Wednesday, December 5, 2012

To Muncie...and Beyond!

Maybe you didn't know, but SmallBox has quite the Muncie connection. Marketing guru Dan F., wunder-assistant Kasey B., client-success-King Justin S., Musical Family Tree editor Jon R., and myself all spent formative years in the storied, state-funded, Cardinal-colored halls of Ball State University.

When thinking of who to interview for this Think Kit post about 2012, I had to turn to two Muncie-related connections who have an admirable online presence all their own. Not just creators, they're also curators of content, experience, creativity, and their respective passions; and that's all in addition to their day-jobs! Because I believe questions without context are like half-empty bowls of macaroni-and-cheese, I've tried to give you a full picture of these individuals before they present some highlights of the past year. These friends have personally informed my creative, professional, and human existence---I hope some of their passion wears off on you, too. Enjoy!

Something Between Want and Desire / Jacinda R.
Photography professor, working artist, all-around master of Good Things /
Installation of "The Object Transformed" at Vincennes University, Vincennes, Indiana 2012 Photo by Morgan Ford Willingham
DD: First off, your blog is way cool–-always full of interesting visual art, or thematic collections of images, or reference points for creative thoughts. How do you stay so productive & collect things to share? Is it all mental catalogging? Or are you constantly collecting & curating? Where do you find new things to share?

JR: One of the things that I promised I would do five years ago is to stay current within my field for the rest of my life. I look at a lot of websites, check out a ton of library books [Editor's Note: "It's true, you should see her bookcase!"], and visit as many art, food, or literary-related locations every time I travel. I have a folder on my desktop called "Blog" and within it there are 52 categories (that often fluctuate). Once I reach 10-12 images, I will post something.

I am constantly collecting and adding to the folders. I will often scan an image just for the blog. Often the categories focus on a theme that coincides with my current work or travel. I have been thinking about artists who depict mountains, birds, clouds and the ocean for some time (mainly because they remind me of home). Some categories I look forward to posting in the future revolve around artists that use cardboard boxes, the Rubik's cube and solitary light bulbs in their work. I also have a pretty funny post about camping at some point in the future.
from A Tale of Two Obsessions: David C. Nolan & Marilyn Monroe 1
DD: You are one of the first working visual artists who I learned about ... being an artist from. I've always been impressed by the work ethic that is often hidden beneath the veneer of "art". Where did your work ethic come from? What would you say to younger artists who "don't have the time or mental space or [insert other whiny excuse] to create"?

JR: I honestly think we are born with a certain level of work ethic. I learned a lot from my parents in this regard - both are very hard workers and are successful in their chosen fields (and ultimately keep very busy in retirement). I have two jobs. I teach photography to pay the bills, but my heart lies with the creation of art. I would shrivel up and die if I didn't find the time to advance my artistic career despite working 40-60 hours a week at school.
During the semester, my artistic output shrinks but I am always thinking about what to make next or how to resolve the current problem I haven't had time to finish. My advice to younger artists is to carve out time during the day to spend at least an hour in the studio - whether that is researching locations to apply for an exhibition online or brainstorming ideas about a current project. It doesn't always have to be productive but it is constant. Make it part of your daily regimen and it will be difficult to stop.
from Nine Fake Cakes and Nine Bodies of Water: Galt House Hotel, Louisville, Kentucky
DD: From incredible Seattle chocolates, to flown-in Voodoo donuts, to public art tips (like the sculptures at Western Washington)...and those are just the West Coast recommendations! You've informed my travel & broadened my artistic vision. That said, what were your favorite moments of 2012?

JR: Best art exhibitions: Rineke Dijkstra at SFMOMA and the Robert Adams Retrospective at Yale University

Best art exhibition in a non art location: A small collection of ruined books at the Los Angeles Public Library 
Best art revisited: Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater
Best art books: This Day by Robert Adams and Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980
Best personal art moment: watching Nine Fake Cakes and Nine Bodies of Water go viral
Best Artist Stalking Experience: Discovering Richard Prince lived on Long Island
Best end of the road travel experience: Montauk Point, NY
Best dinner: Kihachi, Columbus, Ohio
Best dessert: The Mondrian Cake at the Blue Bottle Cafe, SFMOMA
Best alcoholic beverage: The Bruery's Oude Tart
Best fiction (that I finally had the time to read): Jonathan Franzen's Freedom
Best nonfiction: This article in The New Yorker that instantly made me want to attend an event I never dreamed existed (undoubtedly the result would make the worst of 2013 list)
Best thing that I will see in late December that will not make it on year end list (these high hopes better not disappoint): Now Here is also Nowhere Part 1.
Best album: Cat Power's Sun
Best live concert: Shearwater and St. Vincent, Indianapolis

Village Green Records / Travis H.
Small business owner, designer, video artist, cultivator of Good Taste / Village Green Records online mega-presence
Village Green Records
Front walkway at Muncie's Village Green Records.
DD: As long as I've known you, you've been a near-encyclopedic source of media knowledge. Since taking on record store ownership though, I feel like your knowledge has grown even further, and instead of coming off as judgmental at times, is extremely even-handed and pro-art. After my time at a record store, I was jaded and only listening to the Stones. Where did you get your ability to digest and appreciate art? How do you stay sane in the increasingly overwhelming world of popular music, which has lately fractured into a thousand niches, in addition to all the technological advancement, upheaval, and general industry craziness?

TH: This is a paragraph filled to the sentence's brim of questions I've pondered weekly for the past few years. Taking the duty of being the one-manned record store came naturally, it only made sense: "Why limit my desire to expand my friends' knowledge of the world of music and arts to my friends alone?" I asked myself. I wanted to reach a bigger audience, an audience that I felt may be just as impressionable and in need of something new, the outlet of soul shouldn't be limited to a few.

Learning to dissuade the natural knee-jerk reactions to judge my customer base, their familiarity with music, and desire to try new things was initially hard but in time became one of the greatest qualities of my personal growth. It is rewarding to show a customer only familiar with let's say Muse (for example) the music of Klaxons and Battles and have them walk out with these new artists only to return a few weeks later hungry for more new tunes. This transaction is more rewarding than a customer only interested in the same thing every visit without any interest in trying something new.

It sounds as if you became jaded by the music output working at a record store [Editor's note: Totally true! But at least I loved the Stones.], I have never felt 'backed into a corner' left only wanting to listen to The Stones. On the contrary the record store has kept me on my toes and in touch with new releases, trying to stay ahead of the game. If I can listen to a new artist, review the album and have it on the shelf and recommended to a few customers before Pitchfork gives that album good or bad marks, than I feel like I have succeeded.

Recently it occured to me that I am of the technological cross-over generation, in other words I remember the days before Internet. I grew up learning everything about music from long hours at libraries and with my head deep into every liner note and 'thank you' list. I created this web of connections between artists of all mediums, citing each project and seeing the associations between genres - "Bjork thanks Wu-Tang Clan" -- "RZA and GZA thank her as well." Magazine subscriptions, music and film encyclopedias, documentaries; all of these things were in my arsenal as a 12-year old searching for the ends of creative soul. And all before the Internet! Now this is all lost on a new generation that hasn't learned to appreciate it. Ideally, the Internet was the place to learn new things, but now it is a window to reach a broader audience to give you more attention. So, if anything I have grown more jaded with the unwillingness of the world to reach for something new and want to diversify or explore.

I can be an organizing geek, so now I create new projects, expansive series compilations, film series, etc. to "exercise" my ear. These ventures enable me to have the motivation to continue learning, and to reach out and share my findings with a larger audience. A series of mixes, each dedicated to the letters in the alphabet with the intent on covering as much musical ground as possible - let's begin! A film series held every week with a ballot allowing the participating audience to vote for the following week's documentary, cult classic or foreign film - now in the 7th year!

Film Series
A poster for VGR's film series.
DD: I don't usually associate business owners with artistic taste (is it because I grew up in Kokomo?), but you're definitely an exception. VGR seems to be an ongoing piece of performance art, from the updated decorations & painting, to your home renovation, to curated & designed mixes, fliers, t-shirts, posters, and even your film series. Do you do things this way because it's the only way you know? Who influences your design aesthetic, and how do people perceive the VGR presence, particularly in the University community? Could you see yourself & the VGR in a different scenario & city ... yet with similar results and success?

TH: What the VGR has to offer is a very idiosyncratic, special signpost to the underprivileged consumer, the creative and artistic outcasts of their hometown. Many store visitors come from communities that never motivated them to try new things other than their buzzing radios, but these people come in with enthusiasm and open minds. The VGR has the opportunity to be the foundation of their first record store experiences.

I try to welcome everyone in without prejudice or judgment. I purposely painted the shop with vibrant colors, repeated childish motifs even to be receptive. Even inside the store I've painted murals of innocence and pop cultural sentiments to help give the store a feeling of warmth and cheerfulness. Customers visit and I make a point to have a dialogue with everyone, "What have you been listening to lately?" or "What mood are you looking for?" I want my inventory to cater to them, I try to tailor a sound that fits them in that moment. I have even confronted customers and asked them if music has ever meant anything to them, if it has touched their soul will live with them for the rest of their lives; and that I try to carry these types of records. All of these things coincide with my deliberate desire to reach everyone, and pull in the passer-by.

I grew up with an affinity to design, art, architecture, films and of course music, but it is these other passions that inspire my design of the VGR. I want the VGR to be represented carefully, nonchalantly, but still be fun and informative. I want the merchandise to be expansive to the customer without overwhelming them, without feeling heavy-handed. Even to this day I get overwhelmed when I walk into record stores, there is just so much and I get tripped up, forgetting what I was looking for and what my budget is! But this anxiety takes over and I usually walk out empty handed. Thus, the VGR is a small space but I think this helps welcome new customers.

I took on the VGR in Muncie, frankly because this community needed what I wanted to offer with the store - a cultural and creative outlet. Over the years I have learned that many communities need record stores, and I would love to see more VGRs popping up across the country. What record stores have to offer is very special to a community and far more important than another bar or fast food joint. Visiting record stores as a child was like going to church, and growing up with these in my life has been an integral key to where I am now. After moving to Indiana, I quickly made myself familiar with Luna, Vibes, Indy CD & Vinyl and Missing Link (It was my favorite! sorry to see that gone...), and each of these stores helped me put together my perfect shop. I have trekked across the country and taken little influences and inspirations from record stores, book shops and movie theaters to piece together the VGR, and I hope it will keep growing and changing.
Village Green Records
VGR spray-paint t-shirt.
DD: Okay, the 2012 question. You are a master of lists. A connoisseur of alphabetical collections. But let's narrow this down. Gimme a couple of your favorite customer experiences from the last year or so.

TH: I think I have been graced with 2 of the best declarations a record store owner can be given this year.

I have had a few customers of the year state that the VGR has helped them overcome prejudices and judgements of music, and in turn it has opened their lives up in more ways than music. One shared with me that since trying new musical territories due to the VGR pushing him, he has also begun looking at movies, art, books, food and other things differently. It is incredibly rewarding to know that what I (idealistically) set out to do with the record store has changed someone's life.

I have also had two separate occasions this year in which two young customers came to me with inquiries to open new record stores of their own! They added that having the VGR in their community has inspired them and they want to share music with others! How awesome is that!

Just recently, I brought back an old Survey/Test pamphlet from the cobwebs of years ago. The survey has questions regarding personal taste, little bits of trivia, and is designed to help me devise a mix special to the participant, just for their taste. This disappeared a few years ago because it became quite time consuming but I chose to bring it back to reach out to my customer-base and inform them of new musical horizons and give them a better idea of what the VGR has to offer. The survey has been warmly received, and I have embarked on a massive mix making endeavor, bringing in new enthusiastic faces and fresh interests.

(Part of SmallBox's ThinkKit project.)

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