Originally published Nov 1, 2016
Ric Kokotovich speaks in lyrics. Perhaps it’s the ten years he spent as a drummer; perhaps it’s his ongoing love and collection of music. Or maybe lyrics just pop into his head like so many nouns and verbs. On the eve of his first solo exhibition in Mexico, I had the pleasure to interview Ric amongst his work at Centro Cultural La Cúpula in Mérida, and we talked about his life as an artist.
How old were you when you recognized you had a creative voice?
I guess when I learned to play the drums at age 12. I practiced on chairs, tables, tin cans, myself, until my father realized I was serious and bought me a snare, a bass drum and a cymbal. At 15, I left home to tour with a band. I was 6’ tall with a fake ID and an attitude, and wanted nothing more than to be out of Edmonton and on the road.
What did you love about being a musician, and why did you leave it behind?
Music is a part of my soul and I loved the ability to express myself as a musician. I stopped touring because I got married very young and my wife didn’t want me travelling across the country as a musician, for the obvious reasons. So at 21, I picked up a camera and got my first break. I had a great relationship with other musicians, and the owner of the Riviera Rock Room hired me to take photos of bands like Split Endz, Heart, and Motely Crue. That was my first real foray into photography.
Was there a defining moment when you went from being a person who appreciated art to someone who had to make art?
I can tell you exactly. It was an image by Diane Arbus of a young boy holding a toy hand grenade in Central Park. The emotional connection I had to that photograph was visceral—still is to this day. It triggered something in me that made me want to be a photographer; to create images that would touch people the way I’d been touched by Diane Arbus.
What was the first piece, in your opinion, of fine art you created?
I think it was a photograph I made in Acapulco. It was an abstraction of a Travellers Palm, like the one I have in my garden in Mérida today. Someone paid me $250 for that image in 1979, and I suppose that was another pivotal moment in my life when I realized I could create images other people were touched by.
Was there a catalyst for the Mardi Gras work?
Subculture was a fascination for me but I’m not sure what the catalyst for that first trip was. I just woke up one morning and said to my wife at the time, “I want to drive to New Orleans and shoot Mardi Gras,” and that was it. We got in my 280Z, slept in the car in a La Quinta parking lot and I spent the next week documenting the mayhem and magic that was Mardi Gras in the early 1980s. It was then I met a book publisher and we came up with a plan to shoot over five years. Unfortunately he went out of business after three years and the book never happened, but I kept shooting.
How did photography transition into filmmaking?
I’ve always been interested in story and for me, film allows for a fuller rendition of narrative from beginning to end. The story in a photograph is more finite. I was a filmmaker for 10 years and it was very gratifying. When I finished Claire with my creative partner Julie Trimingham, it was nominated for a Genie so that helped validate all the time, money and energy that went into making it. Our film, Beauty Crowds Me, screened at MOMA in NYC and even though I didn’t have the finances to be there, it was a rewarding achievement.
After completing your film in 2001, a short drama called Bitter My Tongue, you stopped making films. Tell me about that decision.
I was in NYC to collect the New York Independent Film Festival Audience Choice Award for Bitter My Tongue. This was September 11, 2001 and we all know what happened that day. My film didn’t play—my world changed as did everyone elses’. I quit making films mostly because it takes a lot of money, time and energy and I was burnt out. Instead I took another easy career path (laughs) and wrote a screenplay. After two years I went back to being a photographer, travelling the world to places like Yemen, Sudan, Nepal. Photography excited me again.
Author Jennifer Egan says in Why We Write: “When I’m not writing I feel an awareness that something’s missing. If I go a long time, it becomes worse. I become depressed. There’s something vital that’s not happening. A certain slow damage starts to occur. I can coast along awhile without it, but then my limbs go numb. Something bad is happening to me, and I know it. The longer I wait, the harder it is to start again. “
How would you describe your own compelling need to make art?
I wake up every day and something inside causes me to look for ways to create something visual—why I have this need I’m not sure. At this point in my life I’m inspired by everything and anything; my neighbours’ house, the hummingbird I saw in my garden this morning, the perfectly crushed tubing in the middle of the road. Like the author says, there’s a void when you’re not working, and you have to fill the void with something. I like to fill the void with work, with creative process. It’s part of the stabilization I need to be a decent human being. Or at least a more grounded one.
Monet was in his early 40s when he really started to paint, whereas Jean-Michel Basquiat, for example, was a phenom in his early 20s. How would you say the gift of time has helped develop your own voice as an artist, and would you say you’re a ‘better’ artist now, at 61?
Definitely a better artist. I take more time to process clearly. More thought goes into the work than energy, and by that I mean the course from beginning to end is a straighter line than when I was much younger. As a younger artist, you throw a lot of things at the wall and hope that something sticks. Now I just want to walk up to the wall and put something on it.
The writer Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED Talk in 2009 called ‘Your Elusive Creative Genius’. She spoke about her encounter with American poet Ruth Stone, and I’d like to quote Elizabeth here:
“Ruth Stone, who’s now in her 90s, but she’s been a poet her entire life, told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”
People often believe in this phenomena of creative thought—that if you’re ‘creative’, ideas just come. With that in mind, tell me about your own creative process. Do ideas thunder across the cosmos to land in your body fully formed?
No, I collect things—images, objects, words, photographs of old paintings—anything that stirs something in my soul. Some of these images have been around me for years. Recently I started interpreting my own version of Madonna del Prato by Giovanni Bellini and Venus at her Mirror by Diego Velázquez. There’s a lot of story in these pieces and interpreting them is like making a film. I shoot all the elements after drawing the idea, but unlike creating a photo, I feel I’m creating a scene in a movie. The story is open to interpretation by the viewer because my interpretation doesn’t matter. I get more juice watching someone look at my work, than I do looking at my own images; I enjoy seeing that emotional reaction.
In working as an artist, how do you juggle isolation with the obvious need for collaboration and relationship?
More than anything, filmmaking taught me about the power of collaboration. Even though I primarily work alone in my studio and enjoy it, the work only becomes fully formed once it’s outside of myself. I’m currently working on a large piece called ‘Daughters‘, an experiential installation that pays homage to hundreds of missing or murdered women in Mexico. It’s a collaboration between creatives in both Canada and Mexico, and involves video, sculpture and sound. The Daughters project is an evolution of process for me and represents the direction I would like my creative practice to take; one that allows me to explore story through many different mediums and avenues of expression.
Ric Kokotovich and 39 talented artists will take part in the 2019 Merida Artist Studio Tour Feb 16/17. Visit meridaenglishlibrary.com for details on the artists, the tour and where to buy tickets.