October 29–November 4, 2022
Cube Gallery, Western Kentucky University
Bowling Green, KY
Interview with Ethan Justice
By Maya Dobelstein
Going up the slow elevator to the fourth floor of the Ivan Wilson Fine Arts Center at Western Kentucky University (WKU), exiting the elevator, and heading into what the Department of Art & Design calls the Cube Gallery, Picture Day is shown on the walls of the installation. The first detail that shines above the rest is the frames with what could only be blood pouring from its portrait. There is a patch of turf grass in the middle of the room with a projector that plays a video on loop with eerie, yet fun, childlike music playing. Brains and suns scatter the walls, while the frames rigidly hold their character still for their glamour shots.
Q: Can we start out by introducing yourself?
A: Hi, my name is Ethan, Ethan Justice. I am an artist. I like to work in mixed media. Screen printing is my favorite medium for sure. I tend to always rely on that as a base and see what other mediums I can use with it and how it will react to other mediums. Printmaking is great for the message behind my work, the repetitive nature of it is. I like for everything to have purpose. I’m from Muhlenberg County, KY. It’s a very rural, conservative country town (laughter). Bowling Green to me is *the* city, the New York compared to where I’m from. It’s so much more evolved and welcoming. It’s the one place where I go to where I don’t feel like a freak or an outcast. Here, it’s like being unique is encouraged and normal almost. I’m very lucky to be able to surround myself with creative, wonderful people and professors.
Q: Getting into your project, what were your steps leading up to that?
A: So, I love installation art and creating an immersive experience to the best of my ability for my audience. I’d say it began with the prints for sure. Each print was inspired by a book I made when I was young. I wanted to rework parts of it into my contemporary style of art. Art has always been very personal for me. I remember making that book when I was a kid, and I hid it away from my parents and teachers. It was filled with drawings of the little humanoid creatures that are in the gallery. They’re just these abstract monsters I encountered throughout life. Whenever I feel stuck as an artist, I always revisit work that I made prior to art school, before I knew guidelines and processes, it’s just like the innocent mind of putting pencil to paper and seeing what happens.
Q: Did you have any experiences with a specific picture day that inspired this point of view?
A: I’ve always had a very personal interest in how I present myself physically. I feel like that can say a lot about a person. Granted, I’m aware that it’s a huge privilege to be able to decide what to wear and I’m grateful to be able to wear the clothes that I wear. I’ve always hated picture day so much. It was so uniform. I’ve been to a private catholic school before, which was very different from the public elementary school I went to. It was just this man you never met yelling, “Alright, next!” and you sit down, look at the camera, tilt your head, and then a bright flash. I was always so uncomfortable — it was like sensory overload. I was more interested in seeing other people. It was a very personal thing for other kids. Everyone has that level of empathy, if you just stop and look around at facial features, I can tell that that girl isn’t happy with what she’s wearing when she’s looking at this girl, or that this boy definitely wants to be wearing something more feminine, but it’s the way that we’re socialized — and privilege, of course, comes into that a lot. It just seemed like there were a lot of toxic standards for beauty that some people including myself weren’t able to be a part of or participate in.
My pieces are giving an emotion a name. It’s like people watching.
Q: Tell us about some of the other prints in the installation.
A: There are prints of a house drawn in a very childlike way. I was looking through my art from elementary school, and I noticed that myself and others’ art from adolescence, we would always label things. I don’t know why, but if it was like “draw a picture of your family,” it would be like “mom, sister” or “my home” so I wanted to include something like that. If you look closely at the prints, you can tell the house was on fire on the inside, and some I wanted to look like the house was flooding. That draws back to the idea of trying to understand the mask or the façade that kids are still depressed despite the brand of clothes their wearing, despite how their complexion looks. You know, I didn’t have the ideal ‘growing up,’ I mean, who has? We’ve all faced some challenges.
Q: What was the meaning behind the smallest creatures within the installation?
A: Some smaller prints were randomly on the walls in the gallery. They were these little sunshine creatures. There are a set of blue ones and a set of yellow ones. They kind of play throughout the art, almost like a Lizzie McGuire, how she had the animated version of herself. It’s almost like a sidekick to the characters or to the world I want to create. The playdough forms are just the three-dimensional version of those prints.
Q: And were those the same creatures in the video?
A: Yes, so the video was something very experimental. Well, this whole project, even the printing process, was very experimental for me. In the video, I attached circuits to the playdough, and one was attached to my wrist, and those were connected to a soundboard, so I was using the natural electric currents from my body as a ground powering the soundboard. Whenever I tapped, touched, or interacted with the playdough, it would spark a beat, or change the pitch of the melody. Each playdough form does something different. Then slowly throughout the video, a bloodlike substance begins to leak from my chest. Throughout the video, I anxiously try to keep up with the beat, melody, and vocals, while paying little to no attention to the wound itself. I fear that people, myself included, we don’t value our bodies as much as we do with work. It’s like, don’t die trying. Value your body and it’s okay if you need to slow down. Don’t work yourself to death, I suppose. I feel as if we all have this ultimate demise, so I wanted to show mine. It’s a child simply trying to play with playdough, and they’re dying, but they won’t let themselves stop because then the music would stop and then the video would have to stop.
Q: What urged you to do a performance video? Which came first?
A: The prints were made first. I’ve always been interested in performance art. I deal with derealization and depersonalization a lot and often when I’m making art or when I’m inspired, it’s because I’m not doing so well or I’m triggered or something. I feel like if I’m seeing my body as an object, then I want to use it as something to create as opposed to something to destroy. It’s kind of like if I’m seeing my body as not mine or if I feel out of my body, I want to create with it instead of harming it or neglecting it. There are some digital prints, there are realistic brains printed in various places. I want those to be realistic to show the strict division between your emotions and reality if you’re thinking from your heart rather than your brain.
Q: When you were creating all these pieces, how did it feel reverting back to the childlike nature of scribbles and coloring outside of the lines?
A: It was very fun. I’m typically a perfectionist, but with these in particular, inspired by picture day where you want to present yourself in the most perfect way you can, I wanted to reject that idea and henceforth I rejected traditional printmaking techniques such as printing the registration marks, messy stencils, and choosing editions to put in the show that had notable printing errors, resulting in what’s considered a flawed print. I was facing the fear of “what if your picture is bad,” or “what would happen if you showed the public your bad side.” I kind of took that childlike mindset approach to printing because I’ve never done all hand drawn stencils or worked in this style with these colors. I also used flocking fiber as well as glow in the dark ink. It was very difficult to do, because the process of flocking is hazardous to your lungs. It’s not hazardous now, but I was dragging the printing board down to the outside, flocking in the wind, fighting off wasps. It was something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s like a little easter egg in the prints. The flocking fibers gave the prints this velvet-esque texture and the glow in the dark gave a reminiscent childlike poster, like a Lisa Frank perhaps. It was very experimental and honestly fun to mess around. If it turned out bad, I was purposely trying to make it look like a toddler made them. I was never striving for perfection with these. It’s funny; people like these because they’re so childlike. I’m going for a Bachelor of Arts degree, and this is what I make? But then I was thinking about form and stuff. It’s still the same process, still the same effort if it was something that’s traditionally attractive.
Q: What was the purpose behind the beads and the found objects on the frames of the prints?
A: One of the main things that I’ve learned from incredible artists is to never distract from your work. If you’re going to frame something, go with a neutral tone or something. But I was like ‘no, I want to make the frame a part of the art.’ They’re all painted with multiple layers of spray paint and glitter and beads. Collectively, each print tells a poem with the beads adhered to the frames. I wanted to break the fourth wall and not have the sterile gallery feel. I wanted the worlds to collide. I wanted people to be able to touch it. There was no barrier, no glass, and all the creatures were bleeding out onto the floor. The blood was an ongoing theme with this show, inspired by the overall anxiety and fear when you really get in your head. It shows how precious life is, even in the moments when you think you don’t look your best, well what if that was taken away from you? I love memories, and if I could go back in time, even in the worst of times, there are still things that I love and miss so much, but I was too anxious about the future to even notice what was happening at that time.
Q: Were there specific decisions made around the sheet with the stitching?
A: Yes. When I made the video, I knew I wanted to have it on a projector so it can play like the fun day in elementary school when the teacher rolled out the box TV on the cart. It could’ve just been on the wall, but I wanted to give it an improvised look. And there’s the two little stick figures and they’re reaching for each other’s hands but it’s so close but not really. I feel like every aspect has its own meaning. I tried for a cohesive, coherent show, but each detail has its own purpose. They’re two little boys reaching for each other. I’m gay. Growing up gay, especially in the rural area was very scary. Not ideal. So, it’s a childlike innocence, there’s nothing wrong here, we just want to be friends, we want to be close to each other, but we can’t, so we’re stuck, we’re stitched in time, sewn down apart, but we don’t want to be. That also goes along with the two prints that said, “As we’re all getting older, I think it’d be fun if we tried loving each other,” and not just in a romantic aspect, but everyone. Why do we have to be so mean sometimes? Myself included, what would happen if we all could be a little nicer. I don’t want to disregard people’s emotions, I don’t want to sound like ‘don’t be sad, just smile,’ but what would happen if we loved each other? I never aim for my work to attain beauty. I just want it to be what it is. So, if people find it funny, that’s great, if they find it sad, I’m sorry, but great! Thank you for feeling any emotion whatsoever if you felt emotion. If not, that’s cool too, that counts!
This body of work compiled of mixed-media screen prints, found objects, and performance art explores common fears related to growing up and the apprehension of what’s to come. I was inspired by picture day in grade school, in particular the societal expectations and toxic beauty standards we are exposed to at such a young age. From personal observation, on picture day, some students may play a bashful role if they’re uncapable of dressing in a certain fashion or don’t meet said toxic standards; juxtaposed with those who appear to have the privilege to present themselves in a traditional, proper image. I intentionally designed each portrait to be unsettling. My work isn’t always supposed to provoke emotions of joy or attain beauty. When discussing topics that discomfort me, I aim to provoke similar emotions with my audience. This led me to decide to purposefully reject traditional printmaking techniques required to make what’s often considered a successful print; printing registration marks, messy, overlapping stencils, and displaying editions that have notable printing errors, ultimately resulting with a flawed print. In hopes to provoke emotions of nostalgia, I experimented with flocking fibers, which gives each print a velvety texture, and light reactive ink to mimic posters from the early 2000’s. I wanted to simply have fun, and see what would happen.
In the performance video, I attach circuits to play-doh models connected to a sound board, creating instruments to manipulate beats and vocals using my body as a ground for the electric currents. As the video progresses, a blood-like substance begins to fall from my chest while I anxiously continue to keep up with the melody and pay little attention to the wound. I used this to express how I fear we often forget to value our bodies, forcing all of our attention on our work and physical appearance, and refuse to hold our well-being to the same level of importance; as if we only see our body as an object to serve.