Meet the Artist: Karl Blau
Karl Blau is known for his music. But the self described “Pacific Northwest boy” has a deep love for visual art that started in childhood. We sat down with him to learn more about his career, to ask how he does the #trashion doll art (drawings of silhouettes of models on trash to make the trash look like fashion dresses), and how he ended up in Philadelphia—where those trashion dolls are now featured in the gallery wall of our new Suburban Square store.
You’re such a multidisciplinary artist. How did it get that way, and how do you identify as an artist?
I grew up thinking I was going to be a visual artist. I had my heart set on it since I could pick up a pencil. My older brother was a really incredible piano player—my family kind of forced music lessons—I always felt like I was in the shadow of his music. So basically, I spent recesses drawing inside. Always drawing.
Then I had a shitty art teacher in high school, and it turned me off of wanting to do art. The music and jazz band programs weren’t much better. But I discovered Rock & Roll in high school. I was like, “Okay, I know what I want to do now.”
How did you start making music?
I loved the feeling of rock and roll. I was playing drums at that point [high school], and I had already learned saxophone, woodwinds, and I’d been studying classical guitar for six years. And I had piano under my belt. And then I discovered recording. And then it was all about recording. Recording, like the same way in producing art, you can go into a space and be alone and make something out of silence. That really resonated with me.
What did you end up liking about music?
The controlled social atmosphere. When I’m on stage, I’m not down in the crowd. Being introverted, I enjoyed that aspect of it.
And the feeling of playing music in a space with other people, improvising in that jazz-mode, your whole brain lights up when you’re in that mode of listening and playing at the same time.
When did you think it could be a career?
There was a band that came out of Anacortes [the town in Washington where Karl is from] called Gravel that went to Sweden. And there was another band that toured Japan. This was in my periphery when I was coming out of high school, that this is possible, even from a small town. If these guys did it, that means I might have a chance. I still didn’t think my chances were very good at becoming a touring artist—I thought that was for certain people who had this charisma. I didn’t really think I possessed that.
But I knew I could record music and enjoy that process a bunch. Then friends around me started to take their music really seriously. It helped me keep my head in the game.
You’ve had a long career touring and making music. With the knowledge you have now, what would you tell yourself when you were just starting?
As soon as I started having a family, there was a lot of stress that poured in, trying to provide for everyone. It’s only recently I’ve been able to relax into the universe. I didn’t used to have a lot of faith that the universe would provide. Now, after 25 years of making music, I am open to the universe providing and being there for me. I used to think things were not always going to work out, but they did work out.
If I could tell myself things will work out and everything will be fine, I would have saved myself a lot of stress, probably.
How did you start making visual art? Did that wane as you feel more deeply into music?
It’s been pretty constant. I’ve always kept a journal that I draw in or write in. Doing music, there are all these opportunities to make art. Like doing posters and videos, around every corner, there’s a chance to make art. I enjoy collaborating with other artists for that the most.
How did you get the idea to do the Trashion dolls?
It started when I came to Philadelphia, in Germantown. There’s a lot of trash on the ground. When garbage day happens and the wind blows, it’s a dangerous combination. I can’t just walk past the trash and not see it. My wife is a clothing designer and she watches a lot of videos [about fashion], so I am always being subjected to these images of the dresses. And then there was a piece of trash that looked so much like a garment, and I was like, “Oh, look at that!” And I took a picture of it.
And then I started seeing these things everywhere.
So you see inspiration in the trash, but how do you make the art? What comes after the photo?
I walk around with my phone, take a shot of the “garment”—and I don’t move them, when I find them, they are as they are—I try not to touch them. It’s just a parameter that I’ve set. Later, I’ll look through photos I’ve taken and screenshot ones I think I could bring to life.
The process of drawing them [on my Galaxy Note 9 phone with a pen] is kind of fun because I can erase. If one of the limbs looks really good, but one doesn’t measure up, I can erase and upgrade the whole thing.
The naturally occurring folds in the trash give a lot of suggestion. So I try and pay attention to all the folds. That suggest a limb here of a pocket there, or something I can play with.
I can play with colors, like pinks and blues and greens. I just do silhouettes. For a while I was doing more detail, but I like the silhouette because it gives the person looking at it that much less information, which is nice, because it draws more attention to the garment. I’ve heard people tell me they start to look at trash differently—that’s a benefit I hadn’t anticipated.
Tell us about the piece where you used coffee.
That was at a coffee place in New York. The spill happened, this was at the cashier, and I was like, “Oh look at that! A dress!” So I whipped out my phone and took a photo of it.
The little flower is just another drip [of coffee].
How did you end up in Philadelphia?
Anacortes has gotten this nickname of “can’t afford-es.” And we were thinking about a big change.
On tour, I stayed with my friend and musician Birdie Bucsh who lives in Germantown. She took me and the band on a walkabout one of the times we stayed with her.
And I thought, “if I move anywhere, I want it to be this place.” And then came a string of happy coincidences, a friend of a friend was looking for a young artist family to move into a place in exactly the timeline we were thinking about. My wife was excited about the fashion, it’s an affordable place to live.
What do you think about the city as a creative home?
It’s brilliant. It’s wonderful. I love the proximity to DC and New York and Baltimore. Not only that, the musicians and artists who choose to live here really want to enjoy living here. It feels like a real community, a really healthy environment.
How do you hope people will feel when they see your art on the gallery wall?
I hope it draws them in. They might feel confused at first. But I hope it draws them in like, “WTF? What is this person thinking?”
And then hopefully they will start to look at things a little differently. Because life is a matter of perspective.
Want to see this and other great art?