August Lamm: When I dropped out of college for the second time, I moved to Berlin with a suitcase and banjo.
An interview with artist August Lamm
So to start off, I just want to let you know I’ve totally stalked you on Instagram.
Oh my god, I’m such an easy person to stalk. I just put everything out there. I’m like ‘here’s what I look like from every angle and here’s everything that’s ever happened to me.’
Where have you lived? Why do you move around so much?
I grew up in Connecticut. When I dropped out of college for the second time, I moved to Berlin with a suitcase and banjo. My plan was to play music on the street. I didn’t know anybody there and my German wasn’t great. I tried to do the music thing there, but there isn’t much of a tipping culture, you don’t make as much as a musician on the street there, so I started to turn to a more practical career path, which was illustration [laughs]. I had a ton of mental health problems, I was incredibly isolated and I ended up being hospitalized for depression. After that, I went back to America and stayed there for another two years and built my business there. I felt like I could take the next step in my life and I decided to move to Paris, and I loved it there, but the Visa was a problem. I ended up having to come back to the states to figure out a Visa. I moved back to Paris, and then I decided at the last second, after moving to Paris, to move to London. I bought a plane ticket for the next morning and got myself an apartment in the next few days. I think I’m only still here because of the pandemic. It’s a nice place to live but I change my mind a lot and get swept away by all sorts of whims and plans and ideas and you can’t live like that during the pandemic.
You said you dropped out of college twice, what was your original plan?
To call it a plan is a stretch, but I was studying art history. I transferred colleges four times but I couldn’t figure out where I wanted to be or what I wanted to study. I dropped out of college the first time because I watched a bunch of documentaries one night and I was like ‘I need to be part of the world.’ I had this grand vision of, not changing the world or helping anybody, but just being in it. I watched those two documentaries and then immediately opened my student portal and withdrew.
What were the documentaries? I have to watch them.
[Laughs] They were Blackfish and The Cove.
You advocate for digital drawing as a legitimate form of art, what do you think about digitizing other aspects of the art world?
I think it’s like any tool. I think that people put too much weight in it and the effect that it has on art, when in reality, if you’re making art or perceiving art, I think it’s a pretty consistent experience, whether it’s traditional or digital. I do enjoy seeing things in museums, just like I do enjoy drawing things on paper. But I have transcendent experiences doing a Google Image search and I have transcendent experiences drawing something on my iPad! If you’re open to those things, then the medium can’t change the experience for you. I’ve thought a lot about it recently because I have to use the iPad because of my disability — it makes it easier for me to be in different positions.
You’re an amazing artist, writer, and musician, what is your favorite way to express yourself? Are they all connected?
I want to say they’re the opposite of connected. They’re very, very different and that’s why I have to do all of them. One of them wouldn’t completely satisfy me. I’ve tried to focus on one of the three at different parts of my life but it hasn’t felt completely fulfilling, though I know I would make more progress if I just focused on one. I think if I had to pick one, trapped in a room for the rest of my days, completely alone and isolated and could only do one thing, I would choose music because it’s the most spiritually fulfilling and it feels the most life affirming.
Who are your favorite musicians?
I really enjoy 60s, 70s folk music. I like Simon and Garfunkel a lot…I’m trying to think of artists people would actually know instead of random weirdos that resonate with me.
No! Tell me about the random weirdos.
There’s this really interesting thing that’s been happening in the past few years where people are finding old, unreleased tapes by their mothers and releasing them. A lot of people just recorded stuff in their living rooms in the 60s and 70s and there are some really really good people to have come out of that. It’s just their kids releasing their stuff online and some of my favorite music is just from these women who played guitar in addition to being moms. There’s a sort of magic to that — a think part of it gives me hope that I can go through life without being discovered or appreciated and still maybe be good. It’s possible to be incredibly talented and never get recognized and that is comforting to me.
Why do you think distortion is such a big part of your work?
I haven’t asked myself this question, but now that I think about it, something I struggle with is that my work is so representational. I draw what’s in front of me, I don’t really have any unique way of seeing the world. That’s how it feels to me. I look at work by other artists and they seem to have this voice when they draw, like things are naturally distorted by their eye, and I don’t feel like I have that. I feel like I just see what’s in front of me, so using the reflection in a spoon, or the distortion through a glass, that is a way for me to get beyond the natural shape of something and see it as a more abstracted form, but without actually having to have the ‘eye,’ because I feel that’s something I lack.
Your art is often accompanied by a piece of writing. What comes first, the art or the prose?
Most of the time, I draw something and there’s this space to fill up. There’s a caption and for me, any opportunity to express myself, I’m just completely on board. I’m like, ‘Yeah! Okay, let me say whatever is on my mind.’ I love having that little box to write things. I know some people feel like it’s a burden sometimes, they just want their art to speak for itself… I personally don’t think my art says too much besides, ‘Hi, I’m a picture,’ so I like to be the person to hold the microphone.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
[Sighs] A lot of my advice now is actually sort of negative advice, like, ‘here’s a reason why you shouldn’t do it.’ That’s not because I don’t like it, I love being an artist. I think it’s the best life, I’m so satisfied, but the questions that people ask me sometimes, it feels like they’re answering it themselves by just needing to ask it. Like if somebody is saying ‘how do you get the motivation to draw all the time, I don’t feel inspired, it’s such a drag I never want to do it,’ it’s like, well then why do you want to be a professional artist? Sometimes I can’t tell if they’re asking me for permission to not be an artist or if they think there’s a way to be an artist without making art. My advice would be to ask yourself why you want to be an artist. The answer is going to be wide ranging and it can include a lot of things and you shouldn’t be ashamed if it includes something to do with fame or ego or glory or attracting romantic partners, but a big part of it should be…not that you love making art, but that you absolutely cannot stop making it because you always want to make something better than the previous thing you’ve made and you fall asleep just hoping that morning will come soon so you can wake up and try again.
Did you ever think about getting a conventional job?
The closest thing to a conventional job for me was working in a coffee shop and even the idea that somebody was telling me ‘you have to be at this place, at this time, for this amount of time,’ and having no freedom in that, it felt like that contradicted what I understood about the human experience. I would look at the clock and be like, ‘okay I’m just selling my time for eight hours for a little bit of money so that I can survive and just keep going to my job’ and it would feel like I was selling my life and I wasn’t doing anything I cared about. Why even bother if you’re just trying to finance a life you don’t even care about because you spend it doing something you don’t care about. I felt like there had to be something else, so I just thought through the things in my life I’ve enjoyed doing, and I had always liked doing art and taking art classes, but I wasn’t a good artist at the time, so I had to learn how to draw. I just sat in my bed and I would just draw from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed.
What is your biggest goal?
I have two goals right now. One is to release an album and the other is to publish a book. I’m working on a book proposal and recording an album. My life goal, and this makes me sound like a complete narcissist, but if I could succeed measurably as a musician, and also publish a book, and also be a professional illustrator, that would be the coolest thing ever, to prove everyone wrong, because everyone is always like [silly voice] ‘no you can only be successful at one thing.’
What is your next step?
I can see myself finishing my book proposal and sending it off, and finishing my album, but I can’t see where I will be when I do that… What country I’ll be in, what apartment I’ll live in, who I’ll be surrounded by, what my life will be like. I don’t know, I just know I want to do those things.
Some gems that didn’t fit into the interview but should be heard:
‘If you don’t like your job, you don’t like your life.’
‘The feeling of having control over time is happiness.’
August (after I described my relationship with my dad): ‘I’m just wondering if you’re an illegitimate child.’