When I walked into Chaya’s Brooklyn apartment for the first time I ran smack into a 10 foot tall face of an old man with a long beard staring me down. The enormous portrait was carved out of wood and was gazing at me with eyes as large as my cranium. All of the details were finely carved, and the power of the image was awesome. I stumbled backwards in shock and mutter a slight “What the hell” under my breathe.
Chaya, noticing my reaction, explained rather simplistically, “That is one of my roommate’s woodblock prints.”
This came to me as sort of an extreme understatement, as the print ran all the way from the floor to the ceiling. But I, nonetheless, wanted to meet the architect of the larger than life – beautiful – monstrosity. Within moments I was eating home made peanut butter cookies with the man who carved the giant face, the Brooklyn based woodblock print artist, Justin Catania.
Shaking my hand and smiling gently, Justin welcomed me to his home. I looked around at all of his artwork that adorned the walls of the rugged apartment, which was converted from a disused Bedstay factory. Prints of wolves, old women, and large apes clung to every available scrap of wall space, and a nine foot wide installation of William S. Burroughs stood valiantly over all. Justin’s home was covered in hastily pinned up masterpieces, and I found the syntax, context, and power of this scene impressive.
Over the duration of my three month stay in Brooklyn, I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Justin. As fortune would have it, I was the fellow who was courting one of his downstairs roommates, so I was often able to encounter Justin busy at his work as I passed in and out of his home on my amorous little missions. At each passing I would always be compelled to stop for a moment by Justin’s carving table to see what he was creating. I was always surprised by his subject matter, as it is not the usual fare for a New York City artist, and delighted in observing how each print was made little by little.
In my travels I have met many artists: from Indian woodcarvers to traditional Japanese horimono masters, from Portuguese graffiti artists to Chilean tattooers to writers and poets from various locations on the planet. I have had the good opportunity to sit down and talk with these masters about themselves and the art that they create, but I have seldom met an artist as humble as Justin Catania. I have the strong impression that he is a man who loves art in the original sense: that he creates art solely because it is something that enjoys doing and shares his project out of a sense of compassion, for someone else may also find his work beautiful, touching, or revealing. Justin is not trying to become famous, get rich, or even impress anyone; he is a craftsman in the old sense, and he has the rare ability of being able to transmit little pieces of himself through his hands to create something that is beautiful.
In the highest sense of the meaning, I have to say that Justin’s work is as genuine as he is.
Before I departed from Brooklyn, Justin agreed to do an interview for Vagabond Journey.com, and what follows is the content of our discussion.
Interview with Justin Catania:
1. At what point in your life did you realize that you were an artist, that you had a rare ability to create art that other people could enjoy?
I’ve always had a tendency towards making things. I used to draw all the time as a kid. I would bring sketchbooks everywhere, even out to restaurants with my family. I think it was in high school when I made the conscious decision to devote my time and energy to making art.
2. How did you begin making woodblock prints, what attracted you to this type of art? Is there something about its aesthetics or the way that they are created that meshes with your personally? Why did you choose this art over all the other ones that you are talented in?
I started making woodcuts and linoleum cuts in school. I think the final push away from painting and towards printmaking was an event called “Big Damn Prints” in which a steam roller would print the 4 foot by 8 foot woodblocks that the participants had cut. The event took place during one of my painting classes, which was my concentration at the time, so I had to ask permission to participate. My painting professor, an awkward, uptight, photo-realistic painter, told me that I might fail if I missed any of the class time. So coming from this sort of atmosphere and walking outside onto the campus to see a huge steam roller running over prints, 30 kids all working together, helping each other ink and print blocks, I was sold. From than on I focused my energy on printmaking. I began learning what it meant to be a printmaker. I like the idea of making multiples. It allows the work to become a lot more accessible to a lot more people. A lot of people call printmaking a democratic medium. I like it for those reasons as well as its history in social and political movements where organizations had to quickly make a lot of posters, to get their message out. Aside from that, however, I enjoy all the printmaking mediums for their unique processes. I enjoy the process of carving the wood, or etching copper, rolling the ink, running it through the press and looking at the finished product. It’s a lot of fun.
3. Why do you create art? What is your driving motivation? What are you trying to accomplish?
I feel like I have to ask myself that everyday. I have always found myself drawn to make something, whether it be writing, drawing, music, or whatever really. Those are the things that make me happy and therefore they are the things I want to spend my time engaged in. Also, the fact that I can enjoy these things with my friends and family makes all the difference. I can’t think of anything better. I’d say my motivation is that hopefully through making art I’ll continually better myself and hopefully impact the culture and society I’m part of in a positive way.
4. When people look at your prints, is there anything that you want them to think? Is there a deeper meaning behind them?
I would love for my prints to have an impression on the people who see them. In fact that is definitely something I would like to achieve. I would like to convey my ideas through my artwork and have everyone be able to understand it. For instance, the series I made about my grandmother was alluding to the feelings of isolation and disorientation which I felt to be parallel to her psychological and mental state at the time. I was interested in people hearing her and understanding her because Alzeihmer’s disease had taken most forms of communication from her. I was trying to bring a voice to the voiceless. Then I found myself wanting to take a more active role in my work as I began involving social issues in the series I made in response to the callous treatment of animals that can be attributed to the majority of our society.
The following prints are from Justin’s series on Alzeimers, his grandmother, and isolation:
I think most importantly, I’d like to have my friends and family with me ( and lots of animals ) making art, playing music, and cooking great food. I’d like to live on a farm someday and grow my own food.
For the immediate future though, I’d like to travel for a little while and maybe have my own print shop at some point where I can continue making work. If I’m lucky, my work will reach people and hopefully make a difference in people’s lives. That would be the ideal situation.
6. What is your view of art in society? What role do you think art has in cultures?
I think art has the rare ability to transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries. This makes it an extremely affective way to express new ideas and to bring about positive change. There is a long history of artists, like Goya for instance, who have challenged social injustices and have helped to bring about change in their cultures. Artwork that till this day, still can have a profound affect on those who see it. I think art is an important part of culture and therefore has a duty to remain enlightened. Sue Coe is another artist who I think is a great example of just how influential and powerful art can be in opening the minds of people.
I was able to watch this print being made from the beginning. It all started with a sketch that was so nonchalantly drawn that it at first made me think that Justin was just messing around. But then it evolved in stages, and one day I walked into Justin’s workshop to find this print sitting on the table.
To contact Justin Catania or to view more of his work and writing, go to Justin Catania Blog
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