen, or twenty-six or whatever. I recently found a bunch of old negatives I shot in the late seventies and early eighties. I printed a selection of those, as many as I could afford to, for a show back in October. Looking at them, I thought, Wow, I was really good back then, a teenager living in a small town, shooting whatever was around, family members, neighbors, people I’d meet in the street and follow home. In many ways, I was better then than I am now. I did it more, and had less to draw on, as far as subject matter, and fewer distractions.

I also didn’t have to worry about things like rent and groceries and my teeth falling out–I  blew all my money on film and processing and figured I’d photograph my way past death and out of dying, I’d just freeze everything on film, and my family and friends would live forever…not the case, sadly. See how the romantic youthful mind works? My camera died recently. I need a new one. I like shooting with actual film, and that’s really expensive (the camera that died was digital.) Painting can be expensive, too. Writing, of course, is free. It’s hard work, though, more so than painting for me. It’s like diamond cutting. I get tired just thinking about it sometimes. But I find it the most rewarding.

I like to think of myself as writer, but I wouldn’t walk around calling myself that. Maybe if I write a few more books. I can’t even really call myself a painter, even though I’ve done hundreds of them. My paintings are more like doodles than fully realized works of art. I try to be as creative as I can be, despite my limitations. I like working on things. It’s something to do. It’s that or watch America’s Biggest Loser, you know? Or sit in a bar. And I’ve sat in enough bars to last me a lifetime or two.

3) Are you a self-taught painter, or did you study it?

I am a self-taught painter, a self-taught writer and a self-taught photographer. That doesn’t mean I didn’t study, or that I no longer study. I study everyone whose work I admire. I study everything, even the bad stuff I sometimes subject myself to–you learn what not to do, or at least you try. I not only study the work, I study the lives, as well. This began around the age of thirteen and continues. I had a shrink once tell me long ago, when I was a teenager, that I was living vicariously through the lives of others, reading so many biographies. I asked him if fictional lives counted. He said yes. I was in a psychiatric hospital at the time. And I was rereading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Wouldn’t you be?) “I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this,” I told him, quoting Kesey’s character, Randall P. McMurphy, trying to lighten the mood a bit, because it was necessary in that fucking place. The guy didn’t think it was funny, or he just didn’t get it. But maybe he was right. Either way, my own writing is largely autobiographical.

4) What kind of stuff do you read and what are some of your favorite authors?

I read a wide variety of things, both fiction and non-fiction. Some of my favorite authors are William Burroughs, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kafka, Bukowski, Flannery O’Conner, John Fante, Henry Miller, Emmanuel Bove, Camus, Denis Johnson, Larry Brown, Raymond Carver, some of Kerouac’s stuff, Nathanael West, Jeff Stewart, Mike Daily, Michael Ondaatje (I recommend “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” and “Coming Through Slaughter,” both are works of historical fiction, and pure poetry.)

There are so many writers I like, and people I still need to read. I really like Kevin Sampsell’s new book, “A Common Pornography.” It’s a memoir, and it’s structured a lot like his fiction, simple, short, economical vignettes that are vivid yet don’t tell the whole story. He gives you these glimpses and leaves enough space for you to pursue your own thoughts or even memories of your own adolescence, trusting you to fill in the blanks. It doesn’t sound like writing. And it certainly doesn’t sound like any other memoir out there. It appears effortless, which is the hardest thing to pull off. He doesn’t tell you how to think about the events he’s relating or what to feel, or even what he was feeling necessarily. The feeling is just there, it’s a given, he doesn’t have to point it out or wave a flag. It’s a memoir but he somehow stays out of the way of his own life story–an amazing feat, really. He’s a master stylist, and I love the way the book is structured. Sampsell knows how to use a camera. Not a digital camera with 14 mega pixels, more like a pinhole camera, and the print is sometimes really clean and clear at the center, but gets fuzzy around the edges or just fades to black. I should tell you that he published my book, “Meat Won’t Pay My Light Bill.” He has a press called Future Tense, and he’s been doing that for about twenty years now. But I’m not making this up, as a friend of mine would say. He’s the real deal. I guess I’m running on about it because I read the book twice and just finished the second go around yesterday while on the train home from work. It’s stuck in my head like a song. Good art does that.

Thanks to Kurt for answering my questions, and for such a great cover for #13.  Check out his blog at http://www.kurteisenlohr.blogspot.com/ and his book.  You can also download AITPL 11 and 12 to see his stories.

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