October 25, 2021
This week we recognize the work of artist Billy X. Curmano.
In Swimmin' the River (1987-1997), Billy X. Curmano swam the length of the Mississippi River as a political gesture to advocate for the freedom from toxicity. Spanning from the headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico (2,367.4 miles), Curmano used the river as an artistic medium and political landscape to discuss environmental issues. He waded in the Mississippi as the sunlight glistens and the wind shapes the tide. Each stroke the artist took was an attempt to reclaim the river under the banner of art and to work toward a more progressive agenda for climate justice. The ecology of Curmano’s swim can be seen as an extended metaphor of pollution—one in which our existence has become contaminated by the effects of eco-capitalism.
"I love the concept of life simply as art – it runs through me. But what if the reality of my life is confused by dreams and fantasies? What is life? What is real? What is not? I think my take on live art is sometimes akin to automatic writing or a painter painting a fantasy. I seem to be compelled to live out my fantasies. Life as art morphs into a life in peculiar circumstance: in the Mississippi River, the Arctic, or Death Valley, or wherever. Or maybe it’s life as art, as life takes a turn. Then again, maybe I’m simply bored when trapped inside walls, even walls made of glass. I take great solace in nature.
I’ve tried to balance urban life and nature. I’ve been a tree planter. I’ve lived in the woods. I’ve slept in a hammock near the crown of trees. In a fit of artistic isolationism, I moved to a farmhouse on a minimum maintenance road. My work has allowed me to be intimate with the Mississippi for thousands of miles. It’s taken me to the beauty of the desert and the deep seated spirituality of a 40-day juice and water fast. It lets me step out of what eventually always becomes the everyday."
Mississippi River Water Vial, 1987, edition of 110, signed and numbered, hand-etched glass vial with Mississippi River source water collected at Lake Itasca, MN. (click on the image to go to Fundraiser Gallery)
Billy X. Curmano is an award-winning artist/adventurer and former McKnight Foundation Interdisciplinary Art Fellow. He was trained as a painter and sculptor. His more traditional objects have been exhibited here and abroad since a first solo show at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee in 1970. Notably, some of his paintings represented the USA in the “III Vienna Graphikbiennale” (Austria). His works have also found their way to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and other prestigious collections. Billy X. came to music through the back door using soundscapes in “live art” and is probably best known for edgy performances. His more eccentric pieces include a 3-day live burial, 2,000 plus mile Mississippi River Swim, 40-day Death Valley Desert Fast, and a sojourn to the Arctic Circle on public transport. He’s won awards for performance and film as well as a solo CD. Billy X. has toured every way imaginable, including 6,200 miles and 15 cities in 45 days on a Greyhound Bus and intrigued audiences from the Dalai Lama's World Festival of Sacred Music in Los Angeles to New York City's famed Franklin Furnace. He's been a "Pick of the Week" in the L.A. Weekly and on the City Pages "A-List". Journalists have dubbed him the court jester of Southern Minnesota. He has been fortunate to study briefly with John Cage, Rachel Rosenthal, Babtundi Olatunji, and Joseph Shabalala. billyx.net
Featured Images: ©Billy X. Curmano, Swimming the Mississippi, 1987-1997. Top image: “Sun Hat”, Mississippi River near Oquawka, IL, Photo by Darlene Hlidek. Center image: “As Far as the Heart Can See,” installation including "Swim" video at Elizabeth foundation for the Arts, New York. Above: “Mr. Ambassador,” Mississippi River near Palisade Minnesota, Photo by Andi Shankle. Below: “St. Paul Landing,” Photo by David Florian Heinz.