Paperbag Interview with Donald Graham Hershey

Donald Graham Hershey, b.1984, lives/works in Brooklyn, NY. His videos appeared in Paperbag 4. About the artist:

“The images I create are imagined stories that find their being in the retelling. Starting first with an idea (the story) and then creating the picture (the retelling). As I believe all stories are fictitious and all memories are beautiful lies, so too are my images. They are neither based in reality or non-reality; they are between surreal happenstance and the memory of a collective past. I often deal with archetypal imagery that is contorted to reveal alternate paths for the audience to follow; some are silly, some are macabre, and others are in between.

I am most interested in the mystical concept of ‘Before-Life’, ‘Life’, ‘Death’, and the ‘After-Life.’ My work highlights the fantasy of these intangible ideals by creating incidents and metaphors through which a narrative emerges. My fascination comes to life by exploring these metaphysical conceptions through video and narrative—an attempt, based in the physical realm, at understanding the unknown. This particular search for meaning has existed since mankind’s first thought, recollection, and reflection and been passed down through myths, legends, and stories. And so it has been passed down to me through family histories and lore that continually inspire the work I create.”

Paperbag (PB): Have you participated in any cross-medium artistic/writerly collaboration?

Donald Graham Hershey (DGH): Yes. Recently I met painter Virginia Wagner through an artist residency. She and I share a similar interest in mythology, darkness, and mysticism. We created a collaboration project titled Ouroborix, which compiles a series of rituals documented through videos, installation, and writing.

Wagner is a painter and I primarily work with video but we both have our own side projects where writing is the focus. I write a story about a magical world and its inhabitant’s adventures called, “In The Wild Time Of The Ruby Twins.” Wagner writes in a magical realist style about her experiences and memories. I recommend checking out her work at

(PB): What were the results?

(DGH): Each ritual vignette has its own style and focus. One is about empathizing with technology, another attempts communicating with the realm of the dead, and most recently we tried to connect by way of our dreams through a series of ceremonies that tap into each other’s unconscious. Virginia has been in Texas for the past week, so she and I have been trying to communicate across the distance through our dreams.

We each have our own methods and experiment with them. For example Virginia sleeps half way through the night and wakes up in the middle of her slumber and from beneath her covers she tries to draw what I’m dreaming. I begin by picturing her distinct face and breaking it down into muscle structure, nerve system, followed by bone/skeletal frame, then brain, and finally I picture neurons flickering until I am asleep. If all goes as planned I spend my dreamtime navigating her dreamscape.

(PB): How was the experience?

(DGH): It has been a wonderful experience to work with another like-minded artist. It’s been really great for bouncing ideas off one another that are then realized through the project. We also support each other in our separate art practices, which is motivating.

Ouroborix is ongoing so there are several new experiences up coming. A website with the ceremonies will soon be available for people to experience online at

(PB): What are your thoughts on digital, internet-based magazines and

(DGH): I think digital and internet-based magazines are the wave of the future—haha! In all seriousness, though, I believe they are just as, if not more important, than printed ‘zines at this point in the digital age because they are easier and less expensive to access. I do think this will change as online magazines start charging for subscriptions, which I think is smart.

I do appreciate printed material because of its history and of course the tactility that makes the experience of flipping through a magazine so rich. I love the repulsive scratch and sniff perfume advertisements—imagining the people who buy the perfume and what they look like obsessed with their vanity.

I love the iPad, aside from its name which reminds me of a feminine hygiene product, because it replaces the tactility that one desires when looking at a printed ‘zine with a whole new experience—the experience of the future. In today’s world only a fool would oppose the online magazine.

(PB): Is the internet the harbinger of doom, the doorway to the future, just another tool for communication, or something else entirely?

(DGH): Sometimes when I log onto the internet I feel like the black gates of Mordor have opened, ominously vast and dark with hidden evils, sucking time and energy out of me. Other times I feel the complete opposite, bounding though the Elysian Fields of technology where anything is possible. I think it is not necessarily a harbinger of doom, nor the doorway to the future. It is just is a symbol of how our lives have changed over the past 20-30 years and how quickly they can do so. I never would have thought in 1992 printing out dot matrix Disney images to collage with that one day I could download a high-res file from my computer and print a full color image of Mickey Mouse. Now you can watch Mickey and Donald Duck in online animated porn. The world has really changed and I attribute a lot of this to the internet, because it has allowed people from every walk of life, all over the world, to communicate with each other in whichever way they choose. It’s very similar to the tale of Babel. I wonder if it will ever come crashing down on us? I secretly hope so. shh!

(PB): As a visual artist, is it necessary for you to have a digital space that showcases your work beyond your own website?

(DGH): Unlike my view on printed magazine v. online magazine, where I’m all about online exposure, I think that it is more important to have your physical work on view somewhere tactile, in a physical space. Online galleries as a singular entity are not as powerful and are not taken as seriously, in my opinion. I only use my website as a way for people I meet to see my work. It functions as a portfolio. Many galleries showcase their artist’s work on their sites for online visitors and collectors to see but again only as a portfolio. I guess I’m a little close-minded to the idea of showing my work solely in an online gallery, but not opposed to it. I guess I just need someone to change my mind or convince me.

(PB): Paperbag works to establishing a more substantive footprint for
individual writers and artists by asking for more work rather than
their best singular poem or piece. Do you feel that the magazine
accomplished this for you? Why/not?

(DGH): Yes. And I agree with your push for more work rather then singular works. It gives perspective to the artist or writer’s vision. I appreciate that. Thanks!

(PB): What are some of your most recent influences, direct or otherwise?

(DGH): I was just home in Wyoming for New Years and spent it in the wild nature taking many videos and sound clips. Wyoming and New Mexico are big influences for me. The desert and the prairie both share the essence of desolation and isolation. I would say that natural emptiness carries embedded in it a certain kind of darkness reminiscent to death, death being a huge focus/fascination in my work, like the wandering landscape of the afterlife – if there were such a thing. I’m really influenced by the sounds of medieval music, Lisa Gerrard, Dead Can Dance, and Zola Jesus as of late.

(PB): What is your relationship to your audience?

(DGH): I want my audience to see my work with fresh eyes, without any knowledge of what they’re seeing prior to their viewing. I have explanations and stories that are tied to what I create but they are only as important as the audience’s experience. I have always wanted to be in the background of what I create. I don’t necessarily need to be recognized as who I am outside of creating the work. Of course there is ownership tied to what I create and I can be territorial like any other artist. But I don’t want to be an art-star. I want my art to be the star. Thus I want my audience to recognize their importance as free thinking, dreaming, story-telling creatures and own their viewpoints or interpretations of the work. It’s the bureaucracy that makes the artist’s audience an idiot. With all their signage and directions on why a yellow vase is yellow and why you can’t possibly think differently. So people start to rely on the captions to get through an exhibit, like life support. It drives me mad! Haha! It’s even worse than listening to a gallery attempt to sell their artists and totally miss the point of the artist’s intention. I just hope my audience realizes how important and valid their experiences, stories, and dreams are when viewing the work. I want them to realize that within my ideas are ideas or dreams of their own.

(PB): For you as a visual artist working with drawing and painting as well
as video, what do you see as the links and differences between those artistic media?

(DGH): I think my subject matter remains the common thread throughout my multimedia exploration. All my work pulls from a place of mysticism, magic, and death, in someway. I have a way of working with space in all my work that comes from my years of working as a printmaker. That influence can be seen throughout my studio process.

(PB): What is it about the writhing, severed head that intrigues you and influences this project?

(DGH): I’ve always had this fascination with the macabre. One day I was looking at a book of famous French beheadings. There was a line in the text that talked about watching the severed head falling into the basket and moving around, blinking its eyes and trying to talk up at the people above. It said this was common and that it lasted for moments but the image was haunting long after it had stopped writhing.

Then I was reminded of a story my father told be about when he was younger growing up in a very small village in Wyoming. On the edge of town was an old covered bridge with only enough room for one car to pass. It was late at night after a local dance when two boys came speeding down the narrow two-lane highway, driving drunk. They zipped toward the edge of town and the covered bridge, where fate crept. One of the boys had drunkenly fallen asleep with his head out of the passenger window bathed in the cool breeze of the night. As the car sailed through the narrow arch of the bridge, so did the boy’s head sail from his body into the ravine below. Because my father had a job doing cleanup he was there at the scene and that’s when he found the boys head face up in the creek that flowed beneath the bridge. That story has stuck with me since I was a kid.

(PB): Any insight on your current work?

(DGH): Being home always offers a wellspring of inspiration and the opportunity to take video of settings that are very foreign from my life in New York. I always joke that I go home once a year to get footage and enjoy the beauty of nature and when I return to the city I spend the next year making sense of it. As alive as New York City is it’s not very inspiring to me. I am more interested in nature. If I had it my way I would make my work year round in a studio somewhere in the middle-of-nowhere New Mexico and return to New York in the spring to show my work. I’m still a baby though; there is plenty of time to do that later in my career. So I suck it up. My new work for 2012 will continue along the themes of before— life, life, death, after-life, and alchemy. But I have some new things I’m trying out. Stay tuned….

(PB): Last thoughts?


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