artist

A Conversation with Please Touch Artist Jay Croft

Interview conducted by Alison Caplan, Akron Art Museum Director of Education

Inspired by skateboarding and D.I.Y. culture, Jay Croft’s illustrations have donned skateboard decks, his zine Street Canoe, and most recently, a mural at Chill Ice Cream.

Can you talk about being a parent and an artist?

It’s the best thing ever! I love it. My kids are always drawing and making stuff. We definitely encourage them to create. Our house is filled with all types of markers, paint, papers, and glue. I encourage them to help me with some of my projects too. It’s pretty cool that they are so receptive to it.

Jay Croft, Friends, digital rendering, 2016

Jay Croft, Friends, digital rendering, 2016

Do you bring your kids to the museum?

Yes, we bring our kids to the museum for sure. We try to bring our kids to everything that we do. We want them to experience everything that they can growing up. Going to an art museum is something that I didn’t experience until I was much older than they are now. Not that my parents wouldn’t do it. The opportunity never really presented itself. I think the world is way more kid friendly than when I was growing up.

We are always trying to come up with cool things to do with the kids and what better thing to do than go to the art museum.

Jay Croft, Friends, installation view in Please Touch 2017

How did you come up with the idea for this work?

The inspiration actually came from a puzzle that the kids own. I just wanted it to be as fun and hands on as possible. Plus, I always liked the idea of mashing things up and putting things where they might not actually belong.

Jay Croft, installation view, Please Touch 2017

Jay Croft, installation view, Please Touch 2017

How does/has DIY culture influence/d your artmaking?

Besides my grandpa, it’s the one thing that has pushed it the most. As a kid growing up in Ohio, skateboarding and listening to punk rock music was the one thing that made me feel like I was a part of something bigger than myself. Even though I probably didn’t understand it like I do now. I just couldn’t get enough of it. From looking at skateboard magazines, to the liner notes in punk rock records, it made me feel like I could do it too. It made me realize that there wasn’t much separating me from the people I was checking out. I have always tried to go against the grain. Not in a rebellious way, but in a way that I could make it my own. I never wanted to be like anyone else. Not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of being true to myself.

It seems like all of the artist in show have some connection to childhood games or picture books in their work. Do you have a favorite childhood game or book?

It’s funny, I don’t think I actually do have a favorite book as a child. But, I have always wanted to make my own kids book ever since I can remember. Maybe someday it will happen…

Jay Croft’s artwork is on view and accessible along with artwork by Erin Guido & John Paul Costello and Jordan Elise & Christopher Lees (Horrible Adorables) in Please Touch at the Akron Art Museum through July 16, 2017. Look for interviews with Erin Guido, John Paul Costello, Jordan Elise and Christopher Lees coming soon!

Please Touch shakes off all of the traditional museum-goer behavior and asks visitors to use their sense of touch to experience the exhibition.

For Please Touch, the museum commissioned a group of regional artists to create new works that actively engage audiences of all ages. Erin Guido creates brightly colored dynamic shape and text murals often found in surprising places, like abandoned buildings, offering friendly encouragement as they declare “come over all the time” or “hi.” Jordan Elise and Christopher Lees create mounted animal sculptures they call Horrible Adorables and design patterns for fabric and wallpaper, as well as plastic toys for Kid Robot. Inspired by skateboarding and D.I.Y. culture, Jay Croft’s illustrations have donned skateboard decks, his zine Street Canoe, and most recently, a mural at Chill Ice Cream in downtown Akron.

For Please Touch, each artist has created an interactive work that visitors can touch and manipulate as they make meaning of it in their own ways.

Please Touch is organized by the Akron Art Museum and supported by a generous gift from The Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation.

Stephen Tomasko’s Fairgrounds

By Theresa Bembnister, Associate Curator

This season marks Stephen Tomasko’s seventh summer photographing county fairs throughout Ohio. Three of the artist’s untitled photographs of foodstands appear in Snack, which runs through September 3 in the Judith Bear Isroff Gallery. The Akron Art Museum blog chats with Tomasko about his current work as well as projects the artist pursues far from the fairgrounds.

Stephen Tomasko, Untitled from the series Fairgrounds, 2013, 18 x 12 in., pigment print, Courtesy of the artist

Stephen Tomasko, Untitled from the series Fairgrounds, 2013, 18 x 12 in., pigment print, Courtesy of the artist

Akron Art Museum: Fair season seems to really pick up in August. Which fairs do you plan to visit this month?

Stephen Tomasko: August is amazing for fairs. I’ll definitely hit the Ohio State Fair. The county fairs are all over the place this month. On my schedule is Columbiana, Medina, Holmes, Cuyahoga, Lake, Lorain, Portage and the amazing Canfield fair at the very end of the month. There are some other good ones as well which I may fit in if time allows.

Stephen Tomasko, Untitled from the series Fairgrounds, 2012, 12 x 18 in., pigment print, Courtesy of the artist

Stephen Tomasko, Untitled from the series Fairgrounds, 2012, 12 x 18 in., pigment print, Courtesy of the artist

Do you see the same vendors at different fairs?

I do see many of the same vendors and carnival game operators at different fairs over the course of the season. Many of them are quite supportive and have a real interest in what I’m doing as they see their way of life as a disappearing piece of history and want to see it documented and remembered. The people with the games, in particular, are full of stories from their travels and the past: How far a particular game has traveled over the years, how old their metal milk bottles are, various bits of carny history, scams they have seen over the years, stuff like that. Also once you get to know some people over time you hear more about their own past and what their families are up to and how they got on the road. It seems that, like making art, once you get the traveling fair bug some people get pulled in and never get out. It can be an obsession as well as a lifestyle choice.

Stephen Tomasko, Untitled from the series I’m so Happy I’m Happy!, 2013, 12 x 18 in., pigment print, Courtesy of the artist

Stephen Tomasko, Untitled from the series I’m so Happy I’m Happy!, 2013, 12 x 18 in., pigment print, Courtesy of the artist

You tend to photograph in crowded, chaotic situations—county fairs, tailgate parties, outside of the Republican National Convention. What attracts you to those environments?

I am really interested in the crowded and chaotic lately, especially those groups that are formed around a shared interest or passion as opposed to, say, everyone on the sidewalk heading from work at the same time because it’s rush hour. I’m fascinated by what it is that makes people identify with a group enough to show up and join and dress a certain way and act a certain way. What drives people to spend all the time and effort to buy or make the stuff to fit in and stand out?

Also, with a certain density of engaged people you get a critical mass where everything gets noticeably intensified. People feed off of one another and really commit to what they are doing, emotions run higher, it’s much louder, even the smells are stronger. These are elements that I want to convey in my work.

Stephen Tomasko, Untitled from the series Winter Was Hard, 2009, Inkjet print, 11 ¾ in. x 17 ½ in., Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Museum Acquisition Fund 2011.2

Stephen Tomasko, Untitled from the series Winter Was Hard, 2009, Inkjet print, 11 ¾ in. x 17 ½ in., Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Museum Acquisition Fund 2011.2

It’s not that different from my spring flowering tree work really. I pack those images from edge to edge with blooms and supplement the natural light with very theatrical flash to create an over-the-top, more-real-than-real tableaux and when it works people respond all the time with comments like “It smells like flowers in here!” So what I’m obsessed with doing now is entering into these energized packed places, distilling down the action there into the frame, capturing what it feels like to be there, maybe even reminding you of what it smells like to be in a place like that, not just what it looks like to be there even though that is of primary importance, too.

I think another part of it is that I like to do things that are hard, to make things that have not been done well before. Crowds are hard and these places are a mess. As a small example, the fairs are loaded with big ugly trash cans that will kill an image in a second if you aren’t careful about excluding them. You never notice that they are not there in the prints, but the work would suffer if they were in the image. Making visually coherent and beautiful photographs is a real challenge. My wife always says about these chaotic images “I love to look at the prints, but I wouldn’t want to be there!” They are a fun challenge to make.

Stephen Tomasko, Untitled from the series First Place and Our Congratulations, 2011, 12 x 18in., pigment print, Courtesy of the artist

Stephen Tomasko, Untitled from the series First Place and Our Congratulations, 2011, 12 x 18in., pigment print, Courtesy of the artist

How do your subjects typically respond when they notice they are being photographed?

Photographing in a crowd can be easier to move around and work without people noticing you ahead of the exposure. By the time most people notice they are being photographed, if they notice at all, I have usually made my best shot. The reaction of those who do notice varies a great deal from venue to venue, and sometimes I can’t really figure it out ahead of time. In general, out of all the situations I photograph, the county fairs are toughest. The participants there, even though it is a very public venue and they are “showing at the fair,” tend to be very suspicious of outsiders. I’m not sure if they think I’m from PETA or something, but the reaction is sometimes pretty unpleasant. On the other hand, tailgating at the Muni Lot before Browns games is a blast. Sure I’ve got to clean beer off my camera almost every game, but the reaction of my subjects to being singled out and noticed is almost always very positive. I’m constantly offered food and drink.

Stephen Tomasko, Untitled from the series Fairgrounds, 2015, 12 x 18in., pigment print, Courtesy of the artist

Stephen Tomasko, Untitled from the series Fairgrounds, 2015, 12 x 18in., pigment print, Courtesy of the artist

In the spirit of Snack, I have to ask this last question. What’s your favorite fair food?

I’ve been to so many fairs now that the stuff that is straight up bad for you holds no more interest to me. The deep fried and the sugar doused has long since lost any allure for me. I’m usually looking for something that is good and will sustain me through the summer heat. A best bet for me is to get a ribeye sandwich from the local cattlemen organization at any given fair. That almost always satisfies and usually they will have some fresh sweet corn roasted on that same grill.