Artist John Brooks’ show, “We All Come and Go Unknown” was on display at the Moremen Gallery from the end of July through late August. In the collection of paintings, Brooks explores themes of identity and queerness through images of himself, famous people like Marlene Dietrich, James Baldwin and Nick Jonas. This show was written up recently in The New Yorker, and here at LEO, we think that’s a pretty wonderful shout out to a local artist with a show of work well deserving of such attention.
We asked Brooks a few questions about the article and what he thought about being reviewed by a publication like the New Yorker and how local artists should grow beyond the borders of Kentucky.
LEO: Did you know the article was coming? [Brooks gives responses in The New Yorker article, but when these Q&A questions were sent, someone (this article’s author) hadn’t read it yet…oops]
John Brooks: Yes, I knew that it was happening, but these sorts of things can always fall through for unexpected reasons, so I didn’t really believe it until it was published. Garth [Greenwell, the New Yorker article’s author] and I met virtually through mutual friends in the literary world and on Instagram, but I was really surprised when he said he was in Louisville and would see my exhibition. We met in person the day of the opening, and I gave him a quick tour of the show. We hit it off, and he really loved the work. Over the next couple of weeks, we had coffee a couple of times and had great conversations. He proposed the idea of the essay and, of course, I consented, but again, I wasn’t really going to celebrate until it actually happened! We also did a virtual studio visit, and I gave him a long, detailed tour of my exhibition. He obviously got to know me and my work really well.
How did it feel when you finally saw the article?
It is thrilling and a bit surreal, for a variety of reasons. I am a longtime reader of The New Yorker -— and have a vivid memory of the first time I saw one, when in high school a friend’s mom gave me a copy, because there was a profile of Patti Smith, whom she knew I loved — so to be featured in the magazine is such an honor and a gift, a dream come true. Artists know how difficult it is to get any press or attention for our work, so to have an opportunity like this is really incredible — not just to be in such an outstanding publication, but also to have my work written about by Garth Greenwell. He is an astonishingly gifted writer, and when I read the essay for the first time — only when it was published — I felt understood as an artist and a human being. That’s a great feeling. I am so happy to be able to share my work and myself with such a wide, and in many ways, new audience.
How important is it for local artists to reach beyond the borders of Kentucky?
As artists, it’s imperative that we reach as far and wide as we can. Having exhibitions, collectors, followers, devotees, in Louisville — or wherever you live — is wonderful and absolutely necessary, but why should it stop there? I was born in Frankfort and have lived the majority of my life in Kentucky, so to some degree, my work reflects that. But it doesn’t only reflect that. I’m interested in and inspired by people from all walks of life and all kinds of places, and I feel connected to other places. I claim other places, like London and Berlin. I think my work reflects that. Living somewhere like Louisville as opposed to a larger place like New York City, we do have to work harder to stay engaged with what’s happening in the wider world, but it’s not impossible, and it’s so much easier than it used to be, thanks to the internet and social media. Anyone can be everywhere at any time, and that’s still amazing to me. There are also resources, such as the Artist Professional Development Travel Grants from Great Meadows Foundation, that can help artists to expand their community, reach, and experiences. Louisville is my home and I am committed to the city, but I want to bring as much national and international attention to our city as I can. Ultimately, I think that helps us all.