By Wesley Joost and Jon Randall
Almost every day since he was eight Byron has arisen early in the morning and painted from four to six hours. All those years of labor have produced one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. He's still relatively unknown, unfortunately, because of his refusal to paint commercial art that panders to the bourgoise tastes of big city art galleries.
Goblin Magazine: I understand you began your career as a boxer and a jail house cook. How did you go from that to being a painter, and what made you want to become a painter?
Byron Randall: I always enjoyed being a painter. From the time I was a child I could draw a little bit, I was good as coloring. My mother and grandmother were both good at painting and they encouraged me. I was also pretty athletic, back in my day in Oregon. I had an older brother who was murderous so I became a boxer to save my damn life. I resorted to self defense but I never could beat him, he was bigger and meaner.
GM: Is it true you have the biggest collection of potato mashers in the world?
BR: Yes, I claim that and no one has ever challenged me. These are hand powered ones, mind you. One of my skills is cooking so I had a normal interest in potato mashers as a tool. Every one was different in some way, and they were all designed by someone who had a different idea about what was the best way to arrange the wire striking face and wooden handle. That intrigued me. When I was furnishing the guest house I frequented the markets and Salvation Army. Nearly all of them would have some kitchen gear. I was attracted to them because they were all beautifully functional and simple and never had been standardized like the Dover Eggbeater.
GM: Is it irritating that you've been on TV more for your potato mashers than for your art?
BR: Hell no. That's an easy story. The Chronicle gave it a big spread early on and it was free advertising for my guest house because they couldn't mention the world's greatest potato masher collection without mentioning where it was. It was shrewd advertising. I got a lot of press on those hand held mashers all over the country. The AP picked up on that and I was getting letters from people, included with a snap shot, who wanted me to identify their mashers. There's a subculture of potato masher people out there.
GM: Is it true that you had the first honor system guest house, where they would just leave their money on the pillow? Does that tell you that people could be trustworthy if given the chance? Could that even be done today?
BR: I don't think people are more or less trustworthy these days. They will pretty much play it the way it lays. If you have a tight-assed operation and expensive furnishings and you're getting a lot of money, then it's a different deal than the country home I had here. Everything was laid-back, nothing fancy, and you got what you saw. That's refreshing to people who are not accustomed to such a laid-back situation. There really wasn't any scene here when I came out 30 years ago. It was a laid back space in a no where place. Actually it was economically advantageous to do it that way, rather than to pay someone to stay by the door all night.
GM: What criteria would you use to judge a successful career in art?
BR: I would define success as a social environment where it was possible for an artist to do his work and be supported by it so he can continue on a professional level. That's my criteria. I very early on realized that I wasn't going to be able to survive on my creative work. I wasn't a good enough promoter or the kind of stuff I was doing just wasn't that interesting to people. But it was clear to me after the WPA, that it was difficult for the majority of creative people in this country to make a living.
You have to be clear whether its a career in the terms of the artists' individual fulfilment and realization of his potential; or a successful career is when he is serving functionally and socially within his profession. There's a big gap there. An artist needs a reliable source of income to keep him producing, whether its from his salable art or somewhere else. An artist should be able to function as a professional just like a doctor or lawyer.
GM: Would you say government sponsorship of the arts was one of the better facets of Communism?
BR: Hell yes, or Socialism. Those two terms shouldn't be confused because Communism is a hundred years down the road if it ever comes. It's a different kind of human being all together. It will be Socialism that will eventually lead to communist society because it's "Each according to his ability and each according to his needs," which is the basis for a Socialist economy. Each man shall do his own work for society and shall get back what he needs to survive. Communism is when money is no longer necessary. By that I mean not just a few people but society as a whole, because they're social beings who expect to share and expect to contribute what they can.
GM: What is the relationship between your political beliefs and your art?
BR: I'd say they were rational. Rational to the extent that I contributed my art in any practical way I could to the over throw of Capitalism. I've illustrated leaflets, posters, wood cuts, and I've done what I could within my art activity. I was a card carrying member of the Communist party for seventeen years. I'm not talking about splinter groups but the main stem Communist/Marxist Soviet Union position.
GM: Would you ever consider doing commercial art? Is it wrong to do commercial art to support your more serious art on the side?
BR: It certainly can be bad. If you use your major energy eight hours a day doing commercial art you're not going to be able to dust that out of your experience and do things that are totally creative. To do commercial art successfully you have to develop techniques that are efficient. Real artists aren't usually that efficient. They have to fumble and stumble, and struggle.
GM: Was your decision to be a Social Realist based on your political beliefs that you should be able to reach as many people as possible?
BR: It wasn't that simple. It was based on my experience looking at all the art I could possibly look at, paintings, sculpture, all kinds of creations. I learned all I could from them but realized what everyone knows if they're serious in this tradition, is that you have to learn from the past and see that they didn't have answers for today's artist. A true artist must be reflecting today's moment if he's claiming to be creative. But we have to take the art of the past and attribute it to the future in a way that makes sense. It doesn't make sense today to try to do Victorian art, but you have to imagine it is expressive of our experience as human beings.
I looked at Social Realism carefully. I experimented with non-figurative art, and painted some pretty pictures, but I felt it left too much out. I needed something that said more about my feelings. But I'm happy with the art I've come to which I guess you could say was Social Realism. My art has evolved in a way which I think is particularly expressive of the character of our world. But that's complicated, you can't make art for everybody.
GM: Your house is cluttered with colorful objects. Where does this eclectic style come from?
BR: It comes out of being interested in my environment. Why should I be bored looking at a corner when I can display things. Every object I have is there because I looked at it carefully and found it interesting. It's like putting as much into my paintings as I possibly can. But that doesn't mean stuffing it full. A painting is also color, texture, light, and line. Sure, it has to be rich. I'm not an intellectual artist, I can't do minimal art. There's also Surrealism but that doesn't interest me anymore. There was a time when I experimented with that. What they're doing for surrealism now is pretty thin compared to what the pioneers were doing.
GM: Do you have a picture in your mind when you began to paint or does it just come to you while you're painting?
BR: There's a vague concept when I begin. Most painters have a vision of what they want a painting to look like. I have an idea whether it's going to be a landscape, a still life, or a portrait, but the details come later (unless its a mural and you have to plot every element). You can take advantage of accidents that occur during the act of painting, when you find out how this color works with that and so on.
GM: If your paintings cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, would it seem wrong to you that the average person couldn't afford to buy them?
BR: Hell no, I'd fall off my stool laughing. It happens, I guess, but not while people are still alive. It has to be when people are no longer producing and the extent of their work is known, good dealers can do remarkable things. It may happen to me, but how valuable my work will become I don't know.
GM: Back to Communism; was there a conscious deception on the part of the Soviet Union to keep the reality of what life was like in Russia a secret, before its collapse?
BR: No. People, if they wanted to take the trouble, could subscribe to the People's World or the Daily Worker. Moscow was continually publishing magazines and books about life in the Soviet Union.
Look what the Red Army did to the Nazis. They marched into the country with millions of dollars behind them and were stopped cold. It was a terrible bloodletting for the Russians; 27 million people isn't funny. But they stood up because they had something to fight for. The point is that people in this country had read so much horseshit about how people were terrorized and enslaved in Communist countries. It wasn't true, they had a government that was their own, however clumsy and mismanaged it was. If they didn't have something to fight for they would have caved in to the Nazis like France did.
GM: How much Soviet involvement was there in the American Communist party? Did it get to the level of espionage, and did the FBI have a reason to be suspicious?
BR: There was no Moscow gold. We would have done a lot better in this country if we'd been getting some Moscow gold, so we could publish books and buy radio time and do all the things you do to promote an idea. They weren't getting help from the Soviet Union.
GM: I understand you checked out your FBI dossier and a lot of it was blotted out. What was in it and what do you think was blotted out?
BR: Everything was cut out. It was insolence. They had to conform with the Freedom of Information Act which became a national law, and they were required to provide any material they had on any citizen in this country upon demand. What they did was black out anything that would've given you any clue about a meeting you were in or who were the other people there. That's what they were doing, running around writing down license plate numbers for cars that were parked on the block for these meetings. It was big fraud, it wasted tax payers money. Never had the FBI come up with one single incident of the Communist party instigating violent over-throw. And that's the only logical reason there would be monitoring as closely as they did. They spent millions hiring finks to attend, record, and sabotage meetings if they could. They planted some pretty good finks. Often colored people who would stir up the big issue of the color question in the country: what was the Communist attitude or involvement?
GM: How much did the Communists achieve?
BR: Communists have been given the credit, rightfully, for organizing some of the main trade unions in this country, and that's a lot. In other terms we've had some great writers, poets, dancers, and creative people who were Communists that contributed what they could in their own professional field. Progressives have always been more constructive than conservative reactionaries who want to get back to a past and freeze it, which is, of course, ridiculous.
GM: Was there any great art that came out of Socialist Realism. If not, was that just because Russia has never had a great painting tradition?
BR: It's true, the Soviet Union has never had a strong painting tradition. But there was a lot of great Soviet art that we haven't had access to in this country on a large scale yet. It can't be written off as insignificant. There is always the problem of defining great art. What makes it great? Art that is adequately expressive of the people's feelings at a given place at a given time can be great art depending on the ability of the artist to feel on that broad a scale, and to digest that. It was the particular character of the people, time, and tradition they have inherited. It is essential that art that comes out of a particular period in history in any country have a broad audience. Then he must find forms that are adequate in expressing those feelings.
GM: Was there any room for levity in communist art? All the parodies seemed to be just straight satires of the rich.
BR: Sure, Communists were individuals, some of them were framers of the graveyard and others were really funny dudes. They were constantly parodying and beating up bureaucrats who were messing up the works There was no problem with that. You could be a serious Communist and be a great clown too. I'd like to think there were thousands of funny Communists. There were many sorts. Some were enormous bores and others were wonderful humanists who did remarkable things with their lives to improve humanity.
GM: Would you say you were at all a Bohemian?
BR: I doubt it. That wouldn't bother me if I was. Many bohemians have a life the squares of the world envy, because it was romantic, carefree, exciting, and interesting. They did wonderful things, imaginative as well as functional, that an uptight political animal can't value. I'm neither uptight or a bohemian. I believe being concerned and helping out is worthy of respect if you're really helping the society. The highest function of a civilized person is to be concerned and involved in his life and times, rather than living your life in a self indulgent manner.
GM: How much do you practice Buddhism?
BR: Very minimally. I don't know how to practice it really. I've never been able to get my mind clear the way a Buddhist should be able to if I read them correctly. But I respect it as a philosphy. It certainly relates to the reality of most peoples lives better then Christianity as far as I can see.
GM: If people adopted Buddhism as a way of life would Communism even be necessary?
BR: Buddhism doesn't solve any practical social problems in terms of production of shoes, socks, and everything people need.
GM: Why did you choose Zen Buddhism over other kinds of Buddhism?
BR: I really don't know that much about it. Zen appeals to me because they have a sense of humor, they value poetry more then other forms of Buddhism as far as I can see. It's a more laid-back humanist religion than others. They could laugh at themselves, a lot of their parables and poems are very humorous. They look at the ridiculous side of human beings. They can laugh a lot better than most Christians, I think. They have a problem with laughter, they think life is grim and to suffer.
I don't advocate Buddhism as any solution for Western civilization because obviously it came out of the circumstances of specific people in a certain part of the earth and it assumed a form of direction that was appropiate then. I don't see that Western minds would be that comfortable with it.
Buddhism isn't for everybody but peace is for everybody, Goddamn it.
Byron Randall Website