Naomi Edmondson speaks to Casey Opstad.
56B: Tell me about yourself, Casey.
CO: Excellent first question, Naomi. I grew up in in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I went back to school for a Masters in Painting. I went in 2009 and graduated in 2011. I always think people that grew up in North Dakota end up having a better imagination. You grew up in Brooklyn, you’re used to the stimulus. There’s stimulus in North Dakota, but only so much variance. You end up with a better imagination, because you’re able to keep yourself entertained.
56B: I can imagine that.
CO: My favorite gift was a drawing pad or a blank sheet. That is how I feel about North Dakota. I see it as a blank sheet of paper: you can put whatever you want there. You can make it whatever you want.
56B: This leads to my next question: who are your influences?
CO: That’s a good question too. I guess I should be honest about this?
56B: It’s always nice when you’re honest about these things.
CO: Honestly, I’d have to say my parents. They were always supportive. I have two great parents who never really questioned what I was doing. When you tell your parents you’re going to try to make it as an artist…well, our generation is a little different. But it can be difficult for that generation to understand. I also had some good art teachers growing up. Again, really supportive people. One teacher in particular was named Ryan Alson. He’s a pretty well known artist, but keeps it low key. He influenced me with his directness and his focus on drawing. I do think drawing is an important thing. I think a lot of people now, what with technology, don’t want to take the time to learn that skill.
56B: It’s becoming a dying art.
CO: Pun intended! I see it as sort of a metaphor. He taught me how to draw. Once given that ability, you’re able to see how the world is formed for yourself and others. The idea of the gaze…of what I want to look at is an important one.
56B: I agree. Drawing fosters the ability to discover your own gaze and your own point of view.
CO: Yeah. When you don’t learn to look, you end up stereotyping a lot of things. You end up assuming you know what you’re seeing. Seeing sort of becomes a metaphor for making decisions and living your life, and taking the time to really look.
56B: With that in mind, how did you get into art?
CO: It was one of the first things I was really good at and for which I was complimented. Growing up in North Dakota, I was really good at drawing log cabins. I was complimented on it. That became the way I received attention. But I also had a lot of different interests, including improv. comedy and theater. Then as I get older it became, “Do I want to be an actor? What do I want to pursue?”. Art was the area where I felt I had the most talent. It’s the one thing I do where time seems to stop. I mean, it happens on stage for musicians and it happens for me when I paint or draw. It’s sort of an indicator that you’re having a good time; when time completely vanishes.
56B: I wanted to get into the series of work I saw on your website.
CO: Yeah, there are a bunch of different things going on. The chalk drawings are erratic. I got this job doing chalk drawings and it’s been hectic.
56B: I really wanted to talk to you about the chalk drawings because I think they’re fascinating.
CO: I got this job with General Assembly on 20th and Broadway. It’s sort of an incubator for high tech companies. It’s a really great business that is expanding. I knew the other co founder of General Assembly. When Steve Jobs passed, he called me to come draw a tribute of him on the company’s chalkboard. I get over there, put together a file. People are used to working on a white space with black material. So it fascinated them that I was doing the opposite. It takes a moment to adjust to that. I think they liked that bit of magic. Once I finished, they liked the portrait so much that they commissioned me to do a total of 24 pieces over the course of a year. They’re huge, probably six by ten feet.
56B: How long would you say it takes you to finish a chalk drawing?
CO: I’ve gotten pretty good at it now and there’s not much lettering. People assume if you can draw you can letter and that’s not the case. [He laughs]. It takes about three to five hours, depending on the level of detail.
56B: I want to ask about the selection process. The portraits chosen are very varied.
CO: The General Assembly wanted to choose people that have created things. They wanted to foster entrepreneurs, and people that are creating something out of nothing. Usually I give them three or four options and they’ll talk to me about them. For example, when MCA (Adam Yaunch, founding member of The Beastie Boys) passed away, right away they were like “Let’s do this.” That would be an example, because musicians create music out of nothing.
56B: Thus far, do you have a favorite portrait?
CO: Oh, good question. It would have to be the Phillip Glass portrait. There was something about it. It was his face and after it was finished, I started listening to his music more. I worked from a good photo and he has an interesting face. He has a really strong face, plus the iconic glasses. That was a turning point: when it became more about the drawing process. It was less about being precise.
56B: How did you get into chalk as a medium?
CO: They asked me to use it at General Assembly and it was the first time I ever used it. It’s kind of like pastels. But if you look at the drawings from the beginning to where I am now, they’re not very good. I mean, you can tell that it’s Steve Jobs. However, I didn’t trust my hand to do line variations. As I went along, I realized it’s a lot like pastels and pencils. But yes, it came through General Assembly. What’s so weird is that when I got that job, a lot of other people started doing chalkboard drawings for their offices. So now, seven or eight different jobs will call me up.
56B: Was that intimidating at first, since chalk is a new medium for you?
CO: Not really. My philosophy is: the advantage of the artist is having nothing to lose. I can tell you what I think, because what are you going to take from me? I’ll give it a shot and if I fail, I fail. I’d rather ride that edge. Even if the artist doesn’t like it, they can always burn it or paint it over. There’s always a new beginning.
56B: My last question: Do you have any words of advice for your fellow artists?
CO: Yes, I do have a bit of advice. Firstly, don’t ever take advice from me [He laughs].
Second, slow and steady always wins the race. The way I view it, it’s all about consistency. I’m not in this for the next five years; I’m in it for the long haul. That’s the only way to live, and do it right. Take it one step at a time. I’m sure that sounds hokey.
56B: It’s never hokey if it’s true.
For more information: www.caseyopstad.com