Gallery 224

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June, 2017

Featured Artist

Hal Rammel

Hal Rammel is a visual artist and musician whose work as a photographer focuses on pinhole photography and a wide variety of cameraless alternative processes. He is curator of music programming for Woodland Patten Book Center in Milwaukee and is an active participant in Milwaukee'’s experimental and improvised music scene. He has presented numerous workshops for Studio 224 on pinhole, cameraless, and stereo photography. His work in stereo photography was recently featured in the online gallery of the London Stereoscopic Company.

 

 

A Conversation with Hal Rammel

by Don Niederfrank

I've known Hal Rammel but have never taken the opportunity to sit and talk with him about his life and his art. We met upstairs at the Java Dock for a really enjoyable hour and a half visit. What follows is an edited account of that conversations. What is not included is the frequent laughter and wanderings into other subjects. Because I had first encountered Hal playing some very odd instruments, and we have occasionally shown up at the same free jazz shows my first question was not about art, but its response says something about who Hal is.

What musical instruments do you play?
I play musical saw, which is my first instrument.

Really?
Yes.

I'm from Iowa so I know about musical saw. Why did you take up musical saw? Because you didn't grow up in a rural situation, did you?
I grew up in central Illinois, Decatur to be exact. We were out in the country but we were near that city, so I had a little of both growing up. I saw saw players at state fairs, and at some point my dad demonstrated it for me when he was in the workshop. I have a longstanding interest in music, but I have no musical training of any sort. Over the years I tried a number of different instruments, but with no success other than just playing with friends in informal situations, but the saw was really a breakthrough. I really felt comfortable with it.

My interest as a listener has always been jazz and the more experimental, periphery of jazz, improvised music. With the saw, eventually, I had the confidence to play with other people.

Really? Jazz musical saw?
Improvised saw, because jazz means something a little bit different.

That makes sense because the first time I saw you, you had brought some instruments over to Gallery 224. And that makes sense that you would take an object and stroke it or tap it or do different things to the object to draw different sounds from it. Because no one would look at those objects and say, 'Oh that's a musical instrument', but no one would look at a saw and say 'That's a musical instrument' unless they knew it was a musical instrument.
Right. So I think the saw gave me the freedom to do anything that I wanted to do on it. To treat those sounds as music and to apply a method to ordering what it did into some musical form. But there aren't really a lot of rules about the musical saw unless you get into the contests where they're very strict about this and that. That wasn't the world I was going into.

I didn't know that world existed.
It does exist. It's an interesting world, but, more related to my interests, there were three or four musical saw players in the jazz world that I knew of.

Really?
Yeah. Some really strong players. For example, Roy Brooks who was Charles Mingus' drummer and also played saw.
 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-b77CgSlys <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k-b77CgSlys> The saw comes in at 3:22)

He played some really solid BB King style solos on the saw. So I knew about that, and as I became friends with a number of improvising musicians in the United States … Davy Williams and LaDonna Smith from Birmingham, AL invited me to sit in with them one night in Chicago … so that was about 1982. Then I got interested in building instruments, so then I could apply some of that confidence and freedom to building things and then figuring out how to play them. So now I play a lot of instruments that I build myself.

So I want to fill out the history a bit. You grew up in rural Decatur and went to high school there?
No, I actually went to high school in the Chicago area. We left Decatur when I was about ten or eleven years. So it was nice that I had a rural childhood, and then became more citified in my teens. So I had exposure to all the things that city life provides from that time on. The other key piece to the story was that my parents were interested in all kinds of things, so I grew up in a household where they were building the house we lived in, my mother was a painter, my dad was a photographer by profession and by hobby. So I grew up in a milieu where my parents were going to the library every week and getting books and learning how to do things.

Right. So what's the relationship in your life between music and art?
Well, they aren't any boundaries in my world between those disciplines. When I was in my early years of high school that was the point that I became interested in everything. From being a young boy who was totally immersed in astronomy and geology, paleontology and rock collecting to, in my first years of high school, someone who was interested in literature, in music and jazz, in writing and reading all this stuff and absorbing all these things that were opening up to me.

It's interesting to think about the difference between being interested in geology and paleontology and looking at something that has remained unchanged for millennia to being also interesting in things that are so dynamic as jazz.
That's an interesting concept. I hadn't thought of that.

But it's also strikes me that you seem to take whatever the medium happens to be and ask the question, “What else can this do?”
Yes. Very much so. Going back to the contrast you mentioned, I feel the same way now sitting at my desk working on some photographic thing or writing or drawing as I felt sixty years ago when I was trying to identify rocks or fossils. It gives me the same feeling of being totally absorbed into this world. And so all these things have let me hang onto that curiosity I felt very early on.

You know I'm not sure how universal it is, but it's true with a number of people that I've known when we've had conversations that there is an endorphin rush that comes with learning. Even if it's nothing more than how pencils are made. It sounds as if there's a joy that comes with, “Oh look at this!”
Yes, whether you are learning things or making small discoveries or the experience of something you hadn't thought too much about opening up into this whole world historically and presently. And seeing what hasn't been done yet and what could be. I'm very grateful my life has always included that, especially for all these many years.

What art did you do as a child?
I did a lot of cartooning, a lot of drawing.

In high school?
A lot younger. As long as I can remember.

Cartooning with a narrative?
Yeah, in the kind of goofy way a kid would do it. I did a lot of copying. I liked copying cartoons. I really liked Mutt and Jeff. I had a huge comic book collection. I could freehand copy easily when I was a kid. And I would draw that little dotted line that indicated when Mutt was doing a slow burn over something Jeff just did. I was fascinated with that. But I could do freehand drawing so I did a lot of my favorites—Mutt and Jeff and Little Iodine. I'm grateful for having been born when I was because I experienced all these things that are now so far in the past. We got the Sunday St. Louis Post-Dispatch with great comics like Pogo and Smoky Stover. Those were really my favorites. Then in high school around my sophomore year when I experienced this retreat of the sciences and this expansion into the contemporary world of literature and music, I started automatic drawing and exploring all kinds of other things that pushed me toward the kind of drawing I wanted to do.

But you're not ADA. You have the ability to focus on things. I'm thinking about pinhole camera work and constructing things. So it's truly a mental curiosity. That's cool. Some of us color inside the lines most of our lives. Did you have any artistic training?
None at all. Just firsthand experience around my parents, watching my mother paint or watching my dad photograph. So I had the best kind of training, but no formal training.

What media have you worked in?
Pen and ink. Not very much painting. I wasn't very interested or very confident with color, so black ink and white paper. A lot of drawing. And then in the late 70s it was strictly cartooning, cartoon strips.

Commercially?
No. Then really heavily in the last twenty years photography, and parallel with the instrument design and sculpture there. And a little bit of found sculpture but nothing building into a catalog of work.

What tools do you work with?
Mostly hand tools. The house we moved into was my parents home, so it had a nice woodworking area. Nothing too sophisticated. A couple of nice table saws and a drills. It doesn't get much more complicated than that. I use a combination of some nice musical instrument wood. A lot of found wood. When I've made instruments with a resonator, I've had to make a nice box. I often cover my missed-matched corners with wood burning, so I've found ways to make my crude method into something distinctive. I never been a strict right angle, ninety-degree sort of guy. So sometimes an expressive choice covered a lot of sins that way.

What's you favorite medium for working in right now?
I've been doing a lot of photography very recently.

With photography, you've been exploring a number of ways of putting an image on paper.
Yes. Pinhole photography and camera-less photography. Camera-less photography is just enlarger and exposing light-sensitive paper in some fashion and putting stuff in the way that creates an image. So that and pinhole is what I really like. I have a digital camera, and I take digital pictures all the time, but in terms of exploration it's all analog. My father was a professional photojournalist, so I grew up around photography. He was an extraordinary darkroom technician. He was a really good photojournalist. He took pictures all the time on the job and at home. A friend said I have the most thoroughly documented childhood. So I had all that exposure to it, but I have to say, having been a rebellious teenager, I didn't learn enough from him technically other than it was a pleasure to do that. It is not surprising that I chose to do something completely different than what he did, because if I had chosen to be a photojournalist I would have always been competing, so I avoided that pitfall.

What's you “edge”? I'd almost say, “What's your edge this week?” If you were to say this is where I”m looking, this is where I'm seeing what happens ... I assume it's with photography.
Well, the thing that immediately what comes to mind. To some extent, at this time in my life, I look back a lot, so in that context I spent a good amount of time in the last year organizing my father's archives of his work as a photojournalist in Decatur between 1941 and 1959. And that has gone into the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL as the John Rammel Archive. So this year—and it will open next week—the Cedarburg Art Museum will show an exhibition of my mother's work. So I've been spending a lot of time the last few months getting her work together, cleaned up, and organized and doing a little bit of research on her past that I didn't know about. So organizing all this material for her show coming up, and because a lot of her work is down from the walls, I've spent the last week taking pinhole photographs of these ceramic pieces she did. So that's another way to think about her work, see it in a new light and to respond to it in a personal way.

I'm wondering if as you re-examine you father's work and your mother's work that has to one degree or another altered your understanding of their narrative and has it your narrative of your childhood?
It hasn't changed that, in that you know I had a very typical 50s childhood and I have many many good memories. I had the ups and downs one has in those first ten years. But largely I had a very wonderful experience growing up. What I have been thinking about is their lives before I came along. Especially, with my dad with whom I knew a little more about than my mother, I learned about his newspaper experience and some of the people he must have known in that postwar period in Japan when he was sent there. He was married at the time. So I've been looking at that and realizing in both instances about my mother and my father and how little I know about them. I don't think this is unusual. I think it's true for many of us.

What is now the most difficult part of doing art for you? What asks a lot of you in doing art?
Two different things come to mind. One being that I chose as a profession something entirely different than any of these interests

What did you do?
I was a registered nurse, a surgical nurse at St. Mary's Ozaukee. So all these things that I've done relative to this conversation are things that I have done while working full time in that capacity. So that's a challenge. But it was never something that I thought that I would not do. The other thing that comes to mind is that I've always really pushed myself to not repeat myself in any of these media, so I have always pushed myself musically to figure out something different about these instruments or build them differently. Or build them so that I wouldn't know how to play them and then figure that out after the fact. Working with the pinhole cameras to not do the same thing over and over. I have no tolerance for that, so forcing myself to rethink it at every step is something that is difficult, but not something that I would not do. So those two things, but I don't see those as difficulties in the normal sense that they were discouraging factors.

What's discouraging? Or are there things that are discouraging?
I feel like I've had such a rich life from all these interests, that I can't think of anything that's been terribly discouraging.

I wonder if the way you approach things, without any clearly defined expectations of outcome that there really isn't a lot of disappointment.
Well, there have been disappointments in my life. I mean I would like to have more exhibitions of my work, Those are external things. That would be nice, but to not have those is not discouraging in the everyday sense of the word. Discouragement means I would consider stopping these things because of this or that. I've really avoided, to a large extent I think, the pitfalls of external rewards. Now that has a downside, because I've done so many different things that people often don't know what I do. Because musicians may think of me more as a photographer or nobody knows about my being a cartoonist because I'm not out there networking very much. That's a downside of being interested in so many things. But at the same time I have no regrets about doing all those things because they've all nurtured one another in inexplicable ways and nurtured my life, enriched my life. So I think just not striving for exhibitions and striving for these kinds of recognitions has been a good thing for me.

If there's a spectrum of that, I'd put Thomas Kincaid at the other end from you.
It's hard to resist that. I really want the challenges to myself and succeed or fail on that basis.

A parallel for me would be that the best compliment I could get when preaching was, “That gave me something to think about.”
I had someone come up to me after a performance and say he hated it and it wasn't music, and then proceed to ask me in great detail what I had done at a certain point. How did I do that? Why did I do that? You give someone pause. Take them out of their critical judgments to pull them into the actual activity.

Where do you go when you like to look at art?
Oh, my library.

You have the books you like to look at?
I have the books I like to look at.

Are there artists, contemporary photographers that you would drive down to Chicago to see?
There are but they're generally of the recent past and not living and working today.

So most of those are available in books.
There was an exhibition of Moholy Nagy last December, of one of the photographers from the Bauhaus movement, a lot of his experimental work I like a lot. There are several American photographers that I really appreciate. Ralph Eugene Meatyard from Kentucky and Clarence John Laughlin, a New Orleans based photographer. And there’s Frederick Sommer, originally from Italy but who ended up in Arizona. A photographer who experimented with a lot of different things, really very personal work—that's really exciting to me.

Do you enjoy looking at paintings and sculpture?
I have to say – and I've thought about a question like this since I was thinking about our conversation – and I have to say that I'm really most interested in the art that has come out in the early 20th century. This is a great generalization but things after the 1950s don't pull me in as much. I've always been very interested in Surrealism and all the sort of art and artistic activity that is in that periphery—Dada and Surrealism and Modernism.

One of the first exhibits I ever went to was a Surrealism exhibit at John Michael Kohler when it was just an old house. I liked “This Is Not a Pipe.” Surrealism tickles me.
I liked that work. Because art books were always around the house. I remember leafing through my mother's art books in the library. So I could have said that Max Ernst was my favorite painter when I was eight years old. So that's just the milieu I grew up in.

Some of my favorite art is very established. I like landscapes. And then there is Surrealism that makes people go “What the heck?” And there are the good conversations. The landscapes are like familiar hymns and Surrealism is like jazz.

(We then spent the next minutes talking about free jazz...)

If you could own one piece of art, what would you like to own? Or a collection?
I like Joseph Cornell's work a lot.

He's a photographer?
Joseph Cornell is know for assemblages, small boxes and the objects in the box. He was a New York artist that was kind of on the periphery of the Surrealists when they lived there in the 40s and 50s. The objects he would put it were a very personal sort of, a collection of things he was interested in. So he would draw on scientific diagrams and photographs and toys and things like that. He had such a rich world of objects. It would be nice to have one of those or two of those to look at every day. So Joseph Cornell.

Have you ever done any of your own?
No. Nothing to speak of. Because I think it's very difficult to do that. I know people who do that related work. JoAnna Poehlmann, Josie Osborne. Some very good artists in the area who do similar work, but I've never found a way that personally contributes to the idea. But I appreciate very much the kind of choices they make, and I admire their ability to put their personal stamp on it.

What work have you done that you're most attached to? Or another way to put it, If the place was on fire, what would you grab?
I would grab Gina's paintings.

Oh! Well, that's probably the nicest thing I've heard someone say in a long time.
If I had to grab something and Gina and the dog and the cat were outside, I'd grab her paintings.

Nothing of your own?
I think in that time frame and I had to make a choice? No nothing. It would be nice to grab a folder full of photographs but it wouldn't be the priority. I can do more photographs.

Yes, yes.
And also, one of the things I've been doing over the last couple of years is to find a home for a lot of my work. All of my work as a cartoonist has gone to The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at the Ohio State University library system in Columbus, Ohio.

Why there?
The Billy Ireland collection is this huge archive of American comic art, so they accepted my work. All my sketches, all the books, all the unpublished work is in their archives. So that's all taken care of. A dozen of my instruments went to the
National Music Museum a couple years ago. A bunch of things like that. So I've been working on taking care of that so that it'll be around for a while, so if anybody finds it and finds any interest in it, there will be that opportunity for it to be
revisited. So I don't have those things in the house to grab. So I'm not being entirely selfless in my response, I've just gotten it out before the fire!

So it's not completely altruistic.
Oh, no, no.

What do people not know about doing art? You've done a number of seminars and classes, but at openings there's a whole group of people who come, and if you were to take them outside on sidewalk, what would you want them to know before they went in?
I think people don't know the amount of time an artist devotes to develop the work they do. And that's not self-congratulatory statement. I might take five or six minutes to make a photograph with the camera I use, but five or six minutes based on twenty years of doing this. And sixty-nine years of looking at pictures. I think if you want to think about how long it takes to get into and understand a piece of art, you have to think at least as long as it took the artist to do it. So if you think about how long it took an artist to make that you have to include their lifetime. So it's at least that long if not longer because you're starting from zero. It's a little difficult to be sitting at an exhibition and see people just walk through and think they're getting anything out of that two seconds at most that they may spend on an individual piece. Because if it's any good, if it's worth looking at, then there's a lot more discover in a closer examination.

I learned some of that from Martin.
The other factor in that is getting to know Martin, and getting to trust that here we have somebody with an eye and a skill and a history, in which what he's choosing is very deliberate, very thoughtful, very personal, and very meaningful for him and potentially for you as well if you spend the time. Martin's a very good example of this. He's an extraordinary photographer. An inspired, wonderful person. And when you have that receptivity in the personality of the artist, you absorb a level of trust that here is an artist doing something you should really consider seriously. It's worth looking at. And even if it seems to be very simple photograph, a very straight-forward, very symmetrical photograph, in thinking about why did he choose this? What time of day was it? Why is it this and not that?  It expands the way you look at everyday things.

Artists see things. I should take advantage of the artists I know like Martin, and just say, “Go for a walk with me and tell me what you see.”
You can have a depth of knowledge about anything—biology, botany—and it enriches your experience of the everyday world.

It's why I think art history is important.
Life is so interesting! If it's not interesting, you're just not looking hard enough.

Right. Watching too much TV.
Yes. I would have loved to be an archivist. In some ways it's too bad that my interest in the sciences kind of fell to the wayside, because I would have been a very good archeologist.

I would have thought that there was a lot about being a surgical nurse that was not routine. Some of it was, some routine keeps people safe.
Right. You want it to be routine.

But I would guess that there would be times that it became very exciting or interesting. And then there's a whole thing of relationships, who you are working with.
Yes. That's a very important aspect because you have to work as a team.

(We then spent a few minutes sharing personal histories. Edited here for brevity.)

… I knew from very early on that as devoted as I was to drawing and these other things I didn't want to do it for a living. I wanted to do something completely different and keep all that free of economics. So I stayed with hospital work....

Is there a relationship between your politics and your art?
Oh, I think there's a relationship, certain things that are just intrinsic to what I do on the political side, but nothing in my work is political in a overt way. But I think the choices I make are consistent with my politics, my concerns about the world. I mean this was very true certainly at the very beginning when I was coming of age during the war in Viet Nam and the civil rights movement, so it was important to me that how I drew and how I thought about drawing, how I thought about art was consistent with a position against the war in Viet Nam, a position against racism. So, yeah, I think it's important that all that be consistent, but I don't think you necessarily have to do overly political art.

This is an old tension. Those kinds of arguments or discussions are very historical. For example when the Surrealists joined the Communist party—you know the Communist Party was very doctrinaire about its Soviet Realism, so they said to the Surrealists, 'You shouldn't be doing this fancy stuff in the context of our political crisis.' The Surrealists' answer was that revolution should happen on all levels. The cultural and the interpersonal and the deeply personal, so I've always felt that to be true.

I think you have to question everything. It's important to question everything, especially our assumptions, the things we don't even think about but are up for questioning. That applies to the everyday, and it applies to true politics on all
levels.

(We then spent a few minutes on politics and other things. Edited here for more brevity.)

What more would you like to say about you and art?
One thing I had thought about that might come up this morning, was ‘how I look at a piece of art.’ Because I think you've asked that question before. The subject  came up in our talk about Martin's work. If you come up to a piece of art cold, how do you find a way into it? What is the way in? There's a book that I really like from a few years ago called “How to Talk About Books You haven’t Read.” [by Pierre Bayard] You might like it. It's a very comprehensive discussion about books you've never read, books you've read and don't remember, books you've skimmed and so on. He goes pretty deep into it ... but it's written in a very readable manner. One of the things he says is that you might know something about the author. So I've read maybe a little of “Finnegan's Wake,” but I know a little bit about James Joyce, so if there was a conversation about “Finnegan's Wake” I could enter into that conversation validly, without making things up, without baloney. To me that's “context.” He calls it “location.” So you can know how to locate a piece of art. So what is “location?” You never come upon a work of art just free floating, it never just appears to you. You're somewhere; you're in some circumstances; you're at Gallery 224 or at the Milwaukee Art Museum or at a flea market. There's some context. The location is filled out by knowing something about the artist. For example, our opportunity to get to know Martin.

Right.
And to develop the sense that this is a really serious person who thinks deeply about his work. It opens you up to it. And I think today particularly when you might come upon the work of a younger artist, in which these days you never know where somebody's coming from. Or I can look at something that's very abstract but see in it elements of abstraction from New York in the 60s or 70s, a touch of Rauschenberg. But if it ends up being some a young artist just out of MIAD, which colors my experience of that work of art.

And so you could ask that person, “Who's your favorite artist?” and their answer would make sense.
Right. But I put more stock in Rauschenberg than somebody who's echoing him. But I also appreciate someone who's trying to internalize some of that and develop their own vocabulary but it's very early on. So I know that, I'm more receptive to it than if I just see somebody I see initially and say, “Come on.”.

What's next?
One of the things I do photographically is that I do stereo photography, and I do it in the manner of the old stereo viewer. I figured out many years ago how to do photograms, camera-less stuff in that format. And actually today an exhibition of this work just went online at the London Stereoscopic Company. It's the first time someone with that level of awareness of the history has shown an appreciation for this thing that's never been done before. So that's quite a honor, and it's made me want to do some more of that work. Maybe later today or tomorrow morning when the light is right, I've got a little pinhole camera that takes pictures side-by-side for stereo viewing. I’ll to do some more of that in the next week or so.

Well, Hal, I've really enjoyed this.
So have I. Very much.


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