Lewis Neeff: A Jack of All Trades

Lewis Neeff is a jack of all trades. He has dabbled in everything from photography, sculpture, printmaking, playwriting, music, video production and festival production just to name some things he worked on this summer. I had the opportunity to work as Lewis's studio assistant this summer. In those short few months he wrote and directed a play titled This American Life for MCA Denver, continued his Diary Library Project, designed and installed a bar station for Meow Wolf's Far Out Factory, designed and installed another bar station for the Underground Music Showcase and to top it all off he created a two day arts and music festival named Temple Tantrum.

Lewis grew up on a ranch in Wyoming where his love of art came from hanging out with his older brother and their shared love of old school hip-hop. Lewis's brother introduced him to breakdancing which led to graffiti and so on and so on. Today, Lewis is recovering from the demanding project that was the Temple Tantrum Festival, all while planning his next move. Never hugely interested in galleries, he instead opts to bring his art directly to the people often through experiences. This experiential art is what Lewis sees himself pursuing in the future. 

I was fortunate to meet up with Lewis and pick his brain. Here is our discussion as well as some resources if you want to check out some of his work:

Lewis's Performance at CPR's Open Air for Temple Tantrum 

An Art Party Like No Other - Denver Post 

100 Colorado Creatives 4.0 - Westword 

This Evergreen Woman's Diary Will Change The Way You View Portraits - Colorado Public Radio

If you were writing your own Wikipedia page, what would the first sentence be?

"Lewis Neeff is an artist, writer, musician and producer."

How did you get interested in art to begin with? I've heard you talk about your dad who was always making things.

"Yeah absolutely. It wasn't any art or anything like that that gave me a good understanding of how to scrap stuff together. Making something out of crap in the yard. He was building new wheel axles and air conditioners and stuff like that. I think what really got me into it [art], you hear this a lot in interviews: big brothers. Following around my big brother doing stuff. He was really, and still is, dedicated to old school hip-hop. We were living out on my dad's ranch in the middle of nowhere and he ordered a bunch of tapes on how to breakdance. We were learning how to do really basic stuff - bad moves too. It was really funny. From there I moved off of the ranch and into town and my brother really wanted to try and start a crew. It was called Fuck The Man Crew (FTM) and he would go around and put stickers up. I started doing a little bit of graffiti and making my own stickers. I didn't even think about it until I was in college in 2007 and I was just making stuff really habitually. I realized that I had gotten away from my home town and put myself in a new environment. I realized that I could make anything that I wanted if I put my mind to it. So, I started going out and wheat pasting and building things out of my house from cardboard and anything I could get my hands on. My friend gave me a book and said 'You're a really good artist.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He gave me a book called Art Now and it's a contemporary art book that's a collection of all of the major contemporary artists. They're wonderful books. That really opened up my world and I thought 'Oh, this is what I want to do.' It was either that or music, so I decided to pursue both."

When was the first time that you considered yourself a professional artist?

"I considered a couple times, but looking back on it now I think I can consider myself a professional artists when I was doing it full time for the first time and making good money at it. Which is when I built my photobooth the OzBox. I travelled around with the OzBox for a couple of years but right around then I didn't realize that I had stumbled upon a market by building this thing. I had made a photobooth at an evening event at the Contemporary Art Museum in Boulder out of trash which seems to be a recurring theme. I built it out of trash, hid in the back and took people's' photos. Someone had met their future husband and got photos that evening. They found me and contacted me. It wasn't easy to find me either. I was living in Wyoming at the time. It was the first opportunity I'd had in a very long time to do something creative and so I went all out. I took everything I could find as far as resources. It was pretty magical. I ended up finding a woodshop and I built this 700 pound photobooth. It's the most redneck thing ever; I was driving around this little S-10. This thing [Ozbox] is not small, so I built a plywood box on the back of my S-10 that was bigger than the bed of my truck and I would store it in there. I'd pull up to these places that were often fancy and I was driving this beater with a plywood box on the back. I'd unload it, set it up and do gigs. That was the first time that I ever considered myself a professional."

What kind of events were you going to?

"I remember one was just this woman named Trish and it was her birthday party. It was her and all of her forty something friends at her house over in the Highlands. I set it up in her bedroom. Stuff like that. I tried to keep it on the interesting side. Sometimes I would drive it outside of Nederland and play venues up there. Halloween parties, DIY venues, I did everything.

I know you've had a few gallery shows but it seems now that you aren't interested in galleries. Why is that?

"I've never been too interested in galleries. There's been a couple who have been interested in me but I don't make a lot of stuff that is able to sell in galleries. I have in the past but I get joy from event based work. Working in a gallery is slower to me. It's a little boring. Most of the time you put it up and there's a fun opening and closing but in between you're sitting at a desk hoping to god someone will walk in on accident. It's not really my style I suppose. I like building stuff that people can interact with and I like event work. I've been trying to get in with museums for a while and that's been working pretty well. It's easier to experiment in a museum. I think that galleries in general are an outdated mode to show art.

What advice would you give to artists who aren't interested in galleries but still want to get their work out into the world?

"It's easy to get your work out into the world. Just put it in the world, that's all you gotta do. Just fucking do it. Paste it to the side of a building, do it on somebody's porch, I don't know; do whatever you want. For real, just put it out there. You've got more resources to share than any other time before. Get on the internet and talk to like-minded people if that's a style you want. There's a gallery here [Denver] that's gotten a lot of traction that's very experimental and it's out of someone's garage. They draw more people than most galleries so just fucking put it out there."

When we were working together you often used the phrase punk rock to describe how you approach your artwork. What do you mean by that?

"Dirty. Use whatever you can. It's a do it yourself mentality. Go get dirty; dive into the dumpster. It doesn't have to be perfect. You don't have to make all of your lines beautiful. You don't have to make beautiful frames and any of that. Just slap it together. Not to say undedicated but make it work and make it strong. Say it loud - as loud as you can. That's punk rock."

You created an arts and music festival named Temple Tantrum. Tell us about your inspiration for the festival and where you would like to see it in the future. 

"I created the darn thing to try and bring together as many people as I could in an environment that blended all of the different practices that I enjoy. I think that at the end of the day bringing people together and being present with other people is the most powerful thing that you can do. I decided that I'm getting older and that I'm gonna die someday and that if I didn't try to close down the block to do something crazy and move towards music, I never would. I think music is the most powerful art form. It's pretty universally agreed upon. Everyone listens to music. Not everyone gives a shit about painting or anything like that but music is a way to permeate space beyond its origin and you can copy it forever. If you bring people together, especially right now when there's so much exodus from Denver with all of this financial disparity going on and a lot of art spaces shutting down; I thought it would be a good statement to take to the streets combining all of those artforms. I hope to do it again. Probably not this year. I'm gonna take this year to push my music and use everything that I've learned from my art. David Bowie started as a painter and when they interviewed him he said 'What musician didn't start as an artist?' All of the good musicians were artists first. So, I'm going to try to be David Bowie from now on. I see myself integrating visual art into music. I don't want to step away from it [visual art] entirely but I do want to take all of the things I learned and put it into a higher vibrational space."

Do you have any plans in the future for more performance based art?

"All of it from now on honestly. It seems to be where I get the most joy because I'm interacting with people right then. I have a strength for writing and it seems that performance art - things that require sets and what not - is the best way to express oneself using the whole body and mind. You're using everything at your disposal and in that way it comes across when you're doing something like that. You can tell when someone is speaking from their mind or when someone is speaking from their entire being. You can just feel it. Even if it doesn't make sense sometimes. Performance art requires that you do it from your entire being. I got an offer to make my own show for PBS. They were interested in sets and stuff like that. Once you sit down and write an entire show or play and find the actors and shoot it, it's a lot. If you can arrange those things to be done and then put your entire self in it then you're also creating a sense of community with people who enjoy doing the same thing. In the future I don't see myself doing that level of work again outside of conceptualizing and executing. I don't want to build the whole set and light it."

It seems like you're getting more into the media world.

"Yeah a little bit. Maybe, I haven't yet. I don't know if I want to be a media person but I do want to reach a lot of people. The art world is incredibly small at the end of the day. I realized with Temple Tantrum that I'm not trying to reach just other artists. While it's to have a community and try to bring that community together, I think it can also be very alienating. I'd like to bring in everybody if possible."

Is there anything you have planned that you want people to know about?

"Yeah, I'll be releasing an album or mixtape at least and hopefully some more writing. We'll see. I've been laying low for so long that I've kind of put all of my opportunities on the back burner. Maybe even a TV show. I think Temple Tantrum was a transition from one world to another for me."


Popular Posts