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Pop Goes the Easel

Pop Artist Olan Montgomery believes all who create from their hearts are linked. “That is why I love New York City,” he explains. “The city is filled with artists – musicians, painters, playwrights. They are who inspire me in my creations.”

His new book, "POP - Art inspired by New York's own subcultures from celebrity to subway", examines and shines a neon glow stick on New York’s hidden subcultures including the city’s homeless, its colorful nightlife personalities, and bold gay icons. Portraits of Boy George, Rufus Wainwright, and transsexual Amanda Lepore are among those featured in POP because, says Olan, “they are making a difference in today’s world”.

Olan is adamant that making a difference is the most important thing.

How are you putting your stamp on today’s art scene?
My work has a simple message: see the individual through color and light; by doing so, one's individuality can be more fully understood.

Is everyone special enough to be featured on canvas?
We are all more than what people see. Recently, I was asked me to display some of my work in a bank. I agreed but said it had to be art of the bank’s tellers. It was interesting that people started to see these women through the art. Customers began to communicate with them, asking about their lives and wanting to know more about them. That is what my art does. It freezes a moment in time, allowing the viewer to reflect on the very fabric of art – ourselves.

Who inspired you to be an artist?
My mother inspired me. She once told me, "Son, art has many mediums and artists walk through many different worlds never fully belonging to just one. Embrace the differences in the people of these many different worlds and you will have more inspiration that you will have time in your life to create." She probably doesn't remember saying that.

What attracted you to pop art?
POP art deals with popular culture. Pioneers like Warhol made art of everyday objects like soupcans and washing powders. Their work mocked the established art world by appropriating images from the street, the supermarket, the mass media, and presenting it as art in itself.
Today’s popular culture is obsessed with reality TV and the idea of '5 second' fame. Mass media has reduced people to objects. A friend of mine recently said to me, "today, people see what they want to see." I'm asking viewers to see more.

How do you choose your subjects?
My icons are aberrant, many not mainstream or known. No matter who they are, they are individuals who matter. They are people with whom we all have something in common and somehow, they touch our lives every day. My ‘soup cans and washing powders’ is the stranger standing next to you. My art is meant to remind you to acknowledge their existence.

What can viewers gain from learning about these hidden people?
It's like the movie, Boys in the Band; everybody knows these different segments of society exist and that not everybody lives the 'dick and jane' life. Sadly the mainstream world makes the rules but that does not mean the rules are right or even correct.

Where is the mainstream screwing up?
We live in a world where food is destroyed instead of given to people who need it. Where 740,000 people are homeless on any given night yet New York City builds a park on an old railway system that will cost 2 million dollars a year to upkeep. The US is responsible for over 50% of the worlds garbage. There is a circulating mass of garbage miles long in the ocean filled with plastics which is eaten by birds, killing them. We are ignoring, hurting and killing one another on this planet and I am just an artist, but I damn well have something to say about it through my art.

How does your art reflect the issues facing gay men and women today?
It's like in the late 1800's when the government created new laws like the 'separate but equal doctrine' - emancipated slaves were free but they could not get jobs. They had to use separate bathrooms. This is what is facing the LGBT community today and every day. We are recognized but not equal and our rights are being debated by a majority, just as emancipated slaves rights were. We all know a minority cannot get true equality when lawmakers bend and twist the legislation to give and take them away depending on the popularity polls and reelections. My art reflects these issues because a country is only as good and fair as the rights it gives its people. A country should be defined as great only when all it's people are fed, housed and given a fair share.

How do gay icons like Amanda Lepore, Richie Rich, and Kevin Aviance compare with icons of yesterday?
Richie Rich, Amanda and Kevin have it within their grasp to make a difference. So many of our past gay icons were cut down in their prime by AIDS so how much they would have given to the world will never be known.

What is the biggest misperception mainstream has about the avant-garde underground?
They don’t realize that fashion, art and these young muses who create from their hearts are all linked. Theses are creative individuals who are walking art installations. They are judged as 'club kids'. The misconception is to generalize about them when you know and understand nothing about their desires and reasons for presenting themselves in a more colorful way.

Does your work offer any advice for the young queer generation?
It says get to the front of the bus and drink from the water fountain. Or as my dearest friend in the world, Moonya a.k.a. Michael Walker, said back in the 80's, " If they are running you out of town, honey, get to the front of the line and act like it's a parade!"

How important is money and fame to you?
Some of the greatest gifts in art were not realized until centuries after the art was created. I don't want fame as much as I want to know that my art will be taken care of by people; collectors that will entrust it to a generation two hundred years into the future that might find a deeper understanding of who and what we in the twenty-first century were as a people.

Why did you decide to release POP now?
It's been years in the making and I feel it reflects a new genre of art, combining the past with the present. My art starts with a photo from my digital camera. It is manipulated on a computer, paying homage to the rhetoric and color of the 80's. I then incorporate classic hand painting techniques, careful to reflect all aspects of the process in the final creation. That's an Olan.

How did you decide the cover?
I wanted the cover to reflect the reason creative minds flock to places like New York City. A Dog & His Bone examines the dreams of a young person, living in a small apartment, doing his 'art'. The viewer decides if the dog is the man or the actual dog. The bone is whatever you want it to be - his penis, his desire to make it...

What is your favorite piece in POP?
My favorite piece changes from week to week. Right now it is The bitter (sweet) end - a Tribute to Florent. Florent was a beloved NYC eatery that was an artist haven in the 80s, attracting painters, fashion designers and downtown celebutants.

How do you choose your celebrity subjects?
I don't. I meet people and learn from them and if they become my muse it's because they have inspired me. I painted Susan Jaffe, prima ballerina for the American Ballet Theatre, before I knew who she was. She was buying my fairies and I told her she was beautiful. She let me take her images and later told me in the most humble and gentle way, "you know I am someone special too". I had chosen to create art of her simply because of her inner glow. To find out she was a prima ballerina was just a wonderful plus to an already inspirational muse. Many of the American Ballet Theatre dancers featured in POP, like Irina Dvorenko, are there because Susan introduced me to them.

Has being an NYC artist been a struggle?
The biggest problem in New York is plenty of incredible art and not enough space to put it. I would ask owners of all the vacant buildings in the city to consider allowing artists to hang their works until they rent the spaces.

You will be exhibiting your work at various shows this summer and Fall. Is there a new piece that you’re particularly excited about showcasing to the world?
My MERIwether piece on The Kentucky Derby is a tribute to my deceased father who grew up in Kentucky. The Derby is rich with history from the emancipated slaves to celebrities who have attended the races to Calvin Borel winning this year. My father was an underdog like Calvin. Cavin winning was like a sign from dad that underdogs are winners.

"POP - Art inspired by New York's own subcultures from celebrity to subway" releases to retailers on August 18th. For more information, please visit www.lipstickchic.com.