March 2010

Interview With Artist Peter Staley

Years ago I was walking through Williamsburg when I noticed a mob of people hudled around a doorway waiting in the cold rain to gain access into a storefront.  As I walked closer I noticed this storefront was an art gallery and the people waiting outside included some of the best graffiti writers in the city. 

As I entered the space, I saw that the walls were covered with small drawings of monsters, kung fu characters and mountains with faces.  Scattered around the gallery were small television screens broadcasting video loops of houses being pounded by rain.  Somewhere near the back of the gallery, there was a large Marshall stack, and perched on top was a masked Matt Reilly, from the punk group Japanther, who was strumming lullabies on his guitar.  This somewhat Lynchian experience was an art opening for the work of Peter Staley.

It's been three years since that opening and though I haven't seen much of Peter's work since, I know he's been busy running the family business, Sweet William. An impeccably curated children's shop that he opened in Williamsburg with his wife, Bronagh. 

As a native New York-based artist who possess a phenomenal collection of obscure records and books, I thought Peter would make an excellent addition to the interviews we've been publishing lately.


RINY:  Before we start what song are you listening to at the moment and what do you like about it?


Peter: Buffy Sainte-Marie's Qu'appelle Valley Saskatchewan. I'm very inspired by nature and by mountainous landscapes in particular. I also have a very romantic view of native American culture. When I listen to this song I feel as if I'm transported to a vast landscape where man and nature are at one with the great spirit.





RINY: You work in illustration and video art, which seem opposite ends of spectrum.  What attracts you to these mediums and what does one offer you as an artist that the other doesn’t?

Peter: The means of expression that comes the most naturally to me, is drawing.  I'm very comfortable drawing, especially with a number 2 pencil.  Sometimes when I draw I feel as if I am able to step aside and just let images come out of my hand without thinking at all. This is when I'm my most creative. For me, drawing is like a spring, and all my other creative endeavors flow from it.  As an art viewer I'm the most transported by art when I feel as if I were immersed in it. What does this for the me the most is probably the combination of moving images with sound. In most cases making moving images is much more involved than drawing. Although the end result may be more powerful, the process can be laborious and less spontaneous. Most videos I've made in the past stemmed from footage I took with a video camera and then manipulated in the computer. Now I'm working on bridging the gap between my drawings and videos by drawing and painting my source material and animating my illustrations.




RINY: Are there other mediums that you use or would like to explore? If so, what are they?

Peter: I use quite a few different mediums but right now I'm most excited about exploring animation. I'm trying to make narrative stories, as opposed to the non narrative spacey videos I have been making. Right now I am working on developing an animated science fiction story.



RINY: Is there a message or particular idea behind your work? If so, what is it?

Peter: Ideally art comes from someplace outside your conscious mind. The essence of art should be an expression of things outside the realm of explanation. I like to think of my art as devotional art for agnostics. I try to make art that is spiritual and mystical, but I don't really hold any religious beliefs to draw my subject matter from.  My work is a celebration of the spirit and energy of creation. I try to keep my mind open, let what comes out come out and hope other people are able to take meaning from it.




RINY: You and your wife own a children’s store in Williamsburg, some of your work seems really inspired by children’s books. I see some Tomi Ungerer in your characters and some really fantasy driven landscapes.  Are you influenced by art made for children?

Peter: Not only am I influenced by art for children, but I am very interested in making art for children as well. For the past year I have been working on an illustrated children's book that I hope to get published. I don't always see a separation between art for children and art for adults. As a parent the reality is that a large percent of the art I experience is made for children. I really appreciate it when what I'm watching or reading with my son, is entertaining to me as well. I think it is possible to make art that can hold as much meaning for a child as for an adult.  Fantastic landscapes have been one of the main themes in my art since I first started to draw as child. I think it is a very natural human experience to visualize yourself in an idealized landscape.



RINY: How do you think your work fits in to the larger art scene?

Peter: I don't really feel like I'm a part of a scene. I show very sporadically and for the most part I make my work alone in the middle of the night. Very few people see it at all. 

RINY: What do you think the New York art scene is missing?

Peter: There are so many different things happening in this city that you could refer to as an art scene. It is such a big and diverse city that any one person could only ever know a fraction of what is going on. So if you feel there is something missing, you may just not know how to find it.


RINY: What do you think is particularly interesting about art today?

Peter: What is interesting to me as a maker of art, is the rapid progression of technology, making it easier and easier to express yourself using a computer. As we become more comfortable with computers, and the programs advance and become more intuitive, it feels more and more natural to make art with computers. This is really opening up a lot of possibilities for artists. This is particularly exciting for me because some things I have always wanted to do all of a sudden seem possible.



RINY: What galleries do you feel are showing interesting work and what about the work is interesting?

Peter: I am afraid I am a little out of touch with the gallery scene these days. One thing that makes New York so interesting is that there are so many places and different kinds of venues for art, that you never really know where you will come across something that strikes you as profound. Often it is not in a gallery at all.

RINY: What are any three works of art that you wish you created? Why do you wish you created them?

Style Wars, top to bottom whole car by Noc 167. Growing up on the Upper West Side in the 70s and 80s, the explosion of the graffiti movement made a huge impact on me. It really bothers me that I was slightly too young to be a part of the golden era of subway graffiti. I think Noc 167 is one of the best there ever was and this car is an icon of the era. The piece is vibrating with energy. To me it looks like the train was forged out of star dust and it is about to disperse and return to outer space..

Machu Piccu. I would have liked to have built Machu Piccu.

Avatar. I am pretty envious of the resources someone like James Cameron has to create such a well realized fantasy land.

RINY: What three artists have influenced you and why?

The most influential piece of artwork for me recently, has been this image that I saw in a book . I was flipping through a book in a bookstore and I saw a picture of a painting. There were many paintings in the book but afterwards something about this image had stayed in my mind, even though I did not retain what it was or where it was from. I went back to the store to see it again but couldn't find the book. I only had a faint memory of it but something about it was still resonating with me, so I decided to make pictures mimicking its composition and theme, as best as I could recall it. I remembered seeing radiating bands of landscape conveying a progression through both space and time, leading to another dimension. A trip to infinity as seen from the stratosphere. I eventually came across it again and bought the book. The painting is called Journeying through Unknown Lands, Its origins are unknown but it is believed to be from central India in the mid 1700s. Inscribed on the back in Hindi, it says "Thus mounting the celestial chariot, they set off in the westerly direction". I continue to make pictures based on this format.


In my opinion one of the worlds greatest living artists is Jaone. More of an inspiration than an influence, the sheer amount of energy he has invested in his art over the past 25 years is unfathomable. This is apparent in that every mark he makes radiates with its own energy. No one can deny that the streets of this city are infused with a unique energy. Few people realize how much influence a person like JA can have on the nature of that energy.


I am also very inspired by the film maker Hayao Miyazak. The fantasy worlds he creates are so dazzling and original. I think the forest spirit/night walker in Princess Mononoke is one of the most unique and beautiful visualizations of a god I have seen. Miyazak is one of the few film makers whose movies I watch over and over.

RINY: What three films have influenced you and why?


I saw Akira at the film forum in its first US release in 1988. As a teenager this movie really blew me away and has had a lasting influence on me. It is so visually enticing and the use of sound creates these dimensional shifts that jar you in to it's alternative reality. I really enjoy science fiction stories with mystical themes.


The animated fairytale Azur et Asma by Michel Ocelot is a really great film. I don't know if it has influenced me or not, because I just saw it recently, but I wouldn't mind if it did. It is the most stylish use of computer animation I have seen.


The BBC's Planet Earth series has definitely been an influence. The genre of nature films is constantly out doing itself and I find it all extremely inspiring. This recent BBC series really has some of the most beautiful images of nature I have seen. I am always trying to recreate the helicopter and satellite perspectives that they use, in my own work.

RINY: What three books should everyone read and why?


Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, The impact this book has had on the aesthetic trends of the last 30 years is immeasurable. It is the bible of style



I'm sure most of your readers have read it, but, I think Where The Wild Things Are by Mourice Sendak is one of the best illustrated children's book there is. Everything about it from the illustration style to the story still strikes me as profound. The sequence in which Max's room turns into a forest is one of the best visual depictions a transformative experience I know of. I recently saw the movie made of this book and was really surprised they left that out.

I am a little embarrassed by how juvenile my taste can be so I am going to leave it at two before I dig my hole any deeper.

RINY: What are three albums that everyone should own and why?

I wouldn't say for sure that any of my favorite records are records everyone should own. For the most part I find my taste seems to be a little off from most people's.



One of my favorite records is The Dub Factor by Black Uhuru featuring Sly and Robbie from 1983. This is another example of something that really blew my mind when I was younger and has stuck with me. It is a very heavy dub album but with an upbeat digi pop vibe. At the same time it is one of the most psychedelic records I have ever heard. When you listen to it, outer space is in the room with you. I find it to be very motivating music.



As far as an album everyone should own, I would maybe say a collection of songs by Antônio Carlos Jobim. Although I do listen to music that is dissonant and dark, I am more drawn to the positive and uplifting. There is something so positive and warm about it, that if there is a music everyone should own, I would recommend Jobim. I have listened to the song Águas de Marco (Waters of March) over and over in a row for days at a time.

Bob Dylan's Theme time radio hour is something I have been listening to a lot recently. This is not exactly an album but it is something really worth checking out. It is a series of hour long radio programs that Bob Dylan DJs. Each show is made up of songs based on a different theme, such as the weather or eyes or woman's names etc. He plays great music from a wide range of musical genres, with witty and educational commentary in between. The shows are very entertaining with a lot of music I wouldn't normally listen to. You kind of feel like I you are hanging out with Bob Dylan when you listen to it.

I believe all 100 episodes are available to download for free here.

RINY: What are some images that inspire you?



This is the image I have on my computer's desk top. I took this photograph of my wife in Nepal in the mid nineties. The mountain to the left shrouded in clouds is Mount Everest.



This is a picture I took a few weeks later, with the same mountains in the background, after walking the distance from the first picture.

Living in a mega metropolis like New York, it is easy to lose touch with the fact that places like this even exist at all. This picture is a daily reminder that it exists and I have been there and have seen it with my own eyes. Not just in HD.

A friend of mine recently took this picture of my sons eyeball. To me it looks like an infinite galactic vortex.


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Categories: Photography