Monday, July 15, 2013

Aaron Blum

Aaron Blum's series "Born and Raised" is currently being exhibited until July 20th, at Silver Eye with the work of his mentor, Doug Dubois. Aaron took the time to answer some of my questions about his work, and how this exhibition came together. 

As an eighth generation West Virginian, Aaron Blum creates art deeply linked to his home state. His unique personal history inspires his creative work, which contrasts Appalachian stereotypes with representations of an upper middle class heritage. Aaron is a graduate of both West Virginia and Syracuse Universities. He is a past Syracuse Humanities Center Fellowship recipient, Jurors' choice award winner for Santa Fe's Center project competition in 2011, has been selected by Magenta as a photographer to watch in 2012 and has exhibited widley around the country. He has shown his work at such venues as The Houston Center for Photography, Newspace Center for Photography, The Philladelphia Center for Photography and the Silver Eye Center for Photography. He is also in the permanent collections of the Haggerty Museum of Art and the Houston Museum of Art. Aaron is currently an adjunct instructor at multiple institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University and West Virginia University.

View more of his work here

Ashley Kauschinger: How did your series "Born and Raised" begin?

Aaron Blum: "Born and Raised" started very organically and suddenly. I came out of undergraduate school making less than average work, it was a lot of Crewdson ripoffs to be honest. I had a lot of vision, dedication and technical skills with a camera, but no real direction. I went to grad school and they immediately made me want to cry and go back home, and they should have! I kept with it though, and during that period when I was trying to find a valid subject, my grandmother and I got into a conversation. It was very innocent, I dont even remember how it started, but the subject was of my heritage. My last name is Blum (rhymes with plum) and it is German in origin so I just thought I was German. She looked at me and said you're not German, you are probably 90% Scots-Irish. This really got to me. My grandmother started pulling pictures from over one hundred years and telling me stories about my ancestors and their journey to America. She explained how many of them were college educated, including almost all of the women, from the 1850's on. There were so many incredible stories and relatives that were prominent figures in the community. This blew me away and sent me into somewhat of an existential crisis. I had to find out who I was, where I come from, who were all these people, and how they all linked to Appalachia. This occurrence paired with me leaving West Virginia long term, only to find out what others thought of my home, really set the project into motion. I started realizing people from outside the region had a very skewed idea of Appalachia. I was always aware of the stereotypes of Appalachia, but I just assumed that people thought they were just bad jokes and not a reality. I guess I was wrong. People would often ask me earnestly, and never maliciously, ridiculous questions like: "Why do you have all your teeth?" or "Why do you have shoes?" These stereotypes and many others, my understanding of what my home actually was, and my desire to find out my heritage set in motion my constant need to find out what it means to be Appalachian.

AK: The series is divided into two chapters. Do you view these sets of images separately? How do they inform one another?

They are set up as two different chapters, but they are the same project, and it will be ongoing for the foreseeable future. The first chapter "Reflections of a World Set Aside" is really based on my idea of my family and life in Appalachia. "Floodplains, Coal Trains, Kudzu Vines" was looking at my home a little bit differently. I was thinking more about the river culture, I grew up on the Ohio River, and thinking more as a traditional southern photographer. I think they work very well together and I often edit them together for exhibition. I think it was just a good way for me to tell different chapters of the same story. West Virginia is a very segmented state. Each section has its own identity and I'm interested in exploring each one. For example the Northern Panhandle is very different than the southern coal fields and the Eastern Panhandle. Finding out exactly what the differences are, but finding the way to identify with it all personally, is what I'm trying to do.

AK: How do you view the myths surrounding Appalachia? How do you feel this work aligns or challenges those ideas?

AB: I think the stories and myths surrounding my home are mostly wonderful but sometimes include terrible stereotypes. The hills and rivers in West Virginia provide a feeling of isolation and freedom to people who connect with the region. The way it looks, the light, the mist, it all lends itself to those artistic ideas and myths. I love the idea of Appalachian minstrels, and the oral history tradition that they would use. It fascinates me. At times I feel like a modern Appalachian minstrel making my own stories and myths, but my version incorporates and questions stereotypes of Appalachia all at the same time. I feel like by making my own Appalachia I can guide someone to understand how I feel. I'm not sure I can change others opinions, but I do feel like I can place them in a world that may challenge their preconceived notions. Even if that world does live between fiction and non-fiction.

AK: In your statement you discuss how the character in the series are exaggerated versions of your friends and family. At what point does the larger narrative about Appalachia intersect with the personal? How much of this work is informed by the autobiographical?

AB: I think at every point my work intersects with my personal experience and the larger idea of Appalachia. My work is very informed by my experiences. I am constantly talking to people and trying to have new adventures to draw from. I think being in the region constantly to make new work or just to be there to take it all in really helps. My friends and family all still live there and I make a point to go down a lot. It also helps that I teach at West Virginia University. My work is always informed by both things, my life in the hills and the stories that surround it. Apart from all the time spent there I am constantly researching and reading about the idea and fiction of the place. It is all just an effort to understand what it means to call yourself an Appalachian.

AK: Can you talk about your current exhibition at Silver Eye with Doug Dubois? How did this exhibition come about, and what was the process of putting the show together?

AB: The show at Silver Eye really came together quickly. Ellen Fleurov curated it and really wanted to talk about the ideas of mentorship in photography today. I have known Ellen for a while and she was interested in my work, and Doug just finished up his project and the timing just made sense. There are a lot of connections in our work, not only in how we both shoot similarly because he taught me, but in the context of the work as well. So it seemed as if the work would hang well together, and I believe it does. The process of the show was not overly complicated. Ellen reached out to me and I reached out to Doug and after a week or so of discussions things were moving and we sorted through the images to find the best way to show the work together, and then the work was on the walls. Shortly after that Doug and I were trying to figure out what to say to a gallery full of people about the mentor men-tee relationship, and then it was over. We have gotten a lot of press on the show so it has been really exciting for me, and I cant wait to see what's next and I'm really thankful it has all come out the way that it has.

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