The Artist Behind Piss Trump: An Interview with James Kelsey
In The City of Roses where collisions of the right and left are a weekly story, an artist from Centralia, Washington came to a local Portland beer hall to showcase his up-and-coming piece Piss Trump. I was quickly reminded of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, released in 1987 that caused storm of criticism and praise from art critics and concerned citizens alike. It still gets a rise out of people, such when it was recently displayed in Houston at The Station Museum of Contemporary Art next to a portrait of Trump.
While the compositions of the pieces are similar, the message is another story. This was in the forefront of my mind during the idea stage of this interview and my goal was clear; find out why a modern sculptor was inspired to create such a fiery and politically brazen piece of a towering Trump doll suspended in what I only hope is real urine, because what a feat that would be. Furthermore, what a statement.
I walked into the dining room of The Lucky Lab, it was much quieter than the outdoor seating area I had left. No panting dogs and fewer rowdy humans with noisy pint glasses sipping away the heat of one of the first warm summer days here in notoriously rainy PDX. I made my way towards the door marked with a warning sign about possible offensive material inside which lead to the private event room while searching for my friend Emily, who had first told me about the unveiling party and Q&A happening with James Kelsey that day. Then I saw it. On the far wall of the room radiant reds and golds encompass a disheveled and life-like Trump figurine submerged in piss. My reaction fell somewhere between uncontrolled giggling and awe.
I hastily went to the bar to order a glass of Merlot before inspecting the piece more closely and attending the Q&A where I finally met James Kelsey. He is the kind of man who often gives hugs in lieu of handshakes and will readily answer any question a person could ask in regards to Piss Trump with astonishing grace and a smile on his face. But with no more gilding the lily here it is, James Kelsey and his work, Piss Trump.
Q: How and when did the inspiration to create Piss Trump hit you?
A: I think I was as surprised as everyone else was by the 2016 Election results; in those first couple of weeks, even Trump seemed like a deer caught in headlights. While I was wary of what was to come, I took his own reaction as hilarious . . . as if he had just ‘won the TV game show’ but really didn’t want the prize he now had!
I’m not sure of the exact moment, but during one of the first times the media started to literally use his own words and he began calling them the lying news . . . well, at the same time I found it very scary and very funny. He was being crucified by the press and the world, but he was doing it to himself.
I knew of Andres Serrano’s work, “Piss Christ” that he created 30 years earlier and just put that with current events.
Q: What was the original intention behind Piss Trump?
A: The original intent was to mock Trump. It still is. It makes me happy that other than for his supporters and those who misunderstand the piece to be about religion (and a few who are disgusted by the idea of piss), the overwhelming response is humor and laughing.
[Which is] the perfect reaction!
Q: Has that intention evolved over the creation installation and/or release of the photograph to the public?
A: The intention hasn’t really evolved although the scale of the piece has! The sculpture was originally going to be under 12 inches, not over 30 [inches].
Q: What is most important for viewers to know when viewing this piece?
A: I suppose my main message is for those who hate it (I’ve been threatened many times in these first couple of weeks!). “Piss Trump” is NOT anti-American, nor is it anti-religion. It’s actually the MOST American of speech . . . America is one of the only nations on Earth where we can make such a statement and not be thrown in jail or disappeared.
It’s sad that some people’s reaction is to threaten me or tell me to leave America because they don’t like it.
Q: Would you call this piece political?
A: [Laughing] Yes.
Q: How about religious?
A: No. I realize some Christians take the imagery of the cross and crucifixion and something solely in the realm of their religion, but it isn’t. Besides, in this particular case, it’s metaphorical. I think even his supporters and Trump himself would agree that he’s being crucified in a large part of the worldwide media and in public opinion. See? Metaphor. Of course, the piss does change the context a bit for this particular piece of art. [Laughing]
Q: Can satire of a politician ever not be political?
A: In its grand definition, nothing is outside the realm of politics, especially any sort of commentary on politicians themselves; how could it not be? It doesn’t matter if it’s for or against a politician; it’s all political.
Satire is one way we as humans deal with bad politics. We do the same thing with most bad things.
Dark humor is used to cope with everything . . . death, violence, sickness; ask a doctor or firefighter or anyone in the military about dark humor.
Q: How do you feel about the greater Resistance movement looking at this piece as a symbol?
A: Oh! Please do! I never thought this as I was in the depths of creating it, but as I saw the final photograph for the first time, I thought to myself, “My god! This image could be THE iconic image of the 45th President of the United States!” (It turned out way better than I had imagined 6 months ago.)
Q: How do you feel about the current political climate? How do you think this piece contributes to this climate?
A: That’s a hard question for me. While politics have always been divisive, I think it went insane with the Obama presidency and Trump has just steepened the downward spiral.
I said it was a hard question because the creation of “Piss Trump” actually goes against my nature. I’ve been an artist for 22 years creating beautiful, non-controversial art. This piece is out of character for me, at least in my professional life, but I couldn’t not create it! I couldn’t keep quite about the atrocity to our political system that is now President.
Q: How do you think your show at The Lucky Lab impacted the Portland community after the Nazi problem in March?
A: Ah yes… “The Nazi Problem”. Since their creation, haven’t they always been a bit of a problem? [laughing].
But seriously, I honestly don’t think the unveiling of “Piss Trump” had much of an impact on Portland. I’m a bit disappointed actually, part of me loved the fact that the show was calm and was met with the mocking spirit with which I’d hoped; there were a few unhappy people who wandered in, but nothing like what I had feared.
I have to remember that the show was just the piece’s coming out party. It marked the end of the CREATION phase and hopefully the beginning of something much greater. I spent 6 months creating a controversial image and now my goal is to create controversy. I mean, why create a piece of art like this and then just hang it in my living room and move on to the next work?
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced in creating Piss Trump?
A: The tank. Without a doubt, the tank. The one finally used was the 15th version. The first tank I had was WAY too small, since my original plan was for a sculpture under 12” tall. I had to create my own tank since any fish tank large enough was going to cost over $500, even used. The first tank exploded when I filled it for a leak test. I can laugh about it now. . . it was out front of my studio and when it went (I wasn’t there) glass was found over 30 feet away. It must have been spectacular!
I then bought tempered glass but it kept leaking (all this testing was with fresh water of course!), when I finally got the leaking solved, during the next test, one of the walls of the tank just came unglued and popped off! I ended up with a much stronger adhesive that worked!
The final leak test came on a Friday. I remember because as soon as it was perfect, I drained it and rode down to Portland to rent the camera for the picture. (it was a really expensive camera for that size image)
Q: How has the creation of Piss Trump impacted you as an artist?
A: So far very little. There are a few places online with a lot of hatred toward me about it, but I haven’t read any of it.
I’m actually very nervous though. There’s a real possibility that if THIS work finds legs and becomes something huge that my 22 years as a sculptor could really be hurt by my new-found reputation. At least in some circles. I try not to worry about the future though. I mean . . . it could also help, right?
Q: What are some reactions you have had to the piece? What is the funniest reaction you have had to the piece?
I realize I’m in a bit of a bubble; I mean, we all are in our lives, right? So a lot of the reaction has been from friends and supporters/collectors of my work.
I think my FAVORITE reaction in general is from the show at the Lucky Lab…. A few people walked in and when they saw it they RAN over so they could get a picture with it. I also got a few scowls at the show, even with a warning sign saying some may possibly offended, it caught them off guard. [chuckling]
I’m not sure about the funniest. I suppose there’s a small group of viewers who are most interested on how I interpreted Trump’s penis. I find that funny.
Q: How do you think Andres Serrano would react to Piss Trump?
A: I’ve thought a lot about that. I don’t know him at all other than from some interviews I’ve read. I believe he’s 66 and living in New York. I know how I DO NOT want him to react; I don’t want him to think I ‘stole’ his concept. I’m very upfront about the origins of my idea. I give him credit on the Piss Trump website. I also thought that if my piece becomes a 15-minute of fame thing it would renew an interest in and increase the value of his “Immersion: Piss Christ”.
Q: Have you had any threats made against you because of this piece?
A: Yes. They are really good at it too. They just say if they ever find me that they’ll “Take care of me”. I’m sure they mean that they’ll tuck me in and tell me a bedtime story, right? [laughing]
I don’t worry about them. I do like to remind them that there’s another group who threatens artists for making art: Radical Muslims towards artist drawing Mohammed. (I don’t think they like the comparison, but it’s quite spot on.)
Q: How does Piss Trump differ from your regular works?
A: [Laughing] I normally create monumental abstract sculptures from bronze and stainless steel. I have works in collections all over the U.S. as well as Canada and even Europe.
Q: Do you have any plans for similar works in the future we can get excited for?
A: Some of my haters suggested my next piece should be Mohammed on the cross. I think I’ll pass on that suggestion though. In my personal life I try to live very much in the moment. As I’m talking with you right now, no . . . nothing quite like this, but if another idea strikes me during this process, hell yes.
(You’ll get to be one of the first to know, okay?)
Q: What components and materials were used in the creation of Piss Trump?
A: The sculpture itself is actually fired ceramic. I had an artist friend come over and he worked on the head and face while I worked on the body. He’s sort of the one who determined the size of the project; he said that a 12” cross would mean the face would be smaller than a Barbie Doll head and would have no details.
Trump’s head is nearly the size of a baseball now!
Q: Are there any funny stories you’d like to share from the creation of Piss Trump?
A: Funny? Hmm. Oh. I know! This is after the photo was taken but before the show. I live in Centralia, WA, a very conservative small town. A local business owner asked to see a picture after hearing me talk about it; of course he was offended! His girlfriend actually turned her back to us after hearing the description; she said she had to because she was Catholic.
But that’s not the funny part (at least to me). A couple of days later I was having a debate with him about the Unveiling Show in Portland. He wasn’t arguing about “Piss Trump”, but instead, since I had told him about the threats I received we were arguing about his worldview…. Since I was threatened as to what would happen to me if I showed it, it would be MY FAULT if something happened to me.
Some people have funny worldviews. I asked him about the artists killed for drawing Mohammed and he said the same thing; it was there fault since they were warned not to. [Shrug]
Q: How long did this project take from start to finish?
A: I conceived of it in November, planned it in December, and started modeling the clay in January, so 8 months of planning, 6 months of work.
Q: How large was tank that held the sculpture?
A: Too Big!
Q: Was it honest-to-god urine in the tank?
A: I’m just telling people that it was a team effort to fill the tank. You can take what you want from that.
Q: Where will people be able to see Piss Trump in the future?
A: THAT is the question, isn’t it? I’m actually considering taking it on the road and using it to encourage meeting and questions & answer sessions to discuss not only “Piss Trump” but to expand the conversation to satire and mocking in political art in general. There were some interesting questions brought up at the Portland Show.
Q: If I wanted Piss Trump on my wall, how much would it cost me? Could I buy a smaller print?
A: I’ve actually created 3 editions of the piece. In the massive scale, there are only going to be 5 available worldwide; The 1st one will sell for $55,000.
Of course that’s a ridiculous price for us normal people! There’s also a 36’ x 24’ limited edition for $1,600 and an unlimited edition (24 x 16”) for only $350. Still pricey for some I suppose, but it’s still on the same high-end photographic paper and signed… and it IS going to be the iconic image for Trump.
Q: In your wildest dreams, with whom/where would the original Piss Trump end up?
A: Ooooh! Good question. Because I want to meet him, I’d have to say Stephen Colbert’s home… but in my wildest dream? How about in Vladimir Putin’s living room (right above the fire place).
Q: Is there anyone out there you hope sees Piss Trump?
A: Everyone! But I’d consider it a personal win if Trump tweeted something about it. [laughing]
Q: Is there anyone you’d like to thank in relation to the creation and display of this piece?
A: I have a handful of friends who made this all come together. I actually took a photograph during the photo shoot from the rear side of the tank. The light is strange and it’s the back side of the cross. I actually had 5 small versions of it created and framed for them . . . each with a personal message. Maybe one day they’ll be able to sell theirs for a Million Dollars at Christie’s auction house, right?
Q: You have come a long way from Mashed Potato splatters and Macaroni Butterflies as it says in your biography, growing leaps and bounds in the last 15 years particularly; what advice do you have for new artists?
A: Some would say that “Piss Trump” is MUCH closer to mashed potato splatter than real art. Advice for new artists? Do it. Make your art, practice. Expect Failures and when they happen, just move on; failure means you’re learning!
Oh, and if you want to make a LIVING at your art, ignore all those who call you a sell out or tell you that ‘selling’ your art cheapens it. Do they tell that to architects or designers or engineers? Of course they don’t. Artists need to be seen on the same level as those other professional creatives.
I guess only time will tell where Piss Trump will end up or what new conversations it will spark, but I have feeling it will stick around much like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. The ripples of this satire are only growing after the stone was thrown into the depths of the collision between the waters of the art world and current political climate. I would never imagine a modern sculptor creating such a deliciously controversial piece but I am delighted to have gotten the chance to have my questions answered about Piss Trump.
James was one of the kindest most approachable, artists I have met but not without the incredible wit and poise you only see in the greats. If you have made it this far, I hope you are just as excited for this work as I am and I suggest you check out the official Piss Trump website and follow James on Twitter. For his greater collection of works and autobiography visit his studio website or the Facebook page.
Have a question for James Kelsey? Pissed about the piece? Wondering why you don’t get free Merlot and cupcakes while reading this article? Leave your comments below!