Atlanta-based artist Michael Jones is a man of many faces – he’s a visual artist, a budding musician, an accidental comedian, a social commentator. He also happens to be my neighbor. A fact that made it easy for me to reach out to him to discuss his latest exhibition, Moving Targets: Full Clip.
The exhibition – a collection of 25 pieces displayed in 3 separate, but conjoined spaces – is a visual representation of the artist’s commentary on the themes of guns and targets in American society. After attending the opening of the exhibit, I invited Michael to a casual one-on-one interview to share his thoughts about his work, his influences, and his take on the role of guns in modern society.
What was the inspiration for the show’s topic? Why did you decide to broach this subject in the manner that you did?
The first time I shot a gun was 4 or 5 years ago. I got invited to go to a gun range for someone’s birthday party. That first firing range experience was exciting, but unsettling – the devil on my left shoulder and the angel on my right shoulder both pissed their pants – it was sensory overload! The sound, the smell, the sight of the fire coming out of the barrel.
The second time I went, there was a group of black ladies at the range too. This was just after Trayvon. I overhead the ladies imagining that it was George Zimmerman they were shooting. That’s when I realized that the target is more important than the firearm.
You’re a Texas native right? How were you influenced by gun culture growing up or living there? Were you at all?
I’m originally from Dallas, Texas. My dad was in the military, he served in the Army in Vietnam. He always had guns when I was growing up. But I never owned a gun. My dad came to visit me one time and when he was going back to Dallas, we were at the airport, and the security guy asked if he had anything on him. And my dad goes, “Yeah,” and pulls out his gun – he had it in a Crown Royal bag. I’m like, “You can’t take that on the plane!” So that’s when he gave the gun to me.
Why do you think Americans are so obsessed with guns? What do you think guns symbolize to the people of this country? Do you think that obsession will ever change?
Because we manufacture them. So it’s only natural that we have our citizens support it. We are the number one manufacturer of weapons and firearms, across the board. I think it’s too late for stringent gun laws. Even if we restricted citizens from owning, criminals would still have guns.
Also – there was a time when African-Americans were prohibited from having guns. I think that’s part of the problem – because we aren’t educated gun owners. Also, a lot of us aren’t responsible enough to have guns.
You’ve said this exhibit is less about firearms, but more about targets – explain what you mean by that.
The media uses the audience as a target – with different media you can do that. Take the Catholic Church for instance. The Catholic Church’s images of Jesus are different because they are targeting a different audience, wanting to give you a bigger guilt trip. I try to utilize those tools as well in this series. This is the first time I’m dealing with social commentary – the reason is that it’s bigger than me. I’m just the vessel. I’m the bottle that’s holding the beer.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about how you feel about the increased media coverage of black Americans – men, women, and children – as targets, by both armed police forces and by gun-toting private citizens. There was even a news story in Jan of this year about a police force using mug shots of black men to conduct target practice. As a black person in America, have you ever felt like a target? How do you personally manage those feelings of being targeted?
It ain’t nothing new, it’s just crazy that it’s getting exposed now. They can fix the shit without even showing it on TV. It all goes back to the overseers, the slaves and the master. The masters are the elite. The masters aren’t all white, but that’s what gets people riled up. It also happens to Latinos, poor white people, even some rich people.
I have a friend who’s a cop. But I’m glad he’s a cop, because I know he’s a standup dude. The cops are also a target. My friend had a similar situation happen, and the media jumped all over him – and his victim was white. When all of these mass shootings were going on – where were the people who were supposed to be the good guys? That’s why cops should be honored.
I’ve always felt like a target – but that’s just because of who I am. I grew up in a lower middle class black neighborhood. Growing up being the weird artist kid I was a target in my own community. The other day I was driving thru the ‘hood and hit a stop sign. There was a dude in the middle of the street, saying something. I don’t know what he said to me, but I said, “Naw, man, I’m cool.” And as I drove off, he raised up his shirt and showed me his gun, right by his nuts. And I thought to myself, that’s a bad ass motherf—-. ‘Cause if you carrying there? (laughs)
Tell me a little about your background as an artist. How you got started? Who influenced you? When did you first say to yourself, ‘I am an artist’?
My mom and dad got divorced, but they were together the majority of my childhood. I lived with both of them at different times. My dad was the person who pushed me to get into art, but my mom was the artist of the family.
I’ve always been doing artwork, but it’s funny because the title was bestowed on me… by the community. Everybody always referred to me as Michael, the artist. In 3rd or 4th grade I used to draw G.I. Joe men and sell ‘em to my friends, until I got busted for tracing. One of my friends busted me and said he wasn’t gonna pay me until I drew it right there on the spot. So, I did. I thought it was bad, but the dude paid me for it. I used to draw funny pictures of my teachers too, and all the kids would laugh.
Comedy and art has always been something that goes together for me. That’s why I’m a smart ass artist, it’s why I call my art ‘signified’ – it’s a layer cake. It’s satire, it’s comedy, but it’s also truth.
When I got older, my dad was the one who forced me to go to art school – a local arts high school. I fell in love with the school ‘cause girls was running around in leotards, there were kids playing sax in the stairwells after class… it introduced me to art life. I got blown out of my mind – there were artists there that were way better. But they were pushing me to be better, yet also respecting where I was coming from. So that was when I first started painting. And people would come and talk to me, ‘cause my studio was in the school hallway – so people were always passing by, and the principal would walk by with visiting guests and ask me questions.
When I was a senior, I got to go to Chicago on a contest I won – an NAACP ACT-SO award. It was my first time on a plane, so I was nervous. My best friend was like, “Why you nervous? Your artwork will be able to take you anywhere you wanna go.” He was always like that old coach on Rocky – getting me amped up. I remember this one guy came up and asked me, “Are you an artist?” And I said, “Yeah I’m trying to be.” He was like, “What you mean, ‘trying to be’? You either are, or you aren’t.” But I still was kinda bitch about that shit.
About 6 years ago, I went home to my grandma’s funeral, and everybody who came up to me was like, “You’re Paulette’s son, the artist.” At that time, I was getting ready to figure out something else to do. But going back and having everybody already refer to me as that kinda did it for me.
You have an alter-ego persona named Iceworm. Who is Iceworm? Why the need for this persona? What does Iceworm do that Michael Jones can’t?
(Laughs) Yeah… Iceworm Jones, aka, Ratfoot. He’s a very clever individual – he’s been baptized. That’s his baptismal name.
Iceworm likes to explore and push the elements of music – from a person who never took any music classes, but still plays and makes music. That’s what Iceworm brings to Michael Jones. I’m a baby at all of this music stuff, but all of it starts with ambition. Learning how to work with tools and making a rhythm. A rhythm is something that everybody has – I have a heartbeat, or when I tap on something that’s me expressing my rhythm. That’s why I think music is a higher art than visual.
You work with a variety of techniques and media – sculpture, paint, performance art – all of which are represented in this exhibition. How do you decide which medium to use for a piece? Are there any techniques that you feel more comfortable with? Are there any you’re still learning or wanting to learn?
It’s kinda like a pimple or a volcano – it builds up – it don’t come outta nowhere. I’m more comfortable with painting. Less comfortable with spoken word, poetry. But the art that you’re scared of is the shit you need to be doin’. That’s when I said, ‘Imma release an album’.
Speaking of which, what other projects are you currently working on or have planned?
I’m collaborating with a couple of other artists to work on a play. I just finished the mural, Letter Blue in our neighborhood, Westview.
Tell me a little more about the Westview mural you just completed – what’s the subject of the mural?
It’s funny ‘cause I like to layer things. When I went to the first community meeting about the mural and listened to things people were saying, what I got out of it was: some people want the new and change; some people fear it. The piece represents the tug between the two – where you have an old school neighborhood and the downtown influences that could be coming, not necessarily taking over – but sometimes they could be doing that, too.
What’s one of the greatest obstacles you’ve encountered as an artist? How did you overcome it? What advice would you give to other new and budding artists?
Getting people to give you the chance to showcase your art. And being a hustler – hustling.
The people I do know that are in the game – they are good hustlers. Hustling is something that they all do well.
I would pass this on from 2 or 3 people who’ve said this to me; and I just recently started to apply it. Be a part of a community or some kind of family, and be loyal to your word. Artists give artists a bad name. I hate artists. Artists suck.
Because we need to think a lot bigger than ourselves; we need to stop being selfish. Artists are assholes. Artists are divas.
Are you a diva?
No, I’m a smartass.
One thing artists can do is volunteering. Dedicate some free time to do something that’s not just on you; that doesn’t have shit to do with you or the career that you’re trying to be in. It’s a way to get connections, but also to learn and grow.
What can people expect from the show, the venue – Eyedrum – the 3 different spaces? Why should people want to be there?
The space is perfect for me – it allowed me to display and showcase some of the work in different mediums. The space was able to allow for the opposing themes of the show – which I like. The gallery space holds framed artwork; next door allowed me to create an interactive scene, to recreate the shooting galleries that used to be at the back of arcades or state fairs. Then, on the rooftop – the space with the videos – those are like the teasers, the previews you see when you’re getting your popcorn at the theater.
The curators at Eyedrum definitely push artists to be out of their comfort zone. They gave me that opportunity, and I wanted to jump on it.
What is art to you?
I figured it out when I went to Chicago to visit my best friend one time. I was driving through Chicago and I saw that someone had made a penis out of the snow on someone’s windshield. Then, later on, I was outside smoking a cigarette, and I started stomping these patterns on the snow.
That’s when I realized that art is when u purposely put something here. And there and there. Martial arts is when you intentionally put a kick or a punch in a certain place. It’s about coordination, practice, repetition, rhythm, vibrations. That’s what f—kin’ art is.
Moving Targets: Full Clip is showing at Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery in downtown Atlanta until December 5. Michael Jones will host an artist talk at the gallery on Sunday, November 15 from 1-4 p.m.