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A Brief Interview with Kurt Simonson

SM: Who are you?
KS: I’m Kurt Matthew Simonson, an artist, educator, friend, and cat dad.  I was born and raised in Minnesota, but I’ve lived in California for most of my life now… still, you can’t get the Midwest out of a kid, no matter how hard you try.

SM: What are you?
KS: A person interested in unresolvable tensions that are both this and that…  A guy who cares deeply about his friends and his community… A rooted wanderer…  A recovering and relapsing Disney nerd…

SM: When are you?
KS: In my head? probably the late 90’s in London, those were good times. But really, I think it’s important to try to be attuned to the present moment, wherever you are or whomever you are with… so hopefully I am present with myself right now.  Maybe… actually I probably need a nap first.

SM: Where are you?
KS: Probably at the Korean Spa. Other common answers, depending on the time: lying in a field in rural England, sitting on the couch with my cats, taking photos at Disneyland, or eating breakfast at a diner in Long Beach, California, a city I love and that I’ve called home for 16 years now.

SM: Why are you?
KS: Because life is a gift, and it’s meant to be lived to the fullest, not for my own sake, but for and with other people. I’m here to love and to be loved, to hopefully bring life and flourishing to those around me, in my own feeble ways.

KS: As a teacher, as a mentor, or as a friend- I want to help the people around me to feel safe, to feel known, and to find out who they are, what they are, why they are…

SM: I’d like to discuss a bit how truth and memory reveal themselves. You write that the images from Northwoods Journals “are artifacts of the myths and memories that have distressed me, challenged me, and shaped me” and that the work is largely predicated on this envelope which your grandmother had written prior to her death, only to be read after her passing. Much like a photograph informing our recollection of the past and with each viewing, perhaps reinterpreting the past upon second, third, and subsequent viewing—it seems the envelope has informed your memory. But also like a photograph the envelope left some things unanswered, marked by dormant truths and slow reveals as these places, people, and things are encountered. The first image in the series as presented on your website is the opened envelope and every scene depicted in photograph thereafter, read as though each were contained inside waiting to be seen. Share what this process of creating artifacts and revisiting your memories through photographs has evinced about how one might understand memory. If truths gleaned from memories can be slow to reveal, how does that inform the present?

KS: This is a great question, and it’s one that actually seems to pop up in a number of my projects. Currently I’m working on a new project that again involves revisiting artifacts and memories of my past– this time with my childhood obsession and history with Disney World (in particular, images taken during family vacations that show me standing alone in the theme parks, over and over).  So your question makes me realize that I’m still actively wrestling with the way that photographs (in particular, old photographs of our own past) haunt us in the present by shifting our perceptions and memories of the past.

KS: With Northwoods Journals, I love how you mentioned that both the envelope itself and the photographs I’ve made in response have left some things unanswered, things that might reveal themselves slowly in time, if at all. That’s exactly the kind of tension and feeling that I’m going for, especially with the Northwoods book.

KS: In my work and in my life, I’m interested in how we can choose to live with the things unknown, how we proceed forward anyway even amidst the things that we can’t know yet, or may never know.  Dwelling in the past can get us stuck in shame, while dwelling in the future can lead to anxiety.  So all we’ve got is each present moment, and we can choose to make the most of it when we decide to just keep going (in fact, there used to be an image in the project of an old black and white TV that had the words “keep going” repeated on the screen… while that image didn’t make the final edit, the idea remains as a central theme).

KS: Yes, it’s true that “truths gleaned from memories” are indeed slow to reveal themselves, but I think the worst thing we can do is get stuck by sitting still as we bemoan the things we don’t know or understand yet.  We have to keep going and live into the tensions- to quote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who says in his Letters to a Young Poet:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

KS: I suppose my photographs are my way of “living into the answer” by “living the questions now,” in the present moment. Taking photos and making art are my ways of asking questions, and perhaps the resulting images and art objects that come from that process serve as temporary stand-ins for the answers that I might not yet be ready to receive, or not yet able to live into, as Rilke says.

KS: As an aside, this is also probably why waiting is a consistently repeated theme in my work, and in my life as well – learning to wait and having the humility to realize that I might not yet be ready for something.  I’ll close with a passage from T.S. Eliot’s East Coker that has always haunted me and guided me:

I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.