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Artist-Writer-Artist: Tullio DeSantis

Any attempt to describe the life-work of Tullio DeSantis will inevitably come up short, faced with the variety of media in which he has worked (writing, painting, installation, performance, video) and the application of intelligence he has applied for many years in each medium. His work has a quality of absorption and attentiveness that comes from a deep immersion in Eastern philosophy, though he resists attempts to place divisions between schools and categories of thought, art, and experience. In the past he has collaborated with poet Allen Ginsberg and artist Keith Haring, and it was this specific intersection in his work - the meeting of writing and painting - that I was interested in discussing for this series. He kindly agreed to this small collaboration with an inquisitive stranger.

Philip: The following is a list of forms in which you have written extensively: journalism; poetry; personal philosophy; memoir (“Reading Lies Dreaming”). You are clearly an artist to whom words matter as much as ‘the image’, however that may be defined. As you reflect on this body of work, what’s the first thing that takes your attention in terms of your creative process?

Tullio: When the question is put in this way, the first thing that strikes me is the persistence of the divide between verbal and visual modes. Even in something as apparently singular as one person’s life and work. So it seems, in terms of my creative process it begins with an awareness of a bifurcated path of possibilities. I can express a thing in either verbal or visual modes. I can combine the two or integrate them in many ways. Yet they remain discrete. There seems to be something ontological – or at least neurological – about this… like the particle/wave duality, perhaps. Very persistent distinctions remain – even though experience, life, the world itself – is clearly just one thing.

“Compassion”, digital painting, 2010

Philip: I am particularly interested in those moments when an artist branches out into creative writing. What do you think is happening when you write a poem, that is or is not happening when you apply a pattern of dots to a canvas?

Tullio: In keeping with what I said above, there just seems to be these two parallel tracks ­– the verbal and the visual. It is a constantly bifurcating path, sort of a fractal branching occurs – or can occur – at any moment. A visual cue can elicit a verbal response and vice-versa. I’m aware of making an initial decision as to which mode I’m using at any one moment, that is, which pathway I’ll start down – either visual or verbal. After that I will often mix them up, combine them, work toward some synthesis. Other than that – the initial decision – I’m not sure there is a lot of difference in terms of what is happening during the creative process.

Philip: In either your writing or your painting, or perhaps in both, what particular quality (image, voice, a sequence of events, memory, a pattern of lines and dots) comes closest to expressing that synthesis and unity that you seem to be striving for?

Tullio: The following conjunction of image and text does contain the synthesis and unity I want to express in my work:

"Intelligent World 11111011011" by Tullio DeSantis, altered ink drawing, 2011

when I stand on this hill with summer in my eyes
the sky shakes within blue-grey banks
a river of wind moves through the valley
lightning happens branches shift rain falls
I can hear the roofs rattle
setting off a trillion sparks in me

and the hill is within me and summer rain and wind
are all at once inside my head and fill my body

I know there is only one thing and never two things
not the world and not me but something else
something that is just one thing
that I can understand and know only for an instant

then it seems in the second half of that same instant
I forget what I know and there are two things again
I am lost
until it rains again
and then I remember
there is only

Philip: I was impressed by the writing in “Nothing Dies”, a creative non-fiction piece which has echoes of Ginsberg and Kerouac. Did the act of writing about the past differ from say your poetry and painting, which seem very much about ‘the present’?

Tullio: Thanks. The question of time never actually occurs to me as ontologically very significant. As far as I can tell, it is always the present. This does call into question a lot of what we seem to take for granted about existence. I’m fine with that, as our explanations really don’t appear very capable of actually describing either existence or experience very well. When writing, I’m aware of the various frames that can be imposed upon experience – one of them being time. But if anything connects my words to the others you mentioned, it may have something to do with the sense of writing (and reading) being something that takes place in the present.

Philip: Do you do much revision or editing of your creative writing?

Tullio: All the time. I’m never finished working on anything. Sometimes I pick up a poem or a piece of writing from years ago and just revise it and republish the new version. There are many versions of individual pieces out there. With visual work, everything I’ve done in traditional media is being reworked and integrated into new digital multimedia pieces. I’m also very aware that the work is actually “completed” within the person receiving it, and that changes from person to person, place to place, and time to time. In that sense, one’s work is never “finished”. This sort of thing is probably as good a reason as any for an artist to die – to actually stop working.

Philip: In a 1986 interview with Keith Haring, you said to him: “That was good. I got you to slow down.”  How do you think that advice might apply to the practice of art-making and story-telling?

Tullio: More and more it has become apparent that “stopping the world” - to borrow a phrase from Castaneda - is how marvelous things are done. Of course, the world is moving even faster now than when I said that to Keith. He was very much able to stop the world. We did that together a few times. This was often the subject of our dialogs. In the years since then, I’ve been involved in various forms of mindfulness practice, from meditation to neurofeedback, in which I’m very involved at present. Slowing down or “stopping the world” refers to an altered state of mind, doesn’t it? I’d say that is what story-telling and art-making are all about.

"New Universe", digitized ink drawing, 2010
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  1. A fascinating consideration of the creative practice. Thanks to both of you.


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