Featured Artist/Interview
(August, 2001) at Avenue Gallery (no longer online)

Every person on this planet has a mother. This fact makes it easy to relate to Tom R. Chambers' exhibit, Mother's 45s. The collection is one of the most powerful and heartfelt works that Avenue has had the opportunity to display. Just as exciting was the chance to find out more about the person who created it. Prepare to explore the consciousness of an extraordinary artist.

How long have you lived in South Korea?

This is my second time in this country ... a little over a year, now ... and my first time was for two years, 1996-1998. And the reason why I'm here now, and keep coming back, so-to-speak, is twofold: my wife is Korean, and her family lives in Kwangju (South of Seoul) ... married her the first time around ... and I'm extremely interested in Buddhism and currently generating documentary projects ... in particular, Popchusa ... a Temple near Cheongju. In total, I actually haven't lived that long in this amazing country, but long enough to use the aforementioned adjective, and continue to explore its Culture and Buddhism.

What brought you to travel to South Korea in 1996?

It was possibly circumstantial since I had just finished a three-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer/Curator for the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Africa, and needed some kind of sustenance, coupled with my continued interest for cross-cultural experiences. And that sustenance came in the form of teaching, and I also had an opportunity to continue my documentary work, which culminated in an exhibition, "People to People", and shown at the Kumho Art Foundation Gallery in Kwangju (South Korea). These images are now a part of the Foundation's Permanent Collection.

Very interesting. It seems that you thoroughly enjoy traveling to new lands. What was the culture like in Zimbabwe?

Yes, I do, but there's no place like home (Texas, U.S.A.) ... Dorothy says ... and I'm about ready to return once I finish a current project I'm working on ... Popchusa (documentary project about the Monks' everyday lifestyles at this Buddhist Temple in South Korea).

Zimbabwean Culture was (is) mixed in the sense that there were (are) two sides: black and white. My position was interesting and difficult because I had to work both sides, so-to-speak ... deal with the former, Rhodesian, colonial mentality and nurture the the Black mentality within its transitional state from colonial to independent thinking.

Putting this aside ... difficult to do so ... the Arts were (are) vibrant, but on separate tracks with the White Zimbabwean artists following Western trends/influences (a few Black Zimbabweans as well) and most of the Black Zimbabwean artists focusing inward on and attempting to restore their Traditions (pretty much stripped due to colonialism) through stone/metal sculpture and painting.

My up-close-and-personal experience found me teaching the Gallery Art School's students documentary and fine arts photography ... a special process since this was the first time that those particular students had experienced this new medium ... for them. The three-year workshops (one each year of my Peace Corps Tour) culminated in exhibitions at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.

The Culture was like, overwhelming, but with a duality of racial differences and achievements that can only be felt within a region such as this.

I look forward to seeing your documentary work on Popchusa when it is completed.

I imagine that your presence in the Buddist Temple has been long enough that the Monks became more comfortable and eventually took less notice of the camera, allowing you to capture them more candidly. Along the way have you gotten to know the Monks on a more personal level?

Thanks, and my presence at the Temple is still tentative in the sense that it is extremely private and sacred. I'm fortunate to be behind closed doors thanks to Gak-won (my friend and guide), but it really doesn't make things that much easier ... maybe a bit, but again, cameras in "secret" places are usually not welcome. I am managing, however, to document the goings-on without intrusion and to good effect, I feel.

I'm getting to know Gak-won very well because we can communicate (He can speak English.). Most of the other Monks can't speak English very well, so it makes it a bit difficult to get close. And I'm ashamed to say that I can't speak Korean, even though I've lived in and out of this country for a total of almost four years. Us Native-English speaking types seem to think that others who do not speak our language should learn, not the other way around.

Yes, that is a funny thing about our culture - we in the United States seem to think everyone else should learn our language. I have heard that the French are similar. Friends have told me that in France many people know English, but can get irritable if you try to speak it to them.

Is it easy to get by in South Korea while not knowing the native language?

Before my marriage, not so easy, but now, "a piece of cake" as long as my Korean wife is by my side. I've been married almost four years now, and I lean on her a lot ... actually, all the time ... to be able to communicate in her country. We're a bit off track, perhaps, as it relates to my projects. Would it be ok to begin to talk about my "Mother's 45s" projects since you graciously have it on exhibit as part of your Avenue site? And speaking of my mother, how's yours?

My mom is doing good. I talked to her a few days ago. Thanks for asking.

Yes, it is due time that we discuss your "Mother's 45s" exhibit. The series is one of the most powerful and meaningful collections that has graced the pages of Avenue. We are very pleased to have the opportunity to feature it.

Among all of the records that your mother owned, did she have a clear favorite?

Good to hear, and please take care of her. I say this a lot ... I suppose ... since my mother is gone, and maybe I should have taken care of her a bit more ... a guilt trip, perhaps, and when I think about this, maybe "Mother's 45s" is a bit more than just a tribute and grief piece.

I truly appreciate your comments about this project. A lot of people have said the same about its power/impact. If only your viewers ... and mine at my site ... could experience the physical installation. People were reminiscing about their own mothers ... I'm sure ... and a few were shedding a tear or two. It's not often a project finds a universal appeal, and I believe "Mother's 45s" did/does.

My mother had many favorites. The 45 songs that comprise the project ... to my best recollection ... are the ones I remember her listening over-and-over to, and if I had to choose a clear favorite ... as you suggest ... it would be "Picnic" by the McGuire Sisters (MS45-11). When I think about it, I remember this particular song playing a lot at home, and I even remember most of the lyrics. I'm not sure if it was because of the song/lyrics or the fact that it was sung by the McGuire Sisters. I remember her telling me that this group was her favorite.

The series definitely has universal appeal. I am not suprised to hear that the physical installation touches many who view it. I imagine the online exhibition does as well.

What memories come to mind when you listen to the lyrics of "Picnic"?

A tremendous number of memories come to mind and when I say this, I mean I can see and hear my mother doing all the things she used to do. And I particularly miss her constant concern and encouragement and of course, her caress ... yes, her caress, and I remember this wonderful, comforting touch as a part of the overall sensory stimulus provided by "Picnic" and her other 45rpm records that were constantly playing on the RCA. Maybe this is one reason ... the reason? ... why it "struck" me to put the "Mother's 45s" project together ... the missing of her touch ... and the only way to be able to simulate this or come as close as possible to the "real thing" was to do such.

You said before that you "should have taken care of her a bit more". What more can you tell me about this regret?

When she was very sick, I should have visited her more. My father bore most of this burden since I was several hundred miles away at the time. My mother was diagnosed with cancer, and rapidly deteriorated to the point where she required constant, around-the-clock care. And she suffered so! Anyway, I should have shown my face more. Maybe I was hiding from the fact that my mother was terminally ill. And when I did see her, she was nothing like the mother I knew due to her illness and chemotherapy ... a terrible combination, by the way, that numerous individuals have to go through. Shall we move on to a lighter topic, even though I have to admit ... again ... that the existence and power of "Mother's 45s" is mainly due to the aforementioned. I suppose some degree of guilt can be a great motivator and in this case, lead to a creative by-product.

I am very sorry to hear that. My grandmother also went through a slow wilting process. It was difficult to visit her in her last days. Like your mother, she became a fraction of the person she used to be.

You are right, we should move to a more happy topic. How about children - do you have any?

Mothers ... grandmothers ... families ... everyone on a one-way street ... pretty scary, this street we're on. And maybe this is another reason for the existence of "Mother's 45s" ... something tangible, something to see and hold on to. Anyway and yes, let's move on to a "happier" topic, and to answer your question, I have a 29-year-old son who lives in Texas with his wife and two children. He's a mechanical engineer.

How does it feel to be a grandfather?

I don't know. I haven't seen my grandchildren ... pretty new to this old planet of ours ... since I've been away for almost ten years and overseas most of that time. And the word, grandfather, is just a word until I see their faces, and feel their touch ... someday, I hope ... as well as my son and his wife, whom I haven't seen for the same amount of time.

I bet you are very excited to go back to Texas. It will, no doubt, be an emotional visit.

Well, we've talked about your "Mother's 45s" collection... I would also like to discuss some of the other works that you create. It is apparent from your website that you do quite a bit of exploring with digital art forms. How fulfilling has this new medium been, in comparison to conventional photography?

I'm not going back to Texas ... directly ... but eventually just for a visit. When I do return to the States, it could be on the East or West Coast ... not sure at this time.

Yes, I'm doing a great deal of exploring/experimenting with the digital medium and particularly as it relates to photomanipulation and also "pure" work with just software within the genre of Abstraction. And this medium has been (is) just as fulfilling ... possibly more since I tend to go off on a creative tangent most of the time ... as conventional photography. And the Internet has made the former even more exciting since it's one-in-the-same and a natural process of extension via online exhibitions, projects, etc. ... electronic composition and facilitation of one's work ... an interesting medium indeed.

On your website you mention the influence and adoration of photographer/artists Diane Arbus and Andy Warhol. At least two pieces in your "New Directions" gallery, "Shades of Andy" and "My Favorite Thing Is To Go Where I've Never Been" are direct tributes. How have their works shaped your vision, photographically and in digital manipulations?

Yes, a tremendous amount of influence, I feel, and as it relates particularly, to Diane Arbus. Not to equate my work ... just to comment ... if one takes a look at my "Dyer Street Portraiture" series (possibly other portraiture series), there seems to be an "Arbusesque" (is this a word?) quality to them ... straight-forward, but bizarre in the sense that something else is "there" are "going on" ... on a subtle and/or subconscious edge. Before seriously picking up a camera, I had read about Arbus and viewed her work over and over (a definite appeal); and when I did, "the rest followed", I suppose, or there seemed (seems) to be a little of her in me. Anyway, her work is my favorite.

Andy Warhol is "another story", of course, but just as influential, and I believe a lot of my "New Directions" work ... particularly, the montage and repetitive pieces ... are a result of who he was and what he did. He made us look at the same work again and again ... repetitive enhancement, literally, and within the mind, until we either saw "everything" or "nothing". I continue to look at his work ... and mine ... over and over.

And what I think might be interesting is the fact that I started reading about Arbus and Warhol, and viewing their work about the same time.

Yes, I agree. Your "Dyer Street Portraiture" series has that "Arbusesque" quality. The images are all very interesting. I see a stark reality in the faces. There seems to be a natural truth to each one.

Was Dyer Street much different from the time you witnessed it as a teenager to the time you returned to photograph it?

I appreciate your comments about "Dyer Street Portraiture", and I believe you are one of the few people who have managed to come very close in terms of how I feel about this series ... thanks.

You pose an interesting question about "timeframe", and of course Dyer Street was very different the second time as opposed to when I walked this street as a teenager simply because I was much older (35) and my purpose was one of observation and documentation.

But one might ask why did I return to this street a second time and after almost a twenty-year lapse. I would imagine and even though I was a teenager (15-17), there was something about this street that was very appealing and remained within me until I could take hold again through the medium of photography.

So, by looking at the images that comprise "Dyer Street Portraiture" and comparing them to what I saw and experienced as a teenager ... there's no difference except for the people, of course. And this tells me that the appeal I felt as a teenager, later and at the time I made the photo series and possibly even now was (is) the same ... why? and as mentioned as a part of the frontispiece for the photo series:

"It is an area where street cruisers, 60s arrogance and patriotic cool abound. One GI described Dyer Street as 'The Magic Mile' a carnival of sorts, where side shows prevail for the interested viewer."

If I ever make it to El Paso I will have to visit Dyer Street. It is obviously a very unique area.

Your "People to People" series is somewhat similar in style to the images of "Dyer Street Portraiture". The images are portraits of people in and around urban landscapes. One difference I see is more optimism in the faces of the people of Kwangiu. The series touches on the "western invasion" of Korean society. Would you say that the changes brought about by Americanization are a welcome addition to the cultural landscape?

I hope you have a chance to "cruise" the street. I would imagine that it's pretty much the same ... different faces and/or maybe not, just older.

Yes, there's more optimism seen/felt within "People to People". The Korean people are a proud Race, having picked themselves up by the bootstraps after colonization by the Japanese, World War II and the Korean War.

I believe this "Western Invasion" ... mostly "Americanization" ... is welcomed as an upgrade through products and trends for a higher standard of living, but viewed as an intrusion to their Traditional standards and ways of thinking, particularly with the older generation. The younger generation, of course, is caught up in the "beat of the West".

Because of their homogeneity over the past 5000 years or so, even today, it's hard for a foreigner (like me) to find comfortability on the streets. They may be wearing Nike shoes, but there's still a sense of separatism felt in their eyes.

What part of the western culture do you miss most?

It's hard to miss It when It's all around me here in South Korea. Admittedly though, I miss having my feet planted firmly on U.S. soil. And when I walk into a McDonald's here, I don't hear English and the people behind the counter can't speak it ... a bit anachronistic with a touch of the "Twilight Zone" ... I just dated myself, didn't I?

Speaking of this, I would like to offer a social observation and comment. The American Culture permeates the Korean Society and particularly within its eating establishments, with "tons" of imitation ... sometimes, authentic ... American memorabilia dressing the walls and floors, but what's interesting about all of this is the fact that It's (American Culture) rarely understood by the Korean proprietor and the Korean customers. The "stuff" as well as the Western construction of the building from time-to-time are there for enticement and as a money making proposition, of course ... and like in America, too (Chile's, for example) ... but again, with little to no understanding and as a result of being caught-up in this Western (American) "thing"/trend.

There are Chile's in South Korea? Wow. I'm suprised to hear that. I guess because Chile's seems not be the big global brand that a McDonald's is. Oh, and that first sentence isn't my real question, by the way.

I imagine that American films have also taken over the local theaters. What was the last movie, American made or not, that you saw at the theater?

Yes, American films are everywhere as well, and the last movie I saw was "Castaway" with Korean captions, of course. Speaking of this, I wish the Korean films had English captions. I even sent a letter to the Government making this point since the push is on for everyone to learn English in this country. The production values for most of their films are really good, and it would be nice to be able to understand the script or storyline ... maybe I should learn Korean.

And just like in America ... everywhere, for that matter ... the films are effecting behavorial change in the younger generation. When I walk the streets of any city here in South Korea, it's as if I'm back home in terms of hairstyles, fashion and attitude. So the streets or "street" are/is a universal one ... no pun intended as it relates to Universal Studios, but maybe so.

I didn't even think about the captions part of it. That would be interesting to see. I saw "Castaway", too. I thought it was a good movie. Tom Hanks was brilliant once again. He deserved the Academy Award for Best Actor just as much as Russell Crowe.

Ok, I'm going to switch gears again.

You have contributed greatly to the teaching of others about art and photography. You helped kids discover their creativeness in the At Risk Youth Polaroid Workshop. Among many other involvements, you also orchestrated the SKIA (Street Kids in Action) development program in Zimbabwe. Have you found that youths who have had a difficult childhood are receptive to the idea of picking up a camera?

I appreciate your comments about my contributions to others ... I need to contribute more. That's what this "old world" is all about ... isn't it?

The young people who were having a difficult time weren't necessarily receptive to picking up a camera, but they were receptive to someone taking the time to pay attention to them ... an important aspect that a lot of would-be "at-risk" teachers overlook. Some of these teachers seem to be more interested in the Art-product more than the "child process/progress". Anyway, the kids I worked with on the East Coast (USA) and in Zimbabwe were "turned-on" by the creative process as a part of that overall approach of generating self-worth and concern for others.

Yes, I would say that one part of a fulfilling life is one that includes contributions to humanity. Teaching is one of the best ways to do that.

Are you currently involved in any teaching endeavors?

Yes, I'm currently teaching here in South Korea, and I have to admit ... at this point in time ... that it's to help finance my number one reason for being here ... to finish a couple of documentary projects I'm working on. But in the same breath, I'm enjoying teaching media and Internet communications to Korean students who desire to improve their skills in English.

We are on the brink of concluding the interview. I want to take this opportunity to say thank you for taking the time to talk with Avenue. It has been a pleasure learning more about you and your work. Your "Mother's 45s" collection is a fabulous series. I expect that readers will now have a greater understanding of the person behind it.

Ok, so here it is - the last one. You have seen a whole lot of this old world, but I am guessing that there is still a corner of the planet that you have never been and one that you long to visit. So if you could fly, sail, or walk to this place that has eluded you, where would you be?

Thanks again for your comments about my "Mother's 45s" piece. Yes, there is one more corner of this old world I would like to visit, and that would be, Europe, and for its history in the Arts, not to mention its cuisine. And I would like to walk the ground of my Ancestors in England and Scotland. By the way, Morgan, I've enjoyed talking with you.