Interesting in 2011: Samson Contompasis

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Living Walls Albany creator Samson Contompasis

All this week we'll be highlighting some of the interesting people we've gotten to know over the past year.

Drive around the city of Albany these days and you're likely to feel the influence of Samson Contompasis. He's the guy responsible for most of the large scale mural art that's been popping up on walls all over the city. He didn't paint it, but he made it happen.

It's likely you've heard of Samson before -- The Marketplace Gallery founder and operator is pretty well known on the Capital Region arts scene. But this past fall he brought the first Living Walls Conference to Albany. The event attracted internationally-renowned mural artists to Albany, and before they left, they transformed walls all over the city into public art. Some people like the work, others... not so much, but either way, it definitely got people talking. The conference also had workshops on sustainability and lectures, all of which Samson says were meant to create "an open dialogue between the people and city."

We caught up with Samson a few weeks ago while he was curating the mural art at Art Basel, an international art show in Miami.

Why did you create Living Walls Albany?

I care about my city and want the people in it to have something beautiful to look forward to. I really wanted Albany to be recognized as a place for something a little more progressive and to give the people of our city a reason to go to parts of our city where they never go.

I really feel that public art is something to engage, something to break up your day, brighten your life. So having so many different styles of art on these walls -- walls that were donated by business owners and people around the city -- it was my hope it would brighten people's lives. And it has. There have been some instances where people have been offended by the art, but people are engaged.

Coordinating a project like this is quite an undertaking -- to get the artists on board is one thing, but also to organize the space and get the city on board. What did that take?

A big part of the inspiration for the project was Living Walls Atlanta. Living Walls Albany was a really easy platform to be able to present our city. There was a workable platform for an urban art education conference, but instead of saying I have this idea that I think might work I could point to Atlanta and say I have this thing that works.

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Does it really make a difference to a city to have public art on the walls? Are we more progressive because we have murals?

Yes. I deal with the art world 24/7 and I see this even more after being at Art Basel. A few of the artists from Living Walls Albany were given space down at Art Basel and because of Living Walls, the curators of the fair asked me to curate the mural art. Say you're a gallery from Albany -- before, the first thing people would say to you is Albany? Where? Now people all over are curious about what's going on in Albany because of the Living Walls project. Now I go to this conference [Art Basel] and there was one guy from Norway -- this guy bought a print online from my gallery in Albany. Further smalling of the world.

OK, so that shows how the art world's views of us are changing, but is Albany really changing -- becoming a more progressive city?

Absolutely. The Radix Center did a lecture at the [Living Walls] series we did at the NYS Museum -- paying it forward, getting community back involved in their community. Living Walls wasn't just about art -- we had environmentalists and other folks come and speak to people. The next one is already scheduled for September 2012. What we're looking to do is have a smaller number of artists and fewer number of walls -- I feel like we've introduced the concept, we're going to focus more on the conference. We're looking to expand the education portion rather than the public art program. And we're looking to involve other areas of our community like Schenctady, Troy, Cohoes -- we're all fifteen minutes away but it's hard to get us into each others' things.

I see it as a five-year plan. I have a team of people here that are going to make it happen no matter what. It's going to have more of a media balance. We want to focus on different points. I would really like to have an expansion on performance art. It's a beautiful medium but it needs understanding.

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Do you have a philosophy about art?

I really do. People speak of art as if it's a physical thing. I really don't believe it is. What I see art as is when your senses are heightened or engaged by something. Art is that tingle up your back -- when something makes you breathe heavy. It's not a specific noun form -- art is actually a feeling. So these things you're seeing are moments in someone's life -- you're taking a moment that they felt, and you're sharing it. I really feel that art is just a feeling and it's one of the most powerful feelings in the world.

What's next for you?

Well, we moved the gallery from downtown Broadway to Second Avenue [in Albany]. We're going to be opening there in April. It's going to be more focused on understanding public art, so pretty much all of the artists we're going to be showing next year will be well versed in the subject. We'll have their work on the inside and their mural on the outside so when you drive by the gallery there will never be a question of what's inside.

Second Ave because is a great community oriented area and will allow greater access to the gallery itself. I truly believe that not just Second Ave, but the entire world can grow with the simple understanding that the base of education is creativity. If you allow your mind to be open to new images, new thoughts, and new ideas your entire quality of life can be enhanced.

Also interesting in 2011:
+ Sarah Gordon from FarmieMarket
+ Mike Guidice & Jen Pursley Guidice from Hounds on the Hudson and Albany chickens
+ Christian Noe from Nighthawk's Kitchen

Earlier on AOA:
+ Interesting in 2010
+ Interesting in 2009

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