Monday, 5 October 2009

An interview with Niagara Detroit.

In the age of communication, things can happen fast. When I started to do this blog I thought it only right and fair that I should get permission for the use of the artists images as far as possible. Up to present everyone has been really positive and helpful. I was particularly lucky and thrilled to get great feedback and support from Niagara and her husband Colonel Galaxy for the piece I wrote on her and was invited to interview the legendary lady over the phone. It all happened pretty quickly and to be honest, after years of not really writing anything I was a little overwhelmed by the speed of events and felt a bit scared of writing up and editing the interview and buried my head in the sand for a few weeks. It took me a couple of months to get my creative mojo back and tackle the job in hand, but finally here it is.

In the event I have kept the interview pretty much as it happened. Niagara was friendly and happy to chat and reading it back, there's loads of things I would like to have asked her more about. She is a seriously talented and original lady and as both a musician and an artist she has played a central role in two of the great counter culture events of the last few decades, namely the punk rock scene and the lowbrow art movement.

Anyway, here's the interview and just to give a bit of background information, it was conducted over the phone whilst I was suffering the end stages of a two day hangover. The time was afternoon in Detroit where Niagara lives. In fact, Niagara had kindly set the interview back a day to give me time to recover! But I still hadn't shaken off the headache...

Niagara: "Don't you have pills?"

A Zeal of Zebras: "I've taken the pills, the pills haven't really worked! How are you?"

Niagara: "Pretty good. It's really dreamy here today, so amazing. Where we live, my garden is like a jungle, I can't believe I did it, I guess it took a while. You live in Manchester right?"

A Zeal of Zebras: "No I live in Leeds, it's very close to Manchester..."

Niagara: "It's a gorgeous area there, Manchester is gorgeous... (When Niagara held an exhibition of her work at the Richard Goodall Gallery in Manchester) We went up north to, what, the Lake country?"

A Zeal of Zebras: "Lake district."

Niagara: "We took a train and met somebody and we went to the castles, fantastic! And the little strange villages. Yeah, it was all good."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Had you been there before, was that the first time?"

Niagara: "Well we'd been to Manchester before. (During her days with the bands Destroy All Monsters and Dark Carnival.) I'd travelled around the country, the whole country in what, seven days or something? I remember it was gorgeous back then, I'm sure it's been built up but the district was still happening and it was just beautiful, just like going into the past."

(Niagara with her band Dark Carnival.)

Anyway what do you want to know?"

After a quick discussion about blogs and Niagara's Facebook page, this lead us onto the strong ties between Lowbrow art and the web.

A Zeal of Zebras: "In England in my experience, a lot of people aren't very aware of artists such as yourself from (the Lowbrow and Pop Surrealism scene in) America and it's only because I've done an awful lot of surfing around that I seem to have come across it. I mean even Juxtapoz (the US based magazine specializing in covering this art scene), a lot of people haven't heard of it over here. It's still very underground really."

Niagara: "Yeah I heard a lot of people were just checking it out and getting onto it. Thank God for the internet. From different countries in Europe they've been contacting us, like in Germany they said "this is like this new wave artist," kind of a new thing for artists. I was surprised, they were starting to explain it in magazines and articles about me and whoever.. So it's going up steps forwards and a couple of steps back. At least everyone's checking it out. People are interested, you can't buy that."

A Zeal of Zebras: "I think people are realizing there are like-minded people in other places and as you say the internet has been a big help. In England the art scene as a whole is pretty dull and the so called alternative art is quite pretentious. For me it's just really nice to see things which are exciting and I don't have to think too hard about it - "I like that, that's great" and it's also taken away the snob value."

Niagara: "Well here also there is a lot of new art, a lot of artists that are younger, that have been coming out, thank God for Juxtapoz, but there still are different galleries that do the snob thing. There's always different degrees of art and galleries, so that's everywhere. People know what they like pretty fast. We're all catching up, everyone's catching up, there's always more."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Now it's just a bit more accessible..."

Niagara: "Yeah, it's a miracle. I mean, things that influenced me when I was little, the internet hasn't been around that long, but for decades I'd have to go to the library, I mean you have to really dig for stuff, for the scene that you like, for art that you like and you know, garage sales and magazines and old books and library basements... Yeah now you can just press a button!"

A Zeal of Zebras: "I think as well, if you went to art school or something you were very reliant on who was giving you the information - "Read this book, read that book..." so again, you were limited."

Niagara: "It's true. That's right. I think most of the things I found out about that I could really relate to, that I loved the look of, wasn't something that somebody told me of, I searched that out, you know, myself. You find a little clue and then you go figure like a detective."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Do you think the internet has taken the fun out of finding new art or on the whole do you think it is good? Do you think taken some of the difficulty or the challenge out of it?"

Niagara: "Absolutely, that's absolutely true. Before the internet was really hot, like in the mid nineties or something, up until then it was all magazines and newspaper articles and you just wanted to get written about, which you still do. But if you were lucky enough to get in magazines, now you can be found on the internet and get a following without even being in the press and the free press. And now the papers are going out of business (laughs) and magazines are going out of business, which I think is a shame because I think magazines are a really important art form. I love magazines."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Yeah. I have some music magazines from the 70s and 80s and there's just nothing like it now. There's nothing that I think I'd want to hang onto now. But again a lot of creative people gravitated around the music scene - like yourself. If there wasn't an art scene you could get into, then you could get into music and a lot of art that I have discovered has come from record sleeves. Like Anthony Ausgang, I discovered him through record sleeves. I'm sure you were a part of that as well... Creative people."

Niagara: "Sure, I'm good friends with Anthony...Well, Juxtapoz brought a lot of people to the surface. I don't know really what would have happened without that. I'm always thanking Robert Williams. It was because of him that any of us have a career. I mean it would have been a lot slower going, if going at all, for a lot of people out there. But even the economy now, a lot of artists I talk to are just really open about it, I mean all of them that I know are saying, you know, I haven't had shows as much and I haven't been selling. But it will turn around and people still are doing things and people always love art. But for a lot of people it is make it or break it time."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Yeah I can imagine. How about yourself? I know you've had some international shows. How are things happening for you at the moment?"

Niagara: "Pretty good. First I did shows through America and then when I started wanting to go internationally that seemed to be pretty easy, which I mostly do now and it hasn't been bad at all. I mean, I'm going back to Australia this January and we go about every two years and my shows luckily have sold out and hopefully that will continue! But I'm concentrating now on a New York gallery which I was searching out for a decade. I wanted a nice gallery and I think I've found one in Salon 94. That's a really nice gallery and the owner is wonderful . So we're going to New York like every couple of months now. And on the internet on our website, I think they're selling, I mean mostly not paintings, but prints, sell very well and giclees, so I'm very happy about that."

"I remember times when I was in a band years ago and money wasn't always coming in readily, so it's just a rush that's its keeping on and I'm very happy about it."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Yeah and I think things like giclees, sometimes people can't afford an original for whatever reason but the prints and giclees, usually people can come up with the money for that or even the merchandise that you're doing. It's a way of people having something by an artist and you're both happy about it."

Niagara: " That's how I feel because I wasn't always in a ton of money and you know a giclee looks exactly like a painting if you get a good printer which we have and you can enjoy it until one day when you're rich you can get a painting! (Laughs.) But it looks just fine you know, it's just a beautiful reproduction, I'm just so glad whoever discovered that. Someone French obviously! Yeah you want to have something out there that people can enjoy."

A Zeal of Zebras: "It's also a means of promoting yourself in a way. Someone might buy a giclee and someone else might see it and say - who's that by. In fact when I was younger, I went to university for a little while and the first thing you do is go to the poster sale and buy a poster - it brightens up your room and you feel a little bit cultural!"

Niagara: "That's right. You need some good artwork. To be honest I always get house magazines and check out the art people have and when they have a designer fix their house they usually have a designer pick a painting which will look something like wall paper. I mean these people don't really know what to pick through artwork but they have a designer put up some bland kind of... something that goes with the couch and you go, "Man, this room would really zip up with one of my paintings!" (Laughs.) Boy, then they would really have a personality! Yeah, but people, they have to find out for themselves, what turns them on."

A Zeal of Zebras: "I'd like to ask you about the colours that you use. I've been lucky enough to see some of your originals but even on the internet, the colours in your paintings are just incredible and I just wondered if there's anything behind that, that you can tell me about. How you come up with these amazing bright colours and..."

Niagara: "Combinations. Yeah, I think a colour always looks better depending on what you combine it with, I mean you take one colour that might look ugly or you don't like, but it's just in the combining of them, you know, what goes with what and I don't know... people either have a colour sense or they don't. Or very often it's just a matter of what they like best, different colour senses. I've finally put together the style that I've been looking for, for so long."

"I mean, I was doing kind of more a pop art thing and I was trying to do more, instead of using big blobs of colour, big colour forms, trying to use more layering of colours. So I've finally got to a point where I've got all this practice on different techniques, so I can do, you know the girls are still there, still intense, the colours move into each other and there's a lot of layering and, I've been practicing on that and it's got to a point that I'm very happy with."

"I can't wait to start painting for this whole season now, that will be cool. It's just that, it seems so easy looking at it, it seems obvious but it took a few years to get that together. I've tried collages and it's always fun, every year, you do something different, you know, a little bit... experiment."

A Zeal of Zebras: "I thought the collages were really beautiful, they were incredible. Again it seemed like a simple idea,but you just put them together so well, the picture and the little chinese motifs and things."

Niagara: "People like that. I heard you've got one of the Opium paintings."

A Zeal of Zebras: "I have, I've got Opium Lust."

Niagara: "That's great. I think it's a little different because they're like sheer collages instead of opaque pictures that you cut out. It's all another layering thing too, you can see different things through it. When you put on different sheer colours then you get new colours that kind of thing... I'm glad you like that."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Even the lighting as well, if change the lighting in my room I see different things."

Niagara: "Sure... and when you take acid you see even more things! (laughs) It works really good!"

A Zeal of Zebras: "Never gone down that road I must admit. Too scared!"

Niagara: "What, is there is still acid in England somewhere?"

A Zeal of Zebras: "Probably!"

Niagara: "It's just comforting to know even if we're not going to take it anymore, it's always there if we want to!

"We used to party almost constantly. When you paint though, painting gets you high. It's amazing to get that high on painting and NOT have a hangover! You know everything I do, there's a hangover attached except for painting! So it's a nice kind of change."

A Zeal of Zebras:"What are you painting at the moment? Do you paint every day or do you get your thoughts together first? How does it work?"

Niagara: "Yeah I get myself together! (Laughs.) Well actually it seems to work out every year where in the Spring I usually take off for a while, I mean there's always something to do that I have to do for a show, to prepare or maybe a group show. But I try to do other things in the Spring, other projects and then I think a lot about how it's going to change and where I'm going to go with it and what I'm going to do - and it doesn't matter, it all comes together when you start painting. Once I start, I can't stop. I'll paint like every night for seven hours until Spring again! So it's like a series, it goes through Fall until Spring and it's Winter here, it's like snowy so you're shut in, you become a shut in and you don't have anything to throw you off, which is a really good thing, I just love the winter and you're just snowbound and painting and everything's ok."

"I should mention in Manchester where I think you might know I have a gallery there, it's the Richard Goodall Gallery, such wonderful people, I've been with them for a little while."

A Zeal of Zebras: "It's one of the few galleries in England that is really promoting the Juxtapoz scene."

Niagara: "Yeah I didn't know it was one of the few. I mean it's the only one I've been showing at. Yeah so he really is a rarity isn't he?"

A Zeal of Zebras: "I try and go over to the shows that they put on there when I can, they are doing a really good job. Often the alternative galleries in England are showing more graffiti artwork and graffiti artists. I think some of them now are coming round to the fact that there's this whole seam of artists from America that have just done amazing work."

Niagara: "It's almost like the graffiti stuff had a high and then a low. Artists that used to work on the street, a lot of the good ones and the better ones are showing in galleries, you know doing stuff inside for galleries and not as much on the street which is convenient for them. (Laughs.) Yeah that seems to be changing round, there's so many phases and fads in the art world and it takes so long to catch on and they take a while to get respect and get any money for them, so it's like a whole process."

(Collaboration between Niagara and Yumiko Kayukawa.)

A Zeal of Zebras: "I wanted to ask you about your collaboration with Yumiko Kayukawa." (Yumiko is a Japanese artist now based in Seattle.)

Niagara: "She's a doll!"

A Zeal of Zebras: "How did you get to know her and get involved with her?"

Niagara: "Oh yeah I remember now! There was this beautiful art gallery in Detroit and I was involved with them when they opened up and they wanted to show me and I was like their artist. And they started reaching out to everybody and to Juxtapoz artists and would have these fantastic shows and everyone used to come here and Yumiko was one of the artists that showed one month when we first met her... She was really sweet and we talked a lot and we had pictures taken and then, it was Halloween so they took her to a haunted house, causes we have haunted houses and Detroit is a big Halloween town - and it scared the hell out of her and I think she sat somewhere and started crying... I think they just pushed her over the edge, she's sensitive and it was too much pressure but yeah, she paints and she paints a lot."

"The things we did together turned out amazingly well. It was funny how we thought we'd both paint, like I'd do two paintings, you know like half of them unfinished, so I did the background and a figure and she'd put in animals and whatever and she said to me like the concept, I thought she would do something like that but she just figuratively cut the canvas in half and painted one side of it so that was kind of cute but they all came out really neat looking and came out better than I thought. You never know it was so much fun doing that, you really get to know another artist and it makes you think in a whole different way and I really like that. Any artist would."

(Collaboration between Niagara and Yumiko Kayukawa.)

A Zeal of Zebras: "Do you think you'd do it again at any point with anybody else?"

Niagara: "Sure. I mean, at first it's like, why bother? It's like I'm always dragged screaming into different ideas, different curators will say "Do this, I have this great idea, like everyone's going to paint spacemen" or whatever! (Laughs.) Sometimes you gotta say, "Ah no!" And sometimes at the last minute you come up with something."

"One guy wanted, he had all these artists paint Darth Vadar helmets. He got the original made from Disney or whoever the hell made them and it was like $100 to buy these helmets for each artist and I was saying "Forget it" and then at the last minute I painted, you know, I got this great idea! And it was one of the guy's favourites and it comes out really amazing. People will say ah, "Lunch boxes" and you go "Come on!" but then you do something fantastic and rise to the occasion."

(Customised Darth Vader helmet by Niagara.)

A Zeal of Zebras: "It's like the customising thing isn't it? You did some Vans trainers didn't you? Some sneakers?"

Niagara: "Yeah I'm still working with Vans, those guys were fantastic. They were great and we had a show in Paris and also in England and we were going around and the shoes were following us. They were reprinted beautifully, everything they do is a bang up job. They have another section of the company that wants to do something with me. You know, I'll do anything with those guys."

(Vans by Niagara.)

A Zeal of Zebras: "That would probably raise your profile a lot too as a lot of people love their sneakers don't they? They get quite obsessive about them and follow the trend."

Niagara: "People do. I mean, I don't. I'm like "Yeah this is something I'm gladly willing to do but it's not like I'm going to be wearing them (laughs) unless you make, like high heel sneakers!" Yeah they look like pieces of artwork. There's also a company, Hysteric Glamour, have you heard of them?"

A Zeal of Zebras: "Yeah I saw it on your site. I think I tried to link to it and a lot of it was Japanese and I got a bit confused!"

Niagara: "Yeah I guess they don't sell in America really but Nobu the owner comes here a lot and he does photo shoots in Detroit cos he's a Detroit obsessive. You know he was a fan of mine years ago. It's like he's on another planet but he likes me. I'm going - "That's how things should be!"

"This guy, he's like keyed in to the Detroit scene. He knew all my music and brought us to Japan but this man put together an empire of all these beautifully made clothes and they give us a lot of clothes and I give them away to people and everyone just loves them. It's the best material, very nicely done and I guess, they have like 40 stores in Japan and in Tokyo they're next door to Prada. Really good designer, kind of punk design."

"So I've been doing collages for them and they take my designs and throw them on the clothes. They had originally done it with collages I made in the 70's and I didn't even know. They were telling me about what they were doing and using from our book and it was like my whole life on these clothes because there's pictures from, you know, from when I grew up or in a band. They're on these clothes (laughs) from photos, cause, you know, we use lots of photos and it was like a diary, my diary, pictures on these clothes. I was like "What the hell is going on!" So that was great but those guys were fantastic too to work with. I've been really lucky with these two companies. I am lucky!"

A Zeal of Zebras: "So how about things show-wise? I know you said you've got Australia, is it Outre Gallery that you go to?"

Niagara: "That's right! I had to think for a while, every two years I have to think of the name."

A Zeal of Zebras: "I've checked them out online and they seem really on the ball, they're doing a really good job."

(Niagara at one of her shows at Outre Gallery in Australia.)

Niagara: "Oh they are, those guys are really organized. They've put us up and we go to Sydney and Melbourne and I had played there, when did we play there in the 90's I guess. The band went, I went with Ronnie (Asheton) and our band and that was like for a month. We played almost every night. That was the best tour ever and we wanted to go back. And then I had an art show there a few years ago and Ronnie was going "I never get to go back to Australia" and it was funny because then they booked the Stooges there and we were there at the same time and that happened a lot where I met up with Ronnie in Europe and in Australia, just you know coincidentally. We'd do an art show where the Stooges were playing and hang out, that was wonderful."

(Niagara watching the reformed Stooges in Australia.)

A Zeal of Zebras: "I did actually see the Stooges when they reformed, they played at the Leeds festival a few years ago. I obviously didn't see them originally but it was fantastic to see them, they were doing the Fun House album and it was just amazing. The same weekend there were some of the MC5 guys playing at this festival so I was totally made up. I can't believe I'm seeing these two bands in the same weekend of my life."

Niagara: "That must be weird I mean how often does that happen? I know how nuts about them I was when I was growing up and if I had been too young to see them and had got a chance that would be freaky, I never thought about it from that angle."

(Niagara with Ron Asheton of the Stooges and Fred 'Sonic' Smith of the MC5.)

A Zeal of Zebras: "And they were both amazing which was something. It wasn't like, oh dear, they're not very good."

Niagara: "No because almost all bands when they come back, a lot, something's missing, the feeling that you expect. A curator I know wouldn't see them in LA and he kept hearing how fantastic they were and he was begging me for a ticket. We got him in the show and he was so happy to go because it was killer. It sounded like it sounded, they didn't try to fancy it up or sophisticate it out. They just did the beautiful plan, like originally and it was just great."

"Yeah it was a miracle that happened, Ronnie became a millionaire. I mean when we played together, we were playing a lot and we were making money, we had apartments. I always remember when we stayed with his mother and you know that was the lower point. There was a couple of years at least when we lived all together with Scotty and those were really wild times so I usually talk about that. But you know we were making money and going places and taking care of ourselves. I mean we were sometimes. But yeah we did pretty good for a long time, we stayed together, God, maybe 15 years or something."

A Zeal of Zebras: "So was Ronnie in both the bands? Destroy All Monsters and Dark Carnival?

Niagara: "Yeah he was in both. Dark Carnival started out when the Colonel put (together) like an all star band of Detroit musicians, you know the kookiest ones, some of his favourite wierder people and Ronnie was actually filming it. I was trying to get him involved because, you know, he should be doing something and we had broken up the band. So he was filming and he was in movies at that point, some horror movie. He started filming us and became more involved and he became the guitarist for the band."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Do you still dabble with music? Are you still involved in it?"

Niagara "Well sometimes, you know it's hard to do both. For me it's hard to paint all the time yet go to band practice, but I do have bands. Well, when I went to Japan, a Japanese band there would memorize and practise the songs I gave them, then we'd have one practice when I got there. Then we'd perform. That happened in Australia too. I had a band that probably would be my band now. I played with them two years ago, it was a great show, it was pretty fun, it worked out, sometimes it does! And a guy is putting out a record of that live show. It's out of Philadelphia and they're putting out a CD - Shock records. So I guess I'm going to play with them again and it's always great because when you paint you're alone which is fine. It's nice having the guys, they're all great. It's fun to practice with them, you go out and it all comes back, pretty cool."

"So yeah the music thing is here and there and I don't know if I'd go on a heavy month long tour with them, if someone cares.. I probably still wouldn't do it! But you know there's always a possibility."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Do you feel that you're a different person onstage to the artist or you still a similar person when you're doing both. Does it open up two different doors?"

Niagara: "No it's about the same. I mean it's not like I'm an Alice Cooper type where I get a different personality onstage.It's not like I'm in a movie playing a part, just being yourself in a way, maybe amplified. I mean I've got to admit it's got to be amplified a little bit. I put on extra eyeliner! (Laughs) But yeah, its the same damn thing."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Who were your influences originally? I know you predated a lot of the punk stuff really didn't you? So when you first joined the band, who did you look to as an influence or inspiration?"

Niagara: "I think it would just have to be the Stooges, sure. Because that was just overwhelming in Detroit and there were a lot of people making fun of them then and also at that time when you'd go in a record store after they had just broken up... I mean they were together a very short time in the beginning so people would just laugh. I mean I couldn't get their albums because I'd worn mine out but they were just like incredible to me."

"When I was living in Ann Arbour that's when I met Ronnie and he'd just came off another band. He was playing in L.A. and he thought he'd get some free beer and play with us! (Laughs) And then it turned into, we fell in love and he became my boyfriend. He wanted to be in the band and he liked the guys and we shaped it up and changed it around and we played together so long... I mean, jeez I don't know, three times as long as when he was with the Stooges."

"We wrote a lot of good songs which people are finding out about and they're always buying the CD off the website and it's nice to know. People, they're already familiar with his stuff with the Stooges, they're finding out his other stuff which is really great. So that's always good. I want people to remember him for the band, it's not that hard to remember when you have all that stuff recorded, it's good stuff. It's great. He was my favourite guitarist."

A Zeal of Zebras: "When I saw them play it was mind blowing. It was that Stooges guitar, that sound. Just this guy stood there - how does he get that noise out of that thing? Punk rock, starting with English scene, but then discovering the American scene, was the first alternative music I ever listened to when I was a teenager. So it's always been very important to me as well, obviously from a different angle. I think it took a long time for the Stooges legacy to happen but it has happened."

Niagara: "Right. The critics were not kind to them often and the band did break apart because of many problems. But then again, every band from the punk era and later was influenced by the Stooges. Almost every one to a guitar player was. I don't know any guitar player that influenced so many others, because his stuff was melodic and beautiful but it was very hardcore and very simply done and when people heard it they said, "Well I can probably learn guitar. (Laughs) I can do this, you know. I can't play like Hendrix but... I mean everyone we met in punk bands all around the world, they always said, "Ronnie if it wasn't for you..." kind of thing. So that was cool."

A Zeal of Zebras: "I read about the memorial concert, that you put together for him. It must have been very sad..." (Ron was found dead, having suffered a heart attack at his home, on January 6th 2009. Niagara and Colonel Galaxy organised a free tribute concert to him, at the Music Hall Detroit, with funds raised being donated to Ron's favourite charity The Michigan Humane Society.)

Niagara: "It was, but I was in .. You're just never ready for something like that. You can never anticipate a pit that you're going to fall in to. But everyone was calling and being very nice and when I finally was taking calls they would be saying, "Well when is the memorial, how can we pay respects?" and I'd go "I'm waiting for the family." You know, I had to tell Ronnie's sister that he was dead and that was horrible."

"I was closer to Ronnie than anyone for years and years and I was thinking all of a sudden, "I'm waiting for the family, what am I waiting for? Of course we have to arrange it." I came out of the black gloom for a second and once we arranged it we'd go to bed, it took your mind off not freaking out. Colonel did a lot and they doped me up and drove me down in the limousine and it was like, I wasn't feeling any pain, it was priceless. So then - it's the most beautiful 1920s place in Detroit, just gorgeous. Everyone was wonderful, it was a huge snowstorm that night but a lot of people braved the snow and storm. John Holmstrom came in from Punk magazine and stayed with us. But yeah that's that one off.. I guess you could see some acts on Youtube too. I got a guy to do, we got all these bands covering certain songs and the music turned out great, but I got someone to play bagpipes because years and years ago Ronnie said that when he died he wanted bagpipes at his funeral. I don't think anyone really knew that, but we actually found a guy that did it and wore the whole outfit and the skirts. You can see that on Youtube. He was amazing. Beautiful."

"Now what do you want to know about the artwork?"

A Zeal of Zebras: "Do you have kind of a story in mind because to me your paintings are a bit like a moment from a story, do you have a story around them or does something just pop into your head?"

Niagara: "That's a really good way to put it. That's the best way I've heard yet. I think a lot of it comes from a whole history and encyclopedia of stuff that I grew up reading and the movies. You know, the golden age of Hollywood which I still think, that will never be equaled. No one can get back to those times at all. And even the costumes and the actresses and everything, it was different then. The money to make one dress that Greta Garbo wore back then is more than a movie costs now. They had so many fantastic people from Europe flooding in to America and doing all these great costumes and sewing and nobody... There's somebody that does it (now). They exist in Paris, perhaps."

"But just the grace of everyone in those films. I mean it's like I distill the passion and the evil and the glamour out of these films, is what I try to do and have them say something so they can talk. But you know I just want it to look gorgeous and kind of reflect that time. Even when you reflect something back then it has something of the violence of the present in it, I mean I am from Detroit and it's hard to get away from the violence, so that's where it all comes from."

A Zeal of Zebras: "I did wonder about the costumes, because your pictures do have a kind of 1930's and 40's feel to them and yet there is quite a modern feminist (angle.) The women are very in charge basically. So I did wonder how those two went together."

Niagara: "The women that they used to have were actually, the movies might be based around women and for many decades a lot of that was lost. It was men with men and men with men friends blowing away other men and the women seemed to be so much more intense like in the Disney cartoons where the evil one was always this incredible woman. I always thought she was the best, so that's the way I look at those."

"It's a fearlessness that I put on the paintings that people, when they have them in their house and they have to face their day, can get something out of it. You have to confront your fears to get rid of them and to lessen them. So it's kind of that idea. And, you know, a little crime.There's a lot of crime and they're pretty nonchalant about it. Sometimes there's humour about it and I'm definitely getting more detail in there. It's kind of a style I used to paint before I went more pop, but the pop thing got me more famous and it was so simple. I like that too, so I'm trying to combine all these things and put them in a painting and not have a hangover!" (Laughs.)

A Zeal of Zebras: "Do you think men and women react differently to your paintings or get something different out of them, or approach them differently?"

Niagara: "Not as much as you'd think. I had a curator here in the beginning saying "Working women would really like this stuff," but the men it's actually... it's like 50-50. I haven't found any difference. The men know it's not insulting anybody. The men like it just as much. I mean everyone gets it, in every city the same way, which is always a surprise. But everyone is basically the same everywhere you know with slight variations. All the shows are very similar, the people are great and that's a good show, they laugh and they like it. But yeah, it's cool."

A Zeal of Zebras: "So there haven't been any cultural problems, such as in Japan, either?"

Niagara: "No, I think the one thing that we were told is that the Japanese, at least now, they think photography is a higher art form. That was wierd, that seemed odd. So they're into that a little bit. But seeing as they're putting my paintings on clothes, I'm not going to complain and everyone was so nice. But yeah it was like a different planet in Tokyo, everything was clean and wonderful and everyone was super nice. I haven't really been anywhere that I didn't like. It's nice travelling for an art show, people are great , real supportive. It's a good job."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Can I just ask you a little bit about Detroit? Have you always lived there or have you ever moved away from there?"

Niagara: "Not as much as you'd think. The base has always been here. I lived with Ronnie in Ann Arbour for quite a while and Ann Arbour is a very sweet town and all that and it was fun being there. But I really wanted to leave Ann Arbour, it was just too small. So I came to Detroit. But then we have a house here that is very nice and it's not expensive to live here really and everything's kind of old style. The city is like art deco and all the buildings almost are still up because its too expensive to tear them down. You can get you know a beautiful mansion for $300, 000. But I don't know the city is kind of, it's getting more dangerous it's true. I don't know what's going to happen to it."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Is there still a thriving art scene in Detroit?"

Niagara: "There wasn't a huge art scene particularly until when I went to my astrologer in the early 90's and he said you know you're going to be a purveyor of an art scene and it's going to be in Detroit in the mid 90's and I was like "yeah right, like that's gonna happen." But that's exactly what happened."

"Once the Cpop Gallery opened, people came here from around the country and the people who were running it, they had a lot of dough and put all the best things in it. It was a gorgeous, huge gallery and I'd put on big parties. I did like it was a rockshow where there was always music and drinking and it was a lot of fun. It wasn't austere and quiet and like a church, which I remember from artshows, which turned me off. Everyone thought they had to be quiet and scared! So people went nuts and they were buying art and it was thriving. Now it's gone a little south."

"Cpop just closed recently. Detroit was too tough and people were a little nervous about coming into town. There's still galleries here and there, but of course everything everywhere has changed a bit and Detroit's been hit so bad. I don't know what will happen. There's places you can get prints of mine, or you can get paintings, but I haven't had a show here for a while. I'm always out of town, in New york I guess."

A Zeal of Zebras: "It's a shame."

Niagara" "Yeah, there's always change. I don't know how it will change next. At least people like artwork. They just don't know what to do about it. There'll still be something, there's always people that can afford it and if they can't they can afford something much less excessive if they want."

A Zeal of Zebras: "People always need some creativity and no matter how bad things are they always need a bit of decoration."

Niagara: "Life isn't worth living, no matter what it is, you need a little bit of luxury, no matter how cheap it is. (Laughs.) You need some sort of beauty. You can always get beauty, you don't have to spend a lot for it."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Can I ask you about any new work or new directions? Anything you're working on or planning on working on at the moment?"

Niagara: "Yeah I think, I talked a little about it... I'm trying to get a new kind of level of detail and plus simplicity. I like a real simple painting, but I like doing all these different layers of colour and all these different sheer things. I mean, people can be hynotised by certain colours together and overlapping and it just looks like magic and sometimes the painting looks like it has much more depth and the girls are getting so gorgeous!" (Laughs.)

"You know sometimes people like ugly paintings, that's their choice and sometimes ugly things that they can't understand. People think they're very sophisticated but sometimes you know you can't even figure why something... It's just a matter of, I guess, marketing and someone at the gallery will market something. But still, you have to paint who you are and what you like or people know it's not real. So yeah, I have a real good time painting. It's my life that's all, is painting. I think that will be the key this whole next year. Maybe for a while. I've kind of found a happy medium and the simplicity and the complexity and the movies and the sayings and the what they will be like, so that's bout it, we'll see what happens and we'll send you some paintings the you'll see what the hell I'm doing! Cause then I don't know."

A Zeal of Zebras: "Do you use models for your paintings ever? I saw that you did some that were depicting film stars but do you ever have real models?"

Niagara: "Not really no. It's not necessary, if you need a body to paint you can always look in the mirror. That's what art teachers taught me, if you wanna see something and you don't have a model, look in a mirror. But yeah, I kind of get an idea from a pose or a part of a pose that I'll want different. I can just change it up, but you always hit on something either like a colour combination. It's always changing, what influences, what inspires. It might be "I'm gonna use these colours," or "I like the idea of this face or this way this person might look," or if something appears in your brain and you go out and paint that. Then I'll find what she says later or you have a saying that someone has to say and then you pick an expression in your head that you want her to look like. It doesn't always come from one direction. Like, when you write a song it usually was, you know, Ronnie would write the music or somebody in the band would write the music and then you write the words what it sounds like, which fits it. But painting for me it comes from all different ways..."

"You've done pretty good with that headache how are you feeling?"

And so the interview drew to a close.

I would like to say a big "Thank You!" to Niagara and Colonel Galaxy for their time, support, encouragement and generosity.

Niagara's website is at www.niagaradetroit.com and features an online gallery of her artwork and news on exhibitions, both past and upcoming. There is also a shop with a great selection of artwork: prints, giclees and originals, Niagara merchandise and CD's by Dark Carnival and Destroy All Monsters. A retrospective book of her artwork, Beyond The Pale is also available, signed copies can be obtained from her site. Being a modern gal, you can also friend Niagara on Facebook.

Finally, just to give folks a flavour of Niagara's music, here are a few links to Youtube footage of her performing live, some recorded work and also the above mentioned bagpipe tribute that was touchingly performed for Ron Asheton at his memorial concert. Just click the arrows at the side of the screen to jump between clips.

2 comments:

  1. awesome post..fascinating..love the neon noir..

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  2. Many thanks but all credit must go to Niagara for being so happy to talk and for giving such a great interview!

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