Pastiche, Hybrids, and Amalgams: Interview with SCENE & SAID
(Interviewer: Austin Eichelberger, Editor for SPACES)
Lois S. Bassen is the SAID half of the SCENE & SAID collaboration. She was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award and is a fiction editor for http://www. prickof thespindle.com/. Her plays and poetry have won some prizes and she writes reviews for a several journals and zines like http://brooklyner.org/,http://therumpus.net/, http://ciderpressreview.com/, http://smallbeerpress.com/.
Mike Stanko, who creates the SCENEs, is a lifelong Long Islander who began painting and showing his work over 20 years ago. His paintings have been exhibited throughout the tri-state area, including shows at the Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton and the Empire State Building in New York City. He has been interviewed numerous times on TV and has donated his artwork to many causes over the years such as Breast Cancer walks, Art for ALS, and The Waterkeeper Alliance, to name a few. More of his work can be found at http://stankoart.com/.
Austin: Lois and Mike, tell us a little bit about each of you. How did you each get into your respective crafts?
Lois: I started writing when I was 7 years old after an inspiring 2nd grade teacher taught us to fold booklets and write/illustrate our own stories. Childhood health and family crises were the familiar background for creative coping, along with the enrichment of education that included Vassar College and C.U.N.Y.. Professionally, I’ve worked for decades as a teacher, editor, poet/author/playwright, echoing Hamlet’s antic, “Words, words, words!” We know how well that worked out for him.
Mike: Well, though I took art classes throughout junior and high school and have been drawing since I was able to pick up a crayon, I am pretty much considered a self-taught artist. I went to College in New Paltz, New York, but actually majored in creative writing. And though I would still draw on the side, I then concentrated on my writing – trying to compose the ultimate rock song, also, since I played drums in a band for a long time. When the band broke up through the usual bullshit, I decided to go back to my first love, art, with only me being the maker of my own destiny.
I met my wife Karen, a portrait painter, in high school, when she passed me in the hallway wearing a dungaree jacket with the Yellow Submarine painted on it. Me being a Beatles freak, I met up with her and 15 years later got married. Karen pushed me to paint more, and gave me the motivation to approach galleries with my artwork. Since then I have shown in The Elaine Benson Gallery in Bridgehampton, NY, a very prestigious Gallery on Long Island, the lobby of The Empire State Building, and many others. Been on cable TV a few times, and sold, cheaply I will add, many paintings. I am now represented by Cherie Via Rexer of The Ripe art gallery in Huntington, NY.
Austin: Now I’d like to know more about how SCENE & SAID started. When and how did it begin?
Lois: The hybrid collection of 30-plus ‘poem paintings’ grew organically in fertile cyberspace. Creating an annual calendar for gifts and gallery-goers, Mike saw that his June Cold Fish went well with a poem he liked, Silver Trout, that appeared in a sample from SCENE & SAID. Thereafter, Mike sent me .jpgs of his new paintings just as I was writing a review of Weegee Stories by Robert Olen Butler (Narrative Library, 2010). Butler created prose poems for Wee Gee photographs, and I was inspired to do the same for Mike. For over a year, we worked together, choosing which of his images fit my poems or prompting altogether new ones.
Austin: I love the piece “Silver Trout,” so I’m fascinated that the drawing and narrative were created independently and were paired together by you two after the project began. How often has that happened? Has this project proven you to be in sync in other ways?
Lois: This delicious question reminds me of the scene among Holly Hunter/Albert Brooks/William Hurt in BROADCAST NEWS. I think we just got in each other’s heads. Mike’s enthusiasm for my words and mine for his colors and shapes – and the fun of working together – kept us finding or creating for/with one another. Of course, I know exactly which came first, the chicken or the egg, the painting or the poem, but the satisfying aspect is that they join, I hope, seamlessly. We and our spouses were friends before this creative collaboration so we’re in sync though at a geographical distance (New York and Rhode Island). Creatively, I think we complement one another: Mike’s more intuitive, and I’m more analytical…well, I’m older.
Austin: Lois, in your creative work, do you tend to already be driven by visuals? In terms of this project, do you sit down to write pieces that will be illustrated, or is it more organic? Do you ever give Mike input on what you think the visual should be?
Lois: I like your word driven. I picture myself in a car without a GPS, searching for landmarks and street signs. But the fact is, poems come to mind as words as often as they do as images-that-want-words. I think we humans are visual creatures, but birds and insects would laugh at us if they laugh. Language has given us the evolutionary edge so far, from which we may yet plunge suicidally. In terms of SCENE & SAID, I think of Mike’s paintings coming first, with me walking around/in them, trying to see – and hear. So far, I haven’t asked Mike to illustrate a poem of mine; he’s chosen the ones from at least one collection I’d given him before we ever imagined working together.
Austin: And Mike, on a similar vein: how do you come up with single images for Lois’s work? How has this artistic journey been for you?
Mike: When asked where I get my inspiration, it’s pretty much autobiographical. I paint from my travels, my sneakers, my breakfast, etc.. I love nature, flowers, and I love big, bold bright colors. I paint happy, I guess because I am a happy guy. Which I’m glad for. Life can suck, but I try and be as positive and “up” as I can.
I’m very good friends with Lois, and her husband, Michael, both very “up” people and talented as hell. Lois writes crazy good, and when she told me she put words to one of my paintings years ago, I was honored. And I loved it. And then said, “Lois: MORE,” and she did…and now here we are, thirty or so collaborations later.
Austin: Do either of you dabble in what the other does? How has working with someone who uses another medium changed how you approach your own craft?
Lois: Once upon a time a long time ago, I realized I had no visual talent. I read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, followed the directions, and saw I could make decent copies when my brain was fooled. Writing these poems for/about paintings really has made a difference. I’ve found analogies for structure, instruments, and materials. More importantly, the discipline of deliberate attention improves any endeavor, don’t you think? Working with Mike has both slowed me down in a beneficial way and sped up my development, I hope.
Austin: How do you two navigate working with one foot in writing and one in illustration? What do you find inspiring about the work the other does?
Lois: Lotta emailing. Back to BROADCAST NEWS. It’s back and forth. Rock n’ roll. Collaborative. If he’s not happy, I’m not happy, and I know he feels the same way.
Many ways to answer how Mike inspires me, but I’ll focus on his optimistic energy. You can see his exuberance in his stained glass colors, and I so enjoy watching him experiment with different inspirations. The glass really is half-filled or half-empty, depending on attitude. I like the joy of his images and the serious surprises they often display.
Austin: What is at the core of this project? What do you hope for it to accomplish?
Lois: The idea was to create a collection of poems/paintings people would want to own and to encourage art lovers to find their own (well under) 1000 words that every picture is worth. People have also suggested that creative writing programs consider SCENE & SAID as a useful text for models/assignment.
Austin: Are there any other projects like this in the works for either of you? Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Lois: It seems natural and likely that when I see new Stanko paintings, poems will follow. If SCENE & SAID gains approval, it would be wonderful to create a series. As for anything else, I hope to have some publication news to share about SCENE & SAID and some other endeavors soon. It’s also nice to have my writing Googled if readers would be so kind.
Mike: The one thing I haven’t done so far is make a painting with Lois’s possible words in mind. That would not seem natural, I think. Maybe one day, but for now, I just send her .jpegs of new work and see what comes into her creative head. If not, I put it in a folder and see what comes. Or see what comes next. One thing I can tell you, it’s fun. And we both love working together.