This interview originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Solvent Magazine, a North Bay area art and culture publication that features musicians, artists and local politics. The interview was done during a solo exhibition of John's work at Flux United Gallery called "Altared States" October 2007.
John Weiss, is by any measure, an institution within the North Bay art scene. Having taught at W.J. Fricker for 30 years, he has inspired generations in this community with a love of art. Recently, his art was shown at Flux Gallery in a show called “Altared States”, which was curated by Ian-Patrick McAllister.
Solvent (S): I guess the worst way to start off an interview like this would be to ask a broad general question such as “What do you think of your art”?
John Weiss (JW): I wouldn’t want to answer that question. I’d rather find out what you are thinking and feeling about one of my paintings, than for me to tell you anything about them. Art is what you get out of it.
(S): You believe the relationship between artist and audience is interactive rather than dictatorial. I can imagine that it’s difficult when someone experiences your art, and still looks to you to articulate a set of impressions for them.
(JW): If a person has ideas and an open mind, then a conversation is like an elastic, it can go in all different directions. Otherwise, it just isn’t happening.
(S): I noticed that the response that a lot of people had upon entering the Altared States opening was an emotional one, it was mood altering.
(JW): It was more like a celebration and my art has that attitude.
(S): Part of what you were able to accomplish with this show was to radically change a person’s context. You transported people. People walk in off the street, enter “Altared States”, and leave “Hockeyville” a long way behind.
(JW): We could have been in the Village, we could have been on Queen St., we could have been in Berlin. We could be anywhere, and it is also timeless. That is what I like about showing art.
(S): Do you think that your role as citizen, teacher and artist in North Bay has been to bring some cosmopolitan attitude here to Hockeyville?
(JW): It certainly isn’t a mission or anything, but I am what I am, I am who I am, and this is my world.
(S): So the cosmopolitan exposure is a happy accident of your existence here.
(JW): It is more like a collision than a happy accident. This is in fact Bambi-killerville, or Hockeyville as you say it. I have collided with it on occasion. Ian did too. He got stabbed within months of moving here.
(S): That wasn’t a very good welcome to North Bay.
(JW): I like nature and I like where I live, and I like the people here, but you won’t find me at closing time outside of a bar, in case someone doesn’t like the shirt I’m wearing or the fact that his girl was dancing with me. I’d rather go to Toronto and be in a club with 3000 like-minded people, or Gay Pride in Montreal or any fetish party where people tend to do their thing, whatever that is, with respect. You might encounter someone who is acting like a dog, and that’s his thing. And you can do whatever you want. Bottom line is if you aren’t paying my bills, I’m not fucking you, and I’m not in love with you, then I don’t give a shit what you do.
(S): You just mentioned Ian Patrick McAllister, the curator of Altared States. I think it is interesting that you have lived in North Bay for 30-something years, become an institution within this community, and then a relative newcomer is the one who has a vision of how to express your work that he wants to present to the public. Did it take the perspective of someone from outside of this community to see your work the way Ian has?
(JW): I don’t think it was that. Although we attended 20 years apart, we both graduated from Ontario College of Art, and had many of the same teachers and influence while we were there. I think it was our common background and influences that gave him insight into my work and what I am trying to do.
(S): One of the fun things about your opening was the fact that a lot of your former students showed up, and it was the first time they met you in a social setting.
(JW): That made the opening feel like a performance piece.
(S): Back to Ian again, and his role as curator. He said that your house is a piece of art unto itself. One of things he wanted to accomplish was to recreate the attitude that your house has, in a gallery environment.
(JW): That was totally his idea, and I thought it was great. I asked him what he wanted, and he said “Basically I want this, that, your art, your spirit, and your mind.” He took my art, furniture, and things that I collect and have lying around my house, to represent me and my environment.
(S): Ian told me that the whole concept of the show revolves around the idea that you are inseparable from your art. One should not be considered separately from the other.
(JW): Yes, and then there is the concept of the Altars. I was raised as a German Lutheran, so I got the guilt and the punishment. These Altars are placed at the foot of my paintings, and objects of interest are placed on them because I am honouring the things I love. I don’t want people to see dead animals on these Altars, I want them to see the lost spirits. I love nature. In my paintings there are tribal references that work with the arrangements on these altars. It is about nature and life. My art shows reverence for those things.
(S): There is a lot of Marlene Dietrich reverence in your art.
(JW): I’m German born, and she was a decadent German lesbian goddess. She was androgynous, and wore a top hat, and a tuxedo. She carried a cane, and smoked. She was really over the top for her time. Now it wouldn’t be a big deal.
(S): So you pay homage to pioneering spirit of Marlene Dietrich. During the Altared States exhibition, you had former students, who are still making art, bring their art in to show you. Did you ever feel tempted to give them a mark on it?
(JW): No. I never wanted to give marks on art. I’d rather give an encouraging comment like: “You’ve succeeded”, or “You’ve gone beyond yourself since the last time I saw your work”, or “You are into a new phase now.” Well, hello how are you? (In greeting to Jessica Roy who enters the gallery)
Jessica Roy (JR): Great now that I am done for the week.
(S): Take off your clothes and stay awhile and look around.
(JR): Take off my clothes? It’s not that kind of visit is it?
(JW): No no.
(JR): I love all the big murals.
(JW): All of this is my work. The whole thing. You’ve basically just walked into my house. Except it is an art lounge on Main St.
(JR): Suddenly North Bay feels so cultured.
(JW): We try.
(JR): Now can you do something about Tim Hortons?
(S): John hasn’t defeated Hockeyville quite yet.
(JW): But I did defeat a guy with a space between his two front teeth that he used to shoot spit through. So, take a look at all the art, and if you would like to chat about it, the artist is right here.
Photo: Bill Pusztai ©2006
*This interview courtesy Solvent Magazine available through the Underdog on Main St. in North Bay ON
Online archive of this interview: Solvent Magazine
Bill Pusztai photography: http://www.radiantpage.com