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A&E Q&A - Award-winning artists Rocío Rodriguez and Jason Kofke talk politics

Local Artadia grant awardees find common ground in tumultuous times

In early November, New York-based arts nonprofit Artadia awarded $45,000 in grant money to seven Atlanta visual artists. Rocío Rodriguez and Jason Kofke took home the top prizes with $15,000 each. Founded little over a decade ago in response to National Endowment for the Arts cutbacks, Artadia works to fund and support artists in just a few cities around the U.S., including Atlanta.

Rodriguez is a Cuban-born painter who has been active in Atlanta's art scene for three decades. Her wall-sized paintings are strikingly abstract, filled with agitated lines and fractured colors that may resemble urban environments or disastrous scenes though they often refer back to the act of painting itself.

Kofke moved to Atlanta five years ago, attending SCAD as part of the first round of students at the Atlanta campus. His ongoing project, Everything Will Be OK, employs installation, graffiti, projection, and other various forms and draws on historic events like the Chernobyl meltdown or the Challenger explosion. We asked them to sit down for a quick conversation and, as the talk turned to the influence of Atlanta on their work, the two artists quickly found common ground discussing the influence of the Iraq War and U.S. foreign policy, international travel, and cultural differences.

Rocío Rodriguez: I can't say that any of the work I'm doing specifically relates to Atlanta, but I did do a painting five years ago in 2006. I was very upset about the Iraq War and this censoring of images that was occurring in this time period. They were just sort of controlling what we were allowed to see. You have to understand, I grew up in the '60s, when the Vietnam War was on TV. We saw body bags. We saw everything.

I would sit here and think - I'm here in the United States in my studio doing my thing, and some 22-year-old is in the middle of a gunfight right now. Or some young woman is walking home from her place in Baghdad, and she's going to be blown up. So I spent a long time on the Internet looking at videos and photographs that soldiers posted. I remember one night specifically, I had just been on the computer, and I had looked at some pretty bad stuff, horrible stuff. I remember that night I walked out there and sat out on those steps, and I looked up at the sky. And in Atlanta, you never see the full sky. You only see it in pieces because it's not like the desert where you can just see the whole thing.

So, I'm out here looking at the sky and thinking about this dead soldier that I had looked at that day. I did two paintings that related to the fact I was thinking somewhere in that desert in Iraq there are dead soldiers laying there under some amazing sky. And I'm here in Atlanta looking at this amazing sky, but all I see are pieces of the sky here. I was just thinking about this, so I made a painting titled "Pieces of the Sky." Then, I made this other painting of this man on the ground and this enormous sky above him. That's the only direct thing I can tell you about being here. The work comes from a global perspective, from constantly looking information up. I'm not just stuck here.

Jason Kofke: I think that's the overlap of our work. What you're describing is very similar to what I do. If I were alive in the '60s, I probably would've been shot by some military police.

RR: You mean because you'd be demonstrating?

JK: Oh, yeah.

RR: Absolutely.

JK: I have a painting that's similar, the one I did for [street art conference] Living Walls in 2010. It just looks like an airbus. That's an Iranian airbus that was mistakenly shot [in 1988] down by one of our aircraft carriers, and the captain that year was awarded for protecting the aircraft carrier, but over 200 Iranian citizens died. I feel like by making that work, the point isn't the work, the point is perhaps the media will pick it up and perhaps it will wind up on a website and perhaps some people from the Middle East living here in Atlanta will connect and say, "Ah, there is an awareness here in this city." I feel like I'm in the city, appreciating the city, loving the city, but at the same time somewhat disgusted of the city and hoping not to counter it in a sense of conflict but to use humor and to use empathy to try to say, "Alright, let's try to make this better morally, socially, not just economically, not just by comfort of more material." I think that's how Atlanta plays in.

RR: It's sort of like playing off Atlanta. I am totally jealous of your travels.

JK: See, and I went to China [for a residency at the China Academy of Art] for a residency at the China Academy of Art as this snotty little kid. I went over with my fixed-gear bike with my tight pants thinking, "I'm an American. I rock. Let's show the Chinese what culture is." A year of that completely put me in my place. I realized, not just in Atlanta, but in America we're in this self-concerned bubble. I had to be really put in my place by contemporaries from other countries.

RR: This is why I think travel is so crucial. It's not just about going to New York and doing the museums and standing in front of somebody else's artwork. It's about actually having a life experience elsewhere where you're taken out from your language, your culture where you're in a totally new place where you have to use new parts of yourself that you've never used before.



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