Galerie Project Studio Visit with Derek Weisberg: Tradition, Clay and Hip Hop
Derek Weisberg creates works of art that are “emotional and psychological self-portraits.” His work is ever evolving, but the current direction, a more free form, figurative expression is making a statement. According to Derek, he is loosening up, enjoying the process and exploring new ways to convey raw emotion in his work. .
We had the pleasure of sitting down to chat with him recently at his studio, located at Greenwhich House Pottery in the West Village. The building and the program he works in is historic, a perfect setting to discuss tradition, influences and the medium he has chosen to work in.
Galerie Project: Clay is a unique niche. How did you start making things out of it?
Derek Weisberg: From the time I was a really little kid I was drawing and making things. My mom would get mad because I would sculpt with mashed potatoes. When I was six years old my parents enrolled me in a summer class with Katrina Van Nell. When I was seven, I wanted to enroll again, but Katrina could only do it if we had enough people interested to make a class, so we made it happen. So from age 7-18 every Friday after school I would go to her studio and make stuff. As for clay, it just intrigued me at a young age, it’s so versatile, additive and subtractive. You can push and pull it and manipulate it in so many ways.
I also learned early on about studio practice from these regular Friday classes. I had to think about what I wanted to make, create a plan and go to the studio and make it. It taught me discipline to have a regular studio routine, and kept me in an environment where I was encouraged to solve problems and create answers.
GP: In clay there is the craft vs sculpture thing. What made you decide to evolve to sculpture?
DW: Well, my dirty secret is that I don’t know how to throw on the wheel. I think it was because my teacher made sculpture, so naturally I went to that. I also was never aware of the whole “crafts v. art” thing. I was influenced by people like Peter Voulkos, Robert Arneson and Stephen DeStabler. To me, they were the godfathers of changing the perception of the material. That was the history I was exposed to, and for me clay was just a material to make art with.
GP: Having mentors in this field can be so important, did you have any influences early on?
DW: I grew up in a town called Benecia, California. It was the same town that Robert Arneson grew up in. So there is an acknowledgement of the history for me. He was definitely an early influence, but it never registered until I learned more about him in college.
The first time I can really remember being truly influenced would be in early on in San Francisco, I would walk past this sculpture everyday, and it was an angel-like sculpture. I was young and wasn’t quite into art history yet, but everyday I would intentionally walk by and study it. As I got older I got into Art History, and I found out that the piece was made by Stephen De Staebler. Once I learned who he was, I tried to learn as much as I could.
Fast forward, I finish school, go to work at a ceramics store delivering clay. The owner of the store used to help De Staebler on special projects. I’m working one day and who walks in, De Staebler and his wife. They needed help loading a kiln, and the store owner suggested me. I go help them, and that lead to helping them with occasional projects. Then I ended up working with him for 7 years. It was an incredible experience, and felt very “master and apprentice.” It helped me further see the value in tradition and lineage. Because of that, I have a lot of respect for the history behind what we are doing when we work in clay.
GP: What direction do you see your work heading in?
DW: With the series of busts of rappers, I was very controlled and clean. With my more recent work, I’m practicing letting go, I’m really into seeing what the kiln does to the clay and glaze and exploring different textures glaze can create.
I have a good anecdote to share about evolving. When I worked for De Stabler he told me a story: When Brancusi was working for Rodin, it wasn’t working. He decided to leave, but how would he tell the greatest sculptor in the world that he is leaving. He finally did and Rodin responded with “An acorn cannot grow under the shade of a great oak.” I think about this a lot as my work takes new direction and I’m influenced by new things.
GP: What are you listening to in the studio right now?
DW: I’d easily say that 97% of it is hip hop. Right now I’m listening a lot to Main Attrakions, they are based out of Oakland. Kind of brings me back to Oakland, miss it sometimes. Also listening to Space Ghost Purp, ASAP Rocky, a lot of Danny Brown, Kendrick Lamar, LP and Killer Mike.
GP: Wow! So if we were going to write an article about you and put music to it, what would it be?
DW: Well, (thinks for a moment) I would give a shout out to Deca. He lives here in NY and I feel like we share a lot of ideas. http://deca.bandcamp.com/
GP: So it has always been hip hop? No other influences?
DW: My evolution with music has been very hip hop oriented. West Coast was big, Tupac, Bay Area, E40 the Click, Too Short. When I was 13, my cousin from Mass came to visit and introduced me to WuTang and it was all over. Which was interesting because back then on the west coast, or at least for me, you were either a rocker or a rapper, Addidas or Nike. Very categorized.
I didn’t start listening to other genres until later in college, but I consider myself a straight hip hop head. I started spending time in Berkley, and finding LA Underground Mixed Tapes.
Freestyle Fellowship, Shapeshifters, Deep Space 9, Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5, Blackalicious. Then in early 2000 moved to Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, and Idea. These guys were white guys from the Midwest, and they were rapping about real things. I needed to hear it, I was really introspective back then. They would rap about girls and other things. It was what I was trying to make art about.
Now it’s more varied, Classical and Glen Gould on the piano. But still I’d say rap music 95%, classical 3% and the rest folky artsy rock like Fleetfox and the Magnetic Fields, Ed Sharpe, M Ward, Calexico, Iron and Wine. Just really beautiful music. Pure honest and heartfelt. That’s whats up. That’s what I want my work to be as well.
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