Henryk Fantazos is a wonder. His story is as unlikely as his paintings are good. My first encounter with his work was the “Face of the South” collection, which is the focus of this article, and from which all of the works displayed here come from. These paintings move with the fluidity of the Mississippi and sway with the cotton fields of Georgia. Even submerged in the murky bayous of Louisiana, his paintings still shine with a light of fantasy that is most unique. Below is an interview with Mr. Fantazos which covers such subjects as a blushing peach, wal-mart shoppers, and of course his singular take on the intrinsic beauty of the South.
JD: My first thought when I saw your “Face of the South” collection of paintings was, “Where did this come from?” because it seemed so otherworldly, but at the same time still captured an inherit beauty of the South that is not easily seen. You took two seemingly opposite elements, the rural/conservative South as a subject, and painted it through a surrealist eye, which is obviously about as non-southern as you can get. Was there a specific inspiration for meshing these two contrasting elements together, or did it occur naturally?
HF: That is well observed: indeed there is blending of metaphorical language which I bring with the subject usually depicted in a softly sentimental way by others. The results are, I hope unique.
JD: Who are some the artists that inspired you to begin painting, and who shaped your early work?
HF: I never really had a true choice. Painting chose me and one does not diddle with Fate.
JD: Who are some contemporary artists that you admire?
HF: The list is very, very long of artists I admire. They come from gloomy Flanders and from sunny Italy but they are not my contemporaries. If you are in love with a woman it would be practical that she’d be your contemporary, but in painting it has no significance.
JD: What inspires you to paint?
HF: A vision flies into my mind and demands to be painted. I have learned not to respond by reacting: ”but, dear gods, you are too weird, too irrational for the Wal-Mart shoppers to accept!” and instead I throw all my resources at building that vision, making it convincing and artistically solid.
JD: In another interview you stated that “modern art” is “grotesque,” can you expound on this idea?
HF: To clarify- I said that grotesque is the proper language for depicting our times. Now, “modern art” is not “grotesque” in my view. There is some decaying cadaver still offered for reverent viewing by art-market manipulators as “modern art” but it is wise to keep enough acquaintance with the development of Western culture to see it is rubbish, like hoola-hoops, experimental poetry and cacophonic music.
JD: Your rural Southern depictions capture its intrinsic nature, but not by conventional means. You pick scenes and characters that are unusual, but still dead on to the Southern phantasm. Can you talk about this subject further?
HF: Well,that is a huge subject. In the first place, because it is so important; I never initiate work on some composition by conceptualizing about the South and forcing some ponderous and clever contrivance. I know it would have the fetor of formaldehyde cerebrations and falsity of plaster of Paris kisses. It has to be authentic, originating in the depth from which all true visions come.
JD: Can you expound on your personal relationship to the South, how you came to settle in the South, if it was a conscious decision, and what effect it has had on your work, and what it means to you?
HF: When I still lived in Europe I fed richly on Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Porter, Carson McCullers, Faulkner, Walker Percy, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams. Later, looking for America in America I found that the Holy Land of the South is my home to grow into, to love and deserve. Living here has daily, constant and direct influence on my work. Indeed every element I include in my paintings is taken from my Southern surroundings.
JD: It seems as if people are blind to their own beauty and the beauty that is around them if they stay in the same place, or if they grew up in a place they take it for granted. Do you believe that you being an “outsider” to the South allowed you to see it anew and discover fresh qualities about it that before were untapped?
HF: So very true! To be a painter you have to remain an observer, an exited peeping tom. Reality, to which we are all newcomers, is actually shocking and sensational. I look at the blushing peach and I am shocked!
JD: Have you ever been influenced by your last name, since a lot of your work has a fantasy/fantastic quality to it?
HF: Yes, I feel in some overarching, large scale way obligated to live up to the promise my name carries. Of course if I chose to be a funeral-parlor beautician or a tax-collector that obligation would disappear.
JD: Who are some of your favorite author’s and their works?
HF: From the blessed moment when my English has firmed itself in me and I was able to taste Shakespeare I mostly stay inside of His Continent.
JD: Some of your favorite musicians?
HF: Mozart, Brahms, Puccini, Rachmaninov, & Orff.
JD: If you could collaborate with any artist dead or alive, who would you choose?
HF: Jan van Eyck, but he would not have me,alas! He would glance at my efforts and shook his head with a sigh-not good enough.
JD: If you were a celebrity impersonator, dead or alive, who would you be?
HF: I impersonate myself and do a less and less credible job of it.
JD: What’s the best day you can imagine?
HF: A long day of love and wide-ranging conversations.
JD: If you could live anywhere in the world where would that be?
HF: Several places to reside there for a while and move to the next, already comfortably appointed . Probably New Zeeland islands, Bali, Portofino, Santorini and more.
JD: What are some of the other ways you utilize your time besides painting?
HF: I grow antique roses, talk with a few well selected friends, but I have very little time to spare : To get good at what I do takes all my time.
I would like to give full credit to Conway, Arkansas based Oxford American Magazine for introducing me to the wonder of Henryk Fantazos. Oxford American was founded in 1992 with an editorial mission to “explore the American South.” They are devoted to the art, music, and writing that spews from the fertile lands of Dixie.