Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Storyteller Slash Coleman

Washington, DC

The Neon Man and Me from Shanika Smiley on Vimeo.

If there was such a thing as a thoroughbred artist, Slash Coleman would fit the bill. His grandfather was a dancer at Moulin Rouge, his grandmother was a watercolorist, and his father was a sculptor. This genealogical creativity has fueled the many artistic incarnations of the Richmond-based Coleman, who worked as a jazz pianist and a visual artist before finding his calling as a professional storyteller. He first gained national recognition with his stage show and PBS special The Neon Man and Me, which he created as a tribute to his best friend after his death. He is currently touring with his latest show, The Next American Gladiator, and is working on several books as well as a new PBS special based on the storytelling phenomenon. Coleman made time to talk with us while on the road, and spoke about his eccentric upbringing, his work with art therapy, and why it’s important to dream big.

NEA: What is your version of the artist’s life?

SLASH COLEMAN: I think it’s about the ability to speak a truth and present it in front of an audience, irrelevant of what kind of monetary support an artist may have, or even social support from their network. [It’s] this need to express what they need to express in an uncensored way…It’s about really consistently producing work despite life, because life just keeps on happening, and it goes up and down.

One of the stories I’m telling at a performance this week is about that time in 1941 where Germany passed this law that forbid any Jew from participating in the arts. And I remember seeing a picture of my grandfather…with Django Reinhardt and Marcel Marceau, the famous French mime. He was in this creative epicenter of the world, kind of like L.A. or New York on steroids…I only knew him as this quiet guy who never talked…It was almost like that time period had killed his spirit. I feel in some way that that is alive in me---that need to create at all costs and express myself. I feel in some way that that kind of spirit that was once alive in my grandfather and then disappeared, he passed along to me.

 

NEA: Can you tell me about your creative process?

COLEMAN: I split my time between written projects---I’ve got some books coming out later this year---and then my performance stuff. I really crave the alone time that typifies most artists’ lives, where you lock yourself away and you’re not social and you create your stuff. But I really crave that social time too, which a lot of artists don’t. I love being in front of people. So I get the best of both worlds. During the winter months, I’ll hole up and create this new work, and the rest of the year I’ll go on tour and perform and present it to the world. One of my favorite writers is Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote Fight Club. He says that so much of your time as a writer is spent alone, and you feel so isolated from the world. Then, if your book is successful, you get to go on this book tour…and it’s just people everywhere. And then you just can’t stand being around people anymore. Then you get to go back and create more work. It kind of goes through this cycle. I feel like a lot of artists like that---the alone part, and then the social part. I think because I was groomed from such an early age to live the artist’s life that I really enjoy this lifestyle that I have. I have no qualms about it.

 

NEA: What do mean when you say you were groomed from an early age?

COLEMAN: My father’s a sculptor, so he would bring me to his art studio when I was a baby. My babysitters were other sculptors and visual artists, painters and poets. I can remember early on being stocked with an unlimited supply of sketchbooks and art supplies. My playground every day was his studio. The smells of gesso and oil paint and polyester resin bring back memories of being in my father’s studio. He taught me that breathing creativity was one of the things you did. You get up, you eat, you go into the studio, and you just start creating.

For me though, it was a little tough because I knew that I wanted to have my own medium separate from my dad. It was kind of a rebellious thing. My grandfather was a dancer and he also played violin; my grandmother was watercolors; my father was a sculptor. And so I wanted a medium for my own…Early on I chose music because no one in my family seemed to have that medium. Then I chose writing, because no one in my family had that medium. Those were a way of “This is what I do, this is my thing. You guys have your own thing.”

NEA: Do you see any overlap between what you’ve done with painting and music and your storytelling?

COLEMAN: Yes. I think all along as an artist I was trying to create the most honest truth I could to help people see me, and for me to feel as connected as I could to people and the world around me. With a piano, you push on the keys and people are out in the audience---they don’t really talk to you, though they can interpret what’s going on. With a painting, there’s a distance between me and the medium. It goes on a wall and I never see the people who look at that. I never get to talk to them. With storytelling, it’s just me onstage, speaking directly to an audience. Afterward, [it’s about] engaging with the audience and talking with them about the piece and getting to hear their side of the story. To me, it seems like there’s no distance between me and my artistic audience like there is with a canvas or even a music note. It’s what I’d been searching for all along. In the early days of my performance, it was still really scripted. Now it’s less scripted, [so] it’s even more honest. It’s almost like this conversation I’m having with my audience. There’s less and less of the medium of art getting in my way.

NEA: What do you hope an audience comes away with?

COLEMAN: I don’t think I chose the message that my audience gets. I think they’ve chosen it for me. A lot of people feel inspired in some way to go out and start creating work on their own…I hear that from a lot of my audience members. [It’s] around this message of, “You’ve inspired me by your process and [by] sharing it with us to begin creating.” So I think that’s one part of the mission.

The second part is [that] when I started touring with The Neon Man…people after the show were going home and calling their kids or their best friends and saying “I love you” and “I appreciate you.” People would line up after every show for many of those years and just give me hugs. And so I think…that I’m presenting some kind of message that inspires people to feel closer to one another. Like I said, my desire to create art is to try and feel close and connected with other people, because I often times don’t feel that.

NEA: Partially with NEA funding, you created a school program called "Healing Communities: Helping Students Come to Terms with Tragedy, Loss, and Violence." Can you talk about the way in which you think art is capable of promoting healing?

COLEMAN: The artistic world tends to be very emotion-based, and there’s a lot of drama. Even though it was ideal to grow up in my family, there was also a lot of drama. Artists are good at creating beautiful art, but not so good at paying the bills and bringing in money. My dad is one of those dark artists. As an alcoholic, he always went to that dark place in his art. So it was a scary, kind of violent place to grow up in. So I come in [to schools] as an artist and share this experience of “Yeah, I saw some bad stuff growing up.” I don’t think they’re used to adults sharing how they’ve seen this bad stuff.

In terms of healing, there are two approaches. One is to reflect on what’s gone on so you can express it and get it out. [The other is] to almost use art as a prayer, where you create the world that you want to live in. That’s the magic of art I think. [It’s] a reflective medium, but also this medium that you use to escape to a better place. I’ve used my art in both of those ways. To me, it’s like a prayer or a magic spell where that can happen.

So what I do is I go in and provide a safe space for kids to explore… I just did a residency at a high school in February and March---this was in the inner-city---and nearly 50 percent of those kids had either seen someone shot or had a family member shot. The rest had gone through stuff just as intense…Providing them with a safe space to process these heavy things in a very uncensored way---meaning no one’s going to judge them for what they’ve gone through---and then taking them through the artistic process and treating it as work helps them heal in some way. For instance, for the kid talking about getting shot, we’re going to critique that. But we’re going to critique it as his artistic work, and we’re going to talk about him as a character. I feel like when the kid sees that happening, it helps create some distance between him and the event, and it helps him process it. I think it leads to healing, which I think it what all artwork kind of does.

NEA: In an interview, you explained the success of The Neon Man and Me by saying “through failures, I learned what to do right.” You talked about some unsuccessful businesses, and you seem to have been actively discouraged by family members at various points in your career. So how did you find the motivation to keep moving forward with art?

COLEMAN: I was living in Portland, Oregon and I was working at Noah’s Bagels. I had this freakout moment in the middle of the night, and I was like, “I can’t do this anymore. I’ve got to go for my art.” I made a pact with myself that night that I was never going to work a 40-hour week again. God’s given me this gift---I’ve got to use it…

With Neon Man, I wrote down early on---I have a goal sheet that I keep on my wall---that I want to take the Neon Man on Broadway in 2007. I remember I told my dad, and he was like, “On Broadway? You’ve never even taken a theater class---how are you going to do that?” and laughed at me. The next year, an Off-Broadway theater called. At that point, I [decided] I’m never going to let my family’s judgments influence my dreams and my goals because they’re mine. If I want to dream big, then I’m going to do that. I’d been wary to share those kinds of things with my family, but that helped me…to be unapologetic about my dreams.

 

NEA: You spend a lot of time giving free marketing and business advice to artists. What do you think is the most important piece of advice you can pass on?

 

COLEMAN: Well for one, a debt can sometimes be an asset. Artists are sometimes like, “I can’t afford to take that workshop. It’s going to put me in debt,” not realizing that if they spend $100 on this workshop…they can possibly make $1,000…So that’s one thing: how important assets are to have because they not only help us continue our livelihood as artists, but they get our expressions out to the world.

The other thing is that all roads lead to Rome. I don’t think that anyone’s way is the right way…I found that almost all my business prowess has come from seeing how poverty-driven my family was and of doing the opposite of how I was raised…It was almost like my family put me through graduate business school just by growing up with them. So there are many techniques and many right ways in marketing to get you to where you want to go.

 

NEA: What do you think is the artist’s responsibility toward the community?

COLEMAN: I’m not sure. I think it depends on how public the artist feels they are…I look at storytelling, and there are about 40 or 50 of us who are on the national circuit. We’re in the public’s eye a lot. But there are some storytellers who are happy just meeting in people’s houses once a month and telling stories. I think when you flip over to the more professional artists, it comes with a different set of responsibilities.

I do know that money influences how an artist feels [about] their responsibility to the world. I’ve gotten grants, and the grants say, “You can say this and do this, but you can’t do this.” For a lot of artists, responsibility comes with funding and what they’re trying to get out of their career. I perform in Jonesborough at the National Storytelling Festival, and it’s even more than G-rated---it’s squeaky clean. Yet as an artist, I have other things I want to express that aren’t G-rated, and so what do I do with that energy, and where does my responsibility lie?…I think it really takes an artist who’s been working at their craft for a while and has a body of work to know where their responsibility is.

NEA: Conversely, what is the community’s responsibility to the artist?

COLEMAN: In terms of the community’s responsibly, I’m not sure they necessarily have a responsibility to support art…I think [art] appreciation is created by actually creating artwork itself…I think because not as many people are doing art, they don’t have that relationship to come and support the arts. I feel like someone besides the artist needs to be the keeper of that flame and make sure that there are places where people can continue to do art because if not, all that support on the other end as people grow into adulthood disappears.

But my other side of that is I feel like things happen for a reason and they happen along their natural course. It’s only through a great restriction that great passion is created…So if we’re coming to a crux where arts are being crushed and disappearing, I’m all for it. Crush it down, let’s have it disappear. I’m a big surfer. If you stay on the ocean long enough, waves are going to come in. So if [art] gets crushed down, it’s not disappearing forever. I feel like it will encourage this big renaissance and enhancement of art. It’s kind of like the gas problem. Until gas prices reach $20 a gallon, no one’s really going to do anything differently. So let’s not dilly-dally around with the arts. Let’s go ahead and crush it if that’s where it’s going because it will give people a reason to fight for it that they just don’t have right now.

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