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INTERVIEW WITH DONALD BLANK
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Donald Blank in May, 1997.
How did you met Thai and how you did get involved in this project?
Okay, well, I had seen him on the street and talked with him on numerous occasions.
In my own neighborhood on the West Side. I ride a bicycle to get around the city, and I had seen him, and talked with him. He's an interesting, funny guy and he just seemed like a very unique character to me. And I finally wanted to do a piece about him.
Well, he's a very friendly, engaging person, and he enjoys talking to people while he's working. He's very pleasant and funny, and so he's unusual that way as an artist who's working right out on the street. Well, he's trying to sell his stuff, but he just likes people and he's very gregarious and friendly.
Well, I guess, maybe . . . he's a person who has problems like all of us. And he's homeless. But in another sense, I think he is a real artist in some sense of living for the moment. There's kind of a purity to what he's doing. I mean in galleries, his works can go for a few hundred dollars but on the street for much less. So it's interesting to me that people will spend $50 or $60 or $80 to buy one of his pieces. You know, on the spur of the moment. I enjoy seeing that spark of a collector or just another person saying, "Oh, that's beautiful. I want that."
He has a couple of friends in this area on the West Side. But he has no real schedule to be anywhere. He likes to ride a bicycle to give himself mobility and always has a beat-up bicycle.
Yes, we did it in one day, and I sort of regret that I didn't stay with him at night and follow him around. He likes to have a good time; that's something he admits to. Thai's also a subject who will be honest with you and transparent, and he's not hiding anything. I mean that he likes to party; he likes to enjoy himself and tends to wake up with empty pockets.
I'm not quite sure; for a while, some years, ten years, at least. I think he worked originally in construction and he used to use this wire. I can't really tell you exactly how long it's been.
Well, it will vary. I think some days he doesn't work and other days he might make a few pieces. His horse is sort of his signature piece, which he does most often.
He will do some other animals and occasionally torsos -- once, he was doing a back-hoe for a guy who operated one of those machines.
Well, I'm like many New Yorkers who have been living with the homeless phenomenon for ten years or so. And I've been curious about the lifestyle of people on the street. Since this, I did a piece on scavenging and people who are scavengers in New York City. It appeals to a political angle on this stuff: the city of great riches and of people with little . . . I mean it keeps the issue of poverty right in front of our eyes. It's not the subject that television viewers most want to learn about, so this is a paradox -- you have to present the poverty with some humor or some visual or some music. I mean, it's just kind of a down subject. So I tried to look at it freshly as possible.
Yes. Raymond Scott is the composer. He's a wonderful white jazz composer who had a very humorous way of doing jazz. And he's having a bit of a revival lately. He's available at Tower in the jazz section. His music lately had been used in some cartoons because it has a very funny, jaunty sound. He used all kinds of kazoos and bells. He's kind of a Spike- Jones-like composer. He also experimented with electronic synthesizers in the forties and stuff. It was very early on.
Oh, no. I'm afraid he passed away a few years ago.
Well, Thai has had a problem with taking crack and has been struggling with that and many people are trying to encourage him to get off that. People think that perhaps if he could control that his artistic career might get on track, but who knows. I think he puts up with people bugging him about it. He appreciates that we mean well. But this is a sensitive thing that I didn't really get into and he alludes to it in passing, but it's very personal. This is the interesting thing about doing documentaries, you know, it's hard to be totally honest about people. People allow you into their lives and we all have our secrets or embarrassments or darker sides. So if you turn around and make them look bad, even if it's the truth . . . Only when people are dead, I guess, can they really get hatchet jobs done on them. But when you're working with living subjects, you find that you often don't tell all that you know.
Well, I only am saying this because Thai did a story in The Daily News about six weeks ago where he talks about his drug problems. So I felt that I could get into that since he did put this in a article in The Daily News.
But, look, I just urge anybody who sees him on the street, if you like his work, buy one. He's truly an outsider artist, in more ways than one.
Thank you, Kathy.
Donald Blank's film, WIRED, can be purchased directly from Donald Blank:
324 West 83rd Street, Apt. 3R
New York, NY 10024
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