Not to be confused with his less-fashionable counterpart starring in the Netflix original hit series F.R.I.E.N.D.S., Matthew F. Perry, 22, is back in Richmond to continue his work with the Richmond Community Bail Fund.
In the spring of 2019, he graduated from New York University summa cum laude with a degree in Social and Cultural Analysis. But his prouder accomplishment is co-founding the Richmond Community Bail Fund with Ashley Diaz Mejias in 2016. Like the other sixty-nine bail funds licensed in the United States, the RCBF is a 501c3 certified non-profit dedicated to liberating persons who have been detained without trial and cannot afford to post bail. The organization has three active members— Perry, Mejias, and Luca Suede— and since June 2017, the group has posted bail for twenty-five people.
BSW caught up with Perry to discuss the Bail Fund, the concept of prison abolition, and the system’s roots in American slavery.
DHR: What are the functions of the RCBF?
MFP: The most direct function is that we bail people out of jail who can’t afford to do so themselves.
On the level of direct service, we also give all the people we bail out support in meeting their pre-trial release obligations. Anything that the court says they have to do before their trial, we help them get that done. Often, that means driving them to and from court.
We have a few reasons to be interested in that: first, obviously, we don’t want to see these people get ensnared by the system we tried to free them from in the first place. On top of that, if they violate the terms of their release, we may not get the bail money back.
If they miss one of these appointments, then they’re in trouble. Our first client had a pre-trial obligation to go to a downtown office every week, but he was homeless and lived in Mechanicsville, so we had to give him a ride. If he had missed the appointments, there would have been a warrant out for his arrest, then he would have been charged and held without bond.
The direct service work is inextricable from our ultimate goal: to create a society in which we aren’t needed. The fact that a bail fund has to exist is pretty upsetting. There are so many legally innocent people who are in jail because they couldn’t come up with a thousand dollars that over seventy non-profit organizations are dedicated to bailing out some small fraction of that population. The fact that that is true is a pretty unflinching indictment of society.
People shouldn’t be held in a cage before they receive their verdict, and especially not because they can’t afford to free themselves.
DHR: The function of cash bail is profit, yes?
MFP: There’s a conversation to be had about what incentives the systems actors are following that made it this way. Profit is absolutely one. Anti-black racism is obviously another one. Then there’s something to be said about the inertia of proceduralism. There’s a lot of people just doing their jobs every day who don’t view themselves as contributing to a project of racist mass incarceration.
DHR: What is your current position in the bail fund?
MFP: We don’t have hard roles, but the term I use is co-director. The most accurate way to sum up my current involvement is that I am one of three people who collectively run the day-to-day operations of the bail fund.
DHR: How did you get involved in anti-prison-industrial-complex activism?
MFP: At the very start of my first semester at NYU— I think mid-September— I was friends with Sam Ulmschneider on Facebook, and he posted a link to a New York Times article called the Bail Trap.
It’s an article about the injustices of the cash bail system, using specific examples from New York City. The article name-dropped an organization called the Bronx Freedom Fund, which was the first formal bail fund to be incorporated into a 501c3.
I only use that qualifying language because people have been organizing bail funds for as long as there has been bail. But this was the first real formal, institutional, licensed non-profit.
I had just had a meeting with the people in my dorm building at the time. I was in a dorm that was supposed to be focused on community service— I initially applied because it was right off of Washington Square Park. (Laughs). But I ended up in some big meeting with one of the dorm administrators, and he was saying, “We do a lot of event programming; we like to do stuff that’s enriching. If you have any ideas for an event, you’re always welcome to come and talk to me.”
I was an eager young college kid, and I wanted to get college started on the right foot, do something cool, you know. So I shot at email to the firstname.lastname@example.org account, saying, “Hey, I’m a freshman at NYU, I’m in a dorm that has this many kids, was wondering if you wanted to talk sometime about doing an event here sometime.” At this time, the Bronx Freedom Fund was one person, Ezra Ritchin. He responded back, and we had a phone call where I said the same thing. I kind of oversold it— “Oh, we have hundreds of students, we could leverage them for blah blah blah”— but anyway, we organized a panel event where he and the executive director of the bail fund came down to NYU and spoke to a professor who was one of the faculty-in-residence for the dorm.
DHR: And this is just you, early freshman year, trying to have a good time.
MFP: Yeah, pretty much, but it went well, and since I was looking for something to do the next summer, I ended up asking if I could intern with the Bronx Freedom Fund, and I became one of their first two formal interns. It was a tiny organization with a ton of work to do, so I was basically just an unpaid employee.
I got to work with Ezra, who had graduated recently, and was already running this complex non-profit. He was very articulate about his passions. I got to know him very well that summer, and I got to see what a successful bail fund looked like up close.
That summer, my dad drove me home from school, and we have the type of relationship where we can talk about big-picture philosophical political things at length. So we ended up talking about bail quite a bit, because the outrage for me was still fresh. I’ll talk about bail now, but I could really talk about it then. Like, “Can you believe that they do this to people?”
So, my dad, who was on the board for the Blue Sky Fund at the time, asked me if I wanted to be put in touch with some of the board members who he thought might be interested in a bail fund. After lots of long-distance phone calls, we assembled a working team of adults in Richmond who were actually capable of doing the leg-work required to start a non-profit.
So, basically, it was explicitly collaborative before it even got off the ground. Ashley Mejias was one of those people who was in right away, along with her husband Alex, who actually is the chair of our fiscal sponsor, the Business Coaliton for Justice. Certainly without them, there would be no bail fund.
Spring of 2017 was when we began work, and we bailed out our first person that June, and we’ve been rolling ever since.
DHR: I have to go back to a point that you made earlier. You said, “Obviously, people should not be detained in prison before they get their verdict.”
I don’t think that’s necessarily obvious to many people.
What would your response be to someone saying, “Look, this guy robbed me, or raped me, and there’s no amount of money you can pay to get him out.”
MHP: This is a question that people who take an abolitionist approach— as I do, and which the bail fund does— often get: “What about the people who are true public safety threats? What do we do with murderers and rapists?”
My answer is that there are ways to ensure public safety in those scenarios that don’t rely on cash bail and don’t rely on an indiscriminate systemic presumption against pre-trial release for every defendant, which is what we have now.
DHR: When you say abolitionist, what I understand is that you are in favor of abolishing all prisons.
Abolitionism isn’t concerned so much with the destruction of the existing system but with the creation of what would replace it. In a world without cash bail, if there were someone arrested on clear evidence of having murdered somebody, we would still be able to sequester them from the rest of society.
If a person poses a clear and present danger to other people, we should detain them— but in conditions that are more humane. Like, we don’t need to lock them in a cage and deny them access to sunlight and adequate nutrition. How does having only one tiny window in a prison cell make the rest of society safer?
There are so many other ways to ensure and implement public safety, and the way that we are currently doing this is killing thousands of people, irreversibly exploding the lives of millions more, and inflicting massive amounts of psychological damage. The crux of the issue is that the way that we are doing it now is unacceptable and intolerable.
DHR: What do you suggest are the other ways to ensure and implement public safety?
MFP: A lot of people across the U.S. are experimenting with restorative and transformative justice systems. There is no silver bullet at this point, but those programs have done a lot of really inspiring and instructive work.
Restorative and transformative justice systems operate a little differently, but the bedrock principle for both is that community members make the crucial decisions— they aren’t run by some unaccountable arm of the state.
It looks for victim support, not punishing the perpetrator. The lens it adopts is, “What do we need to make sure that appropriate reparations are made for the harm that has been done?”— that’s the first question— and the second is, “How do we make sure that this never happens again?”
Oftentimes, the answer to the first question involves working with the victim to see what they want out of the situation, which the current system does not do in any capacity. Just the other day, I was down at the city jail, and a young woman about 21 walked in and told the magistrate, “My boyfriend was locked up last night for hitting me. The judge asked him where he was going to stay if he got out, and he said he was coming to my house, the house that we share. The judge said that was unsafe. I’m here now, I’m saying that it’s safe. Can you please let him out? I want my boyfriend to return home, and I don’t need him to be locked in a cage.”
Obviously, it’s a complex situation, and there are a lot of intricacies in domestic violence that aren’t accounted for in that interaction, but it’s clear that what the pre-trial justice system was doing to her boyfriend was not what she wanted to be done. In order to doubt that conclusion, you’d have to completely disregard what she was saying.
DHR: Somebody might say that the law is keeping her safe.
MFP: What if she’s not saying that?
DHR: Somebody might say that most people can’t think for themselves. I’m not saying that, but somebody might.
MFP: That whole justified paternalism argument— “We can make decisions for other people because we’re wiser than them”— I just think that’s bullshit. I’ll stake that claim and I’ll stand by that.
But we’re kind of digressing a bit. The main point is that transformative and restorative justice systems center the outcomes that the current system pretends to center. Fairness, equity, justice.
DHR: But I think the main question is, if prisons are abolished and replaced by transformative and restorative justice systems…where are the criminals kept? Are people still housed in prisons?
MFP: You would build some sort of building where people are detained, but it would be open air, prisoners would be allowed outside, they would have access to health care, they could interact with each other. They would be treated like humans, who, for public safety reasons, can’t be brought into broader society, but are still living recognizably human lives.
So at that point, do you still call that building a prison? It serves only one similar function, which is to keep people sequestered from the rest of society. The amount of change that would have to happen to get from our system to that system would be so vast that you would have to give it a new name. The change would be fundamental.
DHR: Do you think crime would increase in a society in which prisons don’t serve a punitive function?
MFP: No, because it would still perform the function of incapacitating people.
If life inside of a prison is comparable to life in broader society, that is a problem with broader society. What kind of argument is that? You’re going to look at the fact that people are committing crimes to get into prisons and say we need to make prisons worse? No, you need to make life better.
DHR: Is there any kind of legislative support whatsoever for prison abolition?
There is support for “reformist reforms.” A reformist reform doesn’t limit the scope and power of the system— it just lessens suffering in some way. A non-reformist reform, on the other hand, would reduce harm while disempowering the system itself.
At the Richmond City Jail, if you want to call the same inmate twice in 24 hours, you have to pay an enormous amount of money. A reformist reform would be using legislative energy and resources to reduce fees for prison phone calls, instead of saying, “We shouldn’t have a system in which people are required to pay any money to speak to incarcerated family members.” Or really— why is there a need for a phone call at all? Why can’t it be an in-person visit?
For most of the legislative history of mass incarceration, we’ve really only ever seen reformist-reforms. Another example would be reduction of mandatory minimums instead of abolition of mandatory minimums.
But I do think that’s starting to shift now. I’ve looked at some of the criminal-justice plans that some of the presidential candidates are putting out, and there are lots of things that would be true reforms.
DHR: What’s an example?
MFP: One of the things that Elizabeth Warren did at the start of her plan was to reframe the idea of public safety. Basically, she said that our current system does not make us safer, and we cannot justify it on the basis of public safety. Public safety looks like giving under-resourced neighborhoods resources. Public safety looks like affordable housing and living wages. Public safety does not look like the heavy club of the criminal justice system.
That kind of language would have been hard to imagine in 2016, and certainly wasn’t around in 2012 or 2008.
DHR: How does the modern American system trace its roots to slavery?
MFP: The popular narrative, propagated in the New Jim Crow and Slavery by Another Name, is that it started with chattel slavery, a system designed to totally subjugate black people and extract maximum profit from their labor. An inextricable part of that was dehumanizing black people and constituting them as a racial other, permanently affixed below white people in a racial hierarchy.
At the time of slavery “abolition,” most of the country was still invested in that hierarchy, especially in the South, but in the North, too. And so, the popular narrative is that once slavery was abolished, there was a brief moments of victory in the fight for multiracial liberal democracy. There were Reconstruction governments that popped up in the South that governed in a way that treated black people as humans deserving of equal rights.
Those governments were defeated by organized white supremacist terrorist movements in the South, aided and abetted by Northern and federal indifference. The people with the investments in white supremacy thereby regained control.
The ruling powers then began to pass convict leasing laws and vagrancy laws. All forms of black social behavior were criminalized. “Loitering on a corner” was suddenly grounds for arrest.
Once you were in the prison system, you would be “leased” to your local capitalist— probably a former plantation owner at this point in history— and you would work for them, once again, for free. So the prison system was used as a means to continue slavery. That went on until the early 20th century, when they began to be sold to state government agencies.
What Douglas Blackman uncovered in Slavery by Another Name is that we see a decline in convict leasing, which means that fewer and fewer incarcerated people were sent to private farms to do work. But instead, they were getting sent to work on public projects. These prisoners were almost exclusively African-American.
The next inflection point in that narrative is the transition from Jim Crow to mass incarceration. Once again, we have one means of racial subjugation that is outlawed— legally enforceable segregation, by the 1964 Civil Rights Act— but then mass incarceration flowers right after, because again, we didn’t change our fundamental societal bedrock investment in white supremacy. At this point, the inherent assumption of criminality has also been extended to Latino people, and queer people, and transgender people, and anyone whose identity marks them as a threat to the social order.
That’s a neat little narrative, and no historical narratives are that causal or straightforward, but I do think that the general spirit of it is true.
This is a society in many ways animated by anti-blackness, and a society with a general illness that inclines us towards punishment as a solution. As a country, we have a fundamental belief in the righteousness of violent punishment, and that undergirds the prison system. It is an addiction to punishment that is kind of unprecedented.
DHR: The Roman Empire used to crucify people.
MFP: Well, yes, but I’m talking about the scale of the phenomenon. The scale of the American prison system is unprecedented, and the outrageous numbers are relatively recent. The go-to statistic is that we have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population. There are more people in pre-trial detention today than there were total incarcerated persons in 1970.
I think the meanest way of saying this is that White America has never properly reckoned with the ways in which we still are racist on subconscious levels, ways in which we automatically conflate skin pigmentation with certain characteristics.
DHR: I would guess that there is probably something in the subconscious mind that recognizes another skin color as “the Other,” tracing its roots back to the tree shrew days, when fear of the Other was necessary for survival. There is a worldwide phenomenon in which perceived, often slight physical differences between ethnic groups cause humans to behave strangely.
MFP: One of the books that helped me understand this the best was Racecraft. The authors argue that racism predates race as a concept; pigmentation was proxy for some kind of perceived fundamental difference, and the name that they gave to that difference was “race.” But why does that form of social difference seem so ingrained into our social orders in the way that other social differences aren’t?
I would say that it’s because we decided to actually use pigmentation as a basis for economic exploitation and the construction of a global economic order. And that’s what the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was.
Once you use it as a basis for economic exploitation, you suddenly have a plutocratic class that is invested in maintaining that social difference. That difference is now more durable, because the most powerful people in society are actively working to keep it alive, by propagating the myths of racial superiority and controlling people through fear.
A lot of people in my field make the point that you can’t understand race and capitalism as being separate from each other. They are intertwined. It’s hard to say that racism is entirely an invention of rich people trying to turn a profit, but it is also impossible to give any fair reading of history and say that racism exists separately from the incentives that people in power have for maintaining it.
DHR: Does capitalism exist without racism?
MFP: I don’t believe that it does, because capitalism always has to rationalize the inequalities that it produces. It has to bridge the gap between what it promises and what it delivers.
DHR: Define capitalism.
MFP: The academic theory that I would use is: any economic system that involves generalized and continuous productivity growth and in which there is market dependence. Market dependence.
Societies throughout history have used markets, but you did not have to sell your shit on the market to survive.
In order to maintain access to the means of production, you have to turn a profit. If you can’t sell your shit— goods or services— you can’t even get yourself food.
DHR: Basically, in pre-capitalist European societies, everybody had access to food and shelter, because the lords depended on the peasants to grow their food, right? Starving all the peasants would not have made your farm collective efficient.
MFP: I’ll give a more contemporary example: British colonists in India had a harder time making Indian serfs productive than American slavemasters did making slaves productive. The reason for this is that families in India were not going to use 100 percent of their land to grow crops for market. They weren’t going to grow monoculture cotton from sea to shining sea and sell it. They were going to use some of their land for sustenance and keep it for themselves.
DHR: Is market dependence inherently racist?
DHR: Can capitalism exist without racism?
MFP: I don’t believe that it can.
DHR: Please clarify.
MFP: In order for market dependence to become an accepted organizing principle of society— in order that the people who live in the society are not so angry about it that they revolt— the broader population has to view the people who suffer from market dependence as deserving of that suffering, because they are fundamentally inferior.
Racism is a very efficient way to do that.
DHR: So in theory, there could be a market-dependent society which does not involve racism, but would always necessarily involve some form of social transgression.
That brings us back to the prison system as a reinforcing factor for slavery and racism.
DHR: Understood. Okay, we have to get back to some of these questions.
Say that you bail somebody out of jail who was arrested on suspicion of having committed a violent crime. Immediately after being bailed out, the perpetrator commits another crime, this time discharging a firearm and taking a life.
Do you feel any sense of hypothetical responsibility, and does the situation give you any pause?
MFP: The answer to the first question is of course. That would fuck me up. But that’s not going to change how I act.
This is probably the question that I think about the most, actually: is there a person that I wouldn’t bail out? And the answer every time is no.
First of all, we should flag this at the beginning: murder and armed robbery are never going to get a bail posting. Sexual assault is also extremely unlikely to get a bail posting.
We had this conversation at a National Bail Fund Network conference last year. The way that I justified it was this: Let’s say that there’s someone about to post bail for, and I hear from their attorney that the charge is domestic violence.
The only way that I would not post bail is if I personally knew that they were going to harm someone specific if they were set free.
You can never be 100 percent sure what somebody will do when they are set free, but you do have a 100 percent probability of what is going to happen to them in jail.
You sit in a cage for days at a time. You, more than likely, lose access to any employment you have. You could lose access to housing. You could lose access to childcare.
Consigning somebody to that fate is an act of violence, and it has to be weighed as such.
When I weigh those factors, the only one that I could ever foresee outweighing the act of violence of keeping someone in jail would be the act of violence of letting someone out. That’s the only time that calculus comes out in favor of keeping someone in jail, and I just don’t ever see that happening.
DHR: A nihilist might respond to your work with the RCBF and say, “You, Matthew Perry, are the only experience that you can possibly know. Focus on you. Make money, enjoy yourself, and leave other people alone. Prison reform is not your business.”
MFP: I am focusing on me by doing this work. This is what gives me pleasure. This is my calling. I don’t think I’m a rare breed in that sense.
But I don’t want to excuse all the people who just say fuck everything and do what makes them happy.
DHR: Okay, so what is the responsibility of everyday citizens, who more than likely want to go happily about their business?
MFP: I’m wary of any universal claims, but I do think that the everyday citizen— people in general— have a responsibility, or a moral obligation, to lessen the suffering of people they come into contact with.
There is a lot of suffering in the world. There are things we can do to lessen it. I think it is an ethical imperative that we do so.
I can almost see how you can arrive to that point through a nihilist worldview— like, “Well, none of this matters anyway, so whether I’m on a yacht for twenty years or teaching classes in prison, I’m going to be dead and I’m not going to remember it.” So why would you not want to lessen the suffering of others in the limited amount of time that you have? If nothing matters, at least that’s real.
I can die knowing I made other people happy. If I spent twenty years on a yacht, it’d be like, “Okay, well that’s over with now. I had some fun, but what did I do?” But if I’m active in my community, then that work is passed onto the future, and that’s a way that you can outlive death, in a sense.
If what you did on this Earth reacts with other people on this Earth after you’re gone, they carry a piece of you with them. I’m more than just my body.
DHR: How would you respond to accusations that your work is a manifestation of a white savior complex?
MFP: That’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
The first part of it is that there are always ways to go about the work without behaving like a savior. The way to do that is to always look to work collaboratively, and to take cues from people who have been directly impacted by the system you’re trying to change.
If I was doing this in a vacuum, totally insulated from the impact of organizers, then my work would be a lot different. It would be a lot more “High School Kid Founds Non-Profit.” I’d be a lot more focused on the development of the non-profit than on the services we offer, because I would think I was the key ingredient.
Where I kind of cut my teeth organizing was the Incarceration to Education Coalition at NYU, which was founded by Cory Green, a formerly-incarcerated man, who has given me some of the most valuable organizing lessons I have ever had. And it’s not enough to learn from a couple of directly-impacted folks at the beginning; it’s a perspective that suffuses your work.
If you do good work, listen to the people who tell you when you slip up, correct your behavior accordingly, and don’t work in a way that is ostentatious, then you’re going to be fine. It’s not that hard.
There’s a lot of discourse around the idea that it’s hard to be a white activist because you have to walk on eggshells or check yourself all the time. Yes, there’s definitely an element of heightened self-awareness. But if you have to actively police yourself that much, that’s probably a problem. If you just interact with humans as humans, more likely than not you’re going to be fine. If you have a good head on your shoulders and common sense, you probably won’t offend the people you’re trying to serve.
You hear people say, “The left wants you to think about your whiteness all the time.” My answer is that if you’re a thoughtful person, it’s not that hard. If you consider all the things that you have to consider to move through this work responsibly as a very privileged person— which I am— and be attentive to all the ways that that has given me blind spots in certain areas, then that is work, yes, but it’s not hard to the point that I would complain. It’s just necessary for what I do. And if I’m thoughtful about it, I can do it. It’s pretty simple.
DHR: In the everyday life of an average white man, is it necessary for him to think about the fact that he is a white man in order to be a responsible citizen?
MFP: I would say probably yes. Thinking about that politicizes you. If you have an awareness that society treats you differently because you are white, then you have to consider that before acting. And I do think we all have a responsibility to eliminate racial inequality.
DHR: Essentially, you’re saying that human beings have a responsibility and calling to more than themselves.
MFP: If you think that you don’t owe other people shit, you do not realize how much they’ve given you.
At this point, it boggles my mind to think about conceiving of myself as an individual unit. That’s fundamentally not what I am. I am irreversibly part of a society. You cannot exist outside of it, and you have an obligation to society for that reason. Keep up the shit in your own house.
To bring it to right here and right now: if you’re not acting right now, there’s not going to be a world for much longer. A lot of the shit that’s been brewing is reaching crisis level.
DHR: Okay, last question: how can ordinary citizens get involved in the Bail Fund?
MFP: With the Bail Fund, the best way is to put out word about us to whatever communities you’re in. The more people that know about us, the more likely it is that when someone is arrested and given a bail that they can’t afford, they’ll have a friend or family member who’s heard of us, and will get into contact with us.
You can follow us on social media. We have a Facebook page and a Twitter, @rvabailfund. And this is certainly not an obligation, but donations are always appreciated. 100 percent of donations go to posting bail at this point.
That’s just how to help the bail fund. In terms of how to help the world: look around, and look for what people are already doing, and ask yourself how to support it. That’s also a way to avoid the savior complex: don’t assume when you do something that it’s the first time someone’s done it.
THUS SPOKE THE MEME LORD
After a 16-month run as Richmond’s best local Facebook meme page, the admin of Locally sourced, microbrew Richmond memes sat down for an interview.
I was surprised to find that Locally sourced, microbrew Richmond memes is not a formless entity that exists solely on the Internet. However, she requested that her name, age, and other personal details be stricken from the record, so you’re just going to have to take our word for it.
DHR: What inspired you to create the page?
Locally sourced, microbrew Richmond memes: Well, my first meme was about Scott’s Addition:
I showed it to my boss, and she said I should make a meme page, so I did. But I think Facebook is a dead platform, and the only meme page that I like on Instagram is Gay Vape Shark.
How much time do you spend on the Internet a day?
Almost none. I have a timer on my phone that will turn off social media if I’m using it for more than fifteen minutes. If I think of a meme, then I make it, which takes me about two minutes. Then I post the meme, turn my phone off, and I don’t look at it for the rest of the day.
What are your interactions like with other people through the page?
I get death threats. I get a lot of violent messages. Everyone assumes that I’m a man– nobody assumes that I’m female, and even if I told people, I feel like they wouldn’t believe me. People say that I hate women, that I live in my parents’ basement, that I have no life, et cetera.
If you aren’t particularly interested in the Internet, you only spend a small amount of your time making memes, and you get all kinds of hateful messages– why continue the page?
If I feel passionate about something, then I’ll make a meme about it, and I like to see how people feel about it. For example, I really like the Byrd, so I made a meme about the Byrd, and it’s my favorite meme. I want to see someone respond– I like communicating with people.
I also like poking fun at the quirky things that the city’s got going on.
I hate the way modern restaurants are decorated. That’s my biggest thing. The industrial furniture, the reclaimed wood, the pipes, the seats that are awful to sit in. Nothing is unique anymore in that respect, and it makes me so mad. So I like to communicate that as much as I can.
Is there a community of meme page admins?
Well, I do communicate with Tyler Walter: he’s the meme supreme around here. He communicated with me early on and wanted to collaborate, but a lot of his stuff is Reddit-influenced in nature.
He’s associated with New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens and Suave_meme_stash. He focuses on public transportation. I like to make fun of interior design, and I like to make fun of businesses.
Do you view your role in the community as a public critic?
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I am or what I do, and a lot of the stuff I say is just off the cuff, and I don’t even give it time. I just make memes and I share them.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
I make and sell art, but as far as memes go, no.
What’s the difference between a print that you make and a meme that you make?
I’m not really into the Internet. I hardly even think that photography is art. I think it’s a cop-out. When people go around taking photos of murals and selling them for 500 dollars, they sell it as theirs, but they didn’t do it. The art is the mural– or the person you’re taking the photo of, or the building, or whatever.
I hate photography. I like to sit in the park and draw.
If you successfully create and sell art, then you clearly have an eye for organizing the way that something looks. So when you design a meme and there’s messages and graphics in different places, and it all collaborates into a piece that communicates, why isn’t that art? You might say that photography is capturing what already exists, but isn’t a meme more like a collage?
I just have a personal bias against the Internet. I think the Internet is a gigantic trash can, so that’s why I don’t think about my memes very much.
Do you think the memes are sometimes too critical?
What’s your most popular meme?
One of my most popular was the Eric Andre VCU meme:
I saw it on Instagram, I saw people showing it to each other, people messaged me to ask if they could use it in school projects for whatever niche-ass thing they teach at VCU.
Is there any sense of pride associated with that?
I guess so, but I still think it’s sort of a waste of time.
I want to make something real, and I don’t think memes are really real. They get people to talk, but they don’t cause anything to happen, I don’t think I’m going to affect anything with my memes.
What is it to you that makes a meme funny?
I make stuff that I find funny and I share it without thinking.
It has to be something people are used to seeing every day and talking about it in a way that’s relatable.
If there’s something local that I want to promote, like the Byrd or WRIR, I’ll try to find something funny to say about it, hoping that people will think about it.
What’s your favorite meme format?
I like the starter pack format, because it allows me to use very specific images. I’m a detail-oriented person.
Do you get submissions?
I get 2-4 submissions a day. I rarely publish any, because most of them are just idiotic.
I get hate mail like every other day, just from random-ass people. I also get messages from businesses fairly often. That’s always interesting to me, because they have no right to tell me what to post. I get messages like, “What you’re saying is not true, and you need to take it down.”
Where do people get that anger from? Is it because people liked it? If nobody liked the memes, would people still be angry? I just wonder about the psychology of it.
I think that, in the case of business owners, they probably think that just because people like a meme, they agree. Really, I think people just find it funny that someone’s saying anything about a business at all. Because where do people say stuff like that otherwise? Yelp? I don’t know.
I frequent the places that I make fun of all the time. There’s no hate. I’ve made two memes about Rumors, and I go there almost every day. It’s all for fun.
Are you planning to make more wholesome memes in the future?
Yeah, but sometimes it doesn’t get the response of a hateful meme. You get a bigger reaction when you say you hate something.
Is there something about memes and meme pages that’s necessarily ironic?
Yeah. I feel like I have to say that I hate everything to even get people to respond. That’s where the initial popularity came from.
It’s a crazy phenomenon. People like to be angry. I like to be happy. I like to relax. I would never harbor anger.
There’s no reason to be angry— or be on the Internet.
How’s that for irony?
RELATED: AUGUST, 2019
PREVIOUS: RICHMOND’S LOST CIVILIZATION
RICHMOND’S LOST CIVILIZATION
John Gabriel is not your everyday archaeologist.
The real estate broker from Morgantown, WV has been a Richmond resident for some fifty years, and in 1965, he had an epiphany while swimming at Pony Pasture: the cubical rock looming above had been carved by someone, sometime, for some reason. Friends thought he was kidding at first, but Gabriel was serious.
In the time since, he claims that his many discoveries support an unusual theory: 60,000 years ago, ancient homo sapiens living in the modern-day Richmond area made gigantic carvings of Arctic animals, some of which are still visible today.
From handheld frogs to 2-ton tadpoles, Gabriel has quite the collection of evidence, which he’s happy to share with the general public. These days, he spends a lot of his free time around Belle Isle and Pony Pasture, offering tours of the sculptures to river-goers and searching for more ancient artifacts.
DHR: Can you give me a synopsis of the discoveries you’ve made?
JG: Well, first things first: there are a lot of things in the James that the river did not—could not— carve.
I’ve found several multi-ton sculptures at Pony Pasture, Texas Beach, and Belle Isle. I’ve found an orca [pictured above], a walrus, multiple hawks, a tadpole, a frog, a sea turtle, a Pegasus, and a Neanderthal. I’ve also found several smaller sculptures and one square rock that the river could not have carved.
These sculptures were made by a lost civilization of ancient Ice Age Europeans.
My favorite sculpture is the female Pegasus [pictured above] with a baby horse in her marsupial pouch. You can see all her feathers, you can see her snorting the air. But if you look closely, you can also see a Neanderthal. Look at his wrist: he’s pulling another Pegasus out of the pouch, and he’s holding a twin. Does it get crazy or does it get crazy?
The detail is absolutely phenomenal.
This one [above] is at Pony Pasture; originally, I thought this was a cardinal. But I showed this to my friend who studies birds, and he told me that it’s a hawk, and I realized that the hawk puts her wings up behind her when she roosts. You can see her shoulder blades, too, and the ring on the back of her neck.
DHR: How did you make this discovery?
JG: I was at Pony Pasture one day in 1965, and I saw this square rock:
I was looking at it when suddenly, I said, “That rock didn’t get square by itself.”
After I saw the square rock, I started looking to see if there were any other interesting things around. That’s when I found a lot of small sculptures— small enough to fit in your hand. All the rocks in my collection are artifacts carved by ancient man. You can see on all of them where they carved notches on the back in order to hold them. Any time you find something in the river that’s perfectly symmetrical, you have to wonder how it got that way.
These pieces of art were carved by ancient man around 60,000 years ago. Do you have any idea how many rocks I had to turn over to find this stuff?
So, I’ve been on this since 1965. But after I studied Dr. Dennis Stanford’s work, I started putting the pieces of the puzzle together.
DHR: Did you find the smaller sculptures or the bigger sculptures first?
JG: I was finding smaller sculptures for almost forty years before I found the big sculptures. Actually, when I first started trying to tell people about the lost civilization, the Smithsonian accused me of carving the small sculptures myself. That was in 1985. But when I found my first big sculpture in 2011, I finally had my proof. Nobody could say that I carved this big walrus myself:
I was so happy, I stood there and hugged it for twenty minutes and cried. All these people were standing on the edge of the bank, saying, “Look at that crazy guy hugging that rock!” But of course, they had no idea.
DHR: You mentioned Dr. Dennis Stanford. Who’s that?
JG: Dr. Stanford was the first archaeologist to publish anything about early homo sapiens making their way to this part of the world before the American tribes. If you’re interested in this kind of stuff, the first thing to do is watch the First Peoples documentary, and then do some research on Dr. Stanford.
Stanford’s hypothesis is that ancient man came across the ice shelf from Africa and Europe to Delmarva peninsula. That’s based on a technology that’s shared between sites from France to Spain to Maryland.
DHR: Do you consider yourself an archaeologist?
JG: I don’t.
I wouldn’t want to call myself an archaeologist. Archaeology is an old boys’ club. Not too long some archaeologist from the University of Virginia called me up and told me I was an embarrassment to archaeology. But he’s just mad because I found the lost civilization before he did.
For a lot of archaeologists, it’s all about the money. Take the Smithsonian. They get a billion dollars a year from the government. It’s a better idea for them to find stuff and then announce discoveries over the course of a few years, so that they keep getting steady money— and it’s a better idea for them to wait for me to die, so they can claim this discovery for themselves.
Archaeologists make a lot of assumptions that are faulty. One of the things they told us for years is that homo sapiens killed off the Neanderthal. That’s not true. We interbred with the Neanderthal. Today, most people have 1-3% Neanderthal DNA. Well, some of us might have four or five percent. (Laughs).
Think about this: why would a female homo sapiens kill off a Neanderthal? The Neanderthal was stronger than the homo sapiens, and who knows— he might even have been wiser. Imagine if a Neanderthal wandered into your camp and knew about some kind of herbal cure for your daughter, and then fought off a saber-tooth tiger. All the sudden, he’s the most popular guy there, and homo sapiens women are going to keep him around. It wasn’t about having a family with three babies back then. It was about survival.
DHR: Could these sculptures have been carved by Neanderthals?
JG: We don’t know. What we do know is that the American [Indian] tribes didn’t have time to carve sculptures in stone. The tribes in this part of country were nomadic. These sculptures would predate any documented American civilization.
DHR: How do you know when you might be looking at an ancient sculpture?
JG: Any time there is symmetry to a piece, or a place to put your fingers, you know you might have something. And keep an eye on any animals you see in the movie March of the Penguins— that movie is money. Those are the kind of animals that were living down here during that time: walruses, seals, orcas, frogs. This was an ice world 60,000 years ago, and the animal shapes that you see are mostly Arctic creatures.
DHR: For what purpose do you think the ancient people made these carvings?
JG: I have no idea. They could be decorative. They could be religious. They could be tombstones. You just don’t have all the answers, and that’s what makes it fun.
DHR: Are there some rocks in the river that aren’t carvings?
JG: I don’t know. I don’t have that answer. I would guess that there are some that are just rocks. You really have to know what you are looking for.
DHR: You give tours of your lost civilization. How often do you do them?
JG: I do them as often as I can. You can arrange one with me online. As of right now, they’re free.
DHR: Have you ever looked into selling pieces of your ancient art collection?
JG: Well, I think I’ve got about a billion dollars worth of art in my small sculpture collection. The oldest sculpture in the world is worth around $50-100 million. My sculptures are 50,000 years older, and I’ve got a bathtub full of them.
I haven’t really looked into it, though. To sell art you have to go to New York or Europe or Mumbai, India, and I don’t really want to deal with it. I like my life. I like the river. I like my friends. I go dancing on Tuesdays. What am I going to do with all that money? How many Lamborghinis do you really need?
DHR: Have you thought about talking to Levar Stoney about your discovery and getting some local attention?
JG: I’ve tried to talk to the mayor before, and he wants nothing to do with my lost civilization. You know why that is?
He can’t profit from a monument that’s already here. If you’re a politician, you want to build a new monument, so you can steal from the designer, the architect, and the construction worker. You can’t steal from a lost civilization.
DHR: Last question. Do you ever get people that say you’re just crazy?
JG: The archaeologists and anthropologists will not even stop to talk. And I say, “Damn, if you’re an archaeologist, why don’t you come teach me something?”
I was talking to this lady on Saturday that worked for the Smithsonian, and she didn’t even know Dr. Stanford. She was saying, “How do you know this, this, this—?” and she was really negative right from the get-go. When that happens, I just go through the steps and explain my discoveries very slowly. I don’t talk about anything that I haven’t studied.
Sometimes you’ll be giving a presentation and you’ll get some weirdo that comes by and completely takes you and says, “Horses got here in the 1500s, so that proves that this couldn’t be 60,000 years old,” and then he takes off running.
Uh, it’s not a horse, it’s a Pegasus. The Neanderthal could have come over on a boat, but if you look at that carving, the Neanderthal might have been able to fly anywhere he wanted to. The thing is, at the end of the day, nobody really has the answers.
21 QUESTIONS WITH DEAU EYES
At 28, Mechanicsville native Ali Thibodeau has already been through quite a musical journey. But in her eyes, she’s only just getting started.
The indie singer will be opening for Lucy Dacus on June 28 at Friday Cheers on Brown’s Island, but to Thibodeau, the Richmond icon is more than a fellow performer— she’s a childhood friend. There’s something reminiscent of Dacus in Thibodeau’s live performances, but she also brings an energy of her own earned busking in subways, traveling Europe in a camper van, and touring the Southeast and Midwest.
Her stage name is Deau Eyes, and she’s got an independent album coming soon, preceded by the single Paper Stickers, available now on Spotify. After a dynamic performance at the Valentine on June 6, I caught up with Thibodeau, and we had a chance to talk about her upcoming album, where she’s been, and her philosophy of experiencing as many mutual life-giving moments as possible.
DHR: So, you’re from Richmond— what part of Richmond are you originally from?
AT: I’m from Mechanicsville— I went to Lee Davis High School.
DHR: How did you get started in the music industry?
AT: I’ve been writing songs since I was about fourteen. I’d always done it in my room as a kind of therapy.
Earlier in life, I was more into dance and musical theater. I moved to New York City to pursue that. I was living the classic New York City grind— theater auditions every day.
I decided I was tired of that intense, constant rejection. New York is a huge, humbling place, and it’s cool to be a small cog in the machine of people working to find their place as an artist. I’d find myself starting to write while I was in audition waiting rooms, and dreaming about songs, and I finally got the courage to take my guitar to open mics.
Then I started busking in the subway stations. The reason I was able to start playing guitar in front of people is because, in New York, you’re playing in front of people that you’ll never see again. A lot of times I would get on the subway, and I’d ask everybody, “Hey, do you mind if I practice?” And they’d be like, “What? Of course you can practice.” And I’d play and watch them fall asleep on their way home from work. A lot of times people would tip me and say, “I really needed a good nap.”
DHR: Where did you go from there?
AT: Lucy Dacus and I are childhood friends, and every time I’d come to Richmond, I’d check in with her and get coffee. Around that time, she was starting to turn music into a career here. She said, “You know, you could do the same thing you’re doing in New York, but in Richmond, and it would be a lot easier to survive.” After months and months of her reiterating that— “I’m playing all the time, and you could totally do it”— I decided to make the move.
I’ve been here just grinding away. I worked on a cruise ship as a country singer for a while, and I wrote songs on the cruise ship, intending to produce them into an album.
Something that really changed things for me was this show we used to do called the Nine Singer Songwriter Showcase at the Tin Pan. That’s where I met Hannah Goad, who’s my musical partner in crime, and Angelica Garcia, who I could say the same thing about. We created a band called Whatever Honey and played our songs as a trio.
The Nine was this event where you showed up with a new song and nine songwriters would contribute what they want to contribute. It all happened on the same day. So you don’t really know each other, and you’ve got an hour to figure out everyone’s songs and contribute your piece. Besides Hannah and Angelica, the Nine also introduced me to Landon Elliott, Eliza Whitmire, Erin Frye, Kielan Creech— basically my friend group in Richmond.
That sucked me into the Richmond music community. It’s such a rich scene, and people are so willing to collaborate. In New York, everyone is on a “time is money” clock.
DHR: Is the slower pace more productive?
AT: It is more productive for me personally. I can easily get swept up in a million different directions and work a ton of weird jobs and get lost in the moment. I’m a Gemini— my extrovert takes over.
I’m grateful that I happen to be from Richmond, because otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have known about it. I’m still finding all the different directions, but my main focus is getting a band together and getting my album out.
DHR: So there’s an album on the way?
AT: Yes— I just recorded an album in Nashville.
DHR: Is the music on the album comparable to that kind of punk/indie sound on the single Paper Stickers?
AT: I like to call the music on the album a sonic adventure. You’ll definitely hear more of that on a couple different tracks, but there’s also a fusion of soul, folk, country, et cetera.
DHR: Music from Nashville is a little greasier— I think of indie as a cleaner sound.
AT: The album is pretty clean, but it gets weird, and I like it when things get weird.
I’m really excited about the record, and there are some announcements moving forward that I’m holding tight on.
It takes a good foundation to put a record out, especially when you’re proud of it and you want it to do well.
DHR: How long were you recording in Nashville?
AT: It was two days of recording.
I also did some of the overdubs and harmonies in my bedroom. That aspect captures a little bit of intimacy. There’s a track smack-dab in the middle of the album that is completely stripped down, just me in my bedroom. I wanted a flavor of where I’ve been.
DHR: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
AT: I grew up listening to so many different styles, because my mom owned a dance studio, so she had everything you could possibly imagine. Pop music, country, soul, mo-town, rock, singer-songwriter. So many female singer-songwriters— Jewel, Alanis Morissette, Sara McGlothlin.
DHR: Who would you consider the biggest influences musical influences from that starting place?
AT: Depending on the day, I have a different answer. I listened to a lot of Jewel back then. I also listened to a lot of Dolly Parton, Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child— those kind of empowering girl power groups. At the same time, my older brother was introducing me to Radiohead, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Weezer, et cetera. My favorite bands are Dr. Dog and Bradi Carlile, and Joni Mitchell was crucial to my artistic development, too.
In my own music, I’m someone who likes abstract art and modern dance. I like things to be a little off-skew. I don’t really follow the beaten path. Things get a little wavy.
DHR: What’s the story behind the name Deau Eyes?
AT: Well, obviously, my last name is Thibodeau. I was singing back-up vocals for Lucy when I was in Whatever Honey, and I remember during one show at the National, I was saying, “I need a new name, nobody can spell mine, and it’s getting to be such a pain to explain on the microphone.”
And then, separate to that conversation, Lucy looked at me and said, “Look at you with your doe eyes!” And Hannah, who’s always picking up on puns, was like, “Haha, that’s funny.” And I was like, “Wow— that’s a great stage name.”
DHR: You’ve been on tour in the States— what was that like?
AT: On my first tour, I did a southern route from New Orleans back to Richmond, with a lot of stops in between. That was a crazy awesome life experience. We were in a van that had no air conditioning and no radio. You had to open the hood and turn off the engine from the inside. We camped everywhere we went. It was the middle of the summer and we were hot and sweaty. It was grungy.
Last year, I opened for Lucy on a few dates in the Midwest. We still managed to camp a few nights— I love camping— but we stayed a lot of AirBnBs and we upgraded our van to an SUV.
Now I’m doing a lot of solo touring. Any chance I have, I make a quick run up and down. I’ve made six or seven round trips.
DHR: Have you ever toured in Europe?
AT: I’ve never toured in Europe, but I’ve done a lot of open mics in Europe. I went there in 2014 with a couple hundred bucks and no return ticket, and I traveled around in a camper van, so I was doing open mics and busking wherever I could for a little extra money.
DHR: You’ve got a tattoo that says Dégagé— could you talk a bit about what that means?
AT: It means, “Make the best of what you have.”
I went to Haiti in 2013 and did a little service work there, and the people would say that to each other a lot. It’s also a dance term which means to disengage. Plus, someone recently told me that it means “fuck off” in French. (Laughs).
I never thought I’d get a tattoo, but the day that Donald Trump said that Haiti was a shithole country, I kind of meditated on my experience in Haiti for a while, and how resilient the people of Haiti are, and then I took a moment to actively respect them while getting this tattoo.
The Haitian people shared a lot of joy with us as well. It was a mutually life-giving experience. I in no way feel like I saved anyone, but I think we had a sense of bliss together in the moments that we shared.
DHR: Some might call that a form of salvation.
AT: I think that’s what life’s all about: sharing a mutual life-giving experience.
It’s important to have those in a world that seems divided. Having an experience through music, dance, art, or anything that brings you together is crucial. I feel very lucky that that’s part of my job.
DHR: What’s the coolest mutual life-giving experience that you’ve had while playing?
AT: Any time you have a large group of people around a cause, it’s a mutual life-giving experience. This Friday Cheers show is going to be like that.
I’m just as much a fan as I am a performer. I like to geek out about stuff, because it inspires me to make more things to geek out on.
DHR: When you play live music, you take over the vibe in a visual and aural way. It’s a mutual experience, because you’re getting love from the fans, but you’re the creator.
AT: It’s less about love from the fans and more about the fact that you’re creating something you hope will become someone else’s song. My goal is that I’ll share this song with you and you’ll make it yours.
Like this: what’s your favorite book?
DHR: Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man.
AT: James Joyce has no idea who you are. He’s dead. But that’s your book. You’ve imprinted your own experiences onto it.
I cannot wait for my songs to be other people’s songs. I can’t freaking wait.
I’ve had to learn to stay true to myself. That’s why I want this album to come out.
DHR: Have you felt the pressure yet to market yourself?
AT: Um, yeah. (Laughs).
DHR: Have you bitten the apple, so to speak?
AT: You have to market yourself, but you have to be true to yourself.
Well, I say that, but what do I know?
There are literally no rules. There is literally no wrong way to do it.
You don’t have someone over your shoulder telling you how to market yourself. There’s a freedom in marketing yourself in your own way.
I’ve had advice and help from so many generous people, but when someone says, “You need to market yourself this way,” or “You need to wear this,” or “You need to be pigeonholed into this punk track, or this country track”— I have no interest in that sort of thing, because at the end of the day, all that you have is you. The people that want you to be something else aren’t necessarily going to be there.
Writing songs has been a therapeutic safe haven for me my whole life. That’s a sacred space. You have to figure out how to present that to the world, of course, but you can do it in your own way.
I know that I’m going to evolve a lot. I mean, everyone will. (Laughs). But the music industry is changing a lot. There’s nothing you can really latch on to. My hope is that if I just stay honest and open and malleable, I’ll be able to keep doing this.
DHR: So, if I were to say, do you have any idea what the future holds, you would say…
AT: It’s going to be a wild adventure.
21 QUESTIONS WITH ALEXA BUCHIN
I met Alexa Buchin at Lamplighter on Addison.
I’d seen her artwork on her Instagram, alexalynnartthings. Drawn in first by the metamorphic shapes and earth tones in her pour paintings, I wound up in a face-melting web of abstraction.
There are a lot of ways to describe her style: there are elements of cubism, realism, and impressionism. Perhaps the most striking feature is her skillful use of line quality. But her best pieces communicate the line she doesn’t draw, between the dueling forces of individualism and unity.
How long have you been taking art seriously?
I decided I wanted to go to art school at the end of high school. I’d taken art classes from elementary school all the way through.
Going to high school in Richmond, we were able to go to so many galleries around the city and see the art scene in Richmond. I was like, “This is really cool; I could see myself doing that.”
At VCU, I did art education. I didn’t really see myself as a gallery artist, and I didn’t want art to be my only source of income. I also feel like lots of artists spend a lot of time making work on their own, and I wanted to have more of a community at work.
Are you an art teacher now?
Going into school, I was interested in art therapy, and I minored in psychology.
About halfway through college, I started working with a guy with autism on the weekends— I was one of his caregivers. I also had some special education classes with art. I really liked both of those experiences, and I realized I didn’t want to just be a teacher at a public school, but I specifically wanted to work with people with special needs.
It was kind of hard to find a job for those things together. At most schools, the regular resource teacher teaches the special education class. So I’ve been a teaching assistant at the Faison Center for Autism for the past year and a half, but I’ve done some art projects with the kids that I work with, and I’m going back to school in the fall for rehabilitation counseling.
What are the principles behind Art Therapy? Creativity enhances quality of life?
Well, there’s a difference between art therapy and therapeutic art. Art therapy is a specific practice where art is used to diagnose someone who can’t communicate well otherwise. I’m more interested now in artmaking as a therapeutic process.
Art can increase resilience and communication skills, and benefit a lot of other mental health areas. I started to get interested in that in high school. The last few art classes I took were very independent, and I definitely used art as a therapeutic outlet, and made art about things that I was dealing with, in a representational way. Especially working with kids who don’t have those introspective skills yet, it’s easier to communicate visually.
When you’re making your own art, what’s your preferred medium?
I like drawing, painting, and printmaking a lot.
I did a lot of painting in college, and I like oil painting a lot. It’s not that practical, because I don’t have a real studio space. I probably shouldn’t use oil paints in my apartment, because it’s kind of toxic, but I still do sometimes anyway. (Laughs).
Printmaking is good if you’re looking to sell a lot of work, because you can make a lot of copies of the same thing. It’s more cost-effective than if you just have this one big oil painting.
Can you walk me through the process of creating a piece?
I’ve been thinking recently about how you make art for different reasons in different stages of your life. In high school, it was more of a personal process. In college, I started challenging myself to work in different mediums and try new things.
In college, you make a work of art, and you’re going to have a critique on it, and then get a grade. When I got a prompt I would think about how I could try something new and make it unique and personal.
Now, it’s hard, because I’m not making art for a class, so the purpose has changed. I also don’t have as much time to devote to art. So when I do make art, it comes from different sources.
Last summer, there was an awareness walk for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which I have. Their icon is a zebra, so my mom asked me if I could do a painting of a zebra for the auction. That’s an example where I had a direct purpose that I cared a lot about and I was able to do what I wanted with it. I wasn’t doing it as a commission, so I could do it in my own style, but I knew where it was going, so it was more like having a prompt.
I have a hard time getting excited about art if it’s not something that I’m interested in, so I’ve been looking for more specific projects like that.
When you’re creating a piece and you get an idea, do you sketch something out right away?
Inspiration comes at random times. I’ll find myself having ideas when I’m going to bed, and I’ll write them down on my phone. I’ll also look up pictures online and on Instagram and try to find some pieces for inspiration. Once I’ve planned out in my head how I want it to look, I’ll sketch it out.
Some projects are more straightforward than others. When I painted the zebra, it was like, “Okay, I’m going to paint a zebra.” With other things that are more conceptual and abstract, I’ll often look at other peoples’ art and try to pull some of those pieces together into something new.
Do you ever just freely start painting and see where it goes?
Not as much anymore. Since art isn’t my main source of income, and since I live in a small studio apartment, I’ve become very aware of the art that I already have, and it’s hard to justify making something just for fun.
If I’m going to spend a certain amount of time and money on making a piece, and I’ve already got a lot of ideas, I usually work with a purpose.
I did go to an open figure drawing session at the Visual Art Center, and that was nice, because I was able to just draw. Later on, I was adding to it while doodling on my couch watching TV, and it turned into something really cool. But that was just paper and marker, so there wasn’t a lot of materials to buy or things to set up.
Who would you say is your biggest artistic influence?
There was one artist I found in high school that I still follow named Andrew Salgado. He does figure and portrait work, but makes it more abstract. When I do more realistic things, like the zebra portrait, I like to have an abstract background, and mix realism with abstraction.
Andrew Salgado is very technically impressive, but he adds a lot of abstract brushstrokes and color.
I think if you’re going to paint something completely realistically, you may as well have just taken a picture. Paint on its own is so beautiful, and can do really cool things, and if you’re just manipulating it to look like something else, it’s not as interesting.
Do you have a favorite classical artist?
I like cubism. I like Picasso. He was one of the first ones to branch off from more realistic things.
I also like the surrealist movement. In high school, Dali was an inspiration— sort of creating these things that look sort of realistic, but are representing something that’s going on in my head.
How would you describe your own style?
A combination of realism and abstraction. I focus a lot on people and nature as subject matter. I try to represent something without just drawing it realistically, but I’m most interested in natural things.
I never really liked drawing still lifes. I’m more interested in movement and organic shapes.
What message do you try to communicate with your pieces?
In high school, I was communicating more personal things, like a self-narrative.
Now, I focus on images that a lot of different people can relate to. I think a lot about how interesting everyone is as an individual. So some of my pieces blend faces together and emphasize that everyone is different, but also connected.
A celebration of individualism, but all individuals are a part of one entity.
Especially with the work that I do, I want to focus on connection. Connecting to other people is helpful to both you and the person to whom you’re connecting.
People in our generation are a little bit more independent, and I’m more interested in communities working together. That’s how we evolved originally.
What’s your favorite piece that you’ve ever created?
I really like this piece, Collection in Fragments:
I made this when I was student-teaching as an example of a mosaic. Some of the pieces are glass that I painted on, and some of the pieces are found glass objects that I broke and put together.
It’s the same kind of idea with human figures both broken and stuck together– how people fit together in different ways.
This is a hard medium to work with, and I always think it’s cool to try new mediums and see how I can bring my style and interests to them.
It does seem like a good medium for your theme.
That’s why I like using more sculptural things, because you can get a lot of conceptual stuff out of the materials that you’re using. If I’m talking about how different people are broken and pieced together, this is literally a representation of that. You can paint something that looks like this, but I think it’s more interesting to actually use those materials.
Is there such thing as a truly original piece of art?
There’s a saying: “A good artist borrows, a great artist steals.”
Everything that you do all the time is influenced by everything around you. There’s no way to put yourself in a box and not be influenced.
One of the best ways to make something more original is to put yourself into it, because we’ve all had different experiences. The most original thing about you is you.
What’s more important, originality or execution?
If both of those things were isolated, I would say originality.
I don’t want to get sucked into the hole of making something just because I know people will like it and want to buy it. I want to put my own ideas into it, even if I’m not sure someone else will want to buy it. If you’re just making things and executing without a personal touch, there’s a lot of things like that out there already, and I don’t see a point to making more of them.
If I’m going to be making work, I want it to be different, and that gives me a purpose.
Is it possible to create bad art?
Yeah. It’s all just very subjective to what someone likes or what someone is trying to do.
I think to me, the things that I don’t like as much are things that I’ve seen before. So to me, bad art would be something that isn’t giving me anything new to look at or think about.
Would you say that art is a talent or a skill?
Both. When people compliment my art and say, “Oh, I could never do that,” my response is that all you have to do is practice.
There are people that have a more natural inclination towards things, just like with sports. You can work as hard as you want, but some people will always have an edge.
But I try to emphasize art as a skill you can practice. I practiced a lot when I was younger. What got me into it in the first place was a little bit of that natural talent, but then I just kept doing it. You can teach someone, but so much of improving is doing it over and over again. You can’t jump from being a beginner to a master in a week.
Can anybody develop those skills?
I think so, especially for more technical art where you’re drawing something realistically.
I did a portrait camp with Stanley Rayfield once, who does incredibly realistic paintings, and he didn’t begin drawing until he was in high school, and he just taught himself.
Where is your art up now?
I had art up in April at 68 Home on Broad, but I’ll have art up at the Urban Farmhouse in Scott’s Addition through May. In the past, I’ve had work at Art 180, and I’ve done an event at 1708 Gallery.
I’ve been reaching out to restaurants and galleries that have a featured artist every month. I have so much art sitting in my apartment! Even if nobody’s buying it, I’d rather it be up on a wall somewhere where people can appreciate it.
ON THE JAMES WITH CAPTAIN MIKE
A writer, a singer, a rapper, a poet; a dancer, an organist, a comedian.
It’s like one of those pattern questions from the college entrance exam. Up next…a fisherman?
But Captain Mike Ostrander, who joined the 21 Questions series this month, is an artist in his own right. There’s the art of catching fish; the art of teaching; and most importantly, the art of blending oneself to the natural world.
Ostrander, 54, is a James River Fishing Guide known for his exploratory program, Discover the James. And— as he might say of a bald eagle or a flathead catfish— he’s part of the ecosystem. One time, I saw him on a misty morning at Dutch Gap, when he wasn’t even working. He paddled by, pointed me in the direction of the best blue cat hole, handed me a few slabs of shad, and disappeared before I could say hello.
He also once took a ten-day canoe float from the headwaters of the James River. At that rate, he may surpass the Goatman of Williams Island as the greatest James River legend.
DHR: How long have you been doing Discover the James?
MO: Discover the James started in 2001 as the James River Fishing School. I started out doing guided fishing trips and fishing instruction for parents and their kids. By 2004, I was doing full-time fishing.
Since then, I’ve been doing blue and flathead catfish trips. In 2009, I added some history and wildlife tours, and changed the name to Discover the James. And that’s exactly what it is: people enjoying and sharing the incredible beauty and history of the James River.
DHR: How did you wind up as a fishing guide in the first place?
MO: I’ve got a passion for fishing. Basically, I’m just a fisherman with an art degree.
You’ve got to be creative and work hard to survive on the river, which is where I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to be.
DHR: Did you start out doing volunteer work?
MO: Yeah, I started out as a volunteer fishing instructor for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in the 1990s. After a while, I moved into a position where I was teaching other people how to teach other people.
One day, a buddy of mine asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and I said, “Well, I’d really like to be a professional fishing guide.” And my buddy said, “Well, why can’t you?”
It was a few days later that “James River Fishing School” popped into my head. I remember it like it was yesterday. That was when it took off.
DHR: What is a normal day like at Discover the James?
MO: It depends. Sometimes I’m on the water at 4 am catching shad for a catfish trip. Catfish trips start at 7 am. We’ll fish and discover the river until 3 pm, oftentimes a little longer. Then it’s back to the Richmond Yacht Basin, where I dock the boat, thank everyone, get a few laughs in, and see everyone off.
Then I work on the boat, usually for about 45 minutes or so. I get the fishing gear in top shape, change leaders, sharpen hooks. There’s a lot that happens in the morning, too– making sure everything is in top shape for the day.
DHR: What’s your favorite trip to take with Discover the James? Bald eagle observation, catfish, Civil War?
MO: Honestly, man, I love them all.
DHR: What’s your favorite part of the job?
MO: Being on the boat, working with people— and of course, watching the sunrise.
DHR: Did studying art help you appreciate the natural beauty of the James River?
MO: I studied art because I couldn’t pass biology. [Laughs].
I went to school to be a marine biologist, but I didn’t enjoy the workload needed to succeed in a field like marine bio. I always loved art, and I got a B in it my first semester, so I went that direction.
DHR: Was there a particular field of art you were drawn to while you were studying?
MO: I was mostly studying photography. I was good with shape, framing, color. But now, I’m starting to get really into pastels. I’ve got a few pastel pieces on the Discover the James website. I’ve always loved doing it, and now I feel like I’m at the point where I’d like to try selling them.
Entrance to Jefferson’s Reach, pastel
DHR: Alright, so, even though you’re a literal river guide, I feel like your strongest street cred— river cred— might come from the James River float I read about on the website. Ten days, is that right? Could you tell me a little about that?
MO: Yeah, so, I canoed down the James for ten days, with a great friend of mine, Warren Foster. Warren was undoubtedly the best person I could have ever traveled with for those ten days.
We lived off the fish we caught, and breakfast bars, coffee, and water. And, of course, if we could find someplace we could stash our canoe, we walked to any place that carried bread, lunch meat, and beer.
DHR: Did you boil water?
MO: Yeah, we boiled water and smoked fish every night but the first. We used to sit by the fire and eat smallmouth bass and catfish and redeyes, and we’d look at each other and think we were living like kings. It was awesome. So many memorable events.
We started at the headwaters, where the Cowpasture and Jackson meet, and we made it to Bremo Bluff. Somewhere around 200 miles.
DHR: Did you have to portage your canoe?
MO: Only once I can think of—we met someone before the Seven Dams in Lynchburg, who brought us from one end to the other.
DHR: What was the strangest thing that happened to you along the way?
MO: One day, these juvenile otters came up to us, and all three popped up and down next to the canoe as we floated. We didn’t paddle— we just watched as they individually, and sometimes simultaneously, would pop their heads up out of the river. They would look right at us. As one would go down, another would pop up. It was incredibly coordinated. Three minutes or so they did this, and eventually they got bored and left. I see them swimming away right now like it was last weekend.
DHR: What was the hardest part of the trip?
MO: Leaving Bremo Bluff. We were planning to make it to Richmond, but I threw out my back, and Warren convinced me that we needed to get off the water. I’ll tell you, as hard as those last seven miles were to paddle, it was nowhere near as hard as it was to leave.
DHR: Were there any moments that were particularly transcendent?
Early morning, late evenings…. The sounds of screech owls sounding like people in the woods, laughing.
When we put in, we were about a mile downriver from the point where the two rivers come together to create the James. We paddled upriver as far as we could, put the canoe on shore, and walked the rest of the way, so we could really start at the headwaters.
I was casting a senko worm all the way across the river, hitting little eddies in grass beds on the other shore, and literally catching smallmouth on every cast. We got to the headwater, waded back to the canoe, got in, and started to paddle. I remember that moment, and thinking, “Wow, I’m heading back to Richmond.”
DHR: Was that always a plan of yours, or sort of a trip that came together?
MO: It started between me and Warren over a game of horseshoes. We talked about it for about four years. After a while it was like, “Man, we could actually do this.” I’d say almost all of the preparation for that trip came over the horseshoe pit.
DHR: What are your favorite kinds of fish to catch?
MO: Live ones. [Laughs].
It changes all the time. Right now, I’m just dying to catch a trout, so tomorrow, that’s what I’ll be looking for. Next weekend, when the weather is perfect for smallmouth, I’ll be hoping for a smallmouth.
I will say that I like to fish in moving water. One day, I wrote down my ten favorite places to fish, and I think nine of them were rivers or streams. There’s just something about being able to get in, get your feet wet, turn over the pebbles under your feet. It’s just awesome, man.
DHR: Alright, last question. Do you know anything about the Goatman, who supposedly lives on Williams Island?
MO: I think I’ve seen him twice. Once in the shape of a white-tailed deer and once in the shape of an otter.
Come on one of the tours, and maybe I’ll tell you more about him.