I’ve been following Dmitry Samarov’s work for a few years now, about as long as I’ve been living in Chicago. Oddly enough, I first became acquainted with Mr. Samarov through Twitter, which at the time he was just starting to play around with and I was still trying to ignore. How things change. From there, I found his website, Hack, where he chronicles his experiences as a Chi Town cab driver through sketches, drawings, and short written pieces. On Hack, Samarov’s drawings and writings go hand-in-hand–it’s hard to imagine one without the other, actually. I’ve followed Dmitry’s work through his website, found some of his writings archived on the Chicago Reader’s site, and even engaged in a few 140 character-length conversations with him on Twitter. But I’ve always wanted to interview Dmitry, and with the October 1, 2011 publication of Hack in book form (by the University of Chicago Press, no less!) and a slew of shows opening this and next month (including one at Lloyd Dobler Gallery), I realized that now was the ideal time. In this interview, Dmitry gave what is probably my all-time favorite answer to a question, delivered in his typical bone-dry style: “The dream, though, is and always will be to be unemployed.”
I’m very grateful to Dmitry for taking the time to answer my questions (via e-mail, natch)–maybe someday he and I will have an actual face to face conversation. Certainly there will be lots of opportunities to have a live encounter with Mr. Samarov over the next few months–including the book release party for Hack on October 1st at the Rainbo Club, 4-8 pm–a link to his full schedule can be found at the bottom of this post.
Claudine Isé: Can you take me through a typical day for you, a day that involves both work as a cabdriver and work as an artist?
Dmitry Samarov: I usually get up somewhere between 11am and 1pm. I make tea or coffee, then check email and Twitter and nose around the internet a bit while waking up. Next I work on whatever painting or drawing I’ve got going, or, write a new Hack story if one needs writing. In other words, I try to get at least one creative thing done before leaving the house. Typically though, I don’t have more than two or three hours to devote to these things before I have to go out and drive the cab.
I drive from sometime in the afternoon until anywhere from 2 to 5am, depending on the day. I rent the cab 24-7 so I can take it home, saving the commute to and from the garage, and allowing me to work the hours that I want. In order to make a living at it however, I need to put in 11-15 hours a day. If there’s a movie, a show, or something else that I want to do during work hours, I can always take a break and do it. All I’m out is the money that might’ve been made. It’s one of the few real perks of the job: the freedom to be without a boss or manager asking you why you’re not at work.
After I get home, I’ll unwind with a movie or TV show or with looking around the internet (I don’t have a TV). Sometimes, if I can’t sleep or it can’t wait til the next day, I’ll write or work on an illustration for Hack. I hardly ever do any non-Hack-related work late at night.
CI: You studied painting and printmaking at SAIC in the early 1990s. Looking back now, what were the most important things you learned while studying there?
DS: It’s an open question whether my time was worthwhile or not. That being said, I certainly had a few teachers that made an impression. I took Dan Gustin’s figure painting and figure drawing classes nearly every semester I was there. Those classes strengthened my already-strong interest in perceptual painting. To this day, what gets me jazzed most is looking at something or someone out in the world and attempting to make marks that convey some small sense of having been there. The second most influential teacher I had there was Mark Pascale. He taught lithography but, even more importantly for me, was just starting to work as a curator at the Art Institute’s Print & Drawing Room. He’d pull boxes and boxes of Rembrandt etchings, Lovis Corinth gouaches, Lucien Freuds, Max Beckmanns, and many many more for me to peruse. Even though I doubt he was ever personally much interested in my work, his generosity in getting me access to work that might help me get where I was going left a lasting impression. I still speak to him occasionally and have met few more articulate or funny people in this city.
The larger question of SAIC influence is an open one as I said before. Because of the kind of work I did (and continue to do), the school was never going to be a place that I’d truly thrive in. On the other hand, they had all the facilities in the world to put in the time and get better at what I probably would’ve done anyways. The trouble with art schools is that they tend to be inordinately concerned with current art world trends rather than giving students the rudiments of what they’ll need to keep making work past graduation. As an example, during my time there Jeff Koons gave a visiting artist lecture and you would’ve thought that Jesus had returned to anoint the next generation for all the excitement it caused; in my world, Koons isn’t fit to clean a grad school painter’s brushes. My time there certainly made it plain to me that I didn’t want to teach or participate in any similar art school program after graduation. So, perhaps by negative example, it was an important experience for me after all.
CI: To what extent are you able to make drawings and sketches while you’re in the cab? I imagine that sometimes you need to work quickly to get a certain face on the page, or to write down certain things that a fare or a fellow driver has said to you. Are you constantly taking notes or do you just have a really good memory?
DS: None of the illustrations for Hack were done on site apart from the pen sketches of taxis like this one [illustrated below]. Most were done from memory days or weeks or sometimes years afterward. As to writing, over the past couple years I’ve used text messages and Twitter for a sort of note-taking. I’ll look back through a couple days’ worth of messages and if something keeps nagging at me I’ll expand it into a story.
I have done a ton of artwork in the cab though. A couple years ago I did a series of gouache paintings of taxis out at the O’Hare and Midway Airport Taxi Staging Areas. There are also many pen sketches of similar subject-matter scattered throughout the Sketchbooks section of my website. I’ve done a fair amount of cityscapes like this one [second illustration below], from the front seat as well.
DS: I don’t think I’ll ever stop making paintings and drawings about living in the city. The workplace-related pictures were certainly made out of necessity and lack of alternate options. If I could stop having a day-(or more accurately)night-job, I’d walk away and never come back. I’ve tried to make do with the financial and time restrictions of not being a full-time painter. What else would I be doing work about but the places where I spend most of my time? I’ve done a lot of work that’s not cab- or bar-related as well of course, but there’s no way that something that you do 8 to 14 hours a day can truly be ignored.
The dream, though, is and always will be to be unemployed.
CI: The writing compiled in your book Hack was first published on your blog, also titled Hack. When did you hit upon blogging, or perhaps better described in your case, web publishing, as a way of putting your work out into the world? It’s been a very successful medium for you and I’m sure an inspiration to other artists and writers. Also, you use Twitter in a way that I really enjoy – as a way of having friendly conversations and exchanges, not as a tool for rank self-promotion. I’m curious though, why did you take up Tweeting?
DS: Hack first started as a sort of ‘zine or illustrated book that documented my years driving a cab in Boston (1993-1997). I didn’t know how to turn on a computer until late-2003. I was briefly married to a computer programmer and got a crash course in the subject at that time. We launched my website at the beginning of 2004 and I revived Hack as a blog sometime late in 2006. It’s not a blog in the usual sense, that’s for sure. It’s not a diary or particularly personal in the way many blogs are. For the most part, I’ve tried to string phrases together in some way to relate some of what I’ve seen from behind the wheel.
I wouldn’t know what kind of impact or inspiration the thing has had on other artists, it’s not for me to judge, but I know a few people have enjoyed reading my stories over the years and there’s some satisfaction in that, without a doubt.
I started using Twitter sometime late in 2008, I think. I’d been sending text messages to friends about what was happening or what I saw in the cab for awhile and Twitter let me share these with a few more people. It’s quite a challenge to say what I want to in 140 characters but I’ve enjoyed trying nonetheless. I’ve done plenty of rank self-promotion on there as well though. I’m not sure how much longer it’ll remain compelling. MySpace has all but disappeared and Facebook will hopefully go away soon too, so who knows? If I finally figure out some way to get paid regularly for my artwork, I’ll probably drop off the social networking scene altogether. Or at least, I’d like to think I would. We’ll see.
CI: You are and/or have been a cab driver, a bartender, a writer, an artist, a “sketch-artist” — all of which seem to require similar skills, such as being able to listen, to observe (often from a distance), to keep calm and to be able to think and act quickly and “on your feet” (as it were). All of these positions also seem to require a large amount of empathy and acceptance of human foibles, it seems to me. In a lot of ways all of your roles have more than a bit in common with that of a shrink. Is it hard for you sometimes, to maintain a sense of openness or empathy to the strangers you encounter by the dozens each day? I would imagine that if you feel pissed off or even just psychologically closed-off, it might impact the work because it’s coming from “that place” of anger or pissed-offedness. Or maybe that’s the point? I guess what I’m asking is, is it sometimes hard for you to remain “open” to people, because people can be difficult to be around….
DS: I’ve been accused of being cynical and misanthropic most of my life. I don’t know whether that’s so or not. Many times people just don’t get my tone or my odd sense of humor. I’ve been working service-industry jobs since I was 13 or 14 and I’m about to turn 41. That’d be a lot of years to hate the human race. In my own way I love people or at least I love watching them. They never cease to amaze. I’ve felt removed or apart from most crowds I’ve ever found myself in. It’d take someone smarter than me to figure out why that is but coming from another country probably has something to do with it. The critical distance has allowed me to observe others with clear eyes in my good moments. Being “one of the help”, not a social equal, has allowed me to eavesdrop and overhear in a way a participant never could. For whatever reason all these years haven’t soured me on the human race. We’re full of faults, to be sure, but I don’t hold myself above those that I see; put in their place I’d likely be making an ass of myself as often as they do, and hopefully, be funny and sad just the way most of ‘em are.
I don’t know that I’m “open” but I don’t judge (in the sense that I don’t feel it’s my place to correct others’ behavior); my role is to see it, hear it, and show and tell the world about it. It’s what artists have always done: shown those around them the world they live in.
CI: A lot of your work makes me think of the caricatures of Honore Daumier – your work isn’t overtly political, like his was, but it does deal with human folly and excess – especially drunkenness, or the ways that a person comports themselves in front of others when they think no one (except you) is looking. Anyway, I’m curious, which artists have had an influence on the way you think about your own work? Which artists do you love, just because?
DS: Daumier’s great. I assume you’re thinking about the illustrations of passengers in the book here. There’s definitely a caricaturish or grotesque aspect to many of those pictures. I’ve loved Breughel most of my life, as well as Lautrec, Goya, Guston, and so many others that have parodied the human form in various ways. Doing pictures for Hack has always been a challenge because what I love to do best is just to look at something and react and that’s just not possible there. Also, I often don’t think of those pieces as stand-alone visual statements but solely as illustrations to the stories, so, when doing them there’s no way not to think about book illustrations from the past and how image and text interact. Because I’m a visual artist first, doing these pictures has always been a way into the prose for me. They help me write.
CI: Tell me about your upcoming exhibitions.
DS: Here’s a listing of all my upcoming events, but as far as art shows go:
1. Rainbo Club: “Pictures of Books” September 24-October 21
I’ll be showing oil paintings of books on my bookshelf. I’ve returned to this motif every so often for about 14 years now. The way the books lean against each other and the colors of the spines resonate against one another has always fascinated me. Also, as someone who primarily deals with a deeper space (in cityscapes or rooms) the shallow space of a bookshelf scratches a different kind of itch. It’s probably as close to abstraction as I’ll ever get. Finally, it’s funny to me to have a show of paintings of books when I have an actual book coming out.
2. Saki: “Music & Baseball” October 1- October 31
This show will contain album and CD cover illustrations, concert sketches, as well as other music-related artwork that I’ve done over the years. As well as a series of portraits of the 2011 Chicago White Sox that I did for a short-lived baseball column from earlier this year.
3. Lloyd Dobler Gallery: “Hack: Pictures from a Chicago Cab” October 14- November 19th
This will bring together most of the taxi-related artwork I’ve done. There will also be a few of the Hack stories displayed on the walls along with the original artwork that went with them.
CI: Thanks so much for talking with me, Dmitry!