KCAC Forum Magazine December 1994
“THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW” FROM KANSAS CITY TO ST. LOUIS: AN INTERVIEW WITH JOE BUSSELL
by Bill Wells
Joe Bussell is a painter/sculptor who lived and worked in Kansas City, Missouri in the early 1980’s. He has exhibited widely at such galleries as the TAI Gallery in New York, the Actors Institute Gallery in Boston, the MoMing Art Center in Chicago and Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. His work has been reviewed in the New Art Examiner, The Village Voice, US News and World Report, Art in America and The Kansas City Star. He is also represented in the collection of EuroDisney, Paris France. Bussell has a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in painting from the University of Kansas, Lawrence and a Master’s of Fine Arts in painting from Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri. He is currently living in St. Louis and working on his MFA in ceramics at Washington University, where he also teaches.
Bill Wells The years you spent in Kansas City were very productive, in that you always seemed to be making art and exhibiting. Would you consider those years formative in your approach to being an artist?
Joe Bussell Those were really great years for me and played a big part in my works development. The AIDS crisis was just beginning to get main stream attention and my post-modernist philosophy was starting to hang onto something tangible. My art grew, I grew and Kansas City, at least the Kansas City I knew, i.e. the gay community, the artist, etc., were coming of age. I’d have to say the formative impact happened outside of Kansas City, but it was this ‘New’ Kansas City that gave me the chance to respond.
BW At that time, how did you feel about the city as a place to work and the art community in Kansas City in general?
JB Kansas City was a great place to work. I was able to share studio space with a number of other young artists with similar goals and philosophical concerns. And let’s face it, you can’t beat Kansas City when it comes to inexpensive rent. Kansas City was also a great place to show work, and having a sympathetic reviewer like Donald Hoffmann didn’t hurt. You may not have always agreed with him, but damn it, he was there promoting homegrown talent.
BW In comparison with St. Louis, how does the art community in Kansas City differ? Do you see any similarities?
JB I think the comparisons I can draw now living in St. Louis may not be terribly accurate, since that was then and this is now. But I can feel basic differences. St. Louis seems to be a much more individual-based city, and Kansas City has a strong community feel. I think partly that has to do with Kansas City’s broader cultural base and “Team Art Spirit.”
Whether you like the Shuttlecocks or the Bartle Hall sculptures, or not, they exist and there is a forum for discussion in Kansas City. In St. Louis, I don’t think these kinds of public projects would take place simply because certain individuals would make sure they didn’t. St. Louis seems to be very self-conscious in that way.
BW I know you worked in what was the first AIDS hospice in Kansas City and that the experience was pivotal in generating an entire body of work. Has this continued to be a factor in your art?
JB I could go on about this forever, but I won’t. Working in the hospice changed not only my way of making art, but how I saw life. I became truly politicized and humanized. It’s really no wonder after my years of work in the hospice and coming home to my apartment/studio to make art, I lost all fear of making creative leaps. I doubt the experience will ever leave me.
BW A big part of your life recently has been centered around Washington University and your Masters degree in painting. Has this return to college had a significant effect on your work and the methods you use?
JB Going back to school to get a master’s degree in your late 30s like I did is not for the faint of heart. Like all returning students, you have to be ready. By ready I mean open, confident and willing to risk. Being the ‘old man,’ I found instructors both challenging and exacting due to my past experience. Some students saw me as a threat, while others a mentor. All in all, I have to say this experiences was a very good one. I’ve become much more aware as a person and I look at art with a much more critical eye; and I can sniff out an ‘art poser’ with amazing ease. The most significant changes in my art making are conceptual concerns. I’m much more thoughtful. If ind the installation format a satisfying area, but I don’t like the label ‘installation artist’ … I prefer to consider myself a painter who makes sculpture.
BW Currently, you’re teaching an elective class in ceramics at Washington U. What are some of the difficulties you’ve encountered in moving to the ‘other side’ of the academic world?
JB I wouldn’t call the experiences ‘difficulties’; challenges, yes. I’m in a really good place at
Wash U. This is my first official teaching job, so I get this experience at top notch school, plus I’m still a student – I’m getting a second master’s in ceramics and the student status gives me shelter from the university politics.
BW What would you consider the rewards of interacting with students from different disciplines in an art setting?
JB I wish there was more of this. Washington U, like a lot of schools, is going toward more interdisciplinary programs. I’m a good example of what can happen. I got reunited with ceramics while working on my M.F.A. in painting, so the school allowed me to come back for a third year to complete a second M.F.A. in ceramics.
BW Kansas City is experiencing a period of new growth in the local art scene, with new museums and galleries opening, and numerous public art commissions. To me, this seems very similar to the art boom of the early ’80s. What do you feel would be necessary to sustain this interest that wasn’t in place when you were active here?
JB I agree. I was just in Kansas City recently and the energy there is tremendous, much like it was when I lived and worked there. Back to your St Louis comparison: that energy just hasn’t happened here yet. To be honest, I’ve never felt the art enthusiasm in St. Louis that I feel in Kansas City.
BW In a speculative way, what do you see happening in the future for the art community in St Louis? And for yourself?
JB For St. Louis there will always be galleries but for some reason I just haven’t had the experience of finding a gallery where my work fit. I feel much more comfortable researching galleries in Chicago and New York. I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious or
exclusive, but gallery dealers in those cities are much more open to the kind of work I make. I think to get back specifically to your question, I see the problem in St. Louis that doesn’t exist in Kansas City to be the fact that St. Louis just doesn’t have a cohesive art community. It seems extremely fractured. Kansas City on the other hand, seems to have a strong, healthy art community, which, in my opinion, makes a healthy community in general.