We spoke with Alec Dartley about high-danger physical sports, whether trilobites wear crowns, being asked about the nature of death by his young children and the spiritual point where jazz and painting meet.
Not much can prepare you for your four-year-old asking “Why do we die?” My adult brain freaks out at the deep questions.
When I first met your three kids, I realized they were each extremely precocious and broad-minded. What’s the most interesting question one of your kids has asked you?
They’ve asked me so many weird and fun questions. “Is there a Google Mars?” “Did Trilobites wear crowns?”, “How do plants have fun?” “Are there dog Olympics?” Actually, the dog Olympics question has been coming up for years. I mean, who wants to grow up, really?
However, not much can prepare you for your four-year-old asking “Why do we die?” Or a seven-year-old asking “How come when we think about being real, you don’t feel real anymore?” Maybe they don’t know what they’re asking, but my adult brain just freaks out at the deep questions.
I know you’re a prolific visual artist as well as a super broad-minded listener, as the founder of Aagoo Records. Is there any way you can compare painting and jazz? What attributes do the two media share?
Absolutely, I think you set the foundation in both media, then you can take wild risks and pop in and out of the grid or time signature. Leaving or allowing the possibility for surprising things to happen seems to be an attribute that the two media share. When I listen to great jazz, I get the sense that the invention is happening before my ears. I think the way we experience recorded jazz and painting might be similar, the way very, very old paintings can turn on and look fresh. As soon as you look at them – boom, they’re on! Similarly, you can turn up jazz and it comes alive. It’s extraordinary!
In the rare moments when I can achieve not being critical or judgemental, it’s like I’m standing on a mountaintop in the wind, high-fiving the universe.
Absolutely. From there, I’d like to focus on the topic of transportation or “other-ness.” What transports you in the minutia of daily life? Is there anything in life that’s like a psychedelic or mind-altering trip to you, without the drugs?
My daily trip is exploring what makes me relaxed and at peace with myself. I’m going through a divorce right now, so I’m living moment-to-moment. It’s really the end of a dream that I did not plan on. What relaxes me is not being critical or judgmental of my ex. In the rare moments when I can achieve this, it’s like standing on a mountaintop in the wind, high-fiving the universe.
Can you describe the first childhood nightmare you remember having?
In the first childhood nightmare I remember, I was on standing an old, light-gray, sun-bleached, splinter-ridden fishing dock. My grandparents were with me, my Nan and Pop. They each wore mostly white clothing and my Pop looked a shade of tan close to wet cardboard. It was noon and the sun was glaring. My feet burned on the hot dock.
I quickly fell into the brown water. Before I could blink, a big nasty shark showed up and I started swimming around the dock in circles. It occurred to me my grandparents were too old to help me out of the water and my life was about to end. This was a reoccurring dream with several slight variations.
It seems you’ve wasted no time teaching your daughter and young sons the joys of surfing and snowboarding! I think that people who practice extreme sports display an uncommon type of bravery. Can we connect to the chaotic wildness of reality through strenuous physical activity?
Yes! I’ll use surfing as an example. This summer, my son got stung by a Portugese man o’ war jellyfish. My daughter got run over, hit in the face and had her surf leash wrapped around some gnarly reef. I got off easy with a broken toe. I guess doing dangerous stuff makes you feel alive. It wakes you up in a big way. If there’s a lesson in surfing or any wild sport, it’s that every wave is different, you can’t predict the outcome and you need to fully commit to each one. And when you really catch one that’s too big or that you thought was too big, it actually takes your breath away!
To me, the creatures that live in the depths of the ocean are the equivalent of finding life on other planets. There’s a deeply mysterious element to them, and you can go even further if you research dolphin or coral reef communication online. Do you feel a telepathic or emotional connection with any sea creatures?
Years ago, I spent a full eight hours snorkeling with a friend. It was cloudy so we could not see super well, but the water was warm and salty and we were the only ones for miles, it seemed. We figured out a way to join hands to swim fins and swim together as if we were some primitive amoeba type creature. I’ve been trying recreate this swim with my kids, but it’s still eluding me how exactly we pulled it off.
The real highlight of that day, though, was locking eyes with this really nice fish and connecting with her. The fish is called a Píntano, which is a species of damsel fish. For a good five minutes I felt telepathic with this damsel fish — we just looked at each other. It was like we shared much more than the water connecting us. She also felt like a pretty accurate mirror of me and I liked what I saw. I felt cute and fish-like for a long time after.
It’s totally unpredictable painting out in the world. I never know what I will make or who I will meet.
Can you tell us about the last dinner you had? When was the first time you ate what was on your last plate? Can you tie that to any specific memory?
My last dinner was a little bit of delicious leftover Japanese curry. There were potatoes and onions and beef but I skipped the beef. “When was the first time you ate what was on your last plate?” This seems really aggressive to me, ha. I hear that voice from Pink Floyd’s The Wall screaming it. “Eat your food before I chop your head off, you worm!”
I understand that you tend to work on artistic pursuits at your studio in the woods. Where exactly is it? How did you choose where you’d work? Does the wilderness act simultaneously as a location and subject for you?
I work in and around the Palisades in New Jersey, USA. In the 1930s, Rockefeller bought up the Palisades and removed all the huge estates overlooking the Hudson. I think he wanted a nice view from the New York side and he got it.
The landscape does simultaneously act as a location and subject. There are lots of nasty ticks, so I hang up my gear in trees and find a rock or stump to have lunch on. I end up making platforms to stand on out of branches when it’s muddy and wet. It’s totally unpredictable painting out in the world. I never know what I will make or who I will meet. In a small way people notice me and I like it. Just being in the world feels great.
I’d like to conclude back at the subject of dreams and nightmares. What was the most intense dream you’ve had recently? Can you show us what happened in a quick sketch?
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: November 16, 2017
Total questions: 9
Word count: 1296
Reading time: Five minutes
First nightmare: Fishing
Pursuer: Tuco Salamanca
FAQ: Dog Olympics
Free great idea: Google Mars
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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