West Palm Beach painter Cary Polkovitz has never been big on telling the stories behind his paintings. He’d rather let people conjure their own tales and share them with him.
It’s not that he’s opposed to storytelling. As an avid reader with an affinity for outlandish, fantastical tales, he wove many a tale himself in his bartending days, and told some quite imaginative fibs to kids who fell for his stories hook, line and sinker. But he’s never been one to write stories.
Then, in the fall of 2011, something changed. Blame a fire hydrant Polkovitz calls Johnny Pump (because that’s what they were called back in New York).
“I was in a particularly bad mood one morning and I stopped to get some coffee,” Polkovitz explains. “On my way out of the coffee shop I looked over as the sun was rising and in front of me near my car was this bright red fire hydrant. I mean, it was like candy red, like this little guy standing there with his arms wide open, happy to see everybody, and it just made me laugh.”
So he photographed it with his iPhone and after arriving at work, uploaded it to Facebook. “I wrote a little description of this little fellow Johnny Pump and how happy he was to see you, and how jolly he was and how bright and shiny he was,” Polkovitz explains. “The reaction to it was so bizarre. Everyone was just so excited by it.”
Encouraged, Polkovitz continued photographing objects he’d see around town, and posting mini-tales about them on Facebook. Eventually others began sending him photographs, and he’d write about those too.
Squealing children on an amusement park ride became a frozen moment in time. A broken pair of discarded glasses became an object through which a boy named Simon could see everything, including his mother’s deep sadness. A pair of Converse sneakers left in the grass became the tale of Timothy Baker, a boy whose worried mother warned him to always double-knot his shoes. But one sunny Saturday morning, the typically obedient Baker, upon seeing his friends running barefoot through grass, slipped out of his double-knotted shoes and promptly floated into the crystal-blue sky, leaving behind a group of astonished children who would discuss his ascent for years to come.
Polkovitz, a graphic designer and former coloring book illustrator, called his project Often Overlooked, and eventually launched a separate Facebook page, followed by the Kickstarter campaign that resulted in the new book he’ll sign copies of on Saturday night at Ink and Pistons in West Palm Beach.
Recently, Polkovitz discussed Often Overlooked, his book that contains more than 70 stories and the images that inspired them, with Colleen Dougher, whose earlier Q&A with Polkovitz (from her South Florida art blog Arterpillar) ran as the foreword to the book.
Colleen Dougher: Congratulations on the new book. How does it feel to finally be done with it?
Cary Polkovitz: It’s weird. I never expected to actually do it and then I put my mind to it and started the process … It feels good! I’m hoping to see some success outside of the group, outside of my current readership. …
Dougher: The stories are really imaginative ― the carnival ride that becomes a frozen moment in time, the intrigue of the rented post office box no one ever visits, the girl who calls out from behind the rusted grate in the brick wall. What’s your personal favorite at the moment?
Polkovitz: My personal favorite, to be honest with you, tends to be the one I’ve just written. I mean, not always. Sometimes I write a story and think “What am I doing?” and then I’ll put it out there and sometimes it becomes popular, and that’s always quite rewarding. One of my favorites from the past has got to be the Timothy Baker story.
Dougher: I love that.
Polkovitz: Yeah, the shoes. And to this day, after doing this for a year plus now, I still run into shoes all over the place. It’s the weirdest thing.
Dougher: Yeah, that is a strange thing. I mean there seem to be certain things I see throughout your work that you must encounter again and again or they’re things you think about. The shoes and the stairs. I see a lot of stairs and steps in your work.
Polkovitz: Well actually, it’s funny that you should say that because that’s a recurring image in my dreams. I always have stairs in my dreams, inevitably, so I have a particualr affinity for them and I’m not sure what it is but I’ve always loved them. Even my current apartment, the fact that it was near the stairs made me happy.
Dougher: I see a lot of cracks in the road and things like that, too, in your work. When you see a crack in the road do you imagine what’s going on down there?
Polkovitz: Oh sure, absolutely. I mean, when you see a crack in the road or a crack in the wall or something, you’re thinking first of all: How did it get there. Yes, the crack in the road could be weathering and whatnot, but it could be so much more. I mean that’s the best part about it. What’s beneath that crack? I mean you could go through the whole, “Well, there’s the topsoil and then there’s the bedrock.” But more fun than that would be what’s kind of in between the cracks almost literally.
Dougher: What lives down there?
Polkovitz: Exactly, there’s this wonderful thing about the mystery of it, like a closed door but not quite as obvious. ….
Dougher: Who knew that fire hydrant would be the start of this whole new project and a book, right?
Polkovitz: I honestly had no intention. Somebody asked me what I’ve been up to lately, and I said, “Well, I kind of accidentally wrote a book,” and that’s actually what it feels like, like I got tricked into it. Initially it was just to amuse myself and yet other people were amused. It became just enjoying giving this to my friends as little stories every morning and it just took over. It has a life of its own.
Dougher: This project seems like so much fun and such a great outlet for your creativity. I have to wonder … before you started taking the photos and writing these little stories about them, were you already telling yourself these stories in your head?
Polkovitz: Oh, absolutely. I kind of never grew out of that make-believe stage of childhood. I always liked the idea of things being more than what they were or what they appeared to be because things are what they are and you can explain everything away, but what’s the fun in that? I’d rather tell a story that’s just for the fun of telling a story and to add a little mystery and wonder to the world.
Dougher: Would anyone in your family be surprised that you were doing a project like this or would they just say “Yeah, Cary’s just been making up these stories ever since I can remember. …”
Polkovitz: Actually it was a little bit of a surprise, like, “When did you start writing? When did you start telling stories?” Well, I have always told stories, I just never did it publicly. When I was bartending I used to tell all sorts of tall tales just for the fun of it.
When people asked me why something was a certain way, because they assumed I knew, I would make stuff up, not for the lack of knowledge ― I usually knew the answer ― but it was more fun to give them something that was more exciting and more magical. …
I once had a group of kids thinking that my name was Garbanzo for an entire day and that I was the child of my friend who was only a year older then me. I mean it was totally ridiculous but the best thing about it was how they just bought it, like, “Yeah, no problem,” and I think that’s something that we lose, that unwillingness to accept the absurd.
Dougher: You started off doing stories about objects ― a fire hydrant or a mailbox ― but they also became about people, these interesting characters that you imagined were associated with these objects. Where do you get the names of these characters?
Polkovitz: Well, depending on what the story is will depend on where the name comes from. Sometimes they’re not names of people I know, though people’s names do pop up, but sometimes I’ll name someone with the first initial of someone I know if I feel the story somehow applies to that person. .. If I’ve had a really deep conversation the day before, then it will influence the story the next day, and if it’s inspired it, a lot of time I’ll use that person’s initial.
Other times, I’ll come up with a name that I like and think, “Well, that just sounds good,” or “It works well with this.” I certainly don’t know anybody named Theophelus Jones but for some reason the name just popped into my head and I thought, “Let’s run with that.” There are times when the stories are more traditionally mythological … Wikipedia is a phenomenal tool for that, not for truth and not for fact by any stretch of the imagination, but definitely if I need a name that’s a derivation of something ….
Dougher: A lot of the names seem unusual, but then you have stories about someone with a name like Mark Davis. Is that the local photographer?
Polkovitz: No. I know Mark, but honestly they’re names that just pop into my head. Sometimes there’s no real reason I’ll use a name but I’ll mention somebody or write a name and somebody will call me out and say, ‘Hey did you mean that guy we knew in eighth grade?’ and I’m thinking, “What guy we knew in eighth grade?” … but I guess he made some impression at some point … I was the kid who wandered around school with his head in the clouds. I was only vaguely aware of what was going on at all times.
Dougher: Too busy making up stories in your own head, right?
Polkovitz: Yeah, pretty much. I’ve always done it and this has given me the opportunity to actually do it. To be honest, the big thing for me was Facebook with this [project]. Social media has been tremendous. It’s such a weird (medium) to work in. You are putting yourself out there, and it’s almost like you’re vomiting up all this truth about yourself and what you want to tell peopl,e but the best part about it for me is that I was able to put these stories out there. I never really thought about whether they were good and quite frankly I never considered myself much of a writer. Now I’m putting this stuff out there and getting such a positive response and I’m thinking ‘Oh, well hmm, maybe I do have some sort of feel for this.”
Dougher: It seems a few things prompted you to take the project from the Facebook page into book form. The first is that you were getting all of this great feedback and then due to unforeseen life circumstances, you had a little extra time in your schedule to take on a project like this. Can you talk about what led up to your launching a Kickstarter (campaign) to publish this in book form?
Polkovitz: Desperation (laughs). I had been part of a marketing firm for awhile and like so many people the company had to let me go for financial reasons. … I found myself with, like you said, a tremendous amount of extra time which I put into both writing and painting. I was pouring out paintings, like it was ridiculous the amount of painting I did over the course of the next month, and I was pulling in freelance work, but at the end of that, I was like, “You know what? This is a great opportunity to do something different. Why am I sitting on this thing that could actually be worthwhile?”
Also, I like other people to read it. There’s something about engaging people or inspiring people or evoking something in a person, which I was doing with painting for a long while and now I’m doing with writing. It’s very similar but cheaper material.
Dougher: Once you launched the Kickstarter, you came up with creative ways to keep donations rolling in, telling bedtime stories online in return for a certain number of pledges. Do some of these stories appear in the book?
Polkovitz: Yeah, some of the bedtime stories do appear in the book, but yeah, it was like a reward for everyone. If I got 10 pledges in a day, which came to be my goal, there would be a bedtime story. The only downside to that for me was that I now had to come up with two stories a day … but if people really want this to happen, maybe this will inspire someone to kick in a little something, and it seemed to work so that was nice.
Dougher: Where did do work on your book? Was it at your apartment in West Palm Beach, a local Starbucks?
Polkovitz: It kind of depended. Sometimes it would be in Starbucks. I would walk to Starbucks in the morning and sit down, and if I had taken a photo on the way over and certainly if I was working and on my way to the office, I would try to write the story before [work]. But later on when I was finding myself, along with 90 percent of the rest of America, in between jobs, I found myself writing at home in my apartment.
Obviously the bedtime stories were late at night but more often than not the stories I wrote in the morning were told literally that morning. I would sit down and write it and post it on Facebook. …
Dougher: When I read the stories, it feels like some of them want to be longer. … Are you tempted to write longer stories?
Polkovitz: I don’t know that anybody wants to read long-form fiction from me. I mean, I really do enjoy reading and writing and I’ve toyed with the idea of writing longer stories and even writing something longer than that, like actual book-length. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but I didn’t think I was going to be doing this either, so who knows?
Dougher: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned in the course of doing this project?
Polkovitz: Hmm, the biggest thing I’ve learned is just to kind of take the chance. It sounds so hackneyed but if you really, really love doing something and you think you have something to share, then share it. Don’t be afraid to do so.
Dougher: Are you planning another Often Overlooked book?
Polkovitz: Oh heck, yeah. I recently counted the number of stories and it’s like 240 or something like that and I’m thinking, “Well I only put 70-something in the book.” I want to see how well this one does before I look at producing another one, but maybe next year would be kind of a good time to do it. …
Dougher: Your upcoming book singing at Ink and Pistons will be the first place where [locals] who bought the book will see it?
Polkovitz: Yes … What I would like to do is be able to give people their books and thank them in person for their support. … I’m really looking forward to thanking everybody and saying I really, really appreciate your support and love and readership. …
Dougher: The book signing is also the launch of a solo art show?
Polkovitz: Yeah, that wasn’t initially my intent but Amanda Linton, who owns Ink and Pistons with JR (Linton), said “Well, why don’t we turn it into an art show as well?” and I thought “Why not? It couldn’t hurt to show some of the work, and if somebody buys it that’s even better.”
Dougher: Your paintings are in some ways the opposite of your Often Overlooked project. Clearly each has a story, but rather than share the story you imagined while creating it, you allow others to bring their own story to it.
Polkovitz: Yeah, the way I think about painting is different than the way I think about writing. When you do a painting or present a photograph without a story attached to it, the person who is experiencing the art or photograph should be able to bring their experiences to it. … An artist may give you something to work from but emotional experiences come from your past, your experiences, so when you see something that touches a cord, that’s you. So when people ask what a painting is about I usually turn it around on them and ask what it means to [them]. What it means to me has very little bearing on it.
Dougher: Now that I think about it, your photos and stories also inspire poeple to tell their own stories. … Once you read the stories and then see a glove next to a manhole cover or something like that, you may look at it differently, maybe start conjuring your own stories.
Polkovitz: Oh, I hope so.
Dougher: Do people ever send you their stories along with their photos?
Polkovitz: No, and it’s too bad. I actually have a friend who’s a writing teacher in Massachusetts who used my Often Overlooked site to explain found poetry … Her point was that you can write a story about anything, and the kids weren’t getting it. So she brought that up and showed a couple of the stories and the kids got very excited and started writing their own stories. I said “Oh, for goodness’ sake, send them to me. I’m all excited,” and I never heard back. So Jen, if you’re out there …
Dougher: It would be fun to see those stories.
Polkovitz: It would be very exciting. I love seeing the way people’s minds work, because that imagination, that creativity … So many people, just because of the everyday minutiae they have to go through, whether it’s driving home or going to work and dealing with office politics or coming home and making sure there’s dinner on the table and your child’s homework [gets done] … All of these things are important of course but one of the things that falls to the wayside is your own imagination because you’re so wrapped up in the day-to-day.
I mean, I know people who have nightmares or dreams about work or “Did I pay this bill?” … I’d rather have this bizarre nightmare or this weird adventure in my head when I go to sleep. If I’m able to inspire people to think a little more imaginatively or to have a little more wonder about the world around them, even if it’s not the real world around them, so much the better. It makes life a little more fun.
Polkovitz’s book signing and solo art show will run 7-11 p.m. Saturday (with the art remaining on exhibit through April 18) at Ink and Pistons Tattoo Shop and Slushbox Art Gallery, 2716 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Admission is free. Call 561-832-4655 or visit Inkandpistons.com.