Our “Fellows Friday” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.
This week, we speak to filmmaker and director David Scott Kessler (2015) whose work combines film, installation, writing, performance, and drawing to suggest what he describes as “a world beyond reality.” Kessler’s work has been presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; Housing Works, New York; Summerhall, Edinburgh; and The National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia, among many others. This summer, Kessler’s ongoing documentary and music project, The Pine Barrens, will be screened at the Michener Art Museum in conjunction with a forthcoming Steve McCurry exhibition. Kessler will also debut the film Nights and Days of Assumption as part of Due South, an exhibition and cultural exchange of US and Sicilian artists curated by Marianne Bernstein at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts.
You are a filmmaker and video artist with a background in painting and sculpture. How does your fine arts background influence the work you make today?
I never really made a conscious decision to switch mediums. I get excited by learning new tools and new methods and have never really stuck with one for very long. In that sense things have hardly changed. When I was making sculptures or paintings, it was always a question of how the medium applied to what I was thinking about, and how I could add my voice to that medium. This is really the same with film and video, but some specific things do carry over from earlier mediums that distinguish my process from traditional filmmaking methods, particularly in the way that I allow the work to form organically instead of having a structured script and shooting schedule. Painting is a process of making a mark, stepping back, and then reacting to that mark. I find that this works for filmmaking as well. It might be a more solo way to work, but it opens up avenues that I could not plan for, and it allows the work a voice and motivation of its own that it would not have otherwise.
Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience, what makes this art scene distinctive?
I enrolled at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia for painting in the mid-1990s after studying illustration at Parsons School of Design in New York. At the time it was an easy choice. Philadelphia had a character that spoke to me, and there was a sense of accessibility to the arts. I quickly met people here that I admired and wanted to work with, so I stuck around. Philadelphia’s art scene feels more collaborative than many other places, and I’ve never felt forced to compromise my work to either fit in with trends, or make enough money to survive. Most of my collaborations on current projects are with musicians, and they keep me excited about potential directions the work can take.
What is your daily artmaking routine?
If anything, I design my projects around the intention to get out of my routine and out of my comfort zone. My projects usually consist of at least some traveling, lots of walking with equipment, sporadic fits of intense concentration, multi-tasking, frustration, some disappointment, and hopefully just enough joy to make it all worth it.
Back In the studio, I am a huge proponent of lots of procrastination followed by crazy productivity. Studio days are a lot of time at my computer. I’d say about 90% of my art happens in the edit, but I don’t love sitting at my computer, so I try to get out and shoot as often as I can.
Your current project, The Pine Barrens, confronts environmental degradation and human response to it. Why do you choose to create art that responds to environmental concerns?
My videos are generally portraits of both places and people. The characters of each are represented equally, exploring issues of identity and authenticity. How these characters coexist and become the roots of each other’s identities are of great interest to me, particularly in their contradictions.
The Pine Barrens are an interesting study of humans’ relationship to the environment because they are very much like an island of nature—1.1 million acres of reserved land designated for both environmental protection and restricted suburban growth, surrounded by an encroaching megalopolis on all sides in the most densely populated state in the nation, and less than an hour away from the biggest cities on the East Coast. This enclave of land is not only environmentally important, it is also the root of local culture, exactly as distinct from the mostly urbanized northeast.
The Pine Barrens and “the Pineys” are characters whose identities depend on each other’s existence but are often at odds. As unforgiving as the forest can be in its ability to wipe entire towns off the map and make people disappear, self-proclaimed Pineys do not always feel responsible to help protect the environment or acknowledge that it needs to be protected, leaving it exposed to outside forces and potential disaster. This contradiction seems to manifest as a struggle over cultural identity that could end with both the land and its culture being lost over time.
When we lose nature, we lose an understanding of who we are. Places tend to get less vivid in our mind when they become familiar.
What is your biggest motivator as an artist? What is your biggest fear?
I enjoy the process more than anything else, and I’m not sure I would know how to live without that process playing such a large role in my life. The reason why I can work on a project for four or five years and have it remain fresh and exciting in my mind is because that process is always about finding new angles, exploration, and re-exploration, losing focus and finding it again, doubts and epiphanies. All of it becomes part of the work and essential to the narrative—my own narrative and the narrative of the work. My biggest fear would be losing that thread and not finding it again.
In reflecting back to the beginning of your career, what is the most useful advice you ever received?
Limitations will always be a certainty. Whether those are budget, time, equipment, access, or ability, there will always be something. Those limitations have to be harnessed and made essential to the work. It’s self-defeating to ignore them or pretend they don’t exist, especially when they can turn out to be your greatest asset. In my work, I don’t only acknowledge my limitations, I create many more self-imposed limitations. I find that they help me to work within a more consistent pallet, and can often be used to answer most creative dilemmas that I come across.