For our exhibition Know South / No South, on view until July 14, APG's Esther Griffin will be talking with the participating artists about their entries to the show and the idea of Southern identity. Next up is Aaron Blum.
Blum got a BFA from West Virginia University and an MFA from Syracuse University. He has won many awards and his work can be found in the permanent collections of the Houston Museum of Fine Art, the Haggerty Museum of Art, and Duke Documentary Studies. Blum was chosen by Juror Richard McCabe as one of seven artists to be included in Know South / No South.
Your main focus is and has always been Appalachia, which stems from the family bond, the love of the region and the history of it. You don't consider yourself a documentarist, but more of a storyteller. What is the main story you want to tell?
I think it's just me trying to tell my version of this place, trying to stay away from traditional documentary making or journalism. I think that with all the storytelling traditions that happened in that region, it is also something I want to do myself and I think the central kind of story that I want to tell is just my version and my understanding of it. I am an idealistic and romantic kind of person when I think about the region and its people and that shows itself in the images.
In your artist statement you say, "My Appalachia is a granulated depiction based on the false impressions of others, my idealizations and personal experiences." Are your photos a way to defend the region and its people to the outside world or is it more a romantic document for yourself?
It's a little of both. Sometimes it is more defending, sometimes it is more idealizing, sometimes it is more trying to show a glimpse into what I think is the truth of what the stereotype is. I wrote my master’s thesis on a moment that I had, that made me really angry: I was in front of a Walmart in my hometown and this big pickup truck is rolling up beside me and it is all jacked up and full of rust and holes, bumper stickers and truck nuts. It made me so mad seeing that. This guy is what everybody thinks of Appalachia, this is what people think that I am and I got really really mad. That was the anecdote that started this 20-page paper. It was like, I don’t want this person to represent me, but as I worked through this and I got a bit older and less aggravated, I realized you don’t get to pick and choose who lives there and everybody has their valid point in their way. It still irritates me in a way that I want everybody to try and be better, but I also think that freedom is a big part of our culture and who I am, so it’s a double-edged sword for sure. I want people to understand that. There is a beauty in the land, there is beauty in the people, but there is also other parts and I just choose to show, most of the time, my idealized version of this place which is romantic.
You rely on personal experiences and idealizations in your work. Are you also critical about the area and the subject?
Sure, I am, but that is not something I share a lot with the world. When I go home I can talk to my parents or people from there. It is something you keep in the family so to say. It is not something I would ever kind of outright be critical of in public, but I would sure bring it to their attention and I would invite someone to do the same thing.
So, you deliberately choose not to show it in your work?
Because it is not a documentary, it has little relevance in the real world.
Is it fair to say you use real places and sometimes real events from the past, but you create your own world around that in photos?
Yes, in a way that is accurate. Big influence when I was an undergraduate student were cinematic people. At the time I used to make terrible Gregory Crewdson work, but then I thought why do I want to do this? And they beat that pretty quickly out of me when I got out of school. But there is a filmesque kind of narrative that I want to put in there, however it does stem all from my family and friends. I only work with them. So, it is all about people that I really care about, even though sometimes the photograph has nothing to do with them. The fact that they participate makes me more comfortable. They understand what I want to do, that makes it more personal, it makes it more about my story.
I think more and more, with the advent of social media and all, that I want to make work for me. Not for other people. I want to make work for me, that other people like. Which helps me to understand my culture, where I come from. There are a lot of photographs that I make and that are good photographs, but that I don’t use, because they don’t fit.
You have left your hometown several years now. Does that distance make it easier or more difficult to tell your stories?
It does and it don’t. I live in Pittsburg now and although that is more urban, a lot of the same cultural markers are here (although a lot of the Pittsburghers don’t see it that way). There is still the Scottish-Irish group, the same dialect issues, so it is not that hard to be reminded of that on a constant basis. And I grew up only an hour and 40 minutes from here, so it is not that far. Because I teach at West Virginia University, I am there twice a week at least. This was as close to home I could stay and still get the opportunities that I needed. That said, there is a big exodus of young people out of West Virginia. My wife and I ideally would like to go back if there was ever an opportunity.
How do you think your photos fit within the theme of the exhibition?
Anytime there is an exhibition about the south it starts to get into weird murky waters of what Appalachia is and that it doesn’t fit into the south. There is certainly a lot of southern culture that exists around Appalachia, but it is its own distinct region. Technically West Virginia is a northern state, but the southern cultural markers are also there.
It is about religion, but even more about holding on to a sense of community. Of helping, of being together, of stopping and taking a minute to say hello and actually listen to one and other. That stands the south apart from the rest of the country, but that is also what I love about my hometown.
And lastly, who do you collect, who do you have on your wall?
I have a diverse collection. I have Laura Plageman: she does a lot of photographs of southern trees, but she strategically crinkles them so they almost look like sculptures. I also have Shane Lavalette, director of Light Work. I have a lot of printmaking from Tugboat Printshop here in Pittsburgh, mostly nature based, and I have a large collection of Bonsai trees from different artists. I like natural stuff. But then again, you will also find a lot of old weird things in my collection: I grew up in a house filled with eccentric antiques, so that comes naturally.