Welcome to the first installation of “Storytime with Scot,” a near word-for-word transcription of a recent interview I conducted with local ARTist and colorful personality, Scot Borofsky. We met in his studio at the Cotton Mill last week, and luckily I had no expectations, because he would have painted them all away with the brushstrokes of his vivid storytelling, anyway!
Please visit Scot’s Website to refresh your memory of the countless murals he has enlivened Downtown Brattleboro with, and take a virtual tour of many of the street ART paintings that he made in NYC, which is the stunning topic of this prelude to our interview… You see, I hadn’t started asking my prepared questions yet, the interview hadn’t even officially begun, and I just turned on the recorder to pick up right in the middle of his story.
Please enjoy, hang onto your seats, and stay tuned for “Storytime With Scot, Part II!”
Big Thanks and forever-in-your-debts to the man himself, Scot. I only asked for an interview, but what I got was much more than that!
Scot Borofsky- So where do you want to start?
Angel Mackinnon– You can keep talking if you want to keep on that trajectory, and then I can start (asking you questions.) Yea.
SB- Is (the recorder) going now?
AM- You’re live.
SB- So we looked at the early paintings that I had made, and that was all I really ever expected to do, was to be a guy who walked the fields and the mountains and made paintings, landscapes. I loved Van Gogh, and his life, I thought it was spiritual and fulfilling, you know, even though he didn’t find what he was looking for in his own mind, exactly. So that’s all I ever thought I was gonna do, I had done some collage cityscapes also with the paintings, and then I got signed up for this random chance at school and won a scholarship to have a studio in New York, at the Brooklyn Museum for a year. So I went there, and the intellectual atmosphere of the group of painters there, and all the art, immediately moved me into something more abstract, in terms of the collages. And they became more physical. They were sculptural, so they were constructions, they were reliefs, they were objects more than just pictures.
So being in New York, you have all the different nationalities that make up the city, so you wander around in the city and you find all kinds of different things from different countries and stuff. This stuff started going into the collages and it started to have an international kind of look. And then into the content, in terms of materials. In one, I saw a combination of a mask, it could be a mask, it could be a figure, and it reminded me of the Gabon Reliquaries that I had studied when I studied African mask.
And I love that area where the viewer is allowed to kind of see what they see in it. It’s not exactly the same for everyone. Everyone doesn’t see the exact same thing. You see something maybe personal, I see something different, personal. You know, it’s the way we perceive the world and I like it when a painting is that way too. You kind of find yourself in it, you find what interests you, you know like that tea cup, you turn it over and you read the tea leaves. Everyone sees something different, you see what comes out of your own psyche, your own subconscious.
So that’s sort of what I was looking for, and I began to think about, well what is it that everyone has in common, everyone on the planet, when it comes to art? Now you can say, ok, everyone makes pictures of human faces, human figures, and many cultures do images of the landscape. It began as a background in Western Culture, but in Chinese and Japanese culture, it was a subject matter. So in African art there really is no landscape. It’s mostly face and figure, you know. But they will do things that are in the landscape, like some of the reliefs they do on the front of buildings, full of patterns and stuff, figures, modern stuff, people riding bicycles, whatever. So those are 3 things, figure, mask, and landscape. That’s 3 things you find in all kinds of art. So I wanted my pieces to be able to be seen in 2 or 3 ways like that.
Then this guy Keith Haring started getting articles in the news in New York where I was. And I looked at his work and I saw pyramids, barking dogs, certain kinds of figures, angels, UFOs… I really enjoyed his language of symbols. So I decided that that’s what I wanted to do. To start to…not pick things up from outside anymore, but to make work outside. ‘Cause that’s what had happened to me. I had seen places while I was collecting collage materials, and said, “Look at this place. It’s so precious, it’s so special. All it needs is the perfect artwork with the right colors, the right message, to make it into a really great space, for people to be in to pass, to see from the distance or whatever,” and that’s how I started doing it.
I started with patterns. I’d just pick a vacant lot, putting a pattern on the wall. This friend of mine, Jeff Perry, who i had hitchhiked around the country with, hopped freight trains with, worshiped Kerouak, Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady. He helped me with one of the first patterns, it’s a really long pattern, its called “Long Pattern.” It took 2 people to do it.
AM- Is it the one from “Studio in the Street?”
SB- Yes, it’s on the cover. We went out there with the chart with numbers on the thing. And he filled in and he had a chart with which numbers went where. But it was very scary in this neighborhood. This neighborhood was a ghetto and it was full of guns and drugs everywhere. Every other block had a building that was abandoned, with a hole in the side, that they sold heroin out of. There was all these abandoned buildings, and there was this culture of all these heroin addicts and dealers, in these abandoned buildings, you know, and when you stepped in this neighborhood, you immediately took your life in your hands.
Like the typical thing, I remember the first time I went to the neighborhood, Tompkins Square Park, it looked like there had been a war. There were all these casualties lying around on the benches; people with broken limbs, people who looked like they were dying there, people passed out, people on the ground sleeping. It was really horrible. You walk by the park, you walk down St. Marks Place, East 8th Street.
So, I walked past the park, and walked down, and the first thing we came to was an abandoned building, and the abandoned buildings would have had the door bricked over with cement blocks to keep people out, the windows all covered, and then the junkies would go in with a sledgehammer to break through the cement blocks to open up the door again. So typically, you’d see broken cement blocks around the door, and two people sitting there, one guy with a shotgun and two dogs. They’re sitting there on the side of the street, and anybody walking down there is trying to buy heroin. People riding down the street on bicycles, “C&D, Coke and Dope,” yelling it, like they were selling strawberries. There was one area on Avenue B, 2 or 3 blocks long, wall to wall, the entire street filled, like an Arabian bazaar, of heroin, and everything.
We used to walk to breakfast in the morning on Avenue A, and there would be these junkies standing there in the street like slalom poles on the ski coarse, leaning slightly into the wind, with their eyes closed, nodding in the breeze, waving back and forth like grass, and we’d weave around them on the way to the restaurant… It was very typical in the morning.
So that was the neighborhood that I lived in, and while some people were making public art, really just seeking celebrity, a couple of people, myself, you know, I came from Vermont. I grew up swimming in the streams, hiking in the mountains. I learned nature from the time I was a young, young boy. And to see these kids, with nothing but a vacant lot full of broken glass and bricks and metal as a place to play, broke my heart. And one of those kids might be Michelangelo or Abraham Lincoln, you know. And there they are.
When you live where we live, you can choose between the good thing and the bad thing. But they had no choice, it’s only the bad thing. That’s all they get. And it breaks your heart to see it, because their families, very religious families in some cases, you know, Hispanic people. Really, to see people going to church on Sunday morning in that neighborhood, and the quietness of that neighborhood, the cars would go through slowly, it was like a little village. But at the same time it was also the Wild West.
So I wanted my work to be there, you know. Some of my stuff was put in place to be seen by everybody as a semi-political statement about the area. Just a site-specific image. But I wanted the bulk of my work to be in a place where these kids would see it. So I did it in the vacant lots near the school, which was on Avenue B, and behind it, Avenue C and Avenue D. There was a lot of vacant lots, people running around with guns and knives through these vacant buildings, but the kids played there. That’s where I put my images.
AM- Well they have community gardens in those vacant lots now.
SB- Yea, that’s Adam Purple who started that. He’s a friend of mine. He created Adam Purple’s Garden of Eden. He took over a vacant lot and a building with a shotgun. He was a hippie, he was a political activist. And he would go out sometimes in the middle of the night and blow the shotgun off, and it kept people away. So there was plenty of vacant buildings out there, nobody needs his. You know, he blocked everything, and in the back he took the entire lot and he made this big spiral garden, which was just gorgeous. It was full of flowers, and herbs, and vegetables. To see this, in the middle of this ghetto was like a miracle, and it was called Adam Purple’s Garden of Eden.
And there’s a lot of press that was created in the New York Times and other newspapers over him fighting the city over this vacant lot. And as the gentrification proceeded, the city closed in slowly. And finally came the day when they bulldozed the garden. And there’s a great history in print about the whole thing. But while Adam Purple’s garden was going down, other people were getting inspired and taking over other vacant lots and starting gardens all over the neighborhood. And now if you go there, you’ll see in that neighborhood that almost every block has a botanical garden, a beautiful botanical garden with running water and shade tress, and exotic plants identified with signs, and benches, and paths, and this has become the norm for those people.
Where they live, they have a botanical garden, and it is part of their environment. And you know, at one time is was just a vacant lot, and this hippie doing something. And now it’s all these people paying $3,000-$5,000 a month, and they have to have a botanical garden. And one day, it will be everyone in the city that needs a botanical garden on their block, and that’s the way it goes, you know.
It just keeps going. Some people have it, everyone wants to have it. And Adam will be long gone. You might see him still these days, dressed in purple, riding his bike covered in bells, a purple bike, little bells hanging from his hat or whatever. He’s an old, old man with a long white beard. And you might see him riding around.
AM- So you mentioned gentrification and how there is this growth, right, this growth increasing what you might call the positive in a neighborhood. You know, if there are more gardens, that’s a good thing, right?
SB- But that was not the gentrification. The gentrification fought those gardens. The gardening people, the tenants, the artists who put sculptures in them to support them, and did murals to support the garden people, they were connected. They worked together. They had to fight for those gardens.
AM- Until those people who move in and can afford those rents, actually want to choose to co-opt that.
SB- In many cases, these fights were ongoing for years and years, as the developers tried to get that lot and get that lot. And people would do all kinds of things to fight and keep it. Now, you know, it’s developed. All the people on the block, they take turns going in there, watering the plants. It’s like a club, locked at night, open to the public during the day. This is nothing new, really, in a way, because if you go up to Gramercy Park, that is a gated park. The buildings around it, they all have keys. So, you know, they didn’t make it as a private park- it became a private park. But it’s a botanical garden, like almost 1 per block.
And one lot that I went to down there, when I first was going back… Because when we created the virtual installation on the web, which makes it possible for you to go through photographs, to go back to the moment in 1983 or 1984, when all these paintings were fresh, and you could go and see them. When we did that, I really could not remember where a number of these paintings were, because I had made so many murals in that neighborhood, at least 30, that I didn’t know which block certain ones were on. So I went back to try and figure it out. Wow, was that impossible! None of the lots were left, they were all filled with new buildings, and I could not remember. Was it 9th? Was it 11th?
I sat down in a park where I would have seen heroin needles in the gutter and I would have had to keep my head spinning like an owl, just to know that nobody was gonna mug me. And there would have been trash everywhere. And I sat down in this park, and the entire area, it was a botanical garden the size of this building. And I sat there next to a pond with 4 or 5 turtles sunning themselves on a log, and almost cried. I think I cried. Tears came to my eyes. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing, how it had transformed.
I did walk away from one of these $50,000 apartments down there. I did own an apartment in a squat, I fixed it up. They had a meeting, they said, “You fix it up, it’s yours. You own it, you pay your percentage of the maintenance fees that we have here.” It was a tenant-owned building, the oldest homestead in the Lower East Side, actually. I fixed it up really nice, nice little apartment over on Avenue D. I walked down the stairs, and in the hallway, there was the guy with the gun you had to go by when you went in the building, all the time.
I walked out, I looked up and down the street and I said, “This place is always gonna be hell.” So I walked away from that apartment. Walked away from it. Lost $50,000, boom, right like that.
AM- Do you regret that?
SB- No, that’s life. I mean, you never know. You know, you could step on a paper bag and it might have a wallet in it that has half a million dollars in it. You never know.
AM- I’m waiting for my paper bag.
SB- You already stepped on it! (laughs) That’s not what life’s about, it’s the experience, you know. And security is great, you know. But if I had kept that apartment and then gone on to have children like I had, they wouldn’t have grown up with the freedom to swim in these streams and walk these mountains like I had.
So I may not have been able to give them everything that they would have had in the city, where I would have made a lot more money than I was able to make in Brattleboro. But I gave them at least a relationship with the planet, with nature, which I think is a wholesome thing that all kids should have. I was lucky enough to have it myself, so I wanted to at least be able to give that to my kids. You know, six months or a year before I left NY, my work was on the front page of the Cultural section of the New York Times, next to Julian Schnabel and Max Ernst. (See the actual New York Times article Here!) I was very, very successful, and I walked away from all of it, and came back to Brattleboro, where low and behold, in my hometown, I was nobody again.
AM- Why did you come back?
SB- Well, for one thing, this gentrification thing started to take hold, and as a result, somehow an article had gotten into the New York Times that said that the East Village was dead. And to everyone’s surprise, it turned out that all of these uptown collectors really had never liked coming down and, you know, walking through the junkies. Wow, we had never thought of that!
And all it took was one article and that was it. Nobody went to the East Village, all investments stopped within a year, almost a hundred galleries closed. Including my gallery, which was a huge space, a fantastic space, and I was the best-selling artist in the gallery. And they completely supported me, and everything. And we had articles in every major art magazine. Mokotoff Gallery. And the guy’s first name was Moke…Moke Mokotoff. Yea, he’s got a great story, too, but you can’t tell ‘em all in one sitting.
AM- You’re such a good storyteller! It’s really captivating just to listen. It’s great. I haven’t even asked you a single question on here. That’s awesome. But I’m gonna start! Ready? Ok.
(To Be Continued…)