Interview: Live Painter Kris D - HeadCount

The psychedelic experience comes in many forms, and has evolved over time to include music, lights and graphic arts. Then, it took another turn with the advent of live painting. Kris D – an Atlanta-born tattoo artist and painter, has been performing live for over a decade, painting alongside a myriad of musicians including Lotus, Pretty Lights and Conspirator. But he is best known for his work with his longtime friends, Sound Tribe Sector 9.  Having studied sacred geometry, Kris is motivated by the expansion of consciousness and “the reciprocal relationship of healing and art.” We caught up with him to discuss his work, inspiration, and issues such as reduced budget for art programs and corporate control of the media – forces working against the naturally liberating power of art. As he says on his website, “The more that we see, the more interconnections are revealed. That is the core of my message...All things connected...All things one…”

How did you start live painting and what drew you to start painting in a live concert environment? What does your art gain from it?

I guess there are threads that sort of wove together to make it happen. I had always done these doodles that eventually turned into geometrical patterns and mandalas that evolved into painting around 2000. Meanwhile, I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta where a chunk of Sector 9 grew up and we were all buddies. I was in college doing painting and then when I graduated college they were touring extensively and I just came on tour to be with my buddies. David Murphy actually said “Why don’t you paint on stage?” I was pretty shy about it and ended up just drawing on the side of the stage. What I liked and was kind of terrified by at the same time was that you’re in the middle of all these people. It kind of freaked me out at first, but in a way I was like “man this is good medicine for me” – I’m this hermit, like it’s good to get out there. It’s something that just felt really healthy and enjoyable. People seemed to dig it, so I just kept doing it.

It seems that a lot of your work that you do in the studio is very geometric and regimented and a lot of the work that you did live is more fluid. Your work is quite complex so I’m wondering if you go into the painting with a set of ideas or if it’s completely organic and spontaneous?

The core thread throughout my work is geometry and beginning a painting working with a hexagonal grid – the honeycomb-looking foundation. In the studio I’ll often times start with a grid, but there is so much time for reflection that a whole different process of contemplation happens, you get to different levels of meticulousness. But the thing about the live space is I might go in there with a geometrical grid and I’ll know maybe I’m working with this type of shape. But all in all, I leave it open beyond that. Once the music starts it’s really about getting out of the way and allowing that improvisational current to take hold. And if everything is on, if it’s an on show, then I get captivated and things happen that I couldn’t foresee, that I couldn’t plan. That’s the goal, to be able to let go and to allow magic to happen and to improvise highly intuitive space. If I’m thinking about what I’m doing then it’s probably not one of those nights that’s locked in.

So it’s all about if the band is on fire or not?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Usually, when it’s one of those magical nights the music reflects that and the musicians will acknowledge that in their experience as well as the audience. The audience will have one of those real potent shows to look back on. It’s usually shared. The painting just happens to be the visual reflection of that.

You’ve done collaborations with artists like Jason Garcia. When you do a live painting, when you collaborate with someone else if they have a different style than you or your methods are different, how do you reconcile that? Do you just go at the canvas and react to each other or do you talk it out first or have some preconceived notion of what’s going to happen?

I think a lot of it is sort of modeled on the way I imagine creating music with other people would be like. There is a continual give and take of contributing and sharing your voice and then being quiet and compromising. When that really syncs up you express something that is between your two voices and that’s where collaborative style, collaborative magic comes through. With Jason Garcia, we do a lot of preparation and we do a lot of planning. It is super laborious and super fun and amazing at the same time. Lately I’ve been collaborating with David Hale. We are doing less prep and more improvisation. We’re pushing it even further where we’re having less and less idea of what we’re going to do, but more attention to allowing the esoteric element to come through. The practice of collaborating has been more how much can we not only refine our skills together, but also trust that the more we let go, the more it’s going to come together.

I know you got your start with STS9, but is there any particular band or style of music you find that you paint best to?

It varies with where I’m at. Live, I have so much rapport with Sector 9 that there’s no live space that compares to the experiences I’ve had with STS9. But right now, alone in my studio, it just varies. Right now I’m listening to Amazonian medicine songs. It’s called “Ekaros” and that’s really working for me – I’m primarily listening to that. Then I’m also throwing in really eccentric stuff that is kind of stretching my neurological receptors to music in new ways that is really good for me right now. Like Belgian Opera Classical music that I’ve been listening to by a composer named Nicholas Lens. So if you ask me that in six months I’ll probably be in a different part of the world. Although, I’d say the Amazonian music is going to continue.

Would you say that your major influences as a painter are other live painters or did you appropriate influences from traditional artists into your work? Or maybe it’s both?

I’m inspired by so much and it’s not even limited to visual art or music. My travels are really key. I guess my most intense influences are the people I know in my life. But other than that, traveling to other countries, and beyond that LSD, Iowaska, probably the most powerful influences.

As an artist what role do you think art plays in inspiring social movements or social change?

Well it depends on the art and the intention behind the art I would think. I think a whole lot of art does that through promoting consciousness and the expansion of consciousness.

As an artist, was art education an important part of your life? How do you feel about the continuously reduced size of art budgets for public schools in America?

I think it sucks to be honest. Art is usually the first thing to be cut when money is limited. I don’t know what the solution is to that. But to me personally, the art classes I took in high-school made a big difference in the construction of my world-view and whole education experience. It is not for everybody, but I think a large percentage of kids in the education system obviously benefit from learning art. I think the way that art is taught can definitely be reformed and there’s better ways to do it.

What for example do you think should be changed about the way art is taught in public education systems?

Well for me personally having a mentorship was really good. I think we should implement and recognize the need for more one-on-one time. I think it’s key that the teachers have the space and the time to relate with and teach kids as well as the economical support to pay the teachers. If it was that art was the guiding force, if that came first and foremost and wasn’t the first thing being cut – if a child’s innate talents and creative tendencies and natural gifts they had were nurtured from the get-go – every other subject that they would study, everything else they would need to learn would be that much more enriched, the kids would be that much more engaged. I think they would be rooted in a happier, more fulfilling life path.

Are there any political issues that are particularly important to you right now?

Yes, waking up and becoming conscious. We need to work on the interconnections between each other. We need to learn how to work together more harmoniously, and we need to learn to work with ourselves more harmoniously. Other particular issues I would say are the media. I think the media should be freed up, airways should be freed up. I think people would wake up a little easier if they could get the information that they need. If they could get the information they need about what is going on – if things weren’t so filtered that much. I mean look at the Gulf Oil Spill. BP ended up muffling out all the information and cutting off access to journalists. And it’s the journalists’ responsibility to relay the information to the people. If the people get the information they can act accordingly, but if the information is cut off, muffled, or distorted then there’s no acting that is going to happen.

Do you know what you’re working on next?

I’m actually juggling a bunch of things. David and I are going to continue to do some live paintings here and there, but were not really scheduling in advance. We’re doing things more casually and spontaneously when we’re feeling it. We have a gallery show that we’re working on that is going to be at the Young Blood Gallery in Atlanta – on April 1st it opens. I’m learning how to tattoo, so I’ll be doing more tattoo work as well as paintings and drawings. I’m also working on doing some art stuff for the new Georgia Theatre that’s being created in Athens.