Roger Braimon is a multimedia artist working in watercolor/collage, photography, graphic design, and video. Braimon’s artwork has been exhibited both in the US and overseas. His drawings and paintings, including commissioned work, are in numerous private collections. One of his Ken doll paintings was featured in the book Forever Barbie as well as in the accompanying group exhibition. Braimon is also a member of the Westbeth Artists Residents Council and has lent his graphic design, photography, and video talents to special projects for the council.
Terry Stoller spoke with Roger Braimon in November 2016 about his paintings of Ken dolls, the company he formed, which embraces his work in graphic design and his fine art, his friendship with Barton Benes, his contributions to the Visual AIDS benefit Postcards from the Edge, and his enthusiasm for Westbeth.
Terry Stoller: You received a bachelor’s degree in printmaking and photography and a
master’s in painting. Why did you make the move into graphic design?
Roger Braimon: There was a transition between then and now. As a painter you can’t really get a job out of school, except to teach. So I did anything I could in terms of work. After grad school, I was in Philly, but I moved to New York because a job opened up in a textile manufacturing company called Folio Textiles. They had about six artists on staff, and we would paint fabrics and patterns and pullouts, and then coordinate things based on either our original designs or stuff that had already been printed, which we would recolor for the client. This was the mid-1990s. It was great. When I showed up for the job interview, I brought my portfolio with my drawings and paintings. The president looked through it, and he bought two pieces from my portfolio and said, You’re hired.
That was at the same time as the book Forever Barbie by M.G. Lord. [The book features Braimon’s painting Ken Dolls and commentary about the artist.] While I was still in Pennsylvania, I had applied for a Pew Fellowship in the Arts Grant, and I was a finalist. It was between me and one other person for a $50,000 grant. I didn’t get it, but two of the people on the selection committee—one was Philip Yenawine from MoMA, and one was Ella King Torrey, a Pew officer—wrote me very encouraging letters. Torrey said, I know someone writing a book about Barbie, and your subject matter is so pertinent. I want you to meet up with her. And M.G. Lord interviewed me. She had a section in her book about artists who dealt with dolls as their subject matter. In addition to the book, there was a group exhibition featuring some of the artists.
Were you already working with the textiles by then?
Where did the textiles go?
The company would design and print fabric, and a clothing manufacturer would buy the fabric that we produced. But the industry was dying. I got in at the tail end. It turned over to the computers, and the industry moved out of New York.
It was a terrible time. You’re living in New York, and you have to pay your rent, so I temped. I did anything I could to make money. Luckily, I knew how to type. I got a temp job at Estée Lauder companies, and they hired me for two weeks in their marketing department to deal with direct mail. Two weeks turned into eleven years in the company. In the beginning, no art was involved, but they had a creative department that I eventually entered, and I created my own position, manager of Creative Media Development.
Were you doing your own work at the same time?
I was doing my own work. I also had a friend with an interior design store in NoLIta, and he allowed me to show my artwork there. He would set up the space differently every month, and he’d ask for paintings that would be good in the space—and they would sell. So I was selling work out of that store, and people at Estée Lauder knew I was an artist. I would bring in original art pieces and sell them going from cubicle to cubicle and office to office. I always knew what I was doing was not to advance my career in marketing, and people found that refreshing. I looked for ways to insert my creativity in projects. For instance, once I illustrated in watercolor holiday gift ideas for a brainstorm meeting—everyone else wrote their ideas on index cards.
Around 1998, the brand I worked with went online. That opened many creative doors for me. I learned graphic design programs myself and figured that was a way I could at least apply my art in something more interesting than direct mail. I was doing product photography, video, web interface design as well as graphic design for print. Anything that I could figure out technology-wise, I would try on them, and they’d say great. It was unbelievably supportive.
From there, you formed your own company?
In 2006, my position was eliminated. And I thought, Now what am I going to do? So I started my own art/design consulting company. I wanted to combine graphic art, photography, painting, anything that I could sell of my own work, like a service company. I could do design work for someone, but I could also make paintings and sell them, and that would still be part of my company.
Do you see the graphic design and your artwork on a continuum—or do you see them as separate?
I see them as separate. In terms of my lifestyle, I can work and do all these separate jobs, but a lot of times, clients will ask me to do projects that are similar to my own art, and I’ll say, That’s dangerously close to my own art, and I can’t do it.
Why can’t you do it?
I guess getting an hourly rate for art bothers me. I have mixed feelings about selling my own work, and the situation has to sit right with me at the time of sale. In some cases, I would rather give it away. In other cases, a person might really want to support me by owning it with a purchase.
How did you get to Westbeth?
When I moved to New York in 1994, I applied for Westbeth. I got on the waiting list, and I just kept waiting and waiting. But I knew I was meant to live at Westbeth. I knew it would be my home, a home around artists and creative people. I moved in in 2009. I got so excited to get into Westbeth. The first day I introduced myself to a lot of people. My neighbor Kathryn Kates welcomed me with salt and all those things you get for a new apartment. I put my name on the gallery list to have a show immediately, and I put my piece in the summer show.
One of the success stories of Westbeth could be me meeting Barton Benes and being so connected to him artistically and emotionally and personally. He was a neighbor of mine. I absolutely loved him. I met Barton through Lucille Rhodes. She sent me a note saying that her neighbor Barton was sick and was going to be alone because she was going away and a lot of other neighbors were going to be away. She asked if I could introduce myself and see if I could help him with his garbage or errands. He had COPD and neuropathy from HIV medication. He was on an oxygen tank with a 50-foot tube that went from one end of the apartment to the other. Everyone who met him fell in love with him right away. He was so warm and charming, and his apartment was unbelievable. I opened the door, he let me in, and I said, I’m just going to need a minute here to absorb what’s going on. I looked from one wall to the next, and my mouth was hanging open. I had entered a time warp. The apartment was full of taxidermy and Egyptian and Asian art and unbelievable relics and mummies and a bull from Pamplona. Another interesting thing was that he grew up in Westwood, New Jersey, near the hometown where I lived. It was a weird coincidence. Barton remembered the number of our bus from Port Authority to Westwood!
We had an immediate connection. His artwork felt so familiar, even though I hadn’t seen it before. I related to all his work in terms of color, aesthetics, humor. He would approach different subjects and keep revisiting them. His work had such a personal narrative to it, which is kind of like my earlier work with the Ken dolls, where you could choose a subject and props to convey your personal stories.
You told the author of the Barbie book that you came out in graduate school, but that at first you had difficulty expressing it in your art.
Prior to the Ken dolls, I was doing a lot of self-portraits, and what was interesting was I didn’t really know artistically that I was coming out through my art. I was searching for my true self. And I would paint these portraits over and over again, and sometimes they would have a shadow of me that looked slightly different behind me. William Wegman was one of the visiting critics at school. He told me, This work is homoerotic. And I had no idea what that meant at the time. So pre–Ken doll, I was already exploring what it meant to be a gay man in my art, but it was very dark. I didn’t want to come out. The Ken dolls were proxies for myself, and using the dolls helped create that separation.
In the book, those paintings are described as evocative of the work of Manet. Was that conscious?
Absolutely. For school, I went to Paris and Rome, one month for drawing and one month for photography. I loved Edouard Manet. There’s one, The Fife Player, that has a darkish outline and a plain background, and one of the Ken doll pieces is inspired by that. It was during a breakup of a relationship, and it was me saying goodbye to my partner at the time. I used two dolls in the style of Manet.
You use actual frames in some of the Ken doll paintings as a framing device.
I think it’s like a tableau: here’s the story, and in a painting, I’m going to show you this still life. They were very conscious props to contain the story. The one I mentioned also had a “Clinton Victorious” newspaper headline in it. I was so hoping that Hillary would win, and I would revisit the Ken doll series with two newspapers.
I do think about framing the composition. One of the things I look at in other artwork is how the artist uses the four edges—the relationship between the subject and the four edges. Sometimes when you see portraits, they’re sort of wedged on top, or a piece of the head is cut off. Maybe it’s my traditional training. You’re taught to consider how you want to portray your object in these four boundaries. It has to be a conscious thing.
For a number of years now, you’ve been participating in the Postcards from the Edge show for the organization Visual AIDS.
I think Barton was on the board of that, and he told me about it. I love that show. Anyone can do an art piece on a postcard, submit it, and they display it on the wall and sell it for $85. But you don’t know who the artist is. There will be well over a thousand pieces on the wall. And people line up, sometimes the night before, because they invite famous people to submit their postcards. So curators and collectors come. They’ll spend a thousand dollars to be one of the first ten people in line to get a ticket, so they can run to the piece and buy it. It’s a spectacle. I’ve been doing it for about six years, and I’ve sold every year, which is very nice. And you get to find out who bought your piece.
What kinds of things do you submit?
They’re all using watercolor and/or collage. The way I used color and form in the most recent watercolor you saw—the cityscape—I think that’s where I’m going to end up in terms of my aesthetic. There’s a Paul Klee that I saw recently at MoMA, and I said, That’s who I want to be. And everyone was saying, You’re so much more than that, Roger. You’re not so square.
So the piece for the show doesn’t have to have a political cast to it. Do you see art as a political or social force?
It can be. I think there are artists that deal with AIDS and HIV and the politics around that. I believe in the cause, but I don’t really adapt the art to the cause. It’s more to be part of the cause, but still be myself.
Can you talk more about the artistic choices in the cityscape watercolor?
I enjoy experimenting with color relationships, using patterns and mixing figurative with abstraction. The cityscape, from my ninth floor window, gave me that inspiration. When the light changed, I looked at the new shapes I saw and made up new ones that fit with shapes I had already painted.
You hadn’t lived that long at Westbeth when you curated the show Network in 2012. Your work was in the show, but who were the other artists? I don’t recognize their names as Westbeth residents.
None of them were from Westbeth. I didn’t know many artists from Westbeth. I was pretty new in the building. I always see the art gallery as an extension into the community. If we want to remain relevant as an artists’ community, we need to interact with the outside community and get other people more involved. I can’t say that more strongly. We need to be cognizant of our place in the community and get people more interested in us.
Recently you’ve been experimenting with video—for instance, your use of time lapse.
That’s what I was saying before about Barton, how his work spoke to me. He used several distinctively different mediums to express himself. That’s what I’m drawn to. I want to have humor and tell a story and put a personal narrative in—and use different mediums of expression.
I did something else that was a lot of fun, a live watercolor on Facebook—Facebook Live. You basically can film live, and your video feed can be seen by anyone in real time, and people can comment in real time. In the left hand was my camera, and in the right hand, my watercolor brush. It was fun because I was doing performance, I was doing watercolor, and I was filming. It stays on Facebook. People can comment during the filming, or they can comment afterward. It becomes a film, and there’s an art piece. You’re self-conscious because you know people are watching. But you have to be fast. You can’t put that long of a video up because viewers would probably lose interest after about two minutes.
You probably didn’t see the three films I did in school in the late ’80s. They were 16 mm, and they lose so much quality on video. I think that was one of the first times when I felt that myself and my art were the same thing. I felt if—God forbid—I died the next day, I would have expressed everything that was in my heart in that film. I was really happy with myself, with my work, with every aspect of it. I remember having faith in the process, that it would work if I relied on my creative instinct— without knowing what the final product would be.
You joined the residents council shortly after you moved in.
I wanted to be a part of Westbeth, and they were looking for fresh meat on the council. They said, The admissions chair is opening up. The wait list is closed, so you won’t have much job to do. But when it opens, it will be a lot of work. So I said, Great.
And you do graphic work for the council. Can you tell me about that?
I think the first thing I did for the beautification committee was the Westbeth sign—for the front and the back. The W was warped off, and they needed a new sign. I had one vendor I worked with at Estée Lauder who created this metal sign that would be waterproof and could be washed off. I’ve done photography for the council. For the fortieth anniversary, I did a lot of the direct mail pieces and posters and program guides. But I’ll never be a George Cominskie in terms of how much he gives back to Westbeth and how much of his daily life is dedicated to the well-being of the individuals and institution of Westbeth.
Any final thoughts?
I think I’m probably one of the luckiest people in the whole city to have Westbeth. We all are very lucky. It sounds corny, but we’re given so much, and we really have to give back. I don’t think nearly enough people volunteer their time to give back to Westbeth. As artists, we’re all working on our own work and we have to nourish our own careers, but we have to give back. We are so privileged to live in this building. I want more people to get involved in the building, to know what a special thing we have. I’m sort of new, so maybe I’m still a little bit wide-eyed. But everyone should have a passion for Westbeth. We have so much to be thankful for in our little bubble of Westbeth.
(To see more of Roger Braimon’s work, go to emmettnyc.com.)
All images courtesy of Roger Braimon.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2017 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council