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Memory Hoarding: An Interview with Rocky Green

Rocky Green | M-C MacPhee
here’s the text of the interview:
M-C MacPhee: Who or what have been some of your most important artistic influences over the years? 

Rocky Green: The Canadian painter David Milne for sure. I odd jobbed for his widow when I was a kid and got to spend time looking at his still lives. That gave me the sense that art – not just souvenir making – can come from where you’re living rurally. And I always was lucky and had friends, my ex, painting buddies, students, who prioritized creativity- romanticized it, but prioritized it too.

M-C: What inspired you to begin taking photographs and do you have a specific photographic process?

RG: Memory hoarding and documentation. I started taking pictures as painting sources, but I shoot more pictures than I paint of course, and I work from life as well. I run the photos in a slide show in the corner so they all stay in my head, trigger things for me, show my blind spots and my subconscious subject matter. I allow myself a camera-full, 15 shots in about two weeks. But they pile up.

I paint colour from memory so I dicker in software a long time, in black and white, months of random adjustments. So the photos are in flux, like my paintings. They don’t save time really.

M-C: Do you (still) use film or were you happy to embrace digital technology?

RG: Film was expensive for me so I embraced digital full bore. I like controlling the whole process and the digital one is nicely private, portable. A camera the size of a cigarette pack. It’s anonymous, understood, publicly acceptable, everybody’s a photographer, a new insect eye. Everybody here has evolved unquestioningly.

M-C: You are a multi-disciplined artist with a beautiful collection of drawings, writings, photographs, and paintings, and you are also a very skilled musician. What led you to develop so many diverse artistic skills?

RG: Intellectual restlessness, or a learning disability. I like to be good at things technically and I’m competitive in a self amusing way. The painting is where cash and reputation figure so it comes with baggage. The writing extrapolates on paintings.

Music is genetic and for pleasure, keeps my hands loose. My families were large and churchy and wild too. They all sang, the poetry of our class and then some. A hillbilly vice. My brother and his son both write songs.

M-C: You currently live in the small town where you were born, and from what I gather, you have lived there – or have at least returned there – for most of your life. What kept you coming back and what finally pulled you to stay?

RG: I like the bickering and the unending pettiness of a small town. God-fearing scrutinizing life, the teasing, the cross generational narratives. People as we were and as we are now, if at all. I enjoy my Proust. Family, community, and my place in a community before it was couched in buzzwords. Whether I fit in or not. I lived with a writer for years and he wrote about nothing but the artist in rural Ontario family and society. His dad was a cattle farmer so breeding was always considered. He translated my own hometown to me so I could love it more than nostalgically or bitterly. I translate too. Still, my life is like being trapped in a post-modern southern Gothic chick flick sometimes…

M-C: You have said that you “cling to my memories of my birth town, see the main street as layers of ghost buildings, come and gone.” Are there specific memories that you cling to? What is your most vivid memory of that town?

RG: My little dirt road dead end of town looks just like it ever did, but most of the town looks like any strip of family bargain value box stores, a plug ugly supply depot for cottage country gentrification. You need a car to get a can of turpentine at the hardware store out on the highway. Bald-faced short sighted pragmatism aluminum clad. They’re starting to tack on the gingerbread and hanging baskets and talk about heritage now. There isn’t a building left unmodernized to an Oshawa-strip-mall standard.

I remember walking to kindergarten on the back streets alone and spending the day without a helmet alone in the woods, and the day I decided to walk home main street, take in the shops and the girl at the drugstore phoned my mother and told on me. That kind of safety.

M-C: Was the decision to settle down in a small town a complicated one for you? More specifically, as a gay man and an artist, what are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced living in a rural area?

RG: I’m kind of a cyclical prodigal. You never leave, you’re never at home. What you miss in commitment you gain in detachment.

I’ve always been rather boneheaded brave and impervious to public opinion, though very aware of it, and I never fit any better or worse into the gay community than I did into the straight world.

I’ve lived and seen the violence and the tragedies and just the banal petty bigotry, but wherever I was I’d find a few painters and writers, love maybe, and that was enough. Anyway there was no gay community here when I came out. Now there is. There has been a hard won, precarious and dubious change. And a lot of rethinking.

I do fit in better now, maybe I’m better socialized. Maybe growing up here made me very suspicious of groups of like minded individuals. It’s possible to be very political and activist one on one, and solitary too. You don’t have to go to all the meetings.

I’m pretty shallow, juvenile. Yesterday I went with some friends I knew in high school out to a pioneer cemetery and we lolled around on the stones telling stories. Last night I sat at the internet cafe across from the Chinese restaurant and theater of my teenage years and waited for my boyfriend to get off work. Arrested development. Takes a village to raise an idiot.

M-C: What is your relationship to urban centers? Has that changed over time?

RG: I see the city as a four seasons playground for rednecks. I can hear the wild things howl all night, run a little, get some air. The rare bearded cougar. Organic food is cheaper and easier to find. People seem more in touch with nature, their sensuality, their haircuts. They flirt in cafes. Anonymity is nice. A cousin of mine told me his main memory of growing up in our hometown was his sense of always being watched, parsed. Blue rinse Jesus checking out your library books. It made performers out of us. It kills something in others. I’m watchful. In the city I watch for galleries but I mostly just watch the traffic. The river. I have wilderness adventures. I walk and walk. I cross the great divide.

M-C: I realize that the town where you live is quite large as compared to the surrounding towns and villages and is probably considered an “urban center”. Yet I am referring to it as a “rural area”. Isn’t it funny how one’s ideas of rural and urban can change depending on they’re standing? Can you speak to your experiences with this?

RG: I live in a time capsule, an old dead end residential street at the wrong end of town. Dead end, trails off into a graveyard, symbolic. No Tim Horton’s. It’s still pretty quiet but up at the other end of town things are so wild you can buy cigarettes after midnight. I go north a bit to my dad’s home town to escape the minimal noise here. It’s silence I look for, just the occasional distant car. You see maybe an occasional PC tower rotting by the trail for some reason, a four wheeler. Hardly wilderness.

This isn’t old growth forest, that canopy is long gone, and the city isn’t unnatural, it just has more human nature. It’s a balancing act.

M-C: Is the rural landscape surrounding your town a strong influence for your work?

RG: It’s the context, the weather. There are only a few people you’ll walk with through it.

M-C: There is often a romantic and glorified appeal to life in rural areas. Many people assume a certain “authenticity” to rural identities and experiences. Do you think there is any truth to this idea? Can you speak to it a bit?

RG: I don’t think there’s any greater authenticity, no. You can’t parse interior life in Canadian antiques roadshow terms. Where I’m from there’s a certain teasing Irish lilt and a tendency to hyperbole but its best not to mistake accent for authenticity. I ham up the redneck thing a lot.

I don’t know what authenticity is but I’m tempted to say it comes from a life considered as honestly as possible… but would an authentic rural life maybe be that of a pre-colonial native, in terms of living in the bush without a dj? The best man in the bush I know here is Jamaican. If you come here looking for authenticity you immediately set up the locals as characters in a heritage moment or a miniseries and they’ll ham it up out of manners or meanness. You bring your own authenticity. There’s woods smarts, there’s street smarts. You try to have both.

M-C: How does nostalgia factor into your experiences of living in a small town and also into your work? Are your feelings of nostalgia based in a longing for something that existed or for an idea of what could have been?

RG: I don’t think about what could have been, hardly ever, in my arrogance. Cheap sentiment, roots music. The tendency to be trite. It’s hard not to strike those cliché notes, Edward Hopper, Walker Evans, the last picture show, in photographs, especially when it’s right there in front of you and you’re lonely and the place feels empty. You buy into the generic romance, you cast your love life in a country and western music paradigm.

My paintings are more recognizably my own handwriting. A friend of mine runs a gallery up here and she talks about the redone main streets with their galleries and such, and then the unchanged back streets, against the fields and the bush, how those back streets are where the locals – the old stock – live. She calls that the bleedline. That’s where my interest lies. Its a skeptical place. That can be lonely whether you’re disenfranchised or just not buying in on moral or luxury grounds.

M-C: When you depict yourself in photos and paintings, what are you setting out to do? How do you use and see yourself as a subject in your own work? Do you have a preferred subject or theme or is this constantly changing?

RG: I tend to photograph myself in crisis times. You redefine yourself now and then, take a look at yourself from outside, check your stance, aging. But everything’s very propped and contrived in my portraits. Self indulgence, vanity, the presence of the camera… I really think my preferred theme is always art making itself, just the pointlessness and the persistence of it. How you let it run your life.

I think my theme in writing is self deception and the deception, or not, of others. Artifice. I have as opening text on my blog a quote from Sartre: “We resign ourselves to seeing ourselves through the other’s eyes.”

M-C: Can you tell me about the projects that you are currently working on?

RG: I’ve been very self indulgent, painting the unsellable for the last year or so, portraits in a recession. I have a friend and model who now and then sends me a careful portrait of himself, an avatar. He’s not wordy but he’s visually hyper-literate. I paint from pictures he sends me. My other model is more subject to my formal consideration in the flesh, but I’m starting to use his photos of me in a new self portrait. That’s where my interest runs.

I’m going to finish a commissioned show this winter and find some place to hang it. Paintings of dirt road childhood.

M-C: Do you have plans for any future exhibits? Where can we see your work?

RG: I have a blog at https://rockygreen.wordpress.com/ where people can keep track of me. There’s more than anybody needs to know really. For the last few years my writing there has been a journal, self explanatory, now I’m writing some fiction.

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