Obi Kaufmann- Coyote and Thunder – Vision, Adventure and Wilderness across California

posted by Nicoletta Rolla April 6, 2017 0 comments
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Obi Kaufmann, Coyote and Thunder

The Interview




Painter, poet, adventurer. Please give me your own description of Obi.

For so many years, my art practice had me in a dark studio, painting by candlelight and exhibiting the resulting, expressionistic and figurative canvases to mixed reviews. In my little cave, I was exploring an internal conflict based on a human scale with themes like politics, ethics, and symbolic mythology. About ten years ago I broke out of my prison-like studio and experienced a flowering in my heart, and simultaneously experienced the flowering of the California wilderness – it was a vision of atonement with natural world, and my own voice in it. I stopped painting inside with oil and started painting outside with water, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.

What about your artistic background?

Both my parents were scientists, and I grew up conflicted about my relationship to the truth: how do the outer world and the inner world mix to produce reality, voice and context? And how do we all agree on what modern culture is? Since I was a little boy, it has been my moderately-obsessive practice to fill sketchbook after sketchbook in an endless quest reveal the truth that I’ve always suspected: that appreciating and participating with the natural world, in all its form, beauty and wonder, is key to an elusive kind of inner peace that comes from a particular way of understanding – somewhere between art and science.

So that is an abstract answer to your questions that informs the impetus for me making art at all. I think that is much more interesting that just describing how I went to university and then spent ten years exploring the San Francisco Bay Area’s gallery-business model and while grateful for the moderate success I had there, never had experienced the kind of professional renaissance I am seeing happen now.

You love to experiment, to express your creativity through different forms of Art, right?

The career of an artist moves slowly through many chapters. The transition from one style to the next is not something that happens overnight, its glacial in its slow movement from one iteration to the next – from one piece to the next. I see that in my painting, and also in my poetry. For me, both of those primary modes of expression are rooted in an economy of images and words.

Describe what you mean by the economy of images in your paint technique.

I approach my painting exactly as I do my writing. I move from left to right across the page, more like a calligrapher than a painter. Watercolor moves like ink and my best work is my most effortless – when I can capture the form of a mountain, a fish, or a flower with the fewest movements – when I can get out of the way enough for the paint itself to do most of the work.

Nature is clearly your muse. What is your human and professional relation with it?

Over the past year I’ve been writing the California Field Atlas – a book to be published by Heyday Books in September of 2017. As a California native who has been exploring the backcountry his whole life, I have one frame of reference, one bucket to put all of my artistic focus into: California as an individual world. This book, on one level is a very useful tool, full of hand-painted maps that describe the Golden State as a living system of earth, air, fire and water, and on another level, is simply a book of my paintings, centered on one subject. In my book and in my life, I use the natural world of California as a metaphor for hope: being a force that has always existed, still persists, and will always do so despite the imposed human ecology with its virulent urban overlay. For me, there isn’t any bigger vision of vigilant peace and enduring resiliency – both traits I foster in my life and art.

Is the preservation of nature your art’s primary theme?

I am an avid conservationist, it’s true. I am a strong supporter of public lands across the West, and I lament the pervading, consumerist culture that seems to pervade all aspects of contemporary human life. I don’t let this deep feeling of connection to the natural world is not a source of sadness in my daily life – I am not in a constant state of mourning. Instead I use it as a well of inspiration. Humanity and Nature have a long relationship of giving and taking. Since the agricultural revolution ten thousand years ago, humanity has been in the resource extraction business. It is what we do, and it is what nature designed us to do. I will always fight those assholes that wantonly destroy the natural world for short term profit, but I am not condemning all of humanity for simply doing what it does.

The California Field Atlas is a great, important, unique project. Please tell me more about this incredible work.

Thank you. I am very excited to show it to you. It’ll be everywhere in a few months. I am very proud to be aligned with such a reputable publisher, Heyday Books, has helped me construct something of real utility that I think has the possibility to be another rung in the ladder up to a progressive understanding of nature that is beyond thinking of it as a commodity, but rather a series of layered systems that surround and support us. The book is not just about California, but about a way of looking at the natural-world in general. Not only is it an indispensable companion on the classic California road trip, it is a rigorous manual of conservation and ecology.

What is your favorite place in California’s natural world and what do you feel when you go there?

There is one painting in the California Field Atlas called “California at night.” It is a black painting of the state that is crisscrossed with lines in negative space representing the network of human light pollution that contaminates the unbroken landscape. I love those black spaces —remote and wild, alive and free in their original portfolio of biodiverse ecologies. Between the forests, the mountains, the deserts, and the Great Valley California offers never ending array of endless variety. I imagine that must be what heaven feels like: witnessing a parade of natural form so complex and variegated that it would take a thousand-thousand-thousand lifetimes to begin to scratch the surface of its understanding.

What are the lessons of Nature?

What I’ve learned is a disarming of my own obsessions and appetites and an increase in my empathetic capacity and holistic thinking. This process is best described as a practice and not a lesson. It is not derived from some didactic moment where light comes in and you get saved. There is no religion here. There is though, an antidote for all that poisonous bullshit we are fed a steady diet of: alienation, consumption, violence, rage and dark-masculinity. It’s not hard work; it just takes discipline to get out after it. To allow one’s self to enjoy nature takes a great deal of self-permission that I think most of us in our terrible rat race don’t allow ourselves. 

What animal most fascinates you?

Ok, I’m going to give you the easy answer. It is the Coyote. Our little wolf has survived and thrived despite a hundred years of an unprecedented war against it. Hundreds of thousands of coyotes are killed every year in the unrelenting war, and yet their numbers appear to be growing. There are even mated pairs of Coyotes living in New York City’s central park. It is a fascinating story of evolution and human-animal interaction that is unlike any other. This unique animal was revered in countless stories across North American indigenous populations as the Old Man who is both a creator and a trickster – a god and a devil, a clever and clumsy fool who is as wise as he is stupid. Barry Lopez collected hundreds of the stories in his classic book Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with his Daughter — Coyote makes North America. It is from this book’s title that I found the name of my website: coyoteandthunder.com and my Instagram handle @coyotethunder.

You participated in the “2nd Run Revival”, an event connected with Moto-Life, please tell me more about this experience and your relation with Two Wheels.

 I’ve known and been working with Mike Hodis of Runabout Goods, the genius behind 2nd Hand Revival, for a few years and was so thrilled at the invitation. I was offered a chance to show and sell my small paintings and to make the poster for the event. It was all a great success. My paintings of owls and redwood trees next to a line of vintage Indian motorcycles for the twenty’s and thirty’s. It was so much fun: motorcyclists love my work, because for the most part they love nature. Isn’t that part of the appeal of the bike? To be outside the damn car and be closer to the fragrant wind?

In addition to the California Field Atlas, you are launching a line of clothes with Indigofera jeans? Describe how that came about and what can we expect?

I am so thrilled at this collaboration. My buds from Stockholm’s Indigofera and I have been working together for years and this series, called “the California Hiking Series” is the result of this time. Indigofera is known for their amazing fabric sourcing, their classic style and their architectural details. I hate most outdoor wear, I need something different. We developed a capsule-line of high end clothing for the man who can go from the trail to cocktails in the city in the same day. Our inspiration is the gentleman hiker, a 19th-century naturalist-vibe; natural fabrics, well made and designed to last depite wear and fashion. The line will be coming in the Fall at the same time as the book.

I’ve never visited California; conclude this interview describing me the essence of this land.

Well it is time to come on out. California, despite its human population of over 35 million people, is full of vast tracts of intact wild land. Along its eastern border is the longest contiguous mountain range in the United States: the Sierra Nevada. The rise of these mountains 200 million years ago forged California as kind of an island from the rest of the continent. Here, plants and animals evolved into a grand array of complex biodiversity. Nothing in California ecology is simple – pull on one thread and see how the web is inexorably connected to every other spoke. My book of maps, the California Field Atlas, contains of 250 hand-painted maps, and every one of those maps could be twenty other maps. California is an endlessly deep spiral of natural beauty, a dance of such symphony that once its call is heard, can never be forgotten. Come on out, let’s go hiking.

Where can we follow your amazing art?

Again, thank you. Instagram is the best place to see my daily paintings and natural musings, along with the hashtag #trailpaintings. My website is www.coyoteandthunder.com. I work by commission and my vocation as a portrait artist and a custom wildlife painting for hire is my bread and butter. Please reach out to me at my email: [email protected].







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