Do what you love’ might be one of the most commonly heard pieces of advice given to students, but how many of those people actually end up directly applying it to their lives? Most of us hear about the struggles aspiring artists go through, and get scared off from pursuing a career like that, no matter how much love we have for it. But some people follow their dreams of creating, despite everyone telling them that it won’t get them anywhere, and those are the types of people I found in the booths at the 2016 Kentuck Festival of the Arts.
The Kentuck Art Center, located in Northport, Alabama, hosts the festival every year, and has for the past forty-five years. It’s what the center is most known for, but it’s not like the place only comes alive two days of every year. There’s always something going on there. There are galleries, monthly art nights, and even a store inside. They’re always looking for volunteers to help keep everything in order, especially when the festival’s coming around.
This year was my second year attending the festival, and the place looked familiar. I remembered a lot of the artists, and other than the unseasonably warm weather, the atmosphere felt the same around me. Sections labeled by letters guided me to the booths I was looking for, following my map, and the live music gave the place a comfy feeling. I got to get the tea I had been waiting for from a little cart called Tea Town, visit the artists I remembered and see their new work, and spend time walking around outside with friends. Honestly, that doesn’t happen a lot.
The first thing I did when I walked in, though, was look on the map and find Joachim Knill, who I had contacted a few weeks before about an interview. I became interested in him and his work after looking at his website and seeing the variety of art he creates. When I walked to the section where it said he would, I didn’t see the same tent as I saw all the other artists under. For a moment, I thought he wasn’t there at all. Then I saw a large crate, which I remembered seeing not only on his website, but last year at the festival. There was an opening in the crate and a small ramp leading inside. Beside it was a chair, where the artists usually sit, but he wasn’t there. Instead, he was sitting on the ground behind the crate, carving something from wood—another thing he apparently knows how to do. I was worried he didn’t want to be bothered, but I nervously approached him, and as soon as I said hey, he looked up and smiled. He’s a short and thin man, dressed simply in comfortable clothing with a hat covering his not-long-and-not-short hair. I felt a sense of relief, not feeling so nervous or intimidated anymore as he gave no indication that I had interrupted something he didn’t want interrupted. He stood up and talked to me with a smile on his face and a vague accent he must have gotten from Switzerland.
I had researched through the internet to develop questions, not finding it difficult because there was a lot I wanted to know.
Most of what I found on his website were his 20″ x 30″ Polaroids, where he arranged various objects — anything he found, a lot of it recycled — to create close-up shots that look like fantasies, or maybe even nightmares. These pictures were not easy to make, though, and were actually taken with a camera that Knill made himself. He said that after working with other Polaroids at his school, he fell in love with the work that came out of it and the immediacy of being able to see what he got right after he photographed it. Those cameras were really expensive though, even just to rent, so he decided then to make his own, and that way he could personalize it however he wanted. Making this camera took him three years, and during those three years he had other jobs to make money, and whenever he found time he went back to working on the Polaroid. I asked if it was frustrating, having taken so long, but said he found the process exciting.
This shows the great love he has for his art. He doesn’t fixate solely on the finished product, but on the experience. He even said that when he finishes something, he just feels tired of it. After spending so much time working, knowing it’s done is an anticlimactic feeling. He has no idea if it’s good or if it’s terrible. He just has to walk away. Then, he might come back to it a week or so later, and maybe he can have a fresh enough perspective to answer the question: Do I like it?
“One thing I do know,” he said, after I asked him how he feels looking at his finished work, “ I don’t know what I would change.”
Art was something that was always part of Knill’s life. He grew up in Switzerland, but his parents moved to America while he was still in school. When he graduated, he moved here too, and went to The School Of The Museum Of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.
“When I was really young I was mostly painting, drawing, doing some sculptures. Then when I went on to arts school I didn’t want anyone telling me how to paint, so I decided to learn everything I didn’t know,” he said.
He doesn’t want to be tied down to any one craft. He wants to learn everything, so that if he ever gets any idea, he will be able to follow through with it. And he does seem to follow through with everything.
The thing that stuck out to me even last year was National Treasure. A shipping crate with images of stuffed animals lining the walls. I remember seeing it in 2015 and finding it fascinating, as well as a little disturbing. The pictures aren’t quite happy, and have a mystery to them that I wanted to understand.
Knill explained that it was a comment on the objectification of other cultures. The story behind the stuffed animals was that they were living in a place called Anilife when it was forcefully taken from them to be shared with people who know nothing about their culture or the meaning behind it. Knill said that he used toy animals because he wanted to use something that held value with everyone, because a lot of the time, when people see other cultures, they hold it to no value because they’ve never seen it and therefore it lacks meaning to them. But stuffed animals. Everyone has memories of their old beloved stuffed animals.
A lot of people don’t see this, though. He said that a lot of people will walk out saying, ‘That was cute!” or even that it resembles something from a movie that he knew nothing about. This doesn’t discourage him, though, and he really enjoys hearing people’s thoughts. I asked him what he wants people to feel when they look at his work, and he said he had nothing in mind. He just wants some kind a reaction. It always surprises him what people say.
Joachim Knill does what he loves. He’s one of those rare people. Some people who find themselves in love with art, passionate about creating, can’t even handle pursuing this. It’s not easy and it won’t ever be, and anyone who can handle it is admirable.