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LONE WOLF
An interview with Jim Dine
by Ilka Skobie
 
"I’m just a lone wolf," says Jim Dine. Dinner is being prepared at his house in the Blue Mountain foothills of Walla Walla, Washington, which he shares with his wife, the photographer Diana Michener. Other guests include two printmakers, Ruth Lingen from New York and Julia D’Amaro from California, along with Jim’s assistant and wife, Jason and Crista Treffry. We sit down to a delicious meal of roast chicken, tomato and onion salad -- onions being Walla Walla’s most famous crop -- and Dine’s own Jerusalem artichoke puree.

Often grouped with the Pop artists -- and it is not an association he relishes -- Jim Dine (b. 1935) has been a creative force in the art world since the 1960s. His current projects include a show of new prints at Alan Cristea Gallery in London in April 2010, a show at William Shearburn in San Francisco in July, a major survey of sculptures at the Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids in January 2011 and a show at Pace Gallery later that year.

Jim and Diana lead a fairly nomadic life, and we first met at their newly renovated West Village home, a former carriage house that dates from 1860. In winter they regularly travel to Paris and Germany, and when we spoke they had just returned from a month of working in India. "I try to choose places I am comfortable in," Dine said. "India is fabulous and horrible. I completed 20 watercolors and Diana drew all day."

In Walla Walla, Jim maintains several studios. The town boasts an exceptional fine-arts foundry, and Dine’s work here has changed the town itself, which now has his large bronze sculptures adorning the streets (along with works by Deborah Butterfield, Tom Otterness and Kiki Smith as well).

Part of our interview took place in one of Dine’s studios, where he, Ruth and Julia were working on an eight-color woodcut series. Jim then brought me first to his painting studio, and then to a sculpture studio filled with carved Pinocchios in various incarnations. There he inspected their Douglas Fir bodies for imperfections, and checked his sculpture The Technicolor Heart that was being retouched with enamel paint before being returned to a collection in Salt Lake City.

Ilka Scobie: How long have you had the New York house?

Jim Dine: In the last 20 years I have always lived in SoHo or Tribeca, or here in the Village. I mean I have lived in this house for 12 years, so I prefer this neighborhood.

IS: Do you have children?

JD: Do I have children? Together we have five. I have three sons. We have 12 grandchildren, so that’s really why we come here, we just see all the kids, you know. Everybody is in New York.

IS: Are any of your kids artists?

JD: Well, more or less. One is a glassblower, one’s an architect and one’s a photographer. . . so yeah, they are artists.

IS: And how long have you and Diana been married?

JD: Five years. We’ve been together 20.

IS: And how is it to work with Pace?

JD: I’ve been there since ’76, a quarter of a century. The people there are helpful and I use the infrastructure well. It’s been a good relationship for both of us.

IS: Do you think of yourself as part of an artistic community?

JD: Do I? Oh no. Not really.

IS: And what about when you were younger.

JD: Not as much as a lot of other people did.

IS: Why is that?

JD: Probably some social disaffection. I always got along better with poets. Now most of the ones I knew are dead, so I don’t have a lot of people to talk about poetry with.

IS: Which poets are you close to?

JD: Well I was very good friends with Robert Creeley and Kenneth Koch. I’ve known them for a long time

IS: What do you think of the state of the art world now?

JD: I really don’t know what to tell you because I am not very involved. You know, I do what I do. I am 75 years old I am not going to change what I do, you know? I am just trying to get better.

IS: What are you working on now?

JD: Well there’s a group of things. One is I am carving a new group of Pinocchios in Walla Walla. I started last year, my assistant out there, he’s a great carver and I leave him with drawings on the wood and he roughs them out and I finish it, I put on the legs and the arms and set the poses.

I am also working on a big cycle of paintings and using a lot of material in the paint, and we are making a book of Pinocchio lithographs. It’s 24 portraits, and I’ve made 24 poems to go with them. We’ll publish it in Paris, because my printer is there, and though it’s published in English the printer has already sold his lot to French collectors. The French collect books. It’s not a great tradition here.

IS: Absolutely. Poetry is not really popular.

JD: You know I was a bad boy in school primarily because I couldn’t read well, because I’m dyslexic. And the only thing I could read was poetry till I was 22 and I started to read novels. But you know, poetry kept me in the world of language.

IS: What are the things that currently inspire you?

JD: Recently I have been listening to Indian music. My wife and I just stayed for a month in Delhi, not traveling but working, and I was able to go to concerts three times a week of really first-rate musicians. And that is very moving, it’s something that grabs you primordially. Plus, you know, I continue reading.

IS: Does the music translate into visual effects?

JD: No, not specifically. I would not know how to do that. Oh, I’ll tell you something else that inspired me. I went to the Musée Maillol in Paris, set up by Dina Vierny, and there was this drawing by Pablo Picasso in the permanent collection, a drawing of his own left hand. So he drew it with his right hand and I promise you it was really transcendent. I hadn’t had this experience in years and I can hardly speak about it to explain it to you. It was a physical experience. That day this guy was able to see something in his left hand that was bigger than his left hand.

IS: Where is your family from originally?

JD: Well, on my father’s side both my grandparents were Lithuanian. On my mother’s side my grandpa was from Poland and my grandma from Virginia. They all came in the 19th century.

IS: But then your family went to Ohio?

JD: Yes. Ohio is full of Polish Jews.

IS: Were you an artist as a kid?

JD: I was drawing since I was two years old. I never thought of anything else. I went to art school because it was better than going to regular school.

IS: Was your family supportive of your artistic ambitions?

JD: Not particularly. They thought I would get over it.

IS: What did you dad do?

JD: Not much, he was a bum. My mother died when I was 12, so I took care of myself.

IS: How have you balanced printmaking with painting?

JD: One is as important as the other, I do them when I think it’s appropriate for what I am trying to do or when the opportunity arises. I mean I wouldn’t want to etch every day but during the year typically I make 10 or 15 prints because I love to do it. The printers I work with are just fantastic, we’ve been together 40 years, all of us.

IS: Where do your images come from?

JD: They don’t come from anywhere. They come from dreams and they come from my childhood.

IS: Is it intuition or rational thoughts?

JD: I don’t have any rational thoughts.

IS: But what about the Pinocchio, you’ve been working with that image for a long time.

JD: They’ve been working on me for a long time. I saw the Walt Disney movie when I was six, and I was very frightened by it, enchanted by it. And I identify with it. I was a liar, little boys are liars. And then in the ‘60s I found a Pinocchio doll in a junk store, and I bought it, it was a beautiful thing, it was papier-mâché with real clothes sewn by hand, probably made in Japan. And I kept it for years until, in the ‘90s I had to do something with it.

All the time I was identifying with the boy, but now, you know it is a great story because it’s a metaphor for art, this old man brings the puppet to consciousness through his craft, and in the end I am Geppetto, I am no longer Pinocchio.

IS: And what’s the fascination with the hearts? How many hearts have you made? Millions?

JD: Millions. . . . I have no idea but it’s mine and I use it as a template for all my emotions. It’s a landscape for everything. It’s like Indian classical music -- based on something very simple but building to a complicated structure. Within that you can do anything in the world. And that’s how I feel about my hearts.

IS: What about teaching, did you ever do much teaching?

JD: I used to try to do it and then I needed the money and blah blah blah, and now I don’t need the money and I can’t stand hearing myself. I’ll tell you something: It’s not going to change anybody’s life. You can’t make anybody an artist.

IS: You travel so much, where do you feel the most creative and productive?

JD: I carry it on my back, you know, that’s why I travel. I couldn’t sit still and I never have sat still. Even when I had young kids and a wife in Vermont and everything I’d go off to England or France to print or just to see friends. I just couldn’t sit still.

IS: What do you think of the New York critics? I know you’ve had a tough time with some of them.

JD: I really have no use for the New York Times. I try not to read that stuff, it’s too upsetting for me. It’s insulting most of the time, you know? They hate me. I wouldn’t even know who they are. I’ve never laid eyes on these people.

When I get a virulent review, people ask, "What’s the deal? Have they got something personal against you?" During my career, I have not had much positive criticism. And I’ve never played the game, you see. All I want is to be left alone to work.

IS: Can you give us an example?

JD: My "52 Books" exhibition at Pace at the end of 2009 was just savaged. Despite the reviews, everyone loved the show. And it was inaccurate because it was said that I was under the influence of Paul McCarthy! Someone told me that McCarthy was embarrassed by the comment, because of course I was there first.  

I do have people whose lives have been changed by my work. I know that. They said it to me.

IS: What do you see an artist’s responsibility?

JD: I don’t paint out of responsibility. I paint out of need. I am driven to create stuff.

IS: And how is it to live with another artist?

JD: It is totally inspiring, totally.


ILKA SCOBIE is a New York poet.