The year was 1997. I was 13 years old. Green Day was the coolest band in the world. Two years previous, they’d just put out their album, Insomniac, with an insane-looking cover. I checked out the liner notes, and found out it was done by a collage artist named Winston Smith:
I had a great art teacher, Robyn Helsel, who assigned us a project where we had to pick a contemporary artist and write to them. Most of the class picked their artists out of a catalog. I picked Winston. I used my dad’s e-mail account and sent probably half a dozen e-mails to a gallery curator I found online, asking for Winston’s home address. The curator finally replied: “Stop bugging me, kid. Here’s his address.” I sent Winston a two-page letter using a ransom note font in Microsoft Word, telling him about me and my band, asking him about his technique, his influences…I even had the audacity to include a sketch of an idea I had for a piece he might want to attempt. (I have the letter somewhere…but unfortunately, not the sketch!) A few months went by. As I remember it, nobody in the class heard back from their artist.
Then one day a huge, stuffed manila envelope came in the mail. I ran to the kitchen table, tore it open, and dumped out its contents. There was a 14-page hand-written note from Winston and probably 50 pages of color photocopies of his work and press clippings. I couldn’t believe it. An artist—a real artist!—had written me back!
To me, it was the equivalent of Rilke writing back to the young poet. He told me about his life and his methods. He urged me to always question authority, stay away from drugs, and keep getting straight As so one day I could pay the bills. (An artist—a real artist!—was telling me it was okay to get straight As!) I’d never heard anybody talk about the kind of things he wrote about—art, America, growing up in a small-town—it was like a time-bomb that went off in my brain.
The letter, and I’m not exaggerating, changed my life.
I wrote him back, and he wrote me back. We’ve kept up a casual correspondence since.
I was at my mom’s over the holidays, and decided to use her new scanner to
archive some papers I wanted to preserve for safe-keeping.
I’m not sure if it will interest anyone else, but I’m posting it here as a shining example of great generosity from an established artist to an aspiring artist. It’s one of my most treasured possessions, and I just really freaking love it and want to share it.
And so, with Winston’s permission, here it is. (Also: be sure to check out Winston’s work and buy some of his stuff!)
VIEW THE WHOLE LETTER AS A FLICKR SET
7 March, 1997
Thanks for the cool letter. Sorry for the delay in writting back but I’ve finally got time to sit and scribble, so here goes:
That’s good that you’re a straight-A student. That will come in handy later in life for little things like earning a living and other luxeries like food and shelter. Unfortunately I can speak from bitter experience. I was a straight-F student and I’ve been broke most of my life (as a result). So keep up the good work pal. Actually—a couple times I got D’s or even a D+. They let me have that just because I occasionally turned in my homework. I used to wish I had a dog just so I could blame him for eating my homework (—a lie most teachers never bought anyway.) I guess I could have rented a dog and then feed him my homework—but it was cheaper just to not do the homework in the first place. The result was I never finished High School and, having no education or marketable skills, I was forced to become an artist.
That’s a really cool name for your band “Insult to Injury”. It covers two of my favourite things. (to do, not to get.) Yeah, I saw Kathy Spiering just a couple days ago and told her I’d heard from you. She was busy setting up a show—an art exhibit. She wanted me to add some pieces to it. The web site (Cyborganic) is pretty extensive—if you get to a certain part there are about a dozen or so pictures. At least that’s how it used to be. I’ve only seen it 2 or 3 times. There’s also a pretty long article in an internet magazine called “Addicted to Noise”. I don’t know how to locate it but I reckon it won’t be too hard to find on the internet. It also features “movies”—kinda. Short kinetic clips from a stop-action animation I did for a Green Day video for European MTV. By the way—if you want to order my book you can call Last Gasp (the publisher). I think it’s $25 plus shipping—probably $3 or $4—so about 28 or 29 total. Their number is toll free—1-800-848-4277. I don’t have any spares around or I’d send you one. But I will send you stuff not in the book.
So as for your questions:
1. My collages have a 50’s look to them because most of my source material is from war-time and post war era magazines—1940’s to late 50’s. That was the period of lush, exagerated color illustration. Then in the late 60’s color fotografy took over and the rich color illustrations faded from use. Too bad. (so if you ever come across a nice stash of 1940’s to mid 1950’s Life magazines or Saturday Evening Post, etc, and you can get ’em cheap $2 each or less let me know and I’ll buy them from you. I’m always on the look out for new (old) stuff. A friend of mine is sending me a set of old mags from the late 40’s all about the future—all the cool stuff we going to have “in the future”, like flying cars and picture-fones and mom bringing the groceries home in her own private Whirly-Bird (helicopter). It never happened, did it? Instead people drive the same bent-up cars (with gasoline costing ten times more) to the same lousy jobs (where they have to work twice as hard for half as much money) and their kids ride to school on the same old yellow school bus they rode 30 years before. That’s the American Dream.
As you can probably tell, I have kind of a cynical attitude about the future—and the present. I had no idea there was even going to be a future. I was 10 years old durring the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and I had a flashlight and a bag of M+M’s and a transistor radio packed up in a little bag so in case World War III happened I could go hide in the sewer. (I even used the threat of World War III as an excuse not to do my home work. I told that teacher that since the world was going to end anyway then what’s the point of wasting time on homework?—she didn’t buy that either. And she seemed disturbed that I pointed out this rather obvious point in front of the whole class. Yeah, if I’d known I was going to be around this long I would have taken better care of myself. So drive safely and don’t abuse alcohol, drugs or candy. There’ll be plenty of opportunity for that later.
Question/Answer #2: I don’t care much for music as I’m too visually oriented to pay much attention to music. And I don’t watch TV at all. I stopped that when I was 16 or 17. Television is bubble gum for the brain. It’s the most dangerous drug in the world—worse here in America than anywhere else, but the rest of the world is fast catching up. And unfortunately I do see papers—most mainstream papers are owned by corporations that control what’s printed in them so they are largely useless. I think it was Thomas Jefferson who noted that the more one reads newspapers the less one is informed. (in our day it would be: the more one is mis-informed.) So papers are a bit of my inspiration. More information is available from non-corporate sourse—such as lefty mags like “The Nation” or “In These Times” or “The Progressive” & “Utne Reader”—to name but a few. But actually most of my inspiration comes from my own sick mind and my own bizare personal experiences. Lots of my work is largely meaningless(outside of that which is clearly social satire or political satire) So much of it is just interesting new arrangements of images that may iether be funny, pretty or just weird.
3. The seamlessness? That’s tough. I just cut as carefully as possible. It takes lots of time. (keeps me out of trouble…) And I try my best to match up images that will be in proper proportion with each other. That is very time consuming, locating them and sorting through them.
#4: My history—well—I grew up in the middle of nowhere—in Oklahoma, you’re lucky, you live in Circleville. I lived in Squaresville. So when I turned 17 I split. I flipped to Italy and studied art and remained there for over 6 years. When I returned to America I hitch-hiked out to San Francisco (only because the only person I knew in America happened to live in California). Then for a couple of years (1976-1977) I was a roadie for different Bay Area bands like Santana, Journey, Tower of Power, The Tubes, Quick Silver Messenger Service, and other washed-up nobodies. Then the punk scene began to rear its ugly head and I started making posters for bands—some didn’t even exist. I just made them up as a joke to illustrate my particular style of art. Then I met up with Biafra and Dead Kennedys and the rest is history. (or mystery.)
Question #5: My art—well, like I say, try to order my book and also in about 3 months (I hope) there will be a second book out that I’m working on right now. It’s called, “Been wrong so long it looks right to me”. I’ve also got some other LP art out there an stuff in various magazines. I do a thing each month for the last year or so in Spin Magazine. It’s an illustration for a monthly editorial page called Topspin. (usually page 14 or 18). Your discription of the “Insult to Injury” record cover is great. While reading it I got an image in my head and then saw your sketch and it was exactly the same. I was imagining this poor beat-up, tired-out rat staring blankly out the window as the wreking ball is just about to hit his only shelter, and the rat’s thinking—”Oh swell, I had a really crappy day and now this.” I know the feeling.
The wierd thing is—I know I don’t have any images of a wrecking ball and crane—I showed your sketch to my girlfriend and she liked it too. But a day later I was going through a magazine when I was waiting for Kathy Spiering to hang my artwork for her show at this cyber cafe and guess what I found:—yep—a wrecking ball. Too wierd, huh? “There are no coincidences.” So I’ll do my best to cook up a piece that resembles your idea. Now I gotta locate a rat. I can do that. I like rats.
Enclosed are some recent pieces I did plus some old things. There’s a (slightly trimmed) better color version of the Green Day LP cover. Its original title is: God Told Me To Skin You Alive. Speaking of Green Day—I was sitting in a pizza joint in Oakland with a friend not too long ago when this guy with green hair came up and kissed me!—I looked up in shock and realized it was Tre (the drummer in the band who I’ve known since he was about your age—and now he’s a millionaire, so keep practicing your music!) I hadn’t seen him since I visited backstage in Florence, Italy when we all happened to be in Italy at the same time. He said they have 30 new songs and may be doing a new record very soon. Tre’s a good egg, as are Bill and Mike. Mike’s wife just had a baby. They all have kids now.
Also enclosed is a (kinda long) interview w/ me that just came out in a punk ‘zine called “All The Answers” out of Arizona. The guy who wrote it up spells worse than I do and he left out quotation marks that would make it much clearer, but it’s ok.
Like I say, I’ll try to come up with some good imagery so you and your band can use it as a poster or (maybe) even a CD cover.
So I’ve looked about for stuff that might help on your project for the art class. This is probably too much to use but you can sort through it and pick out what will work.
By the way—it may take me quite some time to get finishing that CD cover so I hope it’s nothing you need right away. I’ve got some projects coming up I have to work on so sit tight. I’ll eventually get round to it.
Ok pal, hang in there. Keep up the straight-A’s and always think for yourself. Good luck on the art class project—let me know how it turns out. Don’t get lost or killed. And remember, you can lead a horse to water but a pencil must be lead.
Bill Peschel says
This is way cool; I’m hanging onto this to read it at my leisure later.
I’m tempted to personalize me some stationary!
So Winston Smith was his real name? Were his parents heavily influenced by “1984”?
When I was 8, I wrote to the author of “Old Yeller.” I got a mimeographed form letter back.
Man, that’s awesome in about 300 different ways.
Amazing. I am writing one fan letter a month for the next three months as part of a project to keep the no-sun blues away.
This letter is an example of the best thing a grown up can do for a kid.
Austin Kleon says
How you’ve livened up my day with both new and revistited roads to venture upon! Keep the cool connections coming!
That is really really cool. Wow.
Hi, I see how nice it was for you to experience that! I am a young artist and I go through some bad crisis feeling shitty because art doesn’t pay the bills and bla bla bla…
but I like that you got you inspiration and that established artist wrote you back!! It proves that some artist are still attached to the ground!
This made my day much better. A cool story and a great letter.. I would have been thrilled too!
That is awesome, it really proves that the art world isn’t so full of pompous assholes as it often seems. I feel really inspired after reading this :) will definitely be checking this blog in the future!
What a fabulous act of generousity! Love it, love it, love it!
Mike Rohde says
Austin, this is a great post
What a striking reminder that the world does not revolve around us. We impact people every day, intentionally and unintentionally. In this case Winston chose to be proactive with his letter back to you. I love it man.
Thanks for sharing and inspiring me to do the same for the generations behind me.