Interviewsand Articles


Interview: Erik d'Azevedo: Culture Shock

by Richard Whittaker, May 3, 2004



I met Erik d’Azevedo at his home studio in west Berkeley. D’Azevedo is small in stature, intense and very articulate. As usual, there is too much to say, too many connections and failed connections. Too much experience, struggle and history—over 35 years of painting. And before long, we’re going back even further, to some of the artist’s earliest memories from the age of four and five. D’Azevedo’s father was an anthropologist, a fact which has had profound effects on the artist’s life. When Erik was quite young, his father took the family to Liberia in order to study tribal culture there. For about two years, d’Azevedo lived immersed in that culture, his family the only westerners within hundreds of miles. Part of the time was spent in Western Liberia, in the chief’s compound, and part in the interior, at a Lutheran Mission.
     Africa’s deep influence on d’Azevedo is hard to miss. It’s an influence d’Azevedo isn’t completely at ease with, should anyone accuse him of attempts at imitation. “If that influence is there, it comes out completely unconsciously,” he says, and I don’t doubt his statement for a moment. As we talked, I remarked on a photo he’d shown me months earlier, of himself as a child taken when he was in Liberia. It shows Erik with four tribal children about his own age, all naked on a riverbank…

Erik d’Azevedo:  There are a lot like that. I’ve got hundreds. That’s just one of the best.

Richard Whittaker:  Really? It’s an amazing photograph.

Erik:  It has an archetypal quality about it. My dad took it. He snuck up on us.

RW:  You were close to your dad, I take it.

Erik:  We weren’t always. We had a rocky relationship up until my thirties. I wanted to have a good relationship with him and it wasn’t easy. He had a horrible relationship with his own dad, which I think impacted our relationship. We finally came to a meeting of minds. It took thirty years.

RW:  I take it you grew up in a family, which was sort of sophisticated culturally.

Erik:  They were academics. My dad is an anthropologist. He’s actually quite well known in his field. My mother, who had a degree in anthropology, was primarily focused on childhood development psychology. We lived among various Indian tribes, primarily the Washoe in the Great Basin in eastern California and western Nevada, in the Carson Valley. That was part of my growing up experience.
     I went to school with Indian kids. We lived in Berkeley, and in the summers I’d go up with my dad while he was doing fieldwork. We’d spend summers where there was a large Washoe community of peyotists—the Native American church; that is what he was studying.

RW:  Did you ever go to a ceremony?

Erik:  I couldn’t. They didn’t let kids do that, but my dad certainly did—a number of times. It was a great honor to actually be invited. This is the late forties and the early fifties. There were UC Berkeley graduate students who had discovered peyote and psychotropic things and they would make pilgrimages to these areas to try to find one of the road chiefs, the leaders of these meetings, and try to buy some of these peyote buttons. The Indians had nothing but contempt for them. For the Indians, it’s not a pleasure drug. It’s not a recreational drug. It’s a religious experience. They’re not “getting high.” These kids would ask, “Hey, don’t you get high, man?” The guy would look at them and say, “What is that? I don’t understand. What is “high”?
     The concept didn’t resonate with them, but because they were desperate for money, occasionally one of them would break down and sell a few peyote buttons. These kids would come home and take it in their apartments in Berkeley. They’d have peyote parties; invite all their friends; get drunk and do whatever kids do. And the people who sold to the kids were considered sell-outs, and were kind of ostracized by the group at large. The Indians got to the point where they would start peyote meetings in secret. They wouldn’t tell these guys, or the kids. They didn’t want white people coming in because it would disrupt the whole thing. They became very secretive. My dad was invited. He was one of the first, if not the first, scholars to actually be invited. He gained their trust over a period of years. He’d gone up there year after year after year.

RW:  So at that time when you were in school in the Carson Valley with the Washoe, that was…

Erik:  … early fifties. I was four, five, six. I remember crashing in the car with my sister and my mother. My father would stay up all night in the tepee in the meetings. These guys are taking peyote all night, drinking peyote tea, having visions and singing. And then the next morning they would all come out—I remember— they would all come out, and the women would make this huge feast. All the men would come out and dance, and they would have this big party, the next morning. Then they would all go home and sleep all day. They were wiped out. I remember money all over the ground outside. I remember picking up pennies, quarters and stuff. It would fall out of their pockets. I was four or five years old.
     Then my father got a Ford Foundation grant to go to Liberia, West Africa, specifically to the Gola people who live in the interior.

RW:  And how long were you there? The whole family?

Erik:  Yes. The whole family. It was culture shock for all of this, particularly me. I don’t think you recover from something like that. I still haven’t recovered. I was six.

RW:  How long were you there?

Erik:  Two or three years. And half that time I lived away from my folks. My sister and I were sent away. They were afraid we were going to fall too far behind in school in the village we were living in. We went “to school” but nobody really “went to school” there.
     You learned agriculture, you learned how to farm, rice farming.
     We met a Lutheran missionary on the ship going there who suggested to my folks that if they wanted to keep my sister and me from falling too far behind they should send us to her. She had a mission deep in the interior, almost to the border of Sierra Leone, called the Kola Kpele Mission in Kpele country. Kpele is a tribe, a group of people who live in that area of villages. She had single-handedly carved out this mission compound. She was quite an amazing woman actually. She had American educated teachers there who had actually gone to school in the United States, Liberians who had returned and were teaching school. So it was a few notches better than what we’d been getting. About half-way through our time in Liberia my parents started to think sending us to the mission would be a good idea, so they packed us up and sent us off to the mission. That was a whole other experience.

RW:  What was it like?

Erik:  Well, we had to go to chapel. We had to go to church. Every night after class we’d congregate and sing prayers. And then we’d play soccer in the evenings. There was a big soccer field. The girls’ dormitory and the boys’ dormitory were separate.

RW:  How many kids were there?

Erik:  These were kids who lived in surrounding villages who had been sent by their parents. All Liberian. My sister and I were the only white kids. And also in the village where we’d lived with our parents, we were the only white kids for hundreds of miles. In Monrovia, the city, there were a few white families who were working for UNESCO, or other agencies.

RW:  Did you make friends with the native kids?

Erik:  Yes. They were my best friends. I didn’t want to leave. I got totally acculturated. I didn’t want to come back to the states. I was afraid I was going to miss everybody too much.

RW:  So you can look back and remember some of those kids, I’m sure.

Erik:  Oh, yes, totally. Unfortunately, given the holocaust that’s been going on in Liberia for the last twenty years, the civil war, all of those people I grew up with are dead. I don’t think any of them are still alive. It’s really a horrible tragedy.
     There are families, children, who live abroad in various places in the world and, especially at an impressionable age like that, I think the impact is immeasurable. I think it changed my sister’s and my life—all of us, really—but my sister and I were changed irreversibly from that point on. When I came back to the states, I was somewhat of an amusement. I was totally alienated. I’ve felt ever since then that I never quite fit in to American culture. I was peculiar or weird. There was always something kind of strange about me.

RW:  I wonder if you could describe that a little more?

Erik:  Well, for instance, I flunked my way through school. I hated school. I was bored out of my mind. And I was way behind. I flunked the fourth grade twice. So I was older than the other kids, but I had a lot of interesting stories to tell. So I was always sort of struggling with basic things like penmanship and arithmetic, things that all the kids knew. I was always struggling to catch up, and it’s kind of been that way ever since. [laughs] I never quite caught up!

RW:  So in school, there wasn’t a place where you sort of caught fire?

Erik:  Well, writing. My father was a novelist before he got married and when he was first married. He was a serious, committed writer and I got the bug from him.

RW:  A novelist, but also an anthropologist?

Erik:  This is before he became an anthropologist. Before he went back to school. Before that he was a serious writer. He was published in Circle Magazine. He knew Henry Miller and was being published with people like that: D.H. Lawrence, Anaïs Nin. He knew a lot of local writers and he was a merchant seaman. He was writing sea stories. He was very Hemingwayesque.

RW:  For you to flunk out twice would seem to demonstrate quite a bit of determination of some odd sort.

Erik:  It’s interesting, because the teachers would take me aside and say, “Look, your father is a professor. Now you flunked out, but we’re going to pass you on to the next grade anyway, because we know you can do it.” You know they gave me all these IQ tests to see if there was something wrong with me, and they said, “Well, he should be passing.” They didn’t understand why I wasn’t. We used to have these painful conferences with the principle of the school. I being dragged in and having to discuss what’s wrong with Erik and why isn’t he cutting it? So yeah, it was a nightmare. I can’t even begin to tell you what a dark—I don’t even like going there to talk about it! I felt like a weirdo and a freak and just incompetent. I just wanted to look out the window and daydream. I had very little interest in what the teacher was talking about. It probably went on like that until I got into college. I actually made it to college, and when I got to college I began to get very interested in the humanities. Then I started majoring in art. It wasn’t really until I majored in art that I began to wake up. But I was doing art in Africa. That’s probably where I started.

RW:  Now tell me about that.

Erik:  We lived in Klay with my parents. There was a chief’s compound. The Chief was in charge of the whole region comprised of many villages and he had 26 or 30 wives. He lived on a compound and the wives would take care of him. It was a great honor for families and people in the surrounding villages to send their kids to live on the compound with the chief and have him take care of them. That’s like having your kid go to Harvard, the ultimate compliment, that he would accept your daughter or son and take them in as his own and bring them up to be proper Gola citizens. He would train them properly and teach them everything they needed to know. He was a very powerful and important man, plus he had all of his own sons and daughters who lived there.
     I went to school with them. Well, it was a school, of sorts. Most village kids didn’t see any need to for it. They were learning agricultural skills and other skills needed to survive in their culture. This is in the interior, you understand. This is village life. But we were sort of special because we were living on the chief’s compound, which was set apart from the village at large, although we used to go to the village to shop and spend time there. So we were guests of honor. They built us a house and we lived there. But all my friends were his sons and various sons and daughters, and we got to be good friends.

RW:  So you said something about art…

Erik:  The boys, and I think some of the girls, would come over to my parents’ house in the afternoon and we would play with my toy soldiers: King Arthur, Maid Marian, Robin Hood, these kinds of things. They would recreate the tribal wars with these figures. It was interesting, and we would draw, also. My parents would provide paper, pens, crayons, ink and paint, and we would just sit on the floor drawing for hours. It blew me away, the imagery that would come out of these kids. It was like nothing I’d ever seen.

RW:  Was it something new for them to draw?

Erik:  I think it was. Because what they had was weaving. They were famous weavers in the area. And the painting pretty much consisted of house painting, decoration of doors and so on. There wasn’t any painting, really, in that culture, but weavers would use very colorful bright patterns and they would depict a lot of spiritual things, a lot of secret societal imagery, spirits. I don’t know if we have time to go into all that.

RW:  There’s plenty of time.

Erik:  What the kids would draw and paint were images from secret societies. All the kids, boys and girls in those village cultures traditionally were initiated into a men’s or women’s secret society. Poro was the men’s and Sande was the women’s. My father likened it to going into the army, or fraternities and sororities in college. Traditionally boys and girls as young as ten, eleven, twelve could actually be stolen out of their parents’ homes and abducted and taken deep into the forest to secret locations where the secret societies were centered. The parents expected it. They knew it was something that had to be done. The purpose of this was to teach the children what it means to enter into adulthood, their responsibilities and how to become good citizens of the Gola or Kpelle, or of whatever tribe, and there were a lot of them. Mandingo, Keesee. There are twenty-six different languages spoken in Liberia alone. And that’s the smallest country in Africa.

RW:  Did you learn any of the languages?

Erik:  I spoke a little of everything. I’ve forgotten it all. My dad spoke more of it.

RW:  So you would draw for hours with your friends…

Erik:  … while my dad was doing research. He was sitting up all day long and all night long into the wee hours with people coming over. Leaders of the villages and secret society would come over, and they would be chain-smoking cigarettes and just yakking. He’d be sitting at his typewriter interviewing them. That’s what he did.

RW:  But for you and your friends drawing was an interesting diversion.

Erik:  Oh, we’d get into mischief, too, make the chief angry. He’d punish them, and they’d send a message over to my father saying that I should be punished, too. [laughs] The Gola never punished me, but they told my father that he should do his duty and see to it that I was punished. But that was an eye-opener…

RW:  What was an eye-opener?

Erik:  Just the beauty of some of the work. That was part of that culture shock. What I would draw was pretty mundane stuff, but these kids were doing these creatures, these fantastic water babies. Water babies are spirits who live in lakes and rivers, ancestral spirits, ancestors who come to life as mermaids. There’s a whole mythology around that. A lot of the weavers would do pictures, they’d do woven handbags for white-skinned women with long hair and fishtails. Power bags. They were for medicines and potent magic substances that they would carry with them. And these spirits were powerful, they could kill you. They could be very dangerous. Or they could help you. They lived in the river and sang. It’s like the mermaid mythology of old Europe, of sailors traveling. Very similar. It makes you wonder where it came from.
     And there were always stories we would hear at night about somebody, say a woman going down to the river to get water and hearing the singing of the water babies, that’s what they called them, and being terrified. They would run as fast as they could in the opposite direction. The song is so beautiful see, that it will draw you to them and if you look at them, if you see them in the water, you will be drawn into the water and they will pull you under. You’d hear people all the time saying they’d heard them. So my sister and I were inundated with this mythology.

RW:  And it came to life for you, I suppose.

Erik:  Oh, yes. We were totally immersed in that culture. And so it was a very sad day when we left. I came back to this country, and I just felt like an alien. I had nothing in common with anybody at school. I would tell these stories and people were interested but they look at me like “what a weirdo.”

RW:  To come back from an ancient culture—they were still basically living the ancient life, right?

Erik:  Yes. It’s a time capsule. It is a land, a time, an era, that doesn’t exist anymore. That whole country has been so ravaged and decimated by war and atrocities… It was idyllic. It was kind of like Adam and Eve, for me. I know that sounds sort of clichéd, but on the other hand, that place doesn’t exist anymore. The beauty and specialness that we experienced in that time and place is gone forever. It will never come back and there is no way to recreate it. So that’s kind of disturbing.
     Everybody has losses in their lives and there are periods of time in everybody’s lives they have affection for, but this is something that’s deeper than that. I felt totally at home there and I had asked my parents if I could stay. I remember. My sister didn’t want to stay. She was older, and she was ready to go. I said, “I’ve got nothing to go back to. This is my home. All my friends are here. Why would I want to leave?” My parents said that was really nice, but I didn’t have a choice. Sorry.
     But it makes me very sad sometimes looking through this album of photographs. My father was an obsessive documenter, and very good at it. It was his job. And he did it with the family, too. As a result there are thousands of photographs. In retrospect, I’m so glad he did that.

RW:  That’s a very interesting story to hear and very poignant. I want to shift to art, and this connects to something you said earlier. As you said, the Garden of Eden came to you as a metaphor. We don’t have a lot of metaphors for a way of life that was more aligned with nature, with wilderness. What if we apply this idea of wilderness, that kind of alignment with nature, to the inner world of man? A connection to something inside that may share some of these same qualities.

Erik:  That’s the other wilderness.

RW:  So that’s where I’d like to propose a connection of some kind. Earlier we were talking and you said that art was one of the only ways left in our culture to truly…

Erik:  … to have real self-expression; to be an individual. There are not many arenas in life where you can do that—and get away with it.

RW:  This is a way you would talk about art that is importance for you.

Erik:  Yes, without getting too psychological about it. One of my definitions of artists is people who can’t do anything else. I don’t think it’s any accident that people become artists. Maybe it’s not an accident for whatever people end up doing. I think there are reasons. I think that, if you look into peoples’ past and where they have been, I think it starts making sense. I used to fight the notion of being an artist. I thought, “God, there’s got to be more to life than art!” because it was hard. I was miserable. I was tortured in graduate school. Graduate school was really brutal for me. I was married. I went through undergraduate school at CCAC and I got totally depressed, because I was kind of a star before that when I was at Reno/Nevada. There I was majoring in social sciences and humanities, but was taking some art classes. I didn’t want to major in art because I thought it would ruin me, but it kind of lit my fire.

RW:  I’m not sure I’m following this.

Erik:  I’d been painting for years, and I was going to school in Reno. I didn’t want to actually major in art because I thought it would ruin my talent, but I took some art classes. I had a chance to take a class with a guy who had just stumbled into the office and asked for a teaching job, a minimalist sculptor from LA. I signed up without even knowing who he was. So he walks into painting class the first day with a bunch of canvas and boards, stretcher bars and saws, a miter box and angle irons and says, “Anyone here ever made a canvas?” These kids, boneheads, are all sitting around looking at each other. So he sits down on the floor and puts one together. “Anyone want to help me make another one?” he asks. [laughs] “Okay.” And it was just like that.
     He was learning as he went, too. Anyway, he kind of took me under his wing. We had these critiques; people would bring in their one or two paintings each week and I’d bring in my twenty. He gave me some special attention. He said, “Yeah, I really like what you’re doing. You’re good. But you need to get out of here, expand your horizons and look at a lot of art, get some new experience.” I asked where I ought to go. He told me New York, LA, San Francisco…
     I thought that was a pretty good idea, so my wife and I moved down to Oakland and I went to CCAC. I got a scholarship. I didn’t have any money. And immediately I got depressed, because, Holy Shit! I was just overwhelmed by the kind of work being done here and the sophistication of it, stuff I’d never seen before. I thought, “Jesus, what am I doing here?” But I kept at it and made it through the undergraduate program, but graduate school was very hard. I was in with some very competitive kids who were all very, very good painters, and on their way. They knew the political arena, and I was very naive about the politics of art. I learned a lot about that from them. A lot of them were from New York and were very sophisticated. They were studying philosophy and could recite the history of literature, film, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer— you name it, they could talk about this stuff. It was very intense. These were guys getting shows right out of graduate school, which was kind of unheard of. They were very savvy. And I just felt kind of lost. I was plugging along. It was a very tough period. It was in the mid-seventies.
RW:  Now you’ve been painting ever since, and you’ve had some successes. You’ve done some teaching, too.

Erik:  Yes. I’ve been painting for 30-35 years and I’ve been in some good shows, some important shows. I got an NEA in 1992 and got a Pollock-Krasner grant. I’ve also gotten a lot of SECA nominations.
I taught a little at the San Francisco Art Institute. That was a great experience! I haven’t taught at other places, but I’ve been invited to give lectures to various classes.

RW:  It’s an interesting situation. You’re an accomplished artist; have had some success, and yet it’s a struggle. You’re not getting dealers coming to you and offering exhibits. This is a situation that must not be terribly unusual, I mean, even for very accomplished artists. What keeps you going?

Erik:  Well, the same thing that has always kept me going. The next painting is what keeps me going.

RW:  What is going to happen with the next painting?

Erik:  The next painting is the best painting I’ve ever made. I can’t tell you what it’s going to look like.

RW:  What will that next one give you?

Erik:  It will take it a step closer to my ultimate vision of where I want to go with it.

RW:  Can you say something about that?

Erik:  I can’t describe it, but I’ve been painting long enough now that I have a look. That look is mine. Why does a Renoir or a Van Gogh look like that? Because they had something that was unique. If you paint long enough or write long enough, you get a voice that is your own; it takes years. It takes a lifetime perhaps.

RW:  I’d asked you earlier, what happens when you make a good painting and you said, “There’s no drug like that.”

Erik:  Nothing can compare to that! I think that’s what we’re talking about. When you make a good painting, it sings in a way; you hear it as your own music. It is totally your own music; and it’s the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard—if it’s good; if it’s successful.
There’s a lot of work you do that’s borderline, that’s in a gray area. It’s okay; it’s passable, but it’s not it. You rarely make one that’s it. Was it Picasso who said, “one out of five is a real painting. The rest are just studies.”

RW:  That’s pretty good, one out of five.

Erik:  Anyway, you’re always striving. That’s what keeps me going. I’m always striving to make the best painting I can make, and I’ve made a few that really did it for me, and I think that makes it all worth while. There’s nothing like that.

RW:  Many artists will know what you’re talking about.

Erik:  Preserving inner wilderness, as you said earlier.

RW:  It’s almost like entering a garden.

Erik:  It’s religious. I’m not saying that art is religion or vice versa, but I am saying that there are parallels. And this is a cathedral. My studio is my sanctuary. When I am working in my studio, I am totally at peace. When the work is going well, I feel very centered and at one with the world. I don’t feel at odds with the world so much. When the work is not going so well, I’m a mess.
There’s a British art critic, Morse Peckham, who wrote a book called Man’s Rage for Chaos. His premise is it used to be thought that artists were trying to create structure, but actually, he says, they’re trying to create chaos. He says that’s the real end of all art.

RW:  I don’t understand that.

Erik:  I don’t either, and don’t necessarily agree with it.

RW:  Well, what are the values of chaos?

Erik:  Chaos is a reaction to rigidity and structure—art history and the dialectic of art history, which is what most art history is about, this linear progression of art. I think a lot of art is not about that, and goes its own way.

RW:  So perhaps the choice of this word “chaos” is a reaction to structure that’s like a prison?

Erik:  Yes. Purposeful chaos. A lot of my work is perceived to be chaotic, and it does have a chaotic quality to it, but it’s a purposeful chaos. There’s a kind of order to the chaos that I make.

RW:  One of the aspects of your process of painting is that there’s always a considerable element that’s unpredictable and unexpected, right? But you must have some sense of what you’re doing, also.

Erik:  That’s right. And what makes it exciting and interesting for me is the surprise element, the fact that I never know quite how it’s going to turn out.

RW:  So that chaotic element, the part where you don’t have control, is where something can appear which is free of your own limiting process.

Erik:  Absolutely. It looks like someone else came in and did it, snuck in the studio and made the painting.

RW:  That could be refreshing, right?

Erik:  Oh yes. I have a ball! I love this quote—while we're on this subject, Robert Creeley had this as a title for one of his writing workshops: “Is that a real poem, or did you just make it up?” I love that.

RW:  Now open that phrase up a little for me.

Erik:  Well, what does that mean? The person asking is making an assumption that there is a distinction between “real poetry” and something that’s fake. That concept is alien to me that someone can put their blood sweat and soul into something and somehow, it’s not real. Whether it’s a good poem or not is another question, and that can be addressed.

RW:  Here’s another side that occurs to me. If “I” make it up, the question I’ve got is, who made it up?

Erik:  Well, who else made it up? Did someone else? I mean all great art is made up. What does that mean?

RW:  There’s a distinction I’d like to make here. “I” am fairly limited really, but sometimes something comes through me that’s a lot less limited than “I” am. In other words, stuff happens and “I” can’t take credit for it all. So who is this “I” that I'm always speaking of? When you invite randomness into your process, what’s the relationship of “I” to that randomness? And yet, that randomness brings in something new and fresh.

Erik:  Well, what Pollock called “the controlled accident” is right in with what you’re talking about. I come back to Pollock. The idea that there was a deliberation behind method, people called it “monkey art; oh, anybody could do that.” The idea of intentionality makes the difference. In other words, the idea of a controlled accident, that’s a deliberate attempt to make a mistake to see what happens. If it works, you stick with it.

RW:  I think it’s interesting bringing in the aspect of intention. You initiate the artwork, you’re painting, you have an intention, a way of working. There’s intention and there’s accident. The accident falls within the realm of larger attention…

Erik:  … It’s a catalyst.

RW:  The accidental. Yes. It can bring something new. Something I didn’t cook up.

Erik:  My process began with a discovery. I was working in this huge studio, was working on these very large paintings as I usually do, working on several at once, as I usually do, and the floor was covered with paint, sticks, matchbooks, stuff that was on the floor. It would all get sort of glued together in this mass, and I started liking what was on the floor sometimes more than what was on the canvas. [laughs]
     I thought, “gee, wouldn’t be great if I could preserve what’s happening on the floor?” It was more exciting, in some way, and I started wanting be able to save it. And I began finding a way to do that. Then I began wanting to be able to do that on a larger scale. That’s how the process began. It was a pure accident.

Erik d'Azevedo is an artist living in the Bay Area

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coat editor of Parabola magazine 


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