This is the first in a series of mini-profiles of musicians and artists, mostly from Denver for now, called The Dozens where the interviewer asks, as the name suggests, twelve questions. For the debut we posted some questions to Steven Gordon, a Denver native, and a significant local artist whose sculptures and visual work demonstrate a simple but unmistakable style and whose relatively-late-in-life immersion in improvisational music through his playing in avant-garde band Animal / object has earned fans among Reed Fuchs of Moon Magnet and Gordon Gano of The Violent Femmes who now regularly performs with the group. Gordon as a musician and as an artist seems to be someone who quietly lets the work speak for itself with a grace and humility not common enough in the arts.
Over the last few years Gordon has experienced the death of his mother and his own battle with health issues and this Saturday there will be a benefit show to help Gordon in his dealing with his illness (discussed below). The show will include performances by local and non-local musical luminaries such as Animal / object, Gordon Gano, Perry Weissman 3, David Dinsmore and Lynn Baker-Miguel Espinoza Flamenco Jazz Duo. There will be a silent auction with donations from various local artists and businesses. Those unable to attend the event and/or wanting to donate directly to Gordon as he is needing to take a leave of absence from his job for the duration can do so through his Paypal account here.
Queen City Sounds and Art: Most kids do some kind of artwork growing up whether or not they think of it that way. What got you to keep doing art beyond childhood where everyone had art classes and were more or less forced to do something they do naturally?
Steven Gordon: Honestly, mostly album cover art and drafting classes. Studying the different techniques and trying to mimic those, for instance, with markers and hair spray. Library books. Auto shows.
Being from Denver, what and where were your first experience with art and music outside the more formal (Denver Art Museum, shows at McNichols and Red Rocks etc.) context?
I’d say early MTV, then MusicLink and Teletunes. Westminster was not exactly an art Mecca.
When did you have your first art show and where was it showcased? If this has not happened yet somehow let’s make that happen. But I’m assuming it has.
Not a solo show, but it was around 1991at a Westminster gallery called Ec-Lec-Tic Art, a tiny space run by Mark Oeser.
Was there anyone in your life that fostered your love of art? Mentored you in any way? How did that person or those people do so in a way that you felt cultivated your creativity or helped you to cultivate it yourself?
After leaving engineering, before I had shown anywhere, I had a job as head artist at Ocean Pacific Childrenswear, which, with no actual experience, enabled me to develop myriad techniques and styles. What a thing to get paid for! They had some really great art directors, and I am grateful for the experience.
I’m mostly familiar with your sculpture and pottery (which I suppose is a form of sculpture). What about that medium do you feel appeals to you most? What about pottery do you find interesting as it is more a reproducible work as opposed to a a piece made not with the intention of being reproduced?
I didn’t get into ceramics until about 8 years after I opened my studio. Once I was surrounded by ceramicists, I absorbed their influences. I started out doing small to large-scale flat wall installations. Now, I’m fascinated with the possibilities of slip casting, though to do multiples of custom assemblages is a daunting task.
When did you start playing music? Do you have formal training in it and if so where did you get your start in terms of instruments?
I started playing around with music pretty late in life, around age 47, after a lesson in surface mic building at Titwrench. I was hooked on the possibilities of captured noise for life after that. I have absolutely no formal training in music at all. Three things nurtured me: Classical music, becoming the bass drum player in that weirdo marching band here in town, and a 4-track recorder and some Danelectro pedals to feed the surface mics through.
As a member of Animal / object you perform sometimes improvised pieces, sometimes spontaneous compositions. What do you find interesting and satisfying about that way of making music? A lot of musicians can’t really operate in that context because of its off the cuff quality.
As a self-taught musician, there’s really no other way for me to play. I don’t read music, and when I’m using homemade instruments, there are no formal rules, so I have no choice but to learn those instruments and make it up as I go. There’s a strange freedom in that pressure. Playing that way actually informs the ear in many ways the rigidity of a composed piece may never do. It causes you to listen to the space and the mindset of the other players, their timing, their intensity, that would usually be missing in most forms of composed pieces.
I’m under the impression, for whatever reason, that you had a span of years when you weren’t involved in music or making art. Is that true? What was occupying your time? If so, what brought you back to it or into getting into playing music either for the first time or again?
I had reached a point where I just couldn’t do another corporate art commission, so I kind of broke away, but that really gave birth to the whole music thing. I was still doing art, but just letting myself experiment without the pressure of showing or selling. The marching band and Animal / object really drew me back into society, which was ultimately very good for me.
I believe that after a certain age most people know what their life is about or what they want it to be about. What would you say your life is about or what you want it to be about? Do you know what made you realize those things?
Right now life is all about survival. As much as I enjoy helping other people, being forced to focus on my own well being is fairly alien, so ultimately I hope to come out of this with a renewed spirit of inspiration and giving to others.
You recently spent some time for for a serious ailment. What was the nature of the ailment and what was done to deal with it?
It’s pancreatic cancer, and it sneaks up on you. I’m in Stage 2, so we’re attacking it with chemo for now, and they will reapproach the surgery in January.
You’ve dealt with some major, life-changing experiences over the last several years. Beyond being devastating in a way that many people may not yet be able to relate to, have these experiences caused you to reevaluate aspects of your life for the better? Or at least to redirect your energies in a way maybe you didn’t think you would in years past?
After looking over my mother the last few years until her passing in February, I went in to caregiving full time. I figured it was the best way to use what I had been learning over that time. I discovered that the more I can give of myself, the more I can make a difference to others. I don’t think I can give that up anytime soon.
What is one or a few things in life that you have yet to accomplish or do or experience that you’d still like to and why so?
One major thing I want to do is a tribute album to my mother. She sang with Antonia Brico back in high school, so I’d like to hunt down a recording of her and work it together with the field recordings of her hospital machine noises and the oxygen pump sounds from her last weeks at the house.