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Meet Brian Michael Reed, the exciting artist who’s bridging the gap between Chinese and American culture with his work. Following a visit to China, Reed was swept away by the country’s charm and beauty and remains living there to this day. Taking inspiration from anything from the lotus flower to crayfish tails, Reed’s work is awe-inspiring.
Can you tell us a little about your journey to become an artist? Did you know you would be an artist during your childhood? How did growing up in the Charleston area shape your artistic philosophy?
The journey to become an artist has no guidebook; each artist is informed from the sum of his or her experiences, expressing the translated meaning of their environment, observations, and persona through their work. My journey commenced growing up on my family’s farm in Central West Virginia in a small town called Ivydale, near Charleston. I am greatly influenced by the natural beauty of the majestic mountains, rivers, and forests of West Virginia.
The grandeur and granularity of the nature, the Appalachian folk art culture and my family were my biggest influences growing up. My father used to take me hunting from the age of five; he would sit me beside a tree, and we would quietly wait for hours listening for deer or other animals. During these moments, I would let the touch of the wind, smell of the earth and feeling of the forest embrace me.
What sparked your interest in China? And when did you first receive the opportunity to work and live there?
I first came to China in 2012, to an artist village in Songzhuang to take part in an artist residency program. I have worked and lived in China every year since then doing a variety of cultural exchange and art projects. I am looking forward to new projects in China in the future.
Some critics seemed shocked by your decision to take up a residency in China, rather than staying put in New York. What did you have to say to them at the time? And how do you think doing the unusual has shaped your career?
I was uniquely fortunately to enjoy success and opportunity in New York City at a young age despite my lack of networking in the art world prior to moving there in 2008. These opportunities pushed me to create more thoughtful and sophisticated exhibitions, enabling new forms of expression. NYC is considered by many to be the art and cultural capital of the world; however, it has become increasingly challenging for young artists to present ideas there.
I made a choice to be an active and contextual artist, someone who wants to embrace and drive culture with their understanding and vision on historical and contemporary communication and lifestyle. In China, my artistic voice was rapidly embraced and valued. My Chinese peers in their late 20s and early 30s have created a cultural revolution of intriguing possibilities in art, fashion, design, and lifestyle.
Tell us a bit about your experiences in the Himalaya residency program and living in the water town of Zhujiajiao.
Zhujiajiao is a small water town, like a Venice of China, near Shanghai. The Himalayas Museum is one of the top museums in Shanghai, and they run an international artist residency program in one their satellite locations in the village of Zhujiajiao. This program resides in a unique building that is over 600 years old and serves as a residence, studio, and exhibition space. The year I lived there was a special time in my life. I was immersed in local culture and took the opportunity to record the daily rhythm of life there in my art.
You have said before that living in Zhujiajiao in Southern China has been both isolating and a privilege. Have you adapted to a different culture, or will you always be an outsider? Is this isolation something that is integral to your artistic process?
I will always be a foreigner living in China. I have blue eyes, my Mandarin language skills are improving, and happily people call me their friend and part of their extended family, but I am an outsider looking in.
Most days, I live like many young Chinese artists. Sometimes I go days without complete English conversations, and while there is a symphony, and sometimes a cacophony, of noises around me, I remain inside my head, observing and thinking. This experience feels isolating and can be lonesome, even considering that I often choose to be within myself even when I am in the US and can speak English. Like many artists, I’m very sensitive and often enjoy the silent periods to be reflective. The isolation gives me time to organize and edit away the superfluous and reveal important elemental perspectives that craft my life and my creativity.
You have said before that you like the space between reality and dream. What is it that you like about it in particular? Do you think exploring this realm is important artistically?
I think I liked blurry lines once upon a time. It meant I didn’t have the responsibility to commit to anything. Also the space between dream and reality is often just a place of delusion and a way of avoiding the truth of reality. However, again, it’s a matter of perspective. I was going through a painful transition in my life, a matter of heartache. I was happier living in the dream and illusion than facing the fact that the happy life I didn’t want to leave had left me. So I thought if I blur the edges and place myself in the smoke and fog of illusion, that somehow there was still some hope that when the smoke cleared, that all this pain was just a momentary nightmare and that nightmare would be over. I painted the work, Life is smoke and Mist, probably the most iconic symbol of my last exhibition as a monolithic tribute to the lengths of delusion and the hope I had that I could be held and loved again by someone I had lost.
You are a multimedia artist, with successes in installation, painting and performance art, but is there a medium, technique or material you prefer using? How did this change when you moved to China?
It wasn’t until my father was tragically killed when I was 17 that I begin to push myself to create my first real works of art. Overnight, a spiritual awareness opened up inside me. I painted works of art because it was therapeutic for me. I felt and experienced a lot of pain and terror for many years as captured in many works of my art. I started exploring techniques and mediums on my own in college, adding lots of elements like rusty metal, animal bones, hair, kitsch craft objects into my paintings.
Even though I use so many different materials and mediums in my works, if I had to pick one that was my favorite, I would have to say its watercolor. I feel so peaceful and spiritually inspired when I am painting with watercolors. It becomes a form of Zen meditation for me. I can paint for hours and lose track of the world’s troubles when I work with watercolor. I started developing my watercolor technique and style when I was in probably 16 years old, and today, it has become an effortless dance for my brush across the paper.
Can you describe the art scene in both Shanghai and Songzhuang? Where would you advise art lovers to visit in these areas?
I met some of my closest friends and some really wonderful people in Beijing and Songzhuang. However, if you want to see artist studios and galleries, it’s not a convenient day trip from the city center of Beijing. It is an exhausting trek, the streets are dirty and dusty, and its design doesn’t welcome outsiders easily. I recommend you contact an experienced guide or a savvy networked local that will drive you around in a climate control car from gallery to gallery and studio to studio. There are many wonderful artists there, and once you network with each other, you can feel a sense of community, but it takes time. Speaking Chinese well helps a lot.
Contrast that to Shanghai: I feel Shanghai is an international city that is very accessible. Artists are not congregated in one district as in Beijing and Songzhuang, but there are so many world-class museums and galleries that you never feel bored. You can spend weeks here and still not fully experience the numerous art spaces, boutiques, workshops, museums and galleries that make up the art scene in Shanghai.
What have you got coming up in the future? Do you think you’ll participate in more residencies, and where do you see yourself based? Are there any more countries you’d desperately like to work in?
I think artist residencies are great, so yes. I was recently invited to attend a residency program in Paris by the Jed Voras Gallery, and because of the recent terror attacks, I might postpone this opportunity for a bit. I think I want to stay in Asia, maybe try to know more about Japan or Korea in the future. Also the US has many programs in different regions that would make for some fantastic opportunities.
The best museum for art lovers in New York City?
You can never go wrong with the Metropolitan Museum of Art or MOMA; they both have something for everyone to enjoy. However, if you’re in Chelsea and you want to see something unexpected, check out the Rubin Museum. They mostly feature works related to Indo-Tibetan culture, but it’s organized really well, and I always leave feeling relaxed and peaceful. If you’re looking for something more quiet and intimate, check out the Morgan Library; they have a great collection of art and do some very interesting programming.
Do you have a favorite work from your oeuvre? If so, why?
This may sound strange, but my favorite work of art is me. I’m like an unfinished canvas that gets constantly reworked. There are many layers of under paintings that got painted over, but if you look closely, you can see so many variations of who Brian Michael Reed really is and was. I hope this work will never be finished.
Henry Miller wrote 11 work schedule commandments in his book, Henry Miller on Writing. Number 7 is ‘Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it’. Do you have a particular morning routine or way of working which helps you to create?
Self-organization is critical to achieving goals. I used to be a very unorganized bohemian artist and did pretty much as I pleased. I ate and drank what I wanted, would paint for two days straight on a binge without sleep and then rest for a few days and let my emotions and moods really dictate my creative process. Most of the time now, things stay very busy where I treat being an artist like a job where you have to show up every day and be present from 9:00 in the morning until 23:00. I tend to look at time in periods throughout the year. I divide the year into quarters, first; I allow myself to develop a big program and theme, followed by a time where I’m focused on production, then another time where I’m focused on exhibitions, and finally, there is the brand and infrastructure development where you do marketing and sales and planning for the future. I have recently tried to find the right balance that is sustainable for me, which is something I’m still working out. I’m really looking forward to some R&R this holiday season. 2015 was a very productive year, and I think this year will be just as fulfilling.
Brian Michael Reed is one of the winners of The Culture Trip’s Charleston Local Favorite 2015 Award. The Local Favorite badge is awarded to our favorite local towns, restaurants, artists, galleries, and everything in between. We are passionate about showcasing popular local talents on a global scale, so we have cultivated a carefully selected, but growing community.