In this conversation with James Fangbone, we talk about his “Shrine”—a building filled to the gills with objects lovingly collected and assembled—a true maximalist monument. Fang evokes the pleasure he takes in rescuing discarded objects, of gathering and assembling them. His work is not only about accumulating, for editing is important as well. It is also an on-going process that’s profoundly tied to his daily life. What he describes gets to the core of what assemblage as an artistic practice is about, for it is the putting together, the assembling that produces meaning. It also creates an environment and Fang talks about inventing rituals, of interacting with that environment. As a matter of fact, when we visited the shrine at dusk on a winter day, as he lit some candles, I saw the interior like I had never seen it before.
Even though Fang seems to satirize religion, in his apparently irreverent creations, he displays an innate and profound understanding. During our conversation, he mentions a few times a little assemblage he showed me before we sat down for the interview, as we were having tea and visiting with Abby Shahn and Amanda Slamm. That this is a real shrine, is made clear by the way he refers to it: he does not say it’s about Bernarda but for. Later, he refers to it as of Bernarda. The box is a true site of commemoration, in which the spirit of Bernarda Bryson Shahn resides, in particular, thanks to a glove that seems indeed filled with her presence.
The playfulness at the core of Fang’s practice reminds me of how children invent games. In the course of the interview, I mention how his Shrine is like a tree house. I am also reminded of what historian Johann Huizinga suggested a long time ago in his book Homo Ludens (1938), that the ludic plays—pun intended!—a fundamental role in culture and creativity. As I chatted with Fang, it became clear that ultimately, his endeavor is about happiness. And indeed, it’s remarkable how often in our conversation Fang mentioned the happiness he derives from his life in Maine and in this special place in Solon—a place, I should note, he made special by giving a new life to the objects he gathered and assembled. At the same time, as we discuss, he brings happiness to the objects themselves by placing them in the company of fellow objects of all kinds.
Throughout our conversation, there’s the recurring expression of a sense of wonderment. Amazement resides not only in the discovery of the individual objects, but also emerges from the placement of an object in a new place. In that sense, Fang is a true surrealist. I am reminded of how important the “marvelous” was for André Breton and his fellow surrealists and how that “feeling” (to use Fang’s word) could be created by the juxtaposition of unexpected things. That is why Lautréamont’s declaration—“as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”—took on the status of a surrealist motto, pretty much defining the entire movement. And when Fang declares that “what will happen on its own is even better than what I can plan,” he echoes Lautréamont’s fortuitous encounter! Ultimately, and just like for Lautréamont, this is about beauty, and indeed, Fang repeatedly uses that word. It is also about happiness. Fang evokes the sense of contentment he experiences when objects find the right spot and the interview closes with him expressing how pleased he is with some of his creations—without any bombastic hubris, just heartfelt satisfaction.
V.P. OK, Fang, the issue is on Maximalism, and here’s what we ask the contributors: “How do you—or do you?—unify or manage the complexities of your art? Do you add on and fill in? Create order or court chaos? Do you find a fascination or comfort with or in complexity?” So that’s what the people who responded read, and Natasha [Mayers] thought you would be great for the issue. So that’s why she said “Hey, why don’t you just go and interview Fang?”
J.F. Oh how nice!
V.P. So, for instance, you want to tell me the story of the Shrine, how you started doing that? Because the Shrine is a great example, right? It’s chock–full . . .
J.F. Don’t you make those things when you are a little kid, you know what I mean? I think you just do this sort of naturally. And then, I was raised Catholic so that has like tons of that imagery and that kind of thing. You know, there was a time in my life when I just wanted to abandon that.
V.P. When did you start the Shrine?
J.F. I don’t even really remember; must be 35 years. This beautiful guy I met when I first came to Maine, his family kind of just showed me what Maine was like—the most beautiful education you’d ever want. And he gave me the wood to make that shrine; he’s so proud of that, really.
V.P. So you know where the material came from. It’s interesting what you said about kids because I was going to ask you: the Shrine made me think of a tree house.
J.F. Yeah, it does have some of that element.
V.P. So did you think when you started building it that you wanted it above the ground?
J.F. No. When they started farms here, they had to pick up all these rocks to get them out of the fields and then they made them into borders, so there was a beautiful rock wall there and I teeter-tottered these three giant cedars across that and off the ground on this rock wall and then I put a post down on the side that would keep it from teetering off one way or the other. So, it’s a beautiful real architecture, for sure, that I just made up. I used all those great materials that my friend got me.
V.P. So when you first built it, did you know you were going to fill it with stuff?
J.F. Well, here’s the thing: we had a barn over here, and that was a shrine. I had made it into this upper hay-loft shrine. It was beautiful, but it was falling down, so I said: “I’ll make this new place and put that stuff in there.” But I kind of filled that up even before I could put that stuff in and save it. I did save a lot of them before it fell down and still put that inside [the new shrine].
V.P. So that means you had already started accumulating stuff and placing it together in another structure. When you were creating the other one, were you actually collecting stuff, thinking you were going to put there?
J.F. No, no, no! I’m totally into synchronicity, where I don’t have any . . .
J.F. Right, [chuckles] exactly! Because I feel that what will happen on its own is even better than what I can plan. Because I always leave things out or whatever, like anyone would, right? But when it does happen, and you are there, and you are like, “whoa, that really clicks!”
V.P. Do you change things at this point?
J.F. I change them all the time! It’s totally changeable! And then you want to do some rituals around that. I like making up your own belief, you know, instead of having one, like QAnon or something.
V.P. I think that’s like kids; the whole idea of the tree house, in which you play, right?
J.F. And you find stuff that as a kid is really meaningful for you and so I think a lot of artists just never give that up. You know, I think a lot of people don’t have time for that or maybe they have a little time, but artists really dedicate themselves to that.
V.P. I was thinking that it’s very, very playful, right? It’s like playing.
J.F. Yeah it is! It’s like dolls and stuff, isn’t it?
V.P. Yeah, it’s true, and kids would place them and do things with them.
J.F. Kids love it in there!
V.P. That’s the other thing I wanted to ask you: you did it first for yourself, or were you thinking about visitors?
J.F. No, no, no. I just did it because I wanted to. And I’m so lucky to be able to do that, you know what I’m saying?
V.P. Well, if anything, to have the space.
V.P. Most people, especially if they live in cities, don’t have the space to accumulate stuff . . .
J.F. Yeah! And there’s something around here: a lot of elderly, and then they die or something, so there’s tons of their idols and stuff in thrift stores and yard sales. I like using that stuff a lot.
V.P. You mean objects like religious images?
J.F. Yeah, that some Granny and Grampy had, and the kids don’t want to keep. I think, “yeah! I’ll make a little house for this idol and shit; I think that’s good.”
V.P. That’s an interesting thing: you have lots of religious images, but then you have other objects that are not religious.
J.F. I could have a rock and say: “that’s the most beautiful idol there is!”
V.P. Well, they kind of change meaning because of the spot, because of being next to . . .
J.F. Oh they do, they change meaning in their environment and stuff.
V.P. Thinking about the theme of the issue, which is about maximalism, about accumulation of things, it’s kind of an interesting paradox: you can do that here because we have space. You need space in order to create an environment with lots of stuff.
J.F. Yeah, I guess so . . . must be hard in New York! I feel like I’m in a perfect place at a perfect time, all the time, and I go: “how did I ever get in this position?” You know what I mean?
V.P. We are lucky in Maine, yeah.
J.F. It’s crazy.
V.P. You know, I was even thinking that during the pandemic, how our lives are not so different.
V.P. This house was built in different installments, like it sprouted. And so, I was thinking, that’s interesting because you have the Shrine, but then you have tons of other . . .
J.F. outdoor things, yeah.
V.P. So do you think of a sort of continuity between the house, the yard, the Shrine?
J.F. No, I don’t think anything like that, I just do it. And like today, I found this thing and I go, “Oh I’m going to move this over here. Why didn’t I ever think of that before?” Right? Because it seemed like a perfect move.
V.P. Yeah. But then are you constantly looking at your stuff?
J.F. Yeah! Jeezum, it’s all around! This is a perfect place to be self-isolated. It’s never boring. And then you are adding to it, so it’s perpetuating!
V.P. So, these days are you going out to get things or are you just moving things around?
J.F. If I find stuff, I think, “Man, I can use that later!” It’s kind of obsessive, like an obsessive hoarder. Except, you are doing it to put stuff together, like I did with this thing for Bernarda. You could go like, “What do I need this old glove for and this piece of cloth?” That stuff’s like nothing.
V.P. On its own.
J.F. And then you put it together, and it’s got super beautiful power and meaning.
V.P. Once it’s combined. So, when you see something, you pick it because you think it’s going to be good for the Shrine?
J.F. Sometimes, it just interests me, in some way, and then maybe it’ll fit into something later. I do a lot of other stuff besides the Shrine. Like that construction of Bernarda.
V.P. But those are like mini-shrines.
J.F. Yeah, they are. I guess they are shrine-like.
V.P. I mean they work in the same way; they are just portable. And in a way, in the Shrine, you have a lot of those little shrines in it too, right?
J.F. Yeah, it’s a shrine within a shrine within a shrine! I like that; I like those layers; to build up layers like that. Because it has some kind of feeling. It’s not even what you’re seeing, it’s just like a feeling in there, of a . . . I don’t know if it would be called contentment or . . . it’s just like a nice rush of a good feeling, somehow.
V.P. Is it because—at least that’s how I would feel about something like that—when you collect something, when you choose something, it’s because you want to love that object, and so it’s almost like the objects are happy, and they are happy in good company?
J.F. Oh, that’s pretty interesting! Yeah, I think that they are: if they are happy in good company, this thing looks good.
V.P. One thing I was going to ask you, but you answered it already, is if you think objects are transformed when they are added. That’s what you said, right? They become something else in the company of other objects.
J.F. You can’t stop them from being transformed, not really. One way or another.
V.P. And you said you move things about, right?
J.F. Yeah! I go like, “whoa, why didn’t I put this over here, it goes so well.” You know, that’s a synchronicity. You just go, “oh man, this is where this goes.” And it seems like perfect to you. That’s what I’m going for.
V.P. But, in a way, you also do different things, you place objects next to each other but then there’s also the jewelry you use to decorate some of the sculptures.
J.F. Yeah, think of that: it’s all designed by some artist, somewhere. So, I like to just ball that up all together, for that kind of feeling. It’s like creativity, right? Where you are just like, “wow, someone put this jewelry together.” No matter what it is. It could be a freaking industrial thing.
V.P. But it’s changed by the context. Do you ever make anything from scratch?
J.F. Yeah! Sometimes, I just make some kind of jewelry to put in the Shrine. But I tell you, when you make things, that’s still found objects. Say, Abby, even, she’s so free doing this stuff, but those marks are just like found objects; she didn’t go, “I’m going to make this mark to look like this . . .,” right? So, you know, even if you are super into realism, even that, I think, is about found objects.
V.P. Right: you are painting something that exists, so it’s there. There’s another interesting thing going on. That is all those objects, they are put together, so it becomes the sum of those objects.
J.F. Right. It’s like an avalanche, in a way. It can start off with just a little snow ball and then it keeps gaining, and gaining, and gaining.
V.P. I think that’s what collections are about. Because, I mean, at least if you have a tendency to collecting—not everybody does—but if . . .
J.F. You have a great collection!
V.P. Yeah, I am into collecting! And I’ve realized that it can be collecting also just ideas or examples of something; it doesn’t need to be only physical things. But I think if you have a tendency to collecting, once you start—like if you have at least three of something—you can’t stop adding. Hence what you were saying about the avalanche.
J.F. Yeah. It’s compulsive, I think. A lot of what I do is.
V.P. One thing about collections is that it’s about finding things of the same kind. But do you think about that or do you just think about the individual objects?
J.F. Here’s a really good collecting story: I’m out going to yard sales and I come on this table and it’s got all praying hands on it. Like this woman, whenever she had a birthday . . . and that is kind of one of the bedrocks of religious art images, isn’t it? So of course, I really made out at that place.
V.P. So did you buy a lot of them?
J.F. Yeah, I did. And another thing I did, is having these praying hands and then I’d buy handcuffs at yard sales and then, I’d put them on the praying hands.
V.P. That makes quite a statement!
J.F. It does! For our time?Jeezum! I think that’s one of my best images I ever came up with.
V.P. And so, what about visitors?
J.F. I don’t really want a lot of visitors. That could be a burden, but people do come. You can do our thing when they open up for one day [the Wesserunsett Arts Council’s Annual Rural Open Studio Tour]; that seems good, it’s just one day.
V.P. But you accept to be part of that, so that’s OK.
J.F. Right. But I’m not into having a super McDonald’s or something going on.
V.P. But then some of your objects, like the little shrines, you do sell, right?
J.F. Yeah, I sold some.
V.P. I remember seeing some of your stuff in this little gallery in Monson.
J.F. Right, John Bozen has some really nice pieces, some really nice pieces.
Image at top: James Fangbone and his Shrine, Solon, Maine, August 2018 (photo: Véronique Plesch).