“Like everybody else who tries to write, I struggle to find the right words,” comments Austin Kleon, a writer and artist who has garnered success by searching out significance in the ordinary. Kleon is responsible for the site newspaperblackout.com and subsequent book – and, accordingly, a style of poetics that involves elimination of unnecessary text in order to discover something new within it. In a way, his work affirms what Michaelangelo expressed of sculpture: every block of stone has a statue inside, and the artist must chip away until it is revealed. Kleon’s block of stone is appropriately replaced with a block of text – but the idea is the same. This BR!NKer has further examined artistic creation in his viral blog post, “How To Steal Like An Artist (And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me),” which he’s now developing into a book. His unique perspective deems him worthy of being “highlighted,” but today, let’s say that we’re “blacking out” all the superfluous text on the internet to bring you our interview with Kleon. Make sure to check out examples of his work before reading the interview; you’re sure to be just as inspired as we were.
Let’s get this out of the way: am I the first person to tell you that you easily have one of the best names I’ve ever heard?
Well, thanks. It doesn’t seem special to me because I’ve had it for a while. Someone once said to me, “Oh, it’s like Star Trek meets the rodeo.” But “Austin” was a family name before Texas was a state, and “Kleon” is Romanian that they Americanized when we came off the boat.
You seem to dabble in so many various art forms (poetry, art, writing…) that I’m curious to know about your childhood and what type of art you were initially interested in pursuing.
My mom always bought me tons of art supplies, and we had scheduled time for making stuff every day when I was really little. She also let me bang on pots and pans with her wooden spoons. My brother is eight years older than me, and both my parents worked, so I spent a lot of time entertaining myself. I was obsessed with music — I started classical piano lessons when I was ten or so, played tenor sax in the school band, and in junior high and high school played guitar and sang and wrote songs in a band with my best friend, who’s an amazing drummer. I spent most of my afternoons in high school hiding in the art room, but I never considered being an artist a serious thing to do as a career — I thought I’d go off to college and become a professor. A professor of what, I didn’t know, but I figured I’d teach and write books. Sometime in middle school I think I stumbled across the term “Renaissance man.” That’s what I wanted to be — somebody who does a lot of different things.
How was the idea of Newspaper Blackout born? Tell us about the origins of the project in 2005.
Like everybody else who tries to write, I struggle to find the right words. One day, when I was just a little bit out of college, I turned away from that horrible, blinking Microsoft Word cursor and looked at the stack of old newspapers next to my desk, and I thought, “I don’t have any words, but right there are millions of them.” So I picked up a marker and started playing. I showed them to my wife, she liked them, so I started posting them to my blog. That was almost six years ago.
Congratulations on the popularity of the blog and subsequent book; why do you think people have been responding so well to the concept?
I think it’s a very simple concept that people immediately get: newspaper + marker = poetry. There have been artists who’ve used the redaction technique before — the most famous is probably Tom Phillips, whose A Humument is a 40-year-old project of him painting over the pages of an old Victorian novel — but it’s always been a very “high art” kind of thing. It’s never been a very inviting method. I mean, you look at Tom Phillips’ stuff, and it’s like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s, you’re just sitting there thinking, “Oh God, this is so great, how do they do that?’ You see my stuff, and it’s like hearing The Ramones: “Oh, I could do that.” Of course, The Ramones are deceptively simple. I’ve tried to be very open about my process, and I invite readers to make poems along with me at newspaperblackout.com.
How has your dog Milo adapted to your success?
Milo knows nothing about art or poetry and he’s got the easiest life of almost any creature I know — although, he’s very neurotic, but he probably gets that from his parents.
Can you share with our readers your top three Newspaper Blackout Poems?
Here’s the million dollar question: what are your predictions in regards to how the print industry will evolve?
I’ve always thought the print industry would do well to concentrate on the printed book as an art object — something that can live in your house, on your shelves, that you can hold in your hands and have a unique experience with. McSweeney’s does this really well… As for the publishing industry, I think the distance between writer and reader will continue to shrink, and the traditional publishing industry’s role as a middleman between them will continue to diminish.
You’re a self-proclaimed visual thinker who seems to draw inspiration from so many different places. Who are your main sources of inspiration (ranging from popular artists to your nana)?
I love comic strips like Peanuts, Far Side, and Achewood. I love stand-up comedy, especially Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin. I love all the books Kurt Vonnegut and Lynda Barry and Saul Steinberg ever put out. (I tend to gravitate towards artists who write and draw.) I love music (The Ramones, Hank Williams, Bill Callahan) and I love movies (especially from strong directors like Billy Wilder and P.T. Anderson.)
What can we expect in the future? 2010 was an incredible year for you with the release of your collection; how are you planning to evolve from this point onward?
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
Buy my book or some of my artwork, subscribe to my mailing list, or follow me on Twitter.