John Brandi’s upcoming opening at Magpie is sure to be more than just a great party.
The last solo show in a stellar season at Georgia Gersh’s Bohemian outpost at the Overland Ranch Complex, Georgia has a special relationship with the Artist/Poet and his wife, Renee Gregorio. Renee was her late father’s (Bill Gersh) partner for many years.
Brandi’s work is both whimsical and political; collected bits of ephemera are collaged into these paeans to the Earth, that capture the fragile beauty of the organism with simplicity and intention.
As a poet, Brandi owes much to the Beat tradition, as well as to Latin American poets including Federico García Lorca, and the Japanese haiku masters. As a painter, his mixed media work, often integrating words and paint with collage, shimmers with jewel like colour while yet other pieces draw on Asian influences as well. Poetry and painting are highly integrated; the visual work, poetic in its construction.
Delighted by the opportunity to pose a few questions to this erudite gentleman, I sent off an email, to which he shortly responded.
1) You’re originally from California but New Mexico has been your home for a long time. Could you please tell my readers how you first discovered northern New Mexico?
My first impressions of the Southwest were from the air. I was ten years old, flying with family from California to Michigan on a Lockheed triple-tailed Constellation. The plane flew low, everything was close. Buttes, mesas, cinder cones, the Grand Canyon, the hogbacks near Gallup, all with a reddish glow that rolled right up to the snow peaks of New Mexico. I got a closer look at all this when my father drove the family back from Michigan on two-lane roads, stopping here and there in what he called “Indian Country.”
In the Peace Corps, mid Sixties, I worked with a volunteer who had trained in New Mexico. The stories he told about the people and villages in the Sangre de Cristos fired my imagination. I was living in the Andes, among high peaks and deep valleys. I was charged by my work with Quechua farmers who were organizing to claim their land rights. On a shortwave radio I heard similar news about northern New Mexico villagers standing up for their own land rights. During that time President Johnson escalated Vietnam to a full-scale war. My draft board ordered me to a military base in Panama for a physical exam. I returned to Ecuador and refused to be pulled from peace work to fight a war I opposed. The draft board continued to hassle me and I left the Peace Corps, even though I had signed on for a third year. After marrying my first wife, an Ecuadorian-Italian, we hit the road. All the way to the Yukon, and Alaska, then Mexico, then the California Sierras. When I turned 26 I was no longer draft eligible. Shortly after, in 1971, a friend invited us to his land near Durango, Colorado.
We arrived in a ’53 Chevy truck, set camp, began to explore. Driving east one day, we took a hard right at Pagosa Springs, curved over the pass, ended in a land of brilliant light. Raw, rippling hills, mesas, sparkling peaks. Everything crooked and swaying, not postcard-perfect like Colorado with its huge ranches, gentrified towns, condos, and too many ostentatious second homes marring the hills. New Mexico called us right in. The landscape matched an interior one, something dreamed, a place very alive. Homes of earth fit the land. Farmers plowed by hand. Villagers sold osha, honey and baskets of chile along the road. In San Juan Pueblo—it goes by its Tewa name now, Ohkay Owingeh—a ceremonial dance was going on in the plaza. Real music, I thought. Classical music! Not imported European opera performed in stiff venues. New Mexico was humble and rugged, feisty with tradition, unique with spiritual practices, art, music, languages, food. It still is. El norte, in particular, is out of the loop, above and beyond what people call “America.”
2) You are known first and foremost, as a poet, but you also make visual art which is rather poetic in its assemblage of disparate elements. I know you have made elaborate journals for years, so are these works an extension of those journals in a way?
Hmmm. I’m sometimes labeled poet-painter, other times painter-poet. Once a third-grade teacher looked at a painting I did and said, “that’s nice, but can you take the words out of it, they belong in a book.” In the Seventies I exhibited my paintings in a Houston gallery. I gave a reading there, too, and several of my journals were on display. The owner wanted to give me a second show, but he asked me to make up my mind. “Are you a painter or a poet? Your audience wants to know.” “It’s not the audience,” I told him, “it’s you who wants to know. Endorse me exactly as who I am and your audience will have no problem.” But he only wanted half of me. I wasn’t given that second show. And this kind of thinking is still around. A few years ago I submitted my paintings to be reviewed for a State art collection. At the final board meeting a committee member nixed an otherwise positive vote. “He’s a poet, not a painter.” I suppose Marsden Hartley, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, e.e. cummings, Henry Miller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or the late Etel Adnan were beyond this committee member’s radar. Or Tagore, Yosa Buson, Nicholas Roerich—entire museums are devoted to these artists!
But to get back to your question of my paintings being extensions of the journals. In a way, yes. But not everything recorded en situ becomes a painting. Some jottings are quick-splash non-mental visual wake ups that become haiku. Some fragments become first lines of long poems or prose. Sometimes what I see has no word equivalent. It demands to be sketched, a thumbnail that later becomes a painting. One that might employ the red iron-oxide, crumbly yellow ochre or blue-gray clay I’m standing on.
Or the coffee I’m drinking, the red chile on my burrito, the sunflower in the vase.
3) Your political background begs the question – what do you make of these times we find ourselves living in?
I’ve been wondering who to ask that question to myself. I recall, way back, poet Lew Welch saying: “sometimes you only have to step three feet to the left and the whole insane machine goes roaring by.” He didn’t mean you ignored the oppressors with their bombs and hatred and bigotry and need for wealth at any cost. He meant that instead of throwing stones at the oppressors and in the process becoming as mean as them, you step aside, disperse into smaller tribes and get to work with others of similar calling. Say, if you have a back-to-the-land leaning, then maybe you begin a community garden, or work with locals to restore fallow fields, preserve an endangered watershed, or rev up meetings to prevent fracking and keep the land and water clean. You work to restore mutual aid, revive a dying community. My old Peace Corps buddy is almost eighty and he’s out there going against the grain of huge financial institutions by encouraging people of little wealth to form micro-finance co ops. They save what they can in a communal pot and loan their expanding fund to each other for short-term needs. It’s simple, and it works! It joins people together. It’s out of the loop of the bigger, better, faster, louder picture. It goes beyond the claims of so-called social media.
I always remember John Nichols hitting the nail on the head when he said “Grow your own tomatoes. Turn people on to what tomatoes really taste like.” It’s a political act, it goes against corporate quick-profit, chemically raised food. It’s a positive act, and you’re doing it in the face of the doom mongers, the oligarchs that want to bash and destroy what they can in the name of immediate profit, and keep their rule by mowing others out of the way. We all know that the lies and violence are getting worse, the top tiny percent are flooding the already misinformed with fear and invented facts. But join a small circle, create a positive force, stay soil, sun, wind and water connected, drink in those earth pheromones, remain “in the center and on the edge at once,” as Rina Swentzell once said, and you become invigorated. You begin to create ripples that counter the media’s big-picture negativity. Be curious, stay alert. Be grateful for something at least once in a day. And don’t forget right thought, right word, right action. You need a good deep keel to keep balance in the thrash and pull of the waters of our time.
For more on John Brandi and his opening at Magpie this Saturday, November 10 from 4-6pm, please visit the sites linked below this post!
All images thanks to Magpie