Iconic graffiti artist back in town to connect with & inspire local artists
After a busy year on the international urban art scene, Brussels-based New York graffiti artist Kool Koor is back in Fort Wayne to continue interacting with local artists through the BIPOCA Incubator and Art Gallery.
Internationally recognized as one of the most influential and pivotal urban artists of the original NYC urban scene, Kool Koor, the creative pseudonym of South Bronx native, Charles Hargrove, is proud to be known as a first-generation graffiti artist of the late ‘70’s along with A-One and Toxic.
He thrives on reinventing himself while moving forward in his work and continues to combine his love for the craft with the satisfaction he derives from teaching it.
Alongside gallery director Clydia Early, Kool Koor discussed the importance of the art form and what such an opportunity means to all artists.
Developing a Studio Practice with International Artist Kool Koor
BIPOCA's Pop-up Artists Workshop @ Wunderkammer Company, Fort Wayne
Saturday, October 14th, 2023
4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Find event information, connect with the artist and learn more about BIPOCA Incubator and Art Gallery at its Facebook page.
Below is a transcript of our conversation:
Julia Meek: Kool Koor, Clydia Early, welcome.
Clydia Early: Hello, and thank you.
Kool Koor: Thank you.
Julia Meek: Now it was literally one year ago, Clydia, that you and I sat right here and discussed your visit and christening of the BIPOCA Incubator and Gallery's First Friday Meet the Artists event with Kool Koor.
Clydia Early: Mmmhhhmm.
Julia Meek: Okay, Kool Koor, what in the public art world have you been up to since then?
Kool Koor: Well since then, I have been working in the studio in Detroit, as well as in New York, as well as in Italy. (all chuckle) And also in Tanzania, preparing for activities during the course of the year.
So last year, I'll go chronologically backwards: I just closed a major solo exhibition in New York City at the Shin Gallery on the Lower East Side, which showcased my work on paper from 1977 to 1989, and works on canvas from 1982 to 1991.
And representing 2023, I showcased 50 handmade boom boxes that are customized, and designer bags made from repurposed basketballs from iconic basketball teams in New York and design chairs, designer chairs made of wood and plexiglass.
Going backwards from there I was in Tanzania where I realized, a rather huge mural and worked with some local talent there helping them to fine tune their activities and a solo exhibition in Verona, Italy, where I worked for the first time on plexiglass in the sense of having floating plexiglass pieces and a totally immersive black light room as well in that exhibition.
And before that, and in between, some murals in Belgium, some murals again in Tanzania.
Julia Meek: Well, if variety be the spice of life, as they tell us you have had one feast of artcentricity it sounds like. Are you happy?
Kool Koor: I'm always...happy is a word that I don't usually use. It's hard to place the word happy into an emotion or into a state of mind. I like to say that I feel blessed. I feel humbled and honored in many ways. I just am happy to be here.
Julia Meek: Now, before we hear what all you and Kool Koor are up to this visit, Clydia, please remind us of BIPOCA's mission?
Clydia Early: BIPOCA's mission is to uplift and promote BIPOC artists and creators whose work has historically been unseen, excluded and or exploited and give them opportunities.
Julia Meek: Okay, what kind of an impression or dent in that cause does Kool Koor and what he stands for make to your mission?
Clydia Early: Kool Koor is a BIPOC artist that has uplifted and promoted himself to a level where he has grown and shown and he can show other artists what I am trying to help and teach them, because he can teach them better than I can.
He's done it already. And it's just an example for them to see and get opportunity.
Julia Meek: Now, Kool Koor, you and your graffiti are iconic world round, would you walk us through how you did get to where you are?
Kool Koor: Well, I believe I can say that I got where I am today, because of very solid support structures that I've come in contact with during my life.
It started at home with my mother and my sisters who are artists, my first collector becoming my first art dealer, being exposed to the classical art world and being a part of the graffiti art movement, which was very revolutionary and very inspiring for the young people in the inner city of New York during the late 70s into the early 80s, which made it possible for me to understand that in order to move forward, you have to be an individual, you have to persevere.
And more importantly, you have to get along with people. You can't just do it and yell and jump and scream. And people say, "oh, he's an artist," and that's an excuse. No, you have to be, you have to be humble and give credit where credit is due.
We all are a product of people who we've come in contact with. So I like to remind people that what I'm doing is basically amassing a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience. I'm listening to people when they talk and when I achieve things I give thanks, and I say their names. And I let people know that when you move forward, you have to do the same thing.
It was a long road, I learned a lot. I had to jump into unknown waters and learn how to swim. I had to learn how to talk foreign languages, and comprehend and a lot of it, again goes back to my upbringing, being the only boy in the house of a lot of women and I'm the youngest. (chuckles) You have to learn how to use your ears because if you don't, you will not survive.
Julia Meek: (chuckles) Sounds like you were a good learner. And this all ends up making you a fantastic teacher-mentor as well as an artist. What do you get from this part of the journey you don't get from making art.
Kool Koor: I always questioned my artistic direction. I always like to reinvent myself and move forward in my art and not repeat myself. However, when I'm sharing what I've acquired in terms of techniques and navigation skills for this path, that was always easy for me, because I like to talk, I've been using my voice on many platforms for a long time.
I'm comfortable speaking with people, and when I can share knowledge it's something that I can do without even thinking twice about it. One thing that is very fulfilling for me is seeing that if I am true to the people who are in front of me and break the illusions that they have of this fantastic marvelous facade, which is called the art world, because when you look at it, it seems very easy.
It seems like oh, yeah, you just throw some paint on the canvas, and people buy it, and you're living happily. No, it's like, imagine a chess board with 85 levels. This is the art world. And it's the same for every sector.
If you're in music, if you're in theater, if you're in banking, if you're in hedge funding, if you're in steel manufacturing, regardless of what it is, there are levels to how you move forward. And when I share my life experiences with young people, and let them understand that you have to not hold anyone else responsible for the things that happen to you, you have to hold yourself responsible.
And you have to thrust yourself forward and accept what's going to come because there are no mistakes. There's only experiences and there are no problems, there are only solutions; when things happen they happen because they're supposed to happen. And if you are on your path, everything moves out of the way to make it possible for you to do what you have to do.
That is the magic of the journey and I like to say that the journey is the reward, not the destination.
Julia Meek: How does it make you feel to be able to put the knowledge forward?
Kool Koor: It makes me feel good, because I trust in myself that I'm not going to betray them by giving them false information. So those that are receptive will get something and if I have 10 people in front of me and one person gets it, I know that that's a good day, because that one person is definitely going to touch someone else. And that's what it's really all about.
Julia Meek: It's powerful. Indeed. Now, Clydia, you get the young artists speaking out through their work that otherwise don't have a voice. What do you see happen when Kool Koor's with a roomful of young folks? Visible magic?
Clydia Early: Yes, I do. And you know what, last night was a great example, when he spoke at the University of St. Francis auditorium. And there were many students and people there, I looked around the room, I was even videoing, how the young people were in going along with him and listening to him and hearing what he was saying.
They were laughing where he was laughing. I was laughing. I was like they're involved. He was able to pull them in. And even one of the questions was one of the young ladies said, "my brother, and I follow you. He just called me, he's out of the country. And he has a question. And she asked the question.
And so I knew it. I saw it. They're involved. And I felt it too. I thought it was really good, I saw that firsthand.
Julia Meek: Now I'm curious, Kool Koor, how spontaneous are your pieces? Once you're on a site, whether it's a wall or a canvas, how does the thought move from your brain and heart to the surface?
Kool Koor: Well, I'm a very cerebral person, I'm thinking about what I'm going to do for a long time. When I say think about what I'm gonna do, I know that I'm gonna paint a wall, I know that the wall is x by x feet wide, I know that my palette of color is ABCD, I know that I have a finite period of time to accomplish this mission.
So I'm thinking about that; I'm not thinking about what I'm going to do, I'm just thinking about the logistics, because of logistics, for me is the most important part of the project because you have to prepare properly. When you prepare properly, the creative part is easy. So if you have the tools that you need, when you need them, you grab it, you have it.
When I get to the site, I like to just empty my mind and look at the surface. And I think about a movement, be it left, be it right, diagonal, and I make that first line. After that first line, I see where the second line is going to go. And then the third and then before I know it, it's like a meditative trance that you go into, and everything starts to sort of fade away.
And the only thing that's there is you and your materials and the surface. When you can get into that zone time doesn't exist in the sense that you're not thirsty, you're not thinking about food, the only thing you're thinking about is not stopping this good feeling.
And I just let it go. I let the painting evolve organically. And you know when it's time to stop because there's a communication going on. It's a dialogue between you and the artwork. And when the artwork says okay, stop, it's like, you put up your hands and stop cooking.
Julia Meek: And then does that have another kind of feeling good because it's done?
Kool Koor: Well, you know, when you're on a bi-rhythmic high, because when you stop you say yes. And when it's a bi-rhythmic low, you say yes, but... (chuckles) I can't say that everything I paint is a, is a high. But usually when you look at it, there's something special about those works.
Julia Meek: Okay, Clydia, Kool Koor just headlined University of St. Francis' Closer Look lecture series. So what can folks be looking for in these final few days of Kool Koor in Fort Wayne,
Clydia Early: These final few days of Kool Koor in Fort Wayne, they can be looking for a pop-up on Thursday. I don't know if people have pop-up lectures but we're going to have a pop-up workshop for artists while Kool Koor's here, all artists because every artist didn't get to come and see him.
And we want to bring him into the community so that they get an opportunity, and not a cost. He's going to talk about studio process, just how he works. Also, he's going to be visiting some places, he is going to stop through at the Fort Wayne Community Foundation, because they were an essential part of him coming here. So we appreciate them and want to show them some love and check them out.
Hopefully, we'll be able to stop at a couple of youth centers. And we're going to go by the African African American Historical Museum and check that out, because I want him to see some local things happening.
Also, we're going to go in through Electric Works, see what's going on there, possibly plant some seeds and get some things happening that you know, we can turn around here in the city with not only Kool Koor, but with Kool Koor working with local artists.
Julia Meek: Sounds like you have a full schedule, fun schedule, an artcentric schedule, of course. (chuckles) Now regarding missions and causes and statements, what drives your personal program, Kool Koor?
Kool Koor: I come from a modest humble background where PALs, Boys Clubs, local initiatives were in place to help inner city kids have activities after school and also in the summertime. These platforms brought people together from different communities and made it possible to do and see things that you don't normally do and see.
Again, I came from a sort of artistic background. So we went to museums, (chuckles) you know, things like that. But when I see the children in the inner cities and rural areas internationally, I see the same kids--they're the same people. So how beautiful is it to be able to do the same thing that I received, and at the same time sharing my life experience?
For me, it's more fulfilling, I get more fulfillment doing workshops and lectures with young people and older people, helping them to move forward. My thing is helping people to unlock their hidden or inner potential to be self-sufficient, and whatever it is that they like to do in life. And that gives me more pleasure than hanging a painting in a gallery or a museum.
Julia Meek: It's wonderful to hear you say that. Now, is it easier or more difficult to make an impression now with your artwork compared to the 80s? Not just you personally, but the whole world of graffiti, then versus now?
Kool Koor: Well, oddly, some things have never changed. (all laugh) And yeah, there's nothing new under the sun either. What makes it easy is often when you're invited somewhere, people have already been privy to why you're coming. So they already know that you're here.
They know what you do, and they had a chance to Google you or look you up. So it's not exactly the same. In the past, I was, you know, 21-22 years old in a town that I don't even speak the language, maybe one or two people from the gallery or the museum speak English. And you're there for a month.
What is graffiti? When you're in Europe, it was Europe at that time, it was seen as art because it came from America as an art form. There was no vandalism aspect to it. Today, 50 years later, we're still having the same conversation: is graffiti vandalism? I brought that up yesterday in the lecture asking people to raise your hand if you've seen a wall with a lot of graffiti on it, with a lot of handwriting on it. And almost everyone raised their hand.
And I said, now how many of you have looked at that wall and saw something that was elegant that jumped out of the wall? And almost everyone raised their hand. And I said okay, this is where you can begin to have this conversation: what is vandalism and what is art? Because some people are looking at what they're doing from an artistic standpoint, not an "evandalistic" standpoint.
So it's a lot easier today for me to present art for art's sake, because there's so much history saying that what I'm doing is art.
Julia Meek: And deep down in your heart and spirit then, what makes the medium of graffiti so perfect?
Kool Koor: I would have to say the fact that it's not easy to master and there aren't any Masters. I know some Wizards (all laugh) that can take a can of spray paint, and you would swear that it's a photograph. But when we talk about graffiti, we're talking about aerosol spray painting.
Street art, some street artists use spray paint, others use paint brushes. What makes it as amazing as it is, is that it's very fast. You know, if you're painting like in the Renaissance times with brushes and oils, it would take you a year to do what some artists can do in a few hours.
Julia Meek: So it's the immediacy, the reality of it?
Kool Koor: Mmmhhhmmm.
Julia Meek: And going back to the young artists that you do influence, and they're out there doing the same thing, is it easy to get them--to understand them? And, and even more, is it possible to teach advocacy, to teach that "want" to have that spirit?
Kool Koor: Well, one thing that I try to make my golden rule: only come if you're ready to listen, because my job is not to be a guardian, or someone who's just going to be policing a group of people who are there, because they have to be there. So if you come into any of my workshops, you come here because you want to be there. And then we can start to have this conversation.
And usually, when I have this type of people, I'm going to have more than one person who's paying attention. And a lot of people understand that it's not easy to have access to information. So once you have the opportunity to have access to it, pull out your pen, pull out your recorders, and absorb as much as possible.
Julia Meek: And if you could add any one thing to your makeup, Kool Koor, today, like magic, like the magic we're talking about--a new medium, a new platform, new audience, sky's the limit, what would it be?
Kool Koor: I would say, to be able to travel inter-dimensionally (all laugh) and create art in a multiverse, that would be my ultimate, and I would say sort of down that same line to dive deeper into my virtual creations. I have some projects that I'm working on, and they'll be unveiled in due time.
Julia Meek: So this is the present, and we're looking slightly into the future of the present, and good for you. Meanwhile, you both work crazy, hard-headed hard for your righteous causes and for the good of the world, and especially our young people, and you don't have to do this work. So last question, at the end of any day, seriously, what does all of this do for you?
Clydia Early: Hmmm. At the end of the day, what all of this does, it just shows that we have community and that there are people out there, I don't know what it is, is something about me that feels like I can give opportunities and help myself and help this community in artistic ways, BIPOC artists.
So at the end of the day, it feels good when one artist can talk for themselves and are able to show their work and able to sell something, because everybody can do programming, programming and all that stuff is cool. But when I put something together and I make it and I'm the artist and I sell it, it feels good.
Julia Meek: Kool Koor?
Kool Koor: At the end of the day, what it does for me is further convinces me that art is therapy. You know, it's therapeutic, when you are able to have a transmission of an emotion that can soothe someone, that can help someone to reflect on life, to help someone to maybe find answers through a piece of art.
This is what art is about. You see it often in movies, someone's staring in front of a master painting or in front of a sculpture. They're being moved. And when you can transmit to young people the passion for transmitting your message to the world, and at the same time uplifting people around you? It doesn't get better than that.
Julia Meek: Kool Koor is an internationally acclaimed graffiti artist from the Bronx and Clydia Early,co-founder of BIPOCA Incubator and Gallery. Thank you for sharing your stories and your artcentricity, both of you. Safe travels and do carry the gift.
Kool Koor: Thank you so much.
Clydia Early: Thank you, thanks Julia.