Paul Oberst

Posted on August 7th, 2011 in Artist Interviews

Summer 2011                                                                                         

Paul Oberst is an artist who works in  various mediums, he grew up in Kentucky and has made his home in Maine after spending time in Cleveland, where he worked at what is now Cleveland MOCA for four years, and later Provincetown, MA and a Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship, and then Boston. His intention is  to create works of art that speak to the primal, ancestral and contemporary human longings for mystery and ritual. I had been wanting to talk to Paul for some time before we finally got together at his studio recently. I had seen his work over the last few years and even spoke to him several years ago via the job I had at the time. I somehow remembered his voice though we only spoke a couple of times. When I reminded Paul that we had actually spoken before he remembered too– so, it seems a connection was made some time ago and will continue I suspect, due to the instant ease with which we spoke. The connections are in the work and in a shared outlook on art among other things. I am always interested in where an artists work comes from- the sources and influences. I am especially interested in how life experiences shape the work. Here are excerpts from our recent conversation. 


Judy Perry:  Let’s talk about the ‘Clown Gods’ and how seeing them has influenced your work.

Paul Oberst: For five years I traveled to the Southwest. I haven’t done that for the last three years. I have also been to Mexico, went two years in a row to study the Mayan

temples, the culture and all. When I started going to the Southwest –a friend had told me you have to go- and once I went, I just fell in love with it. We would station ourselves out of Albuquerque, and we would go all over New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona, the four corners, and it was just amazing. The whole experience was amazing. Mostly we would go to all the Pueblos– there are ancient active Pueblos there– and we went to the ruins. I was with my friend Ron, and we went to the Fall Arts Festival in Taos, and it was remarkable. It started with these relay races in the morning that made no sense whatsoever, but it was very fun. It was October, it could be very cold, the festival would start at dawn and everyone is drinking their coffee and later it warmed up. The vendors set up and right there before us is the famous five story pueblo that you see with the logs ends coming out of the adobe at roof lines. After the relay races the booths were open and people were buying and selling crafts and then everyone has lunch and crosses over to the other side of the pueblo. This huge pueblo is divided into two sides with a creek down the middle.

During lunch at some point, I heard this screaming, and I turn around, and on top of the huge five story pueblo, there were twelve black and white banded entities, straw coming out of their hair, loin cloths around their waists–clown gods–the trickster gods. I remember I had goose bumps, and it was the first time I, as a modern being, felt the sense of — that God or Gods were actually among us. They weren’t something up in the sky or in our heads, they were present, they screamed, they were human in a sense, and it was amazing. They jumped down rooftop to rooftop and then out into the crowd. At one point the crowd just started running.

JP: Were they afraid of them?

PO: You want them at a distance. You don’t want to be up close and personal with them because what they do is – its very confrontational- it exposes all of our cultural anxieties. For example, they would go up to you and take your purse. They might rifle through it, get a stick of gum and hand it back to you. They really get into your space. I think I mentioned there was a mixed race couple there. A black guy and a white woman and the clown god went up to him and wiped his finger on the black guy’s arm and tried to wipe it off as if he had picked up his darker skin color. And the clown god starts laughing and the guy is laughing– only the clown god could have done that, those guys. Just amazing. So, they raised hell for two or three hours, and then there was a ritual. A perfectly straight Ponderosa Pine had been stripped of its bark and polished and arranged at the top  were offerings- a goat, I think or a sheep, gourds, pumpkins, bags of stuff and the clowns ran around – truly these were like clowns running around, and eventually they got little bows and arrows and started firing and trying to hit the things. The arrows would go about six feet and drop down and just all these antics. They tried to climb the pole and that was another half an hour of hysterics– they’d go up, slip down and go up again pushing on each others butts. It was just that type of stupid funny humor. Eventually one of them climbs up and lowers down all the offerings and gave them to the chief or elder. Also, during the festival they were snagging stuff from people. All the vendors had to leave them an offering, with their booths left covered with fabric while the clowns roamed, and if they did that they were OK, but if they didn’t cover their booths, the clown gods might steal everything they had there. Then they would offer everything to the elder who would then eventually distribute it to everybody. It was really amazing.


JP: Were the lines or bands already in your work at this point or was that it– seeing the  clown gods was the turning point?

PO: You know at different times in my life, not principally, there’s been banding in my work. I remember back in the 80’s there was this character that appeared in my work much like these clown gods. It was a guy in a Polynesian culture, dancing around a fire and he had these alternating skin tone bands and bands of vegetation and flowers. He was truly banded, and I drew him dancing in all sorts of work. It was exactly the same type of character but there’s something about the Southwest. I had not realized the culture was so ancient out there. There has been this continuation, its not like here in Maine– with the Abenaki and all the native people here, they are harder to see within this larger dominant culture that has grown up around them and us. But out West the native people have a STRONG presence, they have a very strong presence. Plus the architecture, that very much impressed me, its the type of architecture that I have always liked since I was a child. The temple that features in my work could fit very comfortably {in that culture}.

JP: So the bands then are more recent?

PO: Yes, I would say the bands, in how they appear and function in my work began in 2006– that’s when I started putting banding in my work.

JP: It was definitely influenced by that experience.

PO: It was two things. The friend who I traveled with is a textile artist. Ron King, he is well respected in this area as an textile artist and craftsman. He came over to my studio one time, and I was using words in my work at that time, and there was a random distribution of words that made up the temple image with layers and layers of the printed words: red, yellow, blue, black. I stamped words, and they blended in to a field like Pollock, like a garden. So my friend comes, and he was not impressed (laughs) he says “Paul you need more structure in your work”. Now, I’ve done representational work and all kinds of work, and I was kind of loving the minimal-ness of these pieces, and he says I need more structure and I’m thinking Oh my god that is crazy—- but I took it to heart, and I took the same colors and divided them into bands– horizontal bands. Maybe layers of red and yellow in one band and blue and red next and those colors next to each other were very nice, well, so I thought it was a good idea. I was glad he said it. So it kind of took off from there.


JP: I have been thinking since the last time we talked, the word ‘label’ came to my mind. The bands become labels in a way. They separate and make it different. You told me about the words you used in some of your pieces- the word ‘dismiss’ was one of the words. It seems like the bands give you a new way to look at something, makes you try harder.

PO: I love the way you pick up on stuff, you artists you. (laughs) I have described my work, and I’ve done lots of totems that are banded, I describe what I try to make sculpturally as markers or sign posts delineating a place of being. I’ve read a lot of Carlos Castenada’s work, and he talks about the warrior needing to develop a shield. A shield not in the sense of this barrier that you put between you and the outside. It is more of a metaphysical shield. And what that shield is, in a sense, you imagine as a way of organizing and arranging powerful moments from your life that speak symbolically to you. At times when you are not inspired or your energy is low or you are less protected, you can look to that shield and one will be inspired by these powerful recollections to be the consummate, impeccable warrior that one needs to be in life. So this shield is metaphysical, but in a sense it is real. The warrior needing to develop a shield is the same as the artist needing to develop a sculpture or performance or whatever an artist does or anybody else for that matter. So that is what I think of as the banded men or in my work the temples. The temples can stand alone, but if you enhance them with banding and sometimes my banding is made up of words, the words add even more depth and meaning; they become ritual mark making for me. So, now I develop word clusters, they are usually a group of four words: “dismiss, discern, glance, see.”

JP: In that order?

PO: Sometimes I’ll have dismiss, discern in one band and then the other will have glance, see so that each band will alternate with those words. I try to layer them and sand them, so you really have to hunt to find out what the words actually are. I try in my work to get ton of details that can be seen somewhat at a distance like banding and then as you get closer its made up of all these intriguing marks and you go closer and are those words? And you get closer — they are words! What are the words, you have to hunt. I demand a lot of the viewer, like its a game of hide and seek. Which goes back to my childhood. We are out in the woods, and we are playing hide and seek in the grasses, amongst all those marks. It is so funny how our lives are, we just keep exploring the same things over and over. So, those particular words:  dismiss, discern, glance and see — it is my whole notion about how we look at art real quickly, dismiss it and dismiss rather than discern and at the same time, we can just glance at the work or we can truly see the work. So, I am putting within the work: dismiss, discern, glance, see, dismiss, discern, glance, see millions of times which is what we are confronted with in a piece of art. Do we dismiss it, or do we discern what is going on in the work for us? Do we glance at it, or do we see it and ourselves and each other? Do we really see what is going on?


JP: Your works seems to combine a certain playfulness from your childhood and then there is the seriousness of your process and thinking — the Clown Gods have the same qualities of serious and playfulness.

PO: Absolutely. It is that balance. You know we have these minds. We have a right brain and a left brain and one is a little more female and one is a little more male. One is more logical and one is more aesthetic for lack of a better words. One softer, one harder. We see the world with that type of brain. You know there is this polarity in how we organize our lives. Women from the time they are children are raised a certain way and they rely on one side of the brain and the males are taught certain things and are forced to use this other side. It is not necessarily all together natural but culture forces this upon us and so the role of the artist is to break down the divisions within the brain, and it can happen. I think it happens through aesthetic experiences, through moments of epiphanies– those ‘aha’ moment. At these moments, the barrier between the halves softens, and there is communication between the different sides of the brain and that is when brilliant things happen. It is not to say that when you are in the right brain that brilliant things don’t happen, they do and the same with the other side, but if you can get the two synchronized, it is amazing. You get these quantum leaps of imagination so that’s what a clown does. A clown is brilliant at existing in this world and existing in the alternate universe where things are wacky and crazy. So the clown causes both realities to happen at once and that is what art does.

JP: Do you see yourself as clown? Or that maybe you are more the clown in the studio?

PO: I definitely see my self as a clown with a strange perspective that I feel all artists share…our job being to reflect back to everyone a perspective on society…at times poking fun at it all, laughing…and sometimes showing just how insane or horrible it can be as well.  Also, my sister, my mom and I have always considered ourselves contrary by nature….and there is a tradition in the American Indian culture of the Contrary….who does everything backwards…saying “good bye” when he/she arrives….some clown gods are contrary as well…it fits.  Going against cultural norms for perspective is what it is all about.

Interview by Judy Perry  2011 |

Links to Paul Oberst work:

For more information about Corey Daniels Gallery go to link:

For more information about Bridgette Mayer Gallery go to the Paul Oberst artist page and then the Home page:

For more information about my work go to link:

For more information about the Banded Men photography series with Patrick McNamara go to link:



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