Simon Donovan: Interview with a Public Artist

The Head of Simon Donovan's Diamondback Snake Bridge in Tuscon, Arizona
The Head of Simon Donovan’s Diamondback Snake Bridge in Tuscon, Arizona
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Interviewed by Jack Cantey

Over the past twenty years, Tucson-based artist Simon Donovan has worked in a wide range of forms, including painting, sculpture, mixed media, performance, and public art. Since 1996, he has attained and created nearly twenty public art commissions in and around Tucson and Phoenix. Simon has also received several awards, most notably the Arizona Arts Award (2002) and the Public Works Project of the Year (2003) from the American Public Works Association. He also has extensive experience as an arts educator and administrator. Currently, he is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Arizona and the Southwest University of Visual Arts. Simon holds a B.F.A. in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design, and an M.F.A. in New Media from the Transart Institute in Berlin, Germany. A selection of his work can be viewed at his website.

Simon Donovan
Simon Donovan

Q: What were your art experiences like in high school? Did you already consider yourself an artist?

Simon Donovan: I decided at some point in high school that I wanted to pursue being an artist. I could draw well and I got attention for doing so. When you are good at something, you pretty much embrace it, especially if you feel lacking in other areas. I was not athletic or particularly scholarly, so it seemed like the way to go. I also harbored very romantic notions of fame, fortune, greatness, and immortality. I told myself that it was a calling, not a career.

Q: If you could travel back in time and talk with your eighteen-year-old self, what one piece of advice would you give him about life as an artist?

SD: There are so many things, but the bottom line would be to proceed without self-centered fears: fear of rejection, fear of not being ready, fear of approaching galleries, fear of competition, fear of living in New York City or L.A., fear of asking people for advice or help, fear of failure, fear of success.

Q: You’ve spent all—or nearly all—of your career in Arizona. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working in Tucson?

SD: Well, first the disadvantages—and these would be true for someplace like Fort Wayne, too. First, it is not a center of art commerce. There are few galleries and not much of an art market. The people living here with “real money” to invest in art also have the money to travel and buy work in places like New York or Los Angeles, where they feel safer investing in someone with a growing professional reputation. Second, there is less exposure to truly great and important collections—in quality and quantity—and gallery exhibitions of the current “art stars” and movements. Artists here are isolated, so their work consequently can be seemingly irrelevant or out of step with the art world. Last, you can potentially work hard and not ever make a living doing what you love, or receive the recognition you crave and may deserve.

As far as the advantages, there are few distractions, there seems to be plenty of time and space to create. It is easier to support yourself and your art practice with another type of job. Large studio space is cheap. If you move to New York without money, you might find yourself working fifty hours a week to pay for a studio the size of a broom closet, and no time or energy to be an artist. Another advantage is there is less competition here. It is easier to be a big fish in a small pond than a little fish in a big pond. It is easier to build a reputation in a smaller city. For me personally, Tucson has been kind to me, giving me opportunities that I may not have been given elsewhere. Specifically, I mean in terms of public art commissions. Living in a western, growing metropolis with a government policy to give 1% of new construction costs to public art has worked out for me. I was in the right place at the right time.

Simon_Donovan, Hail Holy Queen

Q: How did you get your start creating public art?

SD: I was struggling making a living doing art-related design work, like designing arty front gates for peoples’ homes, or making hand-painted furniture. I answered a call-for-artists from the city. It was a competition to create an artwork for the front of a library. It was an ugly building that no one recognized as a library. So I presented drawings of my concept for 101 steel books surrounding the entire building as if a windstorm had ripped off the roof and the books were swept up in a whirlwind. There were three finalists, we each had to make a presentation in front of a jury of five and an audience of people from the community. I was very nervous. I paced back and forth in the hallway outside the meeting room while holding this model of a hand-painted steel book. It occurred to me that perhaps it would be good to use the bathroom while I waited for them to call me. As I was urinating, I heard my name being called out. I instinctively jumped and accidentally urinated down the front of my khaki pants. Panicked, I ran into the room holding the book low down in front of me as I spoke before the crowd, hoping to cover my shame. I think I got the sympathy vote, because I won the competition. So began my public art career.

Simon Donovan First Public Art Project
Simon Donovan First Public Art Project

Q: As a public artist, how do you attain commissions for your work? Is it the result of self-marketing and competition, or do you wait for clients and proposals to come to you?

SD: I would love clients to come to me, but I have not reached that level of success or reputation. So I am constantly competing, submitting images of past works, a résumé, a statement about my ideas, approach, qualifications, and philosophy. Then, if I’m chosen to be a finalist, I make a public presentation (in black pants). My life is one long job interview, which is ironic because I always used to say that in my family we don’t fear death, we fear job interviews.

 Q: How does the process and style of your public art differ from the process and style of your fine art?

SD: For better or worse, my fine art approach now replicates my public art approach. My public art is always a specific response to a need or place. They are “projects” and they are always different from what I’ve done before. I create objects for specific sites on specific themes. Thus, I am consistently inconsistent. It may be made from stone, metal, glass, painted, carved, or a video installation or a series of photographs. Inconsistency is not good in the gallery world because gallery owners like to know what to expect. But I am never bored.

Q: In the past five or six years you’ve begun performing live monologues. How did that come about?

SD: I decided to go back to school to get a Masters in Fine Art. When I went to art school as a young man, I went to a good school, but I was too immature to appreciate it. I partied too much and did not apply myself the way I could have. I thought it silly at my age to study painting or sculpture again since I had been doing it professionally for so long. I decided to act on an impulse. I had never held performance artists in very high regard. I once saw the monologist Spalding Gray perform, and in my arrogance thought, “I can do better.” I’m a big mouth that tends to dominate dinner conversations, but taking the stage with a microphone is a different story. It terrified me, which is precisely why I decided to do it. Facing my fears is currently the main objective of my life. I do not want to die with regret. So I went to a graduate program in Berlin to study New Media, which for me meant video and performance. The bulk of my studies concerned researching and writing about the psychology of performance art.

Q: Does your performance work connect to your visual work at all?

SD: Words and my mouth are just another medium and tool for personal expression and creativity. Everything is on the table. Whatever best suits the concept I want to convey, I will use.

Q: Which artists have most profoundly influenced you?

SD: When I was young, Van Gogh (because I was also crazy), Picasso (because of his stylistic evolution), Giacometti (his drawing style I tried to emulate), and Max Beckmann (I saw myself as a German expressionist born at the wrong time in the wrong country). Later, as a more “sophisticated” adult, I got into conceptual artists like Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman. I also admire the transgendered performance artist Kate Bornstein and the painters Gerhardt Richter and Anselm Kiefer. Still, I will always love the surfaces of Botticelli and Giotto.

Simon Donovan preforms as Vincent VanGogh.
Simon Donovan performs as Vincent VanGogh.

Q: Can you describe your workspace?

SD: I won the Arizona Arts Award ten years ago, and the $25,000 allowed me to build a 900-square-foot studio with a fifteen-foot-tall ceiling onto the side of my house. It is a pigsty, I’m seriously dysfunctional in the housekeeping department, but I know exactly where everything is.

Q: Outside of the visual arts, what art form most inspires you?

SD: Live music. I have a couple of phenomenal singer-songwriter friends who have changed my life. They were the first people to make me aware of the ephemeral and transient beauty of live performance art.

Q: What are you currently working on that you’re most excited about?

SD: I am working with my frequent collaborator, artist Ben Olmstead, on large-scale sculptures with some technological elements for Tucson’s new modern streetcar line. I’m also working on a gallery show of abstract wall sculptures and a live performance monologue about “the end of the world as I know it” for this coming December 21st.

Q: What’s one thing you’d like to do as an artist, but haven’t yet done?

SD: There are too many to name, and probably not enough time in my life to see realized, but first a one-man show in NYC at a great gallery, then be part of the Whitney Museum Biennial. I’d love to also write a book or two.


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