If you were fortunate enough to support and score a copy of the newest Rabbit Room Press title, Subjects With Objects, then you know how enchanting the mix of Jonathan Richter’s painting and DKM’s poetic commentary can be. The book is both intriguing and inspirational, much like its writer, the mysterious poet known as DKM.
In this Rabbit Room interview, I’ve probed the mysteries behind those initials to learn a bit more about the man as well as to discuss the beauty of the project itself. The bad news? We’re still no closer to knowing who he is. The good news? There’s more Subjects with Objects to come.
Who exactly is DKM? Can you unveil any of the mystery behind the initials?
In the standard English Alphabet, one typically has 26 letters to choose from. Occasionally one is able to slip a 27th past the gatekeepers, and if it’s late enough or those in authority are drunk enough, then there have been a handful of recorded cases of this or that writer in this or that obscure corner of the English-speaking world managing to wedge in a 28th letter (most-often disguised as one of the lower 26). Shakespeare is even rumored to have discovered a 29th and 30th letter during the writing of King Lear, but if the stuff of such legend has any basis in fact, those letters were quickly repressed or purposely obscured in translation.
In order not to incur undue attention from those who monitor such things however, I restricted myself from the outset of the Subjects With Objects project, not only to the 26-letter variation, but to a subset of that: only those letters that have an utterly vertical line in their design. The reasons for this should be obvious, so I won’t condescend to explain them here. Plus, it wouldn’t be safe for any of us. At any rate, having narrowed my letter choice to 13 candidates for a 3 letter combination (any more would have been cost prohibitive!), I was faced with 2,197 (13 x 13 x13) possible letter combinations. To save time, I simply chose the first one I could think of: DKM.
It has a decided lack of elegance. It was clearly the antithesis of mellifluous and therefore well-suited to being a repository of mystery, as it were. When people go by initials, it’s mostly JJ or AJ or DJ or JK or RJ (Are we beginning to see a pattern here..?). Something simple and easy to say and, let’s be honest, something that prominently features a “J.” There, I’ve said it. Somebody needed to. Let the chips fall where they may.
Much rarer in recorded history are those who have been branded by three initials in the public imagination: MLK, FDR, LBJ, JFK, RFK, but again we begin to see a definite pattern: One must either be president of the United States, be running for president, or at least be a controversial national political figure before one is granted the three initial formation.
So in adopting the DKM moniker, I was both subverting tradition, and making a statement: You do not know who I am. You will not know who I am. I might be hidden in the light, or the shadow. I might be your grandfather, your neighbor, or one of thousands of unfollowed bloggers in the grey Northwest. I might be a hacker, an anarchist, an artist or a theologian. I might be a fact, a fiction, or a fact masquerading as a fact masquerading as a fiction.
In short, as DKM I might be anything you hope or believe me to be, and its exact opposite—at the same time. As DKM I am free to haunt the dim recesses of your imagination, poking and prodding as is necessary. I am the ghost in the machine, at the end of the day inexplicable even to myself.
Also, it makes book signings 70% quicker, with less chance of hand cramps.
It’s either presidential or serial killer-esque. Either way, why not enjoy the spotlight?
First, I can’t allow your veiled insinuation to slide unchecked. Serial killers are commonly known by 3 names, not 3 initials. There is a vast difference. In the case of serial killers we seem to crave as much knowledge of the dark inner workings of their psyches as could possibly be coaxed to the surface, and therefore we instinctively think that by labeling them with the longest name possible, we will thereby gain additional insight into the subtext of their stories. Ah, yes, of course. Having been saddled with the middle name Orville it makes sense that he would have trod such a dark path in adulthood. That sort of thing. So please don’t confuse the situation. This is 3 INITIALS. Three initials bespeak influence, power, and a certain veil of mystery. There. Now that’s settled. We’ll move on.
This book is it’s own thing, and has an existence entirely apart from its authorship. Perhaps it never was authored, anyway. It might have simply “arrived,” if you know what I mean. Stranger things have happened. Anyway, if people were forced by virtue of one man’s insistence upon onymity to associate the book and its quasi-prophetic contents with an individual identity, the power of the tome would almost certainly diminish. It is the stuff of the subconscious anyway, the stuff of dreams that upon waking are only half-remembered. It is neither my place nor my intent to stand between this book and it’s readers.
So from the beginning I strove to remove myself from the process, erasing all tracks. Except for when I occasionally respond to an email from the wrong account and someone learns my name. Then again, that might just be a dodge. In fact, it almost certainly is. So nevermind. Anyway, on the most basic level, I number myself among those who have been personally affected by the substance contained within the pages of Subjects With Objects. Anonymity allows me to simply be a fan of the work and I must confess that I am. Partially because I still don’t know exactly what the book is or where it’s odd power is centered. But I revel in the mystery.
Also, there’s the rise of Jonathan Richter as a force to be reckoned with in the art world. I observed the peculiar genius of his vision more than a decade ago and have been threatening for much of that time to enact some plan for making his artwork recognizable on an international scale. This is perhaps a beginning to the implementation of such a benign conspiracy. And I think it provides a certain balance to a collaborative work to have one creator in the spotlight while one remains in the shadows.
What is it about Richter’s work that resonates so strongly with you?
I spent many years professionally creating works for a genre of expression with somewhat narrowly defined parameters. I found that (with a few life-giving exceptions), any expressions that were attempts on my part to explore and/or document what I believe to be the wild and wide-ranging fullness of what it means to be a human being set down in the midst of a broken but still glorious creation replete with wonder, story, heartbreak, tragedy, beauty, joy, hope, and redemption, were typically met with something less than enthusiasm. Often with a blank stare. Companies do need to make a profit. But creating with mass commercial viability being the overriding influence on creative choices can quickly kill any power that a piece might have to actually stir something deeper than sentimentality in a listener, reader, or viewer.
T-Bone Burnett once penned a lyric that stated “I have to meet the man who can crack this world of justice like a safe/Someone with the courage to allow room for good things to run wild.” I eventually stepped back from that industry, because there was so little room there for “good things to run wild.” And I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore because of that. Richter though, has always refused to let his work be anything but the beautifully disturbing and frighteningly indefinable stuff that it is. He has lost commercial opportunity because of it. He has been paid his share of kill fees by art directors who realized after the fact that they wanted something more controlled than what they got.
Personally, I experience Richter’s paintings as something that demand my attention. They shout. You know when you see the crazy homeless guy on the street, a little on edge, angry, shouting at you or at the world or at some unseen ghost from his past or present, and you sense that he poses some danger but also perhaps some obligation as a fellow human, and that tension between your obligation toward some act of interaction and mercy and your desire to run away as quickly as you can, thoroughly unsettles you? The Subjects With Objects paintings can maybe do something like that. It is difficult to view some of the subjects without a knee-jerk aversion. But once we do really look at them, we see the brokenness and twistedness of our own humanity staring back at us. We recognize something shared between us and we grieve for them, and then, in a mysterious juxtaposition, realize that we’re grieving for ourselves.
I think Richter’s paintings resonate strongly with me because they force me to interact with them. They don’t spell anything out too easily, and yet, the meaning is implicitly there. And I believe we have pretty good precedent for creating art that is not aimed at the broadest common denominator. We have a pretty compelling model for telling stories (via whatever medium) that require one to enter into to them if one is to be rewarded with understanding. We should more often resist the pandering impulse to say “And what that means is…,” but instead simply say “For him who has ears to hear….” I think it’s okay to leave it at that. I think it’s more powerful to leave it at that. To leave room for the good things to run wild.
Was there a part of you that was nervous about adding text to the paintings at all?
No, because initially there were no expectations. We decided to do a collaborative art & text project, but we had no notion of where the finished pieces would land in terms of tone or direction. The sky was the limit. Or so we thought.
In actuality, the paintings themselves served to dictate what sort of written expressions might pair in a believable way. As I stewed on the various pieces, the possible interpretations usually began to narrow down pretty quickly. Reaching a final phrase could take days or weeks though, and often involved a process of returning to it every so often to see if there were any new secrets to tease from it.
Only now that the book is finished and I’m faced with a new crop of paintings to interpret do I begin to feel a sense of inadequacy to the task. This time around there’s a certain expectation that didn’t exist before.
So Subjects with Objects is definitely the first of a number of collaborative projects?
Actually, it’s not the first book project we’ve collaborated on, but one of the first that’s come to fruition. Over a several year stretch Richter and I created multiple book projects together. The problem was, they tended to fall pretty well outside the common section headings of the bookstore aisles. We didn’t pitch any of them to more than a couple of publishers, but the reactions were very telling. One editor at a given publishing house would love it, and the rest of the staff would have no idea what it was even supposed to be.
So we just continued to cook things up on various backburners at a low simmer. And then, along came Kickstarter. Crowdfunding was the answer to the question we had not been foresighted enough to ask. It gave us opportunity to take an unusual book like Subjects With Objects directly to the people who would most appreciate it, and to let them provide the momentum to actually make the project a reality. For that collaboration we are so, so, so, so, so, so grateful.
Did I mention how grateful we are to all the funders who made this project happen?
Anyway, we’re already planning Subjects With Objects, Vol 2. Because most of the Vol 1 paintings are already sold, in order to have enough material for another gallery show and for coffee shop shows that we have lined up, we must by necessity produce a new SubWOb crop.
Whether that will be the next book we publish though, remains to be seen. There’s another collaborative art & text project called The Lost Rhymes at the Center of All Things Now Found Again that we’ve had tremendous initial response to, that we’d love to toss to the Kickstarter crowd as well.
There’s also an animated feature idea we’ve been messing with for several years, and I just returned from a trip pitching it to a couple studios in Hollywood. That sort of thing is always a long shot, but Richter is a phenomenal stop-motion animator and we’d love to see that project eventually make it to screen.
Additionally, we’re currently building a Subjects With Objects website (at the moment www.SubjectsWithObjects.com is just a glorified placeholder). We’ll have the art prints and originals available there, as well as dueling twitter feeds, info, and blogs. But the thing we’re really excited about is an event we’re calling SubWOb LiVE! We did a test run recently at a Nashville pub that a couple dozen people came out for, and we’re improving on the format for the next one. We want SubWOb LiVE! to become a real community event. We’ll hold them in public spaces. Richter will be there painting new pieces. We’ll have a musical guest each time. And a conversation host who will lead a guided roundtable discussion featuring a guest of peculiar interest. Food and drinks will be available. There will be some giveaways. A lot of fun. Each event will be recorded for podcast. But it’s really all about creating a space where community can begin to happen. We’ve really been inspired by what the Rabbit Room has managed in that regard, both online and with the Hutchmoot conferences. We want to figure out how to take some of that Rabbit Room mojo and reinterpret it in a SubWOb setting.
Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.