mildred pierce zine

Starving Artist Interview #1: Sean Samoheyl
November 17, 2009, 1:37 am
Filed under: art, interview | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Sean Samoheyl is an AWESOME puppeteer and multimedia artist who lives and works in Twin Oaks, a worker-owned farm community in Louisa County, Virginia. Our friend Leeyanne Moore asked him a number of questions about what the term ‘starving artist’ means to him, as a below-poverty-level (and somewhat outsider) artist. This is the first in a series of Starving Artists Interviews to be posted in the coming weeks.


Sean Samoheyl, makin' art

1) When you use the term “starving artist” in relation to yourself, how literal are we talking in terms of actual starving? What would you count as part of the territory that comes with being a “starving artist” and what would you disallow?

I’ve gone hungry for art although usually forgetting to eat out of stress or whatever. But I’ve opted for sure for some crap burrito with nothing on it to save or just getting, say, soup and then bringing my own bread. Recently for a long train ride to an opening in Cleveland, I brought 4 sandwiches and homemade granola and 3 apples. The sandwiches got sort of old and were cheese and pb n j. All homemade bread and jam with our own fruit. But I was determined not to spend any money when I know it’s a gouge.

I can be frugal but then have very little sense when it comes to things like antiques and junk I don’t need. I’ve been poorer when I wasn’t making any art at all, I was just broke. I do try to disallow too many sweets. In Europe I tried to get by on sweets and once in Chicago, I tried to live on sugary cereal for like a week, and I would get sick every time. So it’s better to just fast and drink water, I think, than to try to eat sugar or a ton of cheese curls or, worse, trail mix or clif bars.

2) What would you say is your general level of starving as a starving artist? By that, I mean, when you look around you, or think about starving artists in history, how would you place yourself in a kind of spectrum?

I would call myself frugal or living voluntarily below the poverty line. And trying desperately to hide it. I hate how some hippies wear their poorness like a badge and just wear some outfit that looks so soiled a horse would avoid it and insist on going barefoot for some reason. But yeah, I’ve made items that a boutique might sell for $$ so I could have that “cool” edge “look” and just mend my own dang jeans and slap a cashmere sweater on top (donation) and eat at home before the opening to cover my embarrassing lumberjack appetite.

I’m way self conscious about being perceived as really poor which sort of comes from my upbringing which in some ways might have meant we were really poor which is funny. We never had ripped clothes. Which is funny to see rich people wearing dirty Diesel brand jeans.

3) What’s been your most profound moment as a starving artist in terms of suffering?

I gouged my hand once pretty bad and just mended it myself. Not with stitches which I think I needed. But it made me realize people go to crazy lengths for their art or their thing. I realized I could push myself through a lot and the suffering is optional.

4) What has been your most profound moment as an artist in terms of what you would consider success?

sculpture by Sean Samoheyl

When kids see my stuff as being as good as some other form of entertainment. Like when kids reach for some sculpture over a plastic toy to play with.

5) How much pride do you take in being a starving artist? Ultimately, do you think it’s worth it?

I think I take too much pride in the starving thing. Like I said, it can be like a badge and really can go past being useful. It’s important to think of what is worth spending dough on and what will only make me miserable. Like maybe I don’t need coffee or new sneakers, but maybe I will feel less sad if I buy a New York Times at the train station. It might help me look “Studied”.

Recently while waiting at the train, a homeless man sat at my table while I drank my coffee. I looked around at all the other tables with one person at them and wondered why he chose my table to sit at. He had a badge that said “proud republican” which was equally confusing for me. But then I thought, wow maybe I’m the guy he wanted to sit with. He chose me. So I didn’t get up like a dumb snob. I didn’t engage him either. He had that look like he could rant. Also like he had nothing but time. I did too, but preferred to draw. I pretended to be enthralled in the crossword which was Saturday so I couldn’t solve one word after number 4 down. I just stared at that thing till he got up. It was agonizing.

6) As a starving artist, do you enjoy NOT being part of mainstream America? Do you restrict your American cultural consumption calories, and if so how?

Again, I think the badge thing can be annoying. I try to plug in occasionally if only to numb out or something. But then when I want to do that like at my parents or something when I can watch cable tv, it’s really weird. I don’t really find the Mary Tyler Moore reruns I want. I never was good at video games so I can’t get into that. I borrow things like computers and trade for stuff. Even art.

I’m getting into skateboarding which is hard because you go through stuff fast like shoes. So I’m wearing ridiculous shoes for skating which is funny because the skater look now is so pretty I think. I figure the kids just think I’m an old timer in the way anyway, so I do it up and wear cardigans and I’m growing the beard long. Tv’s the place I notice it most when I want to be mainstream. I can’t find Facts of Life anywhere!! I can’t relate to Buffy at all. Not even campily. It’s just bad I think. I can’t get into it.

Restricting some things is easy in a way because I really don’t have the dough for the most part. Living on a farm, I’m also not too tempted in my everyday. I just do what needs doing and then at the end of the day, make tea. I buy my coffee in big bulk and try to make it last all month. I spend 11 dollars there. Beyond that, I don’t need anything. I recently bought wool socks for ten bucks for four pair. We made soap the other day which is like 60 bars, so I’m pretty much set for the winter.

7) Is there anything else you’d like to say about your journey, or your future, specifically to other starving artists out there?

That sounds a bit like the advice for young people. I try not to give advice. I think it’s helped me to have gone through what I have. My favorite artists have had hard times and their flexibility seems to have helped them. I think many successful people just never gave up over years and years of it. They lost battles, lost loved ones, lost everything maybe. I think that’s what makes their work interesting maybe. The trials are in the work.

For writers, it can BE the work. Say you live on a commune for several years where everyone is WWEEIRD and you shovel sawdust rhubarb for mulch and hold hands with people and make rope and dump thousand pounds of rotting vegetables all summer onto a big compost pile and change diapers. If you can’t find interesting ideas in any of that, it’s not that your life is boring, it’s because YOU are boring. haha.


more of Sean's art

After getting up to dinner last night and the dinner was amazing with all kinds of well cooked goodies like mac n’ homemade cheese and broccoli and pad thai. Greens and good bread. I realized I am cynical sometimes and do quite well. I also thought of other things. In the almost 8 years of living on 70 bucks a month, I’ve learned what’s necessary and what I really want so much it’s almost a need.

Like coffee. It’s a total luxury and in many ways, totally bougie since so many resources go into the making and shipping etc. of the thing. I tried for a while not doing coffee for that reason. But I ended up drinking black teas which is still caffeine and is the same thing in terms of labor and resources. So I went off. It was soo hard though. Really, it was. I tried so hard, like I tried veganism.

I realized I wanted the ideal, but wondered what is worth the sacrifices. Choosing coffee was such a huge deal. I realized I could go without so many things to pay for the coffee. I thought of how on Little House On the Prairie, they had coffee. They were so frugal and poor, yet Pa had coffee!

It’s such a hard balance. I wonder if we all bartered, how it would be. If there was another trajectory with the economy, if it progressed differently way back and we stuck with this for that type of thing. Like I could trade furs for a skateboard maybe. I could trade homespun organic green cotton for a coffee. Trade some Psychedelic Furs maybe. Haha.

Anyway, I thought, oh, my responses were maybe a bit too schmarmy or something. But what can I do. I do think going barefoot on a 30-degree day just to prove some silly hippy poorness point so you can have the “I’m a poorer, simpler quaker hippy than you” trophy is pointless and sort of a weird ego thing maybe. When I was new at Twin Oaks, I wore overalls and these corny flannel shirts that sort of sent home the image of “farming simple hippy,” that if you didn’t already guess it from my b.o. how much I was saving on soap, then you’d pick it up by my torn woolen shirt and homemade hat or something.

So now you have more to rummage through to put in the interview about being a poor artist. I think being a “starving artist” can be nourishing, too, like being a well fed, consuming but always wanting artist can make one starve if only figuratively. It’s easy to always want things in our culture and I think art that addresses that is interesting.

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