All Art is Problem Solving
A conversation with Cain Park Arts Festival Director George Kozmon
Heights High School graduates of a certain age may have a George Kozmon original pen and ink drawing in their yearbook. As a working artist and the Director of the Cain Park Arts Festival, Kozmon has been fanatical about drawing and painting all his life. When he was a teenager, he says: “All I wanted to do was draw. If you pursue something with enough persistence and enough fanaticism, you’re going to get somewhere. During my school years, I would always draw–drawing in people’s yearbooks and on the edges of my math papers. I won’t say it was preordained, but it determined my path.”
While in high school, Kozmon became friends with Barbara Feinberg, daughter of the late Harvey and Audrey Feinberg, who founded the Cain Park Arts Festival in the late 1970s. Kozmon’s first formal association with Cain Park came when, as a high school senior, he exhibited his work in the park’s art gallery (which now bears Audrey and Harvey Feinberg’s name).
First intending to be an illustrator, Kozmon attended the Cleveland Institute of Art where, he says, “I got sidetracked with fine art. I liked the idea of solving my own problems instead of having problems handed to me. I think all art is problem-solving. I think that might be true of art in any medium. I like the idea of exploring my own ideas and not necessarily having ideas given to me. I wanted to paint, and I wanted show people my work. That’s the path I’ve been on ever since.”
That early persistence in pursuing his art has never left him, and Kozmon has earned his living as an artist in Cleveland his entire adult life. He cites the city’s combination of a high level of culture and low cost of living as one of the main reasons he has stayed. He understands many of his peers believe one must “move to New York and play with the big boys” if one is to be taken seriously as an artist. But he also notes that “it’s not that big of a world. If you don’t isolate yourself, especially today with technology, you can communicate with the outside world.”
Kozmon joined the Arts Festival in 1994, shortly after the death of founder Audrey Feinberg, who was herself an artist. Her husband, Harvey, had always worked with her to produce the festival but after her death, he “felt he needed an artist involved in the whole process,” says Kozmon. He has a vivid memory of Harvey Feinberg calling and asking him to come on board as the Arts Festival Coordinator. “I remember in one of those early conversations I said, ‘Harvey, thank you. Yes, I’d like to be involved, but if you’re grooming somebody to be the art director of the future, that’s not me.’ And Harvey just chuckled. When he got sick and passed away [in 1998] it sort of fell into my lap to be the director. And I remembered Harvey’s chuckle. He’s up there kind of laughing at me.”
He spends a lot of time thinking about how he’d want to be treated as an artist. How he’d want his work exhibited. Who he’d want as tent mates on either side. How and where he’d want to load in his work. These details have made and kept the Festival competitive. The show currently invites approximately 150 artists; annual application numbers have ranged from 400 to 1,200. In order to give the Festival a sense of continuity but also keep it fresh, the only artists who are automatically invited to participate are those who won a prize the previous year (about 25 artists). Everyone else must apply.
Kozmon chooses the selection jury as well as a second jury that awards prizes during the festival. He feels strongly that the jury process must be pure–the jury selects the show, not the director. He estimates that “Ninety percent of the show chooses itself–the jury is in agreement. The disagreements come with more idiosyncratic work. My role is only to help break a tie, but my voice holds no more sway than anybody else’s.”
The second jury takes place during the show itself. The judges go to every booth and make their selections. Kozmon is not involved in that process at all except in the case of a tie. There is also an artist-to-artist prize in which the artists vote for each other. He notes that “It’s often someone who’s already won a jury prize, and a lot of times it’s kind of funkier, kind of edgier stuff.”
Kozmon is well aware of the binary existence of the working artist. “I put it into components,” he says. “There’s the artist and there’s the business person. What happens in this studio has nothing to do with the outside world. I don’t know what the trends are, I don’t care what the trends are or who’s doing what or what the galleries are showing. I’m just making my art to please myself. When I’m done making my art, then I change hats and say: “What am I going to do with this art?” I think of art as a medium of communication. As artists, so many of us, me included, think that we make the art and it’s done. I think that’s a fallacy. You make the art, you’re half done. The other half is communicating that art to people who might be receptive to it.”
Another challenge faced by artists is the perceived notion that art is too expensive, however, Kozmon is quick to point out that each of us has routine expenditures that provide little of the lasting pleasure of a great piece of art. He uses the example of an acquaintance who buys two cups of Starbucks coffee every day. “We’re talking eight dollars a day,” he says. “That’s more than $2000 a year. You could go to Italy for a week every year and drink a cappuccino on the Palazzo Vecchio.” He has been known to get on the public address system at the park and say things like: “How much did you pay for your cable bill? That piece of art you’re looking at isn’t expensive. Buy it!”
If you purchase a piece of art, Kozmon believes you’re also buying a piece of culture. “How do we measure societies of the past?” he asks. “It’s the great architecture, the great art. How do we define whether a Neanderthal was human or not? Well, they buried their dead and they made ornaments. They made art. So that is something you can’t put a tangible cost benefit analysis on because it’s intangible. But try living without it. Try going without music or literature or art. You’ll shrivel up and die.”
Though many of the artists may change each year, Kozmon works hard to ensure that the overall quality of the Festival remains consistently high. The jury selects applicants based on formal elements. “They are not looking at ‘Will this work sell?'” he says. “They’re looking at personal statement, technique, composition, design. My job is to make sure that the quality of the show is good, but within that good quality, you want to have a variety of work. A variety of jewelry, a variety of paintings, a variety of this and that in all kinds of media. While it sounds really cliched to say there’s something for everybody, there really is. Someone of more refined, high-brow tastes can find something there. But you could also find something to hang in your kid’s room.”
In talking to Kozmon about art, it’s abundantly clear that he isn’t giving a sales pitch, he is a genuine believer in the power of art to transform and transport our souls. He believes art festivals are important because ‘it’s a direct experience with art and artists. And most artists are happy to talk about how they do something because they love what they do. If someone is working with some unusual material, they want to tell you about it. They want to show you.” That direct experience with artists–and a wide variety of artists to boot–separates the art festival experience from the gallery or museum experience. It isn’t often that we have the chance to chat with a working artist, much less 150 working artists in the same place. It says something about our societal values when, in many ways, art is no longer a common language. Kozmon notes that sports is still a common currency. “If I’m in the airport in California, and some guy asks me where I’m from, I say Cleveland. “He says, ‘Hey, what about those Browns?’ and we can have a dialogue, and it doesn’t matter what world he functions in and what world I function in, we’re on the same page. I think it’s unfortunate that he can’t say, ‘Hey, didn’t they just have that Rodin show?’ I would love that.”
The Cain Park Arts Festival runs July 9, 10, 11: Fri 7/9 3-8pm Free Admission. Sat 7/10 10am-8pm 13 & older: $5 per person (12 & under: Free). Sun 7/11 12 noon-5pm 13 & older: $5 per person (12 & under: Free). Cain Park is located at the corner of Superior and Lee Roads in Cleveland Heights. http://www.cainpark.com
When Cool Cleveland contributor Susan Petrone is not writing an arts or culture article for Cool Cleveland, she writes fiction. Her first novel, A Body at Rest, was published in early 2009 by Drinian Press. An excerpt from the novel and some of her published short fiction are available at http://www.SusanPetrone.com.