I first came across Roger Sayre’s work — a series of black and white portraits — in the Brunswick Windows. The pictures were simultaneously crystalline and out-of-focus. I could neither pinpoint the sitters’ identity nor the location. These pictures could have been taken in the present or they could have been taken 150 years ago; they could have been taken in the remote jungles of Cambodia or in a studio in Jersey City. In many ways, they reminded me of the prison portraits taken by the Khmer Rouge in the late 70s.
Roger Sayre is a professor of photography at Pace University. His elaborate art process usually involves some sort of chance and utilizes various materials such as photos, shadows, dog biscuits and cassette tapes. Sayre, as artist and curator, is the recipient of numerous grants. His work has been exhibited internationally. He lives and works in Jersey City.
Roger, I’m intrigued with the way you juggle your professional life. You are an artist, curator, and professor. Plus, you are a husband and father. How do you organize your life to handle all of this plus make art?
Having a teaching job helps, as it gives me more time than if I had a 9-5, and it takes the pressure off of having to make art that people will buy. Actually, I like to think I am good at all of them at once, but in reality, when I focus on one, the others suffer. My goal is to just spread that suffering around so thinly that no one notices. Much.
What type of art do you make? What do you do, and why is it important?
Geez, you really want me to answer that? I guess most of my art is conceptually based. I like to use Bruce Nauman as a model. I get an idea and then do what I need to do to see it actualized. Often photography is involved, but not always. It’s important because I spent my valuable time and resources making it. We all have limited amounts of those, so I guess importance can be measured by one’s focus.
You tend to use non-traditional mediums and methods in your art. For instance, you have used paper airplanes, industrial plastic pails, and a pinhole camera. You have also used your own body–you grew a long beard, auctioned it on eBay, and sold it for $129. What’s this about? How do you choose your materials, and why?
I used to think that I had to stick with one STYLE, to make art that was recognized as mine, but that wasn’t that interesting to me. I get bored with repetition. I need to keep moving ahead. I have to force myself to finish things because once I get about 4/5ths of the way done with something and I see that it will be successful, I have no interest in seeing it through, I feel that my mission is accomplished. I am on to the next thing. The hardest part is that last fifth.
Tell me about your curatorial project, the Brunswick Windows. What is it?
I’ve been doing the Brunswick Window for 8 years or so now. Over 100 shows. Basically, my studio is in what was once the florist shop for the funeral home next door. I boxed off the window to give myself some privacy (and to allow me to control lighting) and made the window into a showcase for emerging artists most of whom have been local. A few years ago I approached the Texaco station across the street (Village Service Center) and got permission to use their wall space directly across the street from the Brunswick Window (158 Brunswick between 4th and 5th) for larger outdoor pieces. It has been great. Anyone interested in showing there can contact me through email@example.com.
What have been the benefits of organizing Brunswick Windows?
It puts me in touch with artists that I have never met before. It distracts me from doing my own work. OK, that last one isn’t a benefit, but procrastinators embrace distractions. I don’t get much feedback on it although I know a lot of people see it. Every once in a while someone contacts me and says “thank you”.
Roger, as an artist and curator, you’re similar to baseball player and manager Joe Torre. You have been on both sides of the fence. Which side do you prefer, and why?
They are both good, but very very different. I guess I like making more than curating. You get more credit for success.
What has been the biggest highlight of your career as an artist? What has been your biggest disappointment?
When I did my online performance piece “eBay/art beard.” Smethport Specialties, the makers of the Wooly Willy toy that was the inspiration for the piece, had a blurb about me on their website. That was satisfying. My biggest disappointment is that I think they took it down.
What three pieces of advice would you give to an artist just starting out their career?
Don’t think, just make. As you make your thoughts will come. If your studio is big enough, get a ping-pong table. I wish mine were. Marry rich.
How long have you lived in Jersey City, and what is it like to be an artist here? Has living in Jersey City influenced your decisions inside and outside the studio?
I’ve been in Jersey City 10 years. There used to be more of a gang in my immediate area and we would hang out a couple times a week, talk art, drink beer etc. I miss that.
Did someone tell you I was from Ohio?
You ride a bicycle, as do many artists, cyclists, and puppets. Who do you identify with more, Nicole Kidman (Judy) in BMX Bandits, Kermit the Frog (himself) in the Muppet Movie or Lance Armstrong, and why?
Well, if we are going to start the Muppet comparisons, I feel that I should say that my colleagues, when assigning a Muppet character to each of the faculty members at Pace, named me Super Grover. I guess it makes sense; Super Grover and I have a lot in common.
Like SG, I am often wrong and rely on others to solve the dilemma at hand while I think that I saved the day. In addition, I often injure myself and have attempted to rescue someone in trouble by saying “wubba wubba.”
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