Image Courtesy of John Pena

Image Courtesy of John Pena

John Pena

Unrequited Relationships

JK: This past year you were an artist in residence at the Mattress Factory for the Pittsburgh Biennial. Can you tell us about the experience of having your work on display at the Mattress Factory?

JP: … The gist of it was that I got invited by Barbara and Michael who run the Mattress Factory. They own it and run it. They are owners and curators, and they asked me to be a part of it along with four other artists from Pittsburgh. Then, I started prototyping some ideas that I had. The cool part about the Mattress Factory is that they want you to make work that is responsive to the space. So you get to choose a space, and then you make a work that’s in direct response to that because they want an ever evolving art work to respond to their location. I had been wanting for a while to make these 3D word balloons. I do a lot of drawing of word balloons in my daily geology comics… I like the idea of a word balloon, and I was excited by the idea of a word balloon taking on a physical presence. So I made a prototype which was a smaller word balloon, it’s the one you see as soon as you get off the elevator. I made it by layering foam, coating it with plaster, and writing the text on by hand, and then I used these 2 x 4’s to hold it up. So the idea was “What happens when you say something and you put it out into the world and you regret saying it. How do you hold that up? How do you support it?” The idea is they become a burden…..

JK: How does it feel to have your work on display at the Mattress Factory for a full year?

JP: Pretty cool. Mostly for instagram reasons because I type in hashtag word balloons or Mattress Factory and you get to see people interacting with the piece. It’s like a life I never knew existed. When I first started making art, there was no internet and there was no Instagram or any of this stuff, so people would be interacting with your work and you would never see them... I wasn’t on Instagram before I made this piece. I got on afterwards because my friend said, “Have you seen all the pictures on Instagram of people posing with your sculpture?” So that’s been really exciting to see #mattressfactory or #woodballoons and you get to see how people are interacting with it.   

JK: Let’s talk now about two of your on-going projects that are more like daily exercises. The first would be your Daily Geology blog, and then the Letters to the Ocean…

JP: The Letters to the Ocean I have been writing everyday for the past twelve years. So in 2005 I had been writing them for about 3-4 years, something like that, and I started making little doodles in them, drawings and stuff. And I love drawing, but I never felt like I was good at drawing per se. I could do representational still lifes and stuff like that, but my friends could do cartoons really well and I could never do them very well. They all looked the same, there was no distinction. So I started making these cartoons in these letters to the ocean that no one would ever see so that I didn’t have to worry about. So I had this freedom to just goof around and make horrible drawings for years and years and years. It wasn’t until 2009 when I thought this was becoming it’s own thing. So in 2009 Daily Geology was born out of Letters to the Ocean. So now with the Letters to the Ocean, I don’t draw in them anymore, I just write my journal entry everyday and send it away. And then I do a daily drawing, usually that comes out of fadder of that daily letter.

JK: So they are connected?

JP: Yes, they are connected. The content derives from the letter, and i’ll use that to make some sketches for ideas for drawings.

JK: Why the ocean? Why are we writing to the ocean?

JP: Why not the desert right?

JK: Is it coincidental that 2006 is when you started doing that, and it’s also when you moved to Pittsburgh correct?

JP: Yes, I think at the beginning the ocean was just a usual suspect. It was this epic huge, kind of ineffable experience of being at the ocean where it’s so vast and it has such a romantic nostalgic quality. It’s cinematic in many ways. So I like the idea that using paper, and pencil, and stamps, you could evoke this imagery. When people see the project, it’s not just the material itself, it’s what it evokes in them in terms of “what is it stirring up?” We all have these different ideas and imagery in our heads of what the ocean evokes in us but it’s so big. So I think that’s where I kinda started is this idea of unrequited relationship because it’s not going to answer back the way I want it to.

JK: Going back to Daily Geology, that’s the only work you sell on your site. And the work itself is a book of every single Daily Geology that you did in 2014, correct?

JP: That’s true.

JK: Is there a reason you choose the book format as opposed to prints?

JP: I also sell prints. I don’t sell them on my website. I sell them in museums, galleries, and exhibitions. If i get invited to show at a museum or a gallery, I’ll ship out the drawings. They’ll say we want to show 6 months worth. I’ll ship them out, show them how to hang them, and then i’ll say “here’s 20 prints, here’s 10 books, you can sell those along with it.” And those usually sell out. Those are always received really well in other places…

JK: Have you done every year so far as a book?

JP: No, no no. This is the first book that is just one year. Previously I was making monthly installments. And I would sell those at book events and comic events. So I would have a packet of 6 you could get. But that production just took way too long because if you’re making a monthly book it’s a lot more work than making a yearly book… I really do think the yearly book is the form that this is really fit for right now because people can access so much all at once. I only have 2 books left out of 75. Those have all sold. So I am running a second print run that will be ready next week.

Post Interview Corrections from John:

Geologically speaking, the effusive eruption that took place in Washington, Oregon etc took place roughly 14-17 million years ago and not 500 million years. 

Second, Kate Hansen isn't in charge of Pittsburgh Articulate. That's Meghan Olson. I just like reading Kate Hansen's thoughts on Pittsburgh Art via her Facebook page. Also, the really critical review I read was in The City Paper and it was written by Nadine Wasserman.