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I met with Summer Rayne Oakes during a strange period in my life — shortly after launching Deviation in its new form, yet having no answers as to how I would provide for myself going forward. I had a mission but little stability in which to pursue it. (Instability is a reality for all missions, I’ve come to believe. Lacking risk, it’s not a mission so much as it’s a hobby or fleeting fancy.) Summer is also on a mission, I would learn.
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Peter Makebish is an easy man to find. On a sunny day he’s ordinarily seated in a fold-up lawn chair on the sidewalk outside the glass and steel facade of his dainty, 10th Avenue gallery. Cold or rainy and he’s seated just inside the front door. His is the kind of place that stands as evidence that the city of New York is not without its soul. It’s a kind of protectorate, as though, in a debate with a reminiscent friend who insists that all is lost, you could simply say “Peter Makebish Gallery” and you’d be drinking for free that night.
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I’m seated across from Sarah Cain and in the course of our conversation it dawns on me that I’m talking with a real and true artist, which admittedly is an odd thing to think. I’ve spoken with a variety of artists, each and every one of whom I could describe in the same way: as a real and true practitioner of the arts. With others, however, it’s possible to separate their work from other aspects of their life and still capture something of their essence. With Sarah there is little separation. It’s as though any number of seemingly disparate facets of her world — yoga, cats, vegetarianism, or rap music — are also fueled by the need to paint. Or that all of her motives are imbued with the same “it” that permeates her work. This singular focus is testament to how fully her work is an exploration; a means to mine deeper one’s own essence.
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Bret Figura’s home is one of those houses where the doorbell is always ringing, where neighborhood kids come over to see who’s around to play, and where a huge extended family gathers to celebrate holidays, birthdays and nothing in particular, too.?Bret seems to thrive off the energy, laughing easily and taking all the interruptions in stride. With a small, wiry frame and hair to match, he sits cross-legged on a stuffed chair covered with fabric in a musical instrument motif. His pug, Stella, snores impressively loudly on the chair behind him while Nanook, a giant white puffball of a dog, naps near his feet.
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I was impressed with James Carpenter from the beginning. Not merely because of his body of work or that he brought great ideas to our project. Quality speaks for itself. It was because he was open and approachable. That he was free of the need to impress is what impressed me the most. At the time I was living in Qatar, working on a fancy urban redevelopment scheme with teams of accomplished architects, engineers, planners, and construction-related consultants of every stripe. Among this esteemed, designerly crowd Jamie’s approachability was a rare trait, which made it all the more notable. We only met briefly but this impression stuck with me. When we fortuitously crossed paths a few years later in a TriBeCa coffee shop I had no reservations about re-introducing myself. And when I pitched him on it, the fact that he agreed to take part in this new Deviation thing was testament to his openness.
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It was a discovery, even though I was looking for it. While scouring the streets of Manhattan, a total outsider to the city’s art scene on a quest to write about the people in that scene, I encountered a simple black and white banner that said Postmasters Gallery. It was pinned to construction scaffolding near two understated, residential-looking doors. A plywood interior wall obstructed the view through the bottom half of the gallery’s front windows, above which a flatscreen displayed an image of a shadowy man standing in a street. The caption “…Art is lost in this town…” was stamped along the bottom of the frame. Despite my lack of familiarity with the terrain I knew enough to recognize an outlier. Inside was Magdalena Sawon, one of the gallery’s founders.
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A huge Puerto Rican flag hangs on the wall of the dark room as DJ Shyboi plays her set. I can barely make out Christina and Felton dancing next to me through the thick fog, each also donning shirts emblazoned with the flag. Techno music booming through the speakers vibrates my chest. I’m sweating, hypnotized by the pounding drums that form a lump in my throat. I don’t even notice that the DJs have switched. I pause for the time it takes to hang my jacket on a nail. Then my body continues to move to the steady, hard beat. Tall light-rods behind the DJ change from green to blue, red to white in a symbolic display for Puerto Rico. It’s the first time I’m raving for a cause.
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Kosmo Vinyl speaks with a richness that immediately draws me in. He’s energetic, in tone and cadence. A personality. As he describes his childhood — bearing witness to mod culture, his family, and the liveliness of the people in his community — a full and vivid image takes form in my mind. His words paint the picture for me and I gain a lucid sense of where he comes from, or where he’s coming from. Kosmo lives a rich life and I believe that the two are not separate, the richness of his experiences and the richness of how he speaks about them.
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Rad Roubeni was born in Iran in 1978, the heat of the revolution. “And, being Jewish and being supporters of the king…” Weeks after Rad was born his parents sought refuge in Israel, then settled in West Germany where several of his uncles were established in life and in business. His father held no delusions about their circumstances, saying to Rad’s mother on the flight out that they would never be able to return. So Rad grew up in Hamburg.
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Laura Sallade’s first commission happened in art school, not long before her graduation. I use the word “happen” because that’s the impression I get in hearing her talk about it — that it appeared from the ether. Laura was working in a materials shop, she helped a woman who looked a little bit lost among the supplies, and the woman ultimately made a visit to Laura’s studio.
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Some people aren’t cut from the same mold as the rest of us. They operate by entirely different notions of what it’s all about, inhabiting a space largely beyond that of contemporary customs and culture. It’s not that they’re odd or quirky. It’s something deeper and more nuanced than that, possessing a spiritual quality. I see them as mystic outsiders — those who were never indoctrinated, or were indoctrinated but fought their way out. Precisely because their minds are not molded by bourgeois propriety mystic outsiders have clarity. If you happen across one it’s a special day. You will be seen for who you are. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune of meeting a handful of such people. One of whom is Coconut Rob.
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Solveig Galbo punctuates her sentences with laughter. Particularly as she’s describing her obsession with flowers or her unusual upbringing in remote forests. Her laugh is full, but casual and light. It shows humor and self awareness — or the humor of knowing and embracing one’s own quirks. More than anything it’s her laugh that proves she’s not weighed down, even though she’s willing to fight for a worthy cause. Lacking a genuine sense of purpose or self one can easily be consumed by the troubles of the world. But Solveig is fine. With a light heart and a positive outlook she’s able to fight the good fight.
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Morocco Omari entered my world at the right time. I had been a little too caught up in big worries over small things, such as work and money and making my way in new pursuits. But talking with him, then listening back and transcribing the recording word for word, helped clear my mind of its concerns. It was like meeting with a counselor, hearing him describe his life and how he goes about living it. There’s a calmness to his voice. Not only the sound but the substance; the essence that is being conveyed. Absorb what he’s saying and it will affect you. Several emotions surfaced while putting this piece together: joy, sadness, humility, admiration, respect, gratitude. I laughed, I nearly cried at times, I was quiet — just listening…
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Other than the fact that it existed, neither of us knew a thing about the art scene in New York. But when my friend proposed that I write about the lives of the city’s artists, using Deviation as an analytical lens, it was time to get connected. He said that we should walk the streets of Manhattan, beginning downtown and working our way north, introducing ourselves at galleries, museums, boutiques, and any other arty and/or crafty establishment we came across. This march began in TriBeCa, extending east and north over the course of many days, steadily nearing Chelsea and what we would discover to be a mind-numbing onslaught. We had no clue about the magnitude of it all.
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The first time she traveled by airplane Shei Phan was 21. It was a one-way ticket from Oklahoma to New York — her ticket out. She had been working three jobs and studying for a degree in art education when her break finally broke. “It was a little scary because I didn’t know anybody [in New York]. No friends, no family, no nothing. I just thought, ‘Well, lets see what happens.’ It was my first city outside of Oklahoma and Texas.” She had also lived in Bakersfield briefly and Vegas for a month, but we’ll get to that.
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Devon Rodriguez is fresh from a studio visit when we sit for our talk. The twenty-year-old painter has been getting much attention these days. It’s been building, the way a snowball grows in mass and speed as it careens down a mountain. One thing led to this which led to that which triggered another thing over there, and on and on in a chain reaction of positive reinforcement for one overriding message: keep doing what you’re doing.
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The dynamic shifts when you place a smartphone on the table midway between yourself and another person, pressing the record button and proceeding to talk as though it's not there. No longer is it a casual affair, shared words irrupting and dissolving in real time with only faulty, lapsed memories keeping score. We are now creating history, capturing in abstract time even the subtlest intonations, documented word for word. Nothing is lost. And as any good conquerer knows, the power to write history is a spoil of conquest. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I sit before Melinda Hanley knowing only that my intentions are pure. She sits before me knowing that she has much to say, but that any word she speaks has the potential to be misused — intentionally or through carelessness.
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Speaking with actor Jason Lopez requires focus. Thoughts escape his mind in a ceaseless outpouring, leaping from one to another in an intricate web of interlocking tangents that don’t at first appear to interlock. But once the tangents are exhausted, he circles back and draws a conclusion that reveals a sketch of the tangled circuitry connecting beginning to end. A friend of mine calls it “soaring,” this stream of consciousness mode of communication. It is a term I appreciate, much the way I appreciate the act itself.
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Earlier this year brothers Sam and Jack Powers decided to spend their vacation time in the Democratic Republic of Congo — the city of Goma to be precise. Initially they thought northern Iraq but, you know, ISIS. They’ll be revisiting that thought next year. Things have quieted a bit, but Goma is no stranger to conflict either. ... Nearly all of the helpers in Goma work for top-heavy international organizations, such as the UN. They can be seen racing through town in expensive, kitted-out Land Cruisers, which can lead one to ponder just how far is the divide between helper and profiteer. Not so with Sam and Jack, who preferred to get around by motorcycle taxis and tried to stay in a hostel until they discovered that it was a brothel. They are fully on the helper side of that equation.
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Ten years ago Eric Helvie was a student in Indiana, soon to graduate from a culturally dissociated art program that was governed by conservative Midwestern values. He was twenty-two, married, and his wife was about to give birth to their first child. For a man on track to become a prominent painter in New York City, his are not customary credentials. But when you more deeply assess his trajectory, including a snapshot of this one moment in time — coming to grips with adult responsibilities at a young age while balancing his clear sense of inner purpose against his frustration with the school’s disconnect from the professional art world — Helvie’s impending success is no mystery.
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Ancient myths are littered with tales of descent. Be it a voyage to the underworld or a debilitating injury, heroic figures customarily fell from grace. But to be heroic, one must overcome. From descent there must be a succeeding ascent. Otherwise, it’s only a fall; a story of death and disease. It is the very process of overcoming that makes one heroic, simultaneously grounded and majestic. Heroes are defined by their struggles.
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Humanity has for eons pondered dual infinities — the infinitely big and the infinitely small. From the philosophers and mathematicians of ancient Greece and India to the ongoing pursuit of a theory that unifies the bigness of relativity with the smallness of quantum mechanics, explorations into the nature of existence continually and historically intertwine both infinities. Photographer Pietro Pasolini has an innate sense of proportion; an intuitive feel for the balance between micro and macro. He has spent much time pondering both infinities.
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Singer N’Kenge is as radiant off the stage as she is on. I know a guy who calls her Firecracker. Petit, slender, and alive, her overflowing energy removes any doubt as to how she can channel such a powerful voice through such a small figure. She is not the rotund image that comes to mind when I think: opera singer. But this is just the first of my conceptions that will be challenged during our talk.
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I first met Francis Virella in the East Village. It was late at night and I was out having drinks with a friend. The two of us were standing on the sidewalk in front of a bar, talking with a girl who had stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. That’s when Francis rolled up. He flashed before our eyes two samples of his work; rectangles cut from a shower curtain and adorned with erratic multi-hued smears of nail polish. He was skinny and his hands were dirty, as though too many hours had passed since his last shower or warm dinner. His nail polish paintings were on sale for twenty bucks. “I’m gonna be famous,” he told us.
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Nikki Pope rocks. It’s true. I’ve seen videos of live performances, heard songs from her latest album, we’ve met face to face… It’s intense, as though she herself is a physical manifestation of song. There is no question of who she is or what she’s about — she lays it out for you as plain as day. And now that I’ve got the in, I’ll soon be seeing her live and in person on a Broadway stage. I can’t wait.
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Sometimes it’s best to let a man speak for himself: “If you look at almost any one of my art pieces, one thing that I love to do is overlay a ton of graffiti. So if you look at the colors it’s just a bunch of graffiti overlaid, but it still can be found inside this compact little circle. It’s always been that way with me. I love watching chaos. There’s just something about my life, I love watching chaos. I looove watching chaos. I love watching chaos. ..."
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It’s been called different things by different people. Winston Churchill had his “wilderness years” and John Lennon had his “lost weekend.” Dylan disappeared for awhile, but as with all things Dylan, it’s hard to put a label on what that was all about. Churchill returned to political life to become an iconic World War II figure, Lennon’s lost weekend was actually a hugely productive eighteen months of solo and collaborative output, and Dylan emerged to write Blood on the Tracks following his first tour after nearly eight years of reclusion. Singer and musician Maria Neckam is returning from her own self-imposed exile, arriving with a new sound and a new approach.
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As with several millennia of traders before him, Behroush Sharifi specializes in moving spices across borders — specifically fine Persian saffron. Before the embargo was imposed on Iran, effectively closing off his supply chain by executive order, the famed Saffron King established himself as the city’s premier purveyor of this distinguished spice.