Cooper: You recently returned from speaking at OFFF festival in Barcelona, having logged 2,500 miles of the United States aboard hopped freight trains before that. Have your exploits outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan made you a better person or art maker?
Perry: I certainly hope so, but who’s to say? I can only speculate about what kind of person I’d be if I’d anchored down in Grand Rapids more. I would be cleaner, I know that.
The tone of your work reflects a most pensive mood. Is your art your medicine?
It’s not as much medicine as it is just the excrement of a long digestive tract. It takes me quite a while to process and make sense of all these brief flashes and little clues flying past my eyes day after day after day. More lately, it seems like there’s a whole other world being ignored that urgently needs to be thrown into the cultural pool through people like me who make pictures. I feel lucky to keep catching glimpses of these quiet, endangered, romantic puzzle pieces, but they drive me crazy at the same time. I feel responsible to acknowledge them. Every time I’m able to do that even in a small way with pictures, it settles my stomach for a short while.
Would the late Hunter S. Thompson have considered you a Gonzo journalist?
Its hard to say, I’m not really that cool.
What might you be doing if you weren’t making art?
I’m not making art lots of the time. Artwork is one utensil that I’ve been trying to use to dig at the heart of the beast. If I wasn’t making art, I imagine I’d be using a different utensil, or maybe just ripping into it with my bare hands. I’ve been writing more in the past year than ever, working on various campaigns to combat major energy extraction projects, and keeping busy just trying to exist while not having a permanent home. I’m excited about becoming a better storyteller. The challenge of dodging all these black holes is keeping me plenty busy, and the artworks are just weird recordings of those trials and challenges. Minus the strung-out metaphors, my answers are; baking bread, fishing, learning to build houses, sewing, celebrating, playing songs, learning to sail, and learning to ID trees.
You’re an active member of The Beehive Design Collective. Do you feel a responsibility with your work, and what role does it play with respect to preserving your morals?
I feel a responsibility doing anything that has an audience watching. On one hand, there are these people around me that set the bar really high to make artwork that is poetic, simple, raw, and explosively self-expressive. Then, there are these other folks that are fully committed to doing practical, transformative work that will reinforce and proliferate these huge overarching social movements. Both schools of people are inspiring me constantly and if I stay diligent, I hope I’ll find a way to marry both approaches.
It’s so unpopular right now in the “art world” to be making work addressing issues in the way that the Beehive’s posters are. It scares me all the time, because I feel convicted to push those social topics further in my personal work and in my work with the collective. I catch myself though, because the work we’ve been making isn’t for the art world. Our audience, especially in the Beehive, is not art collectors. We make those pictures for people who are voiceless, and trust us to help share their stories. We are making those pictures for ordinary folks. It’s a bottom-up approach. I approach my personal projects and pieces a little differently, but I think the two worlds will constantly influence one another. If I’m writing a play with my personal work, the urgent landscape of what time it is in history should always be the backdrop, even if I’m just writing a simple love story.
Your work involves a lot of ballpoint pen on paper, and leads mostly to illustration and painting. Would you mind elaborating on your interest in photography and film making?
Pardon the melodrama here; When I look back at all the pictures I’ve nonsensically shot, it’s close to what I think might flash across my eyes in the minute or two right before I die. Like the world sitting me down and saying, “Remember these things? Remember how I surprised you? Remember how pretty I was and how bad it hurt sometimes? Remember these people you loved? Remember when i stopped you dead in your tracks? Did you feel me go by?”
Those pictures hold a lot of truth for me, and its a selfish hobby mostly.
Are you particular about the conditions of your surroundings when you are creating? Do you have a studio?
What is your relationship with music as it relates to art making?
I really love music, art aside. Everyone claims to be a music lover, because everyone should be. I guess listening to music encourages me to be less nervous putting my feelings out there. It’s terrifying to throw your insides out on a platter, whether you’re making art, writing music, or answering interview questions at three in the morning while you sleeplessly ride the greyhound bus. I also really love playing country songs with my friends on porches and in dining rooms. We all sing regardless of the notes we can’t hit, and it super fills up the spots that aren’t filled up by picture making.
Tell us about the last commercial gig or commission that you turned-down, and why?
I’ve been turning down almost everything recently, mainly because of time. I’m full and just want to finish some long term projects I’ve committed myself to. It’s screwing me financially, but I’m good at living low-key. I’m hoping to eventually get more on top of selling originals, but that’s also too time consuming to handle right now. My print sales have helped a bunch though and I’m so grateful to all the folks who’ve supported me that way. Overall, I’ve made peace with doing commercial projects from time to time, but its a little too heartbreaking for me to be primarily making pictures for advertising. I love editorial work, and would be happy doing more of that in the future.
Would you describe your personality as methodical or spontaneous? How is this reflected in your work process?
Methodical, like fishing or hunting. You take a guess, plant yourself in a spot, but you can’t control the current, the wind, the weather. All of this has been an educated guess at best. I always take notes though.
How has your work changed over the years? Are you making the art that you want to make?
Lots of ways, It’s changing all the time and I’m so okay with that. My visual vocabulary is more reliant now on pieces of real life around me than on appropriated styles and copies of copies. I still like to draw lots of the same things that I’ve always liked to draw though. I think the difference is that I’ve slowly been learning why. Im starting to understand the symbolism behind those things. I don’t need to have gotten it right the first time. I’m making what I want to, but my ambition continues to outrun my abilities. I fall short creating the transformative work I’ve been shooting for. I still don’t know if its something that’s even possible to do through overly-rendered representational cartoons and illustrations. It keeps me busy though. Little victories here and there; that’s what’s keeping me motivated.
I watched this Gregory Crewdson documentary recently and he was saying that he thinks every artist really only has one true picture that they work their whole life to accurately convey. They make that picture over and over again. I think there’s some truth to that. I am making the work I want to make. It’s taken a long time for me to learn how to have the courage to turn down distractions so that I have space to make the pictures I actually want to.
Interview by Justin Cooper © 2013