art, interview, outsiders

A Talk with a Modern-Day Petroglyphist

My second piece for Hyperallergic, out today:

Three years ago, the artist Kevin Sudeith left New York City to create stone carvings on immovable rock outcroppings across Canada and the continental US. A modern-day petroglyphist, he has also created more than two dozens images on rocks in undisclosed locations in New York. While this isn’t exactly legal, it can be viewed as a kind of thoughtful and permanent graffiti. (And speaking of illegality and disclosure: When I buried my cat Mietzi in my Queens backyard, Sudeith carved a tombstone for her.)

Sudeith’s work primarily documents the lives and stories of people who live near the carving sites. Other petroglyphs pointedly contrast with the ancient subject matter of his art form by depicting satellites and space vehicles.

In a world exceedingly characterized by high-speed technology, virtual reality, and surveillance, Sudeith’s carvings of human narratives — of human struggles and rewards — unfold slowly, both in their making and in that they’re meant to be discovered rather than exhibited. The narratives on stone beg to be touched and felt, but for the most part are hard to access. The relative inapproachability of the works collides with an art world that believes it can access (and acquire) everything at its fingertips.

Kevin Sudeith’s first solo show of pigmented impressions of his carvings, photos, and time-lapse video opened earlier this month at 308 at 156 Project Artspace in Manhattan. I spoke with him about the exhibition and his work.

Sabine Heinlein: What’s in your backpack?

Kevin Sudeith: My van is one big kit. For carving, I have two backpacks: one for heavy duty tools and one for lighter power tools and hand tools, as well as chalk for drawing compositions. There is a photography kit for shooting time lapse and a big beanbag with colors, brushes, pressing tools, and an old-fashioned painters palette. I have a large and a small tent, a tub of cooking supplies, and a couple of Persian rugs because they’re great for camping. Then there’s the general survival kit with compasses, knives, first aid, and a gun, and the tuck sack with yogurt, homemade jerky, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, cured meats, nuts, dried fruits, and homemade preserves from friends.


Kevin Sudeith, “Original European Settlers,” Ingomar, MT (2010)

SH: It seems like much of your work is based on narratives you discover coincidentally. How do you come up with your motifs?

KS: I had a vague invitation to Ingomar, MT, population: 7. I was eating breakfast in the cafe when a man in his 70s barks out, “WHOSE VAN IS THAT OUT THERE!?!” I jumped up to say, “Oh, that’s mine … ” He bellowed, “WHAT ARE YA SELLIN’?!” I told him I’m an artist, and he looked at me real hard and said, “Are you drawing unemployment?” Surprised, I stammered, “No! I live by my own means.” I showed him my portfolio, and he said, “I’ve got some rocks. I’ll take you out there.”

He had the best rocks for 100 miles, and we became great friends. I helped him with his farming, and he let me camp and carve on his land. A few weeks later, when I was showing his son my carvings, he asked whether I could carve his grandparent’s wedding photo. His grandparents were the original European settlers on the land where I was working. His grandfather had come from Czechoslovakia in 1905 and homesteaded in Montana. He wrote back to Czechoslovakia, and his village sent him a girl. They were married at the train station and a photo was taken. They were married for 50 years and had nine kids.

Another time I was making a jerky and cheese sandwich in my van when a guy in a ’70s Suburban pulled up for a chat. He asked me if I do memorials or gravestones. (Oddly, this had not occurred to me.) He said a little girl was buried on his land, and he wanted to mark the spot. I thought it was his niece or granddaughter, but it turned out she’d died in 1904, as her family passed through town. No one knew her name, only that her parents were artists. As the sun set over the glacial moraine, he showed me the one big stone that seemed to adorn three graves. Before I left town I carved “Daughter of Artists 1900–1904” in the pouring rain.

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