The next Artist Interview Project installment features Jeremy Lebediker, the artist behind GratefuLegos and Lebediker Fine Art. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.
Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.
Legos, Realism, and Phish Philosophy
My recent interview with artist Jeremy Lebediker illuminated many concepts studied during my Philosophy class. It also offered personal insight into how he feels about his artwork, creative process, and inspiration. As part of my final assignment for the Philosophy School of Phish class, I interviewed Jeremy about his jamband-inspired Lego creations and his experience as a long time fan of the improvisational bands Phish and the Grateful Dead.
In addition to designing GratefuLegos, Mr. Lebediker is a visual artist. His paintings and drawings have been displayed in various galleries all over the country. Some of his paintings are permanently displayed at the Saratoga Council of Art’s Gallery. I requested to interview Jeremy, because I was personally drawn to his fine art Trompe L’oeil/Realist paintings.
The playful aspect of GratefuLegos reflects the pure fun and joy the band Phish brings, as well as the sense of community building concerts create for phans. GratefuLegos helps to share this experience with younger generations, as well as people who seek them out via Etsy where these creations are sold. Jeremy not only sells the Phish Legos, but he also gives trays of them away at concerts to children, which is a reflection of what John Drabinski calls an “occasional community.” In one of our assigned readings, Drabinksi describes the parking lot vibe of a Grateful Dead concert as a space that is saturated with friendship (Drabinksi, pg.35).
Drabinski argues that modern societies are set up in a way that lacks social connection and stresses individualism. The types of connections that are cultivated at Phish or Dead concerts are ways to establish friendship bonds, even if occasional or temporary. I believe this sense of community is one reason why so many phans are drawn to Phish; it’s as if you are attending a family reunion every time you attend a live show. America really needs this type of unity and lighthearted bonding, especially during such turbulent times. I believe Phish offers an important sense of community to its phans.
The improvisational aspect of Phish’s music attracts not only Mr. Lebediker but also many other phans. Jeremy likened the improvisational aspect of Phish to the way that he creates his art, even his realist creations. He said that he uses a certain sense of abstraction, looking at shapes and figures rather than subject matter, for his Trompe L’oeil. Alperson’s essay explains the significance of improvisation:
We attend to a musical improvisation much in the way that we attend to another’s talk we listen past the mistakes and attend to the actual development of the work (Alperson pg.24).
This developmental characteristic seems to apply both in attending a Phish concert as well as creating any work of art. Mr. Lebediker’s detailed paintings would hardly lead one to believe it is created through abstraction, but it seems this method works for both him and for Phish alike.
But what is art? This is one question I’ve investigated in my coursework and during my interview with Mr. Lebediker. (For example, see question 7 from our interview.) It seems as though one may get various textbook answers, however ultimately we each have our own specific opinion about what defines art. Tolstoy defines art according to the feelings it produces in its audience. He writes,
The activity of art is based on the fact that a man receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s sense of expression or feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion of the man who expressed it (Tolstoy pg.2).
I believe these are things about any type of art that seem to be the universal, seeing as how Mr. Lebediker creates for joy of self and of others.
Jeremy appreciates both the improvisational aspects of creating as well as basic design principles. His artistic process parallels the way in which the Phish band members build unique jams. In both cases, the real magic happens when abstraction and improvisation are blended in these artworks, as it allows for the masterpiece to take over the mundane.
Question 1: How old were you when you became connected to art? What made you interested in drawing/creating/painting?
I’ve been into art as far back as I can remember. As a kid, I enjoyed drawing cartoons and comic books. My brother was a big reader and really good at school. I was younger and not as “school smart” as he was, so art was my “go to” in order to stand out. I took lots of art classes in high school and really enjoyed creating. My grandfather was an artist who spent a lot of time drawing at the MET so I guess I took after him.
I went to high school in the mid 80’s during a time where tie-dye shirts were really in. I started making and selling tie-dye, silk-screened shirts to local stores and restaurants. It was a good way to be creative and to make money. At that time I was really into the Grateful Dead so I made a lot of Dead-related shirts and sold them at shows and head shops.
In college I took art classes for fun but pursued psychology as a degree. I was looking to make some money and art didn’t seem like the way to go. After getting a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and working 10 years in Training and Development I decided that the money wasn’t worth the corporate lifestyle so I left a successful career in consulting to become an art teacher. Although I would be taking a 70% pay cut I knew it would be worth it. I’ve been teaching art for over 12 years at a high school in upstate New York and I love it! I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Question 2: What is it about Phish that compelled you to create art inspired by their music?
I went to my first Phish show during the summer of 1991. It was a small, free show in a park in Burlington. At the time I liked it but was more impressed by the view of the lake. I saw another show at SUNY Plattsburgh that fall and really started to realize how inventive the lyrics and music were. I really enjoyed the creative, explorational jams. I had played guitar for quite some time so I recognized Trey’s talent early on. Honestly I was still aboard the Dead bus but Phish was a nice go-to when the Dead wasn’t around. Now that I think more about it, I realize that Phish’s approach to music often mirrors my approach to painting (except for maybe my hyper realistic work). I start with a goal, then go a bit crazy and flounder around for a while, and then eventually conclude with what I hope improves the work. Like I said, when I paint realism I’m way more specific about my process, BUT, believe it or not, I’m creative in that vein too. When creating realistic paintings or drawing I try not to focus on the subject but rather try to copy the weird shapes and patterns that I can find in the reference image. It’s like looking at the clouds for strange things (like finding an fire-breathing elephant with rooster legs). Believe it or not, realism is created best through abstraction.
Question 3: As an artist, do you take the same amount of pride and seriousness in your Oil/charcoal paintings as you do the art you create with GratePHulCreations made with Legos?
My company is Gratefulegos (GratePHulCreations was the original name). That’s an interesting question but I would have to say “kindof”. I’m proud of our Legos and as a businessman I guess I’m pretty serious about it but it’s a different sort of focus. The Legos are more of a business. Most teachers look for ways to supplement their income and to pay for their summer. That’s my way (that and painting commission work and teaching Defensive Driving classes).
Question 4: Legos are a toy and Phish is known to incorporate playfulness in live performances. Is play an important aspect of your Lego Creations?
Sure, I guess. Legos are a toy and Phish is pretty playful so I guess the two collide there. I think one of the reasons why the Legos have taken off is because the Phans have grown up and there are now tons of “Little Ragers” at the show. That’s what they call little Phishheads these days. Some people buy the Legos for a memory from a show (I did stage sets from the Mexico show), other people buy them to share something with their kids. It’s a way to build a connection with their sons and daughters. I tend to give away a lot of Legos at shows to the little ones. In fact, I had a poster contest at Watkin’s Glen last summer and gave around 20 Lego Trays away to the little ones. The parents appreciated having something for the little ones to focus on.
Question 5: I noticed on one particular site you donated a portion of your proceeds from your Phish paintings to the Mockingbird Foundation which gives grants to local communities. Can you share with me why it was important to be involved with this particular foundation?
That was part of the painting series I did for Pete Mason (Phanart Pete). Pete runs art shows all over the country that focus on Phish. Part of the deal was to give some of the proceeds to the Mockingbird which I gladly did. As a teacher and a parent, I love the concept of contributing to schools.
Question 6: What is it about Phish that compelled you to create art inspired by their music?
See Question 2.
Question 7: In your opinion, what counts as art? Does it have to be beautiful?
Hm. This sounds like something I would ask my students. Art is in the eye of the beholder. To me, I guess art is something that is created from nothing. Art doesn’t have to be beautiful. It just has to either make someone think more deeply about something or cause an emotional reaction of some kind. Assessing art is like assessing love, it just doesn’t work because it’s a nebulous concept that different people define differently. To one person art might be dog poop thrown at a canvas. Someone might actually think that that is creative. To me, it requires more thoughtfulness. At school students like to do Pollock style art and I see some benefit to that. They throw paint at a canvas and spread it around. It entertains them and sometimes turns out cool. To me, art requires more time and should incorporate thinking about Design Principles (Contrast, Balance, Unity, Variety, Movement, Pattern, Emphasis, etc.). That kind of art usually holds my attention better. But again that’s just me.
Question 8: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment, or one that made you the most proud as an artist?
I took several years to study realism with Anthony Waichulis. The program was rigorous and required me to do boring exercises like 2000 pressure scales and 600 perfect spheres. I didn’t do it because I enjoyed it. I did it to show myself that I COULD do realism if I wanted to.That’s how I wound up doing the Tromp L’oeil pieces. Ultimately I would like to do more Surreal paintings. My goals for my own art are constantly changing. It’s the pursuit that I enjoy. The challenge. The ability to impress myself and others. To bring joy. To give. To express. To create. I guess that’s my goal.