World renown artist KAWS unveiled his traveling 16-foot masterpiece sculpture COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH) at Philadelphia's 30th Street station.
Brian Donnelly, who goes by the name KAWS, was born in Jersey City. His ties to Philadelphia are not all that far; only about a 2-hour car ride. Philly.com's executive entertainment and lifestyle producer, Leah Kauffman, had the rare opportunity to sit down and chat with Donnelly on the afternoon of his sculpture's Philadelphia debut.
What is like to be here, watching people react to your work?
It's great and it's weird. I know it's my work but I don't feel like it's my work when I'm in these settings. I feel like its just there, somehow related to me. Its sort of taken on its own life.
What does the backdrop of 30th Street Station mean to you?
It's amazing that we are at a point where Amtrak is able to collaborate with someone who has a background in graffiti. I haven't done graffiti in over a decade, but it seems to come up in every article ever written about me. I just feel like there's an interesting thing happening through Harry Philbrick at PAFA. He's pushing in a different direction. You can create a dialogue with younger kids who don't have a dialogue with PAFA.
Why did you stop doing graffiti?
For me, it's about communication. When I was younger I just saw it as a great outlet. I met a lot of creative young kids. I learned geography through graf. I was trading photos with kids in Spain and Germany when I was in high school. So it afforded me a lot of interesting outlets. As it developed, other outlets popped up along with other opportunities. I just grew into new things.
I wake up and make what I want to make. It wasn't a decision to stop doing one thing. It was more like becoming obsessed with another.
In the 90s when you were doing mostly street art did you every think you'd be creating works of art on this scale?
No, it's something I've always loved. Claes Oldenberg is one of my favorite artists for outdoor pieces. I saw his work and always imagined it was impossible, that you needed some great patron to support you. So when I got into sculpture I mostly thought of installations those guys were making in the 60s and 70s and so I made a toy. Instead of making one monumental piece I made 1,000 eight-inch pieces. Then through selling that, I was able to do it all on my own.
Once I sold one toy, I was able to make three. It just sort of built from that. It's been 13 years and things have grown. I'm excited to have opportunities like these. I don't take it for granted. All artists are on this sort of rollercoaster. Right now seemed like a good time to push and get the work out.
Many publications refer to you as an "ex-street artist". Is there a real difference between "street art" and creating publically accessible work like Companion or the plinth project you have planned with PAFA?
When I was doing walls 15 years ago I was thinking about painting. I like painting. I like composition. It's not really any different than it is now. The locations have changed and so have the opportunities. I love the fact that somebody just trying to get to work is suddenly faced with this piece. It takes them out of their normal routine.
COMPANION has changed shape and personality over the last decade. What is that a reaction to?
Originally the change started when I made the first toy and had to make another one five years later. It was the second COMPANION version. I started to think about how toys never get old or how these characters never age. I made him a little taller and a little fatter.
Why is he so sad, tired, or shy?
He's not sad (laughs)! He's just hanging out. When I first did the sculpture it was for Harbour City in Hong Kong. I went to see the location in Kowloon, where the ferry lets off. They were telling me that it was only up for a month and a half and that there would be over a million people trafficking past it during that time. I started to think about if I were a Companion and I had to be there? I'd be mortified. What else would you do but hang out?
I also like that you always see work like this or characters treated as a super hero or proud and macho. I like the idea that this is more suitable to me and to the times. Its not always all great.
Let's talk about your plinth project. Do you feel a sense of collaboration with the long deceased Frank Furness?
My ego is nowhere in that realm. Frank Furness was a master and I am honored to be sitting on his world for a moment.
If you could say one thing to Frank Furness what would it be?
You wanna build a studio for me (laughing)? That space blows me away. I am super excited to see my work in it. I realize what an honor it is.
Is there a message you want people to derive from your work?
You just understand that people come with their own backgrounds and their own history and are going to make what they want of the work they see. It's not like I'm trying to reach a certain person or deliver a certain message. It's not something you can control, and it's not something I want to control. It would be horrible if everybody saw it and thought the same thoughts.
I heard that a man approached you here this morning and showed you his KAWS tattoo. Has that ever happened to you before?
Yes actually. I don't have any tattoos myself. It's an interesting thing that somebody would take to the work in that capacity.
Aside from the tattoo, have you ever overheard any interesting comments or feedback from viewers of your work?
One of the most surreal things I have ever been in was last year when I did the balloon for the Macy's Day Parade. Instead of walking in the parade with the float, I just asked them for a press badge and ran the sidelines and took tons of photos. I was maybe 20 or 30 yards ahead and I got to hear all this stuff from kids and parents. They were just like 'what is it?' Kids were freaking out screaming 'Smurf… Spongebob…" and suddenly there's this confusion. Parents were like "that's not nice…" It was pretty amazing.
You have three major projects happening in Philadelphia over the next year. Is there anything you want to do here in your free time?
I go with the flow. I love walking around, walking the streets, seeing the amazing architecture here. It's sort of mind blowing. It's a great thing to do these projects in a city that you're not from.