And nor is being a good host. There are enough examples of lame interviewing personalities in the world of television, that at this point virtually any couch potato has enough where withal to know that these people make and break shows. It's not enough for these professionals to simply look good — though it’s questionable if this has any significance at all given that Kelly Osbourne recently replaced Elizabeth Hurley on the British reality show Project Catwalk (possibly the oddest casting choice in television hosting in recent history.) They have to be charming, intelligent and be willing to take risks. Of course, it's impossible to know how to the editing process will shape Artland, so we may yet see Mame striped of all charisma in an effort to appeal to larger audiences, but frankly this seems unlikely. Even with the healthy supply of hokey promotional material that accompanies the production, my sense from speaking with Mame was that if she tried to deliver contentless material she probably couldn't do it. Assuming the editors work to retain the personality Mame brings to the show, and her co-host Charlie Luxton (whom I haven't spoken with) isn't a total wet sock, the series has a lot of promise.
The interview that informs such speculations was conducted with Mame McCutchin over email in June on a brief travel break, and resumed again over the phone this past Saturday as the last of filming finished up. What you are about to read is the fruit of these conversations.
AFC: The first question is just a nuts and bolts question about how the show will be structured. There are twelve segments that are scheduled to be aired. How many art features will there be per segment? Will each segment have a theme (like for example, EGG) or will they be aired chronologically?
MAME: We are taping for eight weeks from which the editors will cut 12, 50+-minute episodes. My understanding is that the episodes will be chronological and each will consist of roughly ten five-minute segments. However, on a location like Marfa, Texas – which is an art-lover’s dream – they may cut a segment that’s eight minutes and back it up with a two minute featurette about some interesting roadside art (like the ¾-scale Stonehenge replica in Odessa, Texas). Each episode (the British crew refers to them reverently as “films” and they bristle charmingly when I use the word episode) will likely have a theme. For instance, there’s a desert episode and we talked about one episode featuring contrasts, but we’ll have to see what the editors decide.
AFC: There is a wide variety of art that will be featured on the show ranging from the painting elephant to MARFA. Given the variety of art that will be featured on ARTLAND, it seems like your target demographic must be fairly diverse. Do you have strategies that will help bridge the gap between those steeped in art and culture and those who may have a passing interest in the subject?
MAME: The producers carefully selected two different hosts for the show and, aside from the broad selection of subjects that we cover, I think that is one strategy employed to appeal to art aficionados and novices alike. My British co-host, Charlie Luxton, is a well-known presenter in the UK and he has an architectural background from the Royal College of Art and a penchant for all things eco-minded. He speaks intelligently about architecture, space, and the way people interact with both. Then there’s me, an American woman with no art experience whatsoever. My role is to ask questions. Charlie and I both try to share our honest reactions with what we see and learn and I think this aspect of the show will appeal to the wider audience. The show is also a road adventure that will include segments of life in the RV (me making fun of Charlie as he drives, empties the black water tanks, etc.). We hope it makes art and architecture approachable. I think that’s an unwritten goal of the show.
AFC: That's a really important idea, because while having a background in art can speed up the ability to interpret work, we can lose site of the fact that all the information a person needs to read a piece is in front of you. Most people are not art professionals, and therefore bring different experience to the table. Have you found your background in technology and media has been very diverse over the last 15 years. Is there one experience in particular that has been useful when talking to people about art?
MAME: I spent four years working with engineers who made robots for Mars. It took me a while to appreciate the amount of work that goes into designing a tiny bit of metal that will one day fly to Mars. Getting to know the engineers and learning about the design process and then the integration process (when another engineer adds software to the bits of metal so they can control movement) taught me that every engineer — every person engaging in a creative process — comes to it with his or her own personal approach. It can't be rushed. It can't be dictated. And it seems they are happy when others understand what they've done and why. This may sound corny, but working with the robot engineers made me a better listener. When you talk to artists about their art you must listen or there's really no point to the meeting.
AFC: You've been traveling since early May now. What have you seen that you would consider a highlight?
MAME: The producer’s sweaty footprints on the floor of the RV? I think that qualifies as art. Seriously, an unexpected highlight has been seeing the US through the eyes of a non-American crew. The production company is British and, aside from our rockstar driver, Adam, I am the only American and it’s been a fascinating experience to watch these folks marvel at some subjects that I grew up considering mundane. They FLIP OUT over the trains in the west. They can’t get enough of grain silos and they cringe at the holstered guns on our law folk. Therefore I now see beauty and danger where I once saw banality and safety. I loved bending neon at the Yesco Sign factory in Vegas. I loved the rides and carnival atmosphere at the Mall of America. I loved the helicopter ride over the strip in Vegas. I loved riding horses and shooting skeet at Calamus Outfitters in the sand hills of Nebraska. I loved learning about Tom Lea and what makes his work suitable for the current White House.
AFC: Have you observed any kind of continuity within the kinds of art that you have seen? For example has geography, American values, etc, proven to be a strong thread that informs the art making practices you have observed, and if not what has?
MAME: Geography does seem to be an influencing element in everything I've seen. The context in which art is created is a part of the work. In Tucson we visited an artist named Dave Lewis and, while he could have been working out of Brooklyn, the Tucson art scene and basic Tucson atmosphere lend accessibility to his work that I feel wouldn't be possible if he were working in Brooklyn. In Tucson, there's less art noise (than we have in NYC) and his work appeared clear and present in a way that I wouldn't expect were to I to view it in Brooklyn.
It is hard to answer this question knowing that we have seen but a tiny sample of artists but I feel reasonably confident saying that the land has been important to many of the works we've looked at. Obviously Georgia O'Keeffe and Tom Lea were both attached to the land and made their careers painting it, but even Dave Lewis, whose work is much more conceptual and political, relies on the urban landscape to form his work. I'm not really sure what American values are. The pride and humility that Americans feel about freedom does seem to be a theme, not just in the work we view, but in the people we meet. Some of the work reflects the hubris in that pride, while the landscape work seems to comment more on the humility of being a person in such an awesome physical setting.
AFC: And you've now seen the East coast too, have you observed a great distinction in the peoples approach or interest in art making, in contrast to the west?
MAME: We both feel like space and light has a lot more to do with work that's created in the West. Again like Georgia O'Keefe”¦many artists working in New Mexico”¦On the East coast – the rubble and the landscape that's sometimes what they paint, but not always. Like I went to see Robert Indiana yesterday, and he lives on island, in Maine with this beautiful scenery, and it just doesn't show up in his work. So maybe East coast artists aren't so dependant on their surroundings for inspiration, but then again we went to Winslow Homer's studio, and obviously he painted in his back yard, so it's kind of hard to call.
AFC: Right, and the focus is not just contemporary artists, you also covered Tom Lea, (as you mentioned earlier), and obviously an artist's approach is not going to be the same now as it was one hundred years ago.
AFC: On the subject of Tom Lea, this artist was mentioned in the press release as President Bush's favorite painter. Lee is from Texas, and a regionalist painter who is known for his portraiture and depictions of war imagery. In a way, you'd almost think that the artist was hand picked for the President since it so closely matches his political campaigns (and in fact in his 2000 election campaign he quoted Tom Lea frequently). A Tom Lea painting was bought for the Oval Office after President Bush's election in 2000 and is displayed prominently (or so I have read). Will you get to visit the Oval office? Did you talk to anyone about what the President's connection is to the artist?
MAME: We didn't get to visit the Oval Office (but I'd hustle in there in a New York minute if I could — c'mon, I've see it in SO many movies and TV shows, it would be great to peep it myself). We did, however, get a lovely interview with a generous and charismatic woman named Adair Margo. She was a friend of Lea's and was extremely gracious with her time and experiences with him. She gave us a tour of the Lea Gallery at the El Paso Museum of Art. From what I saw and heard, he painted the land quite a bit. He did spend some time drawing aircraft carriers and battle scenes during WWII but he was not presented as an artist known for those works as much as he was known for his depictions of the American west (this is when my lack of art background starts to show, but it lets me look at artists with fresh eyes). The painting in the Oval Office, by the way, is a landscape not a war scene. I did ask what makes Tom Lea a great American painter and why the President chose one of his works. Adair gave a wonderful answer but you'll have to catch Artland: USA to see what she said.
AFC: There's a show plug if I ever heard one. How does it feel now that the filming is wrapped up? Will the RV tour next year as well?
MAME: I love it. I hope there is an Artland two, an ArtLand Asia, ArtLand Africa, ArtLand Europe. I made a new family on the road, and it's really nice to spend that kind of time with people. And then everything that I was exposed to — I was just talking to today about how I got to interview John Chamberlain, and Robert Indiana, and I think I'm going to have a moment about a month from now where it hits me like a ton of bricks “Oh my God, I can't believe I was in the presence of those legends”. You know like sitting in their homes, eating their food, and chatting with them. And they were both amazing hosts, they were both amazing host, they were both very gracious, just so pleasurable to be around. John Chamberlain was a challenge, at one point he said “How'd you get this job, you ask horrible questions.”
AFC: Ha! Is that going to make the show?
MAME: I hope so, I don't know how the editors are going to cut it, but that's his technique and his style”¦his way of getting to know who he's dealing with. He's just testing the waters, and I found him very entertaining and wiry.
AFC: Ugh. I guess this is another segway into “watch the show to find out”….and I’m genuinely interested in finding out what you asked to get that response, and whether they keep that jewel!
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