Ecstatic Transformation: A Talk with Julie Sokolow


We recently had the pleasure of talking to filmmaker Julie Sokolow about her recent video, The Intuition Artist, which features psychedelic painter Gabe Felice and his struggle with the American healthcare system, and her other endeavors in the world of filmmaking and activism. - RS Editors

What attracted you to Gabe as a subject for the film? 

Gabe’s psychedelic murals are everywhere in Pittsburgh.  I delighted in his work on the streets and in galleries, so when I started filming artists I naturally thought of Gabe.  One day, I cold-called his phone number off his website.  Instead of being freaked out, he invited me to film him as he set up a solo show at Future Tenant Gallery.  I then found that Gabe’s personality is as big and beautiful as his paintings.

Gabe Felice Creating a  Psychic Drawing photo by Rachel Tokarski

What makes Gabe a "psychedelic" artist? 

To me “psychedelic” art is less about a color palette than it is about ecstatic transformation.  Whether it’s Escher’s birds turning into fish in “Sky and Water I” or human laughter turning into a seagull’s call in the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”, there’s an acknowledgement that everything is constantly changing.  

In Gabe’s work, and a lot of my favorite psychedelic art, the fear of change is mitigated by childlike wonder.  Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, Sally Cruikshank’s Face Like A Frog, and Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle come to mind.  In Gabe’s work, you see a lot of faces and characters merging together to form new objects.  There’s a sense of playfulness and interconnectivity.  

Gabe Felice Painting a Mural 

The film was produced for Healthy Artists. Please tell us about the initiative.  

Ideally, American society would encourage artistic exploration.  Artists everywhere struggle to make ends meet, but America is the only industrialized nation where so many artists are without health care.  France, Germany, Canada, the UK, and Japan provide cradle-to-grave universal health care coverage for all citizens.  Obamacare is a step in the right direction, but it is a for-profit system with a focus on health insurance rather than actual health care. 

The Healthy Artists project is about advocating for true single-payer universal health care through the voices of artists.  We have about 40 documentary shorts and written interviews available for free on our site.  We also produce art exhibitions, film screenings, and workshops.  HuffPo recently wrote that we kept single-payer alive and well in the PA political arena.  We hope folks around the nation will help us keep the momentum going.

Gabe Painting Philly Farm Truck image by Paul Overstrom 1 

Why bring special attention to the artist’s struggle about health insurance, since so many people are dealing with the same problem? 

This definitely isn’t just about artists.  60% of all personal bankruptcies in the US are due to medical bills, and the majority of medical bankruptcies befall people with insurance.  We feature artists because:  1) Artists have a heightened struggle.  They often work freelance instead of 9 to 5 corporate jobs, so they rarely get health care through their employment.  2) They are naturally good storytellers.  The colorful, life-affirming qualities of their creativity balance out the dreary disgrace that is the American health care system.  

 Gabe Painting Philly Farm Truck image by Paul Overstrom 2

Tell us something about the artist scene in Pittsburgh. Is there a strong psychedelic influence?

The Pittsburgh art scene is intensely collaborative and artists are always going to each others’ shows.  There’s an underground music scene with psychedelic intelligence led by Anita Fix, Robin Vote, and Dean Cercone. Writer Carolyn Elliot coordinates “Evolver Pittsburgh” events on consciousness expansion.

One of my favorite artists here is Nina Sarnelle.  Her psychedelic performance art piece “GROUP” is a mix of yoga class, team-building exercise, and cult initiation.  She came out of the CMU program with contemporaries like Jacob Ciocci, creator of the Paper Rad animations for Cartoon Network, and Lizzee Solomon, whose comic illustrations tip a hat to R. Crumb. 

 Pairing Outcomes by Gabe Felice

Who are the filmmakers you've gathered together for Healthy Artists?

Tim Murray is the director of The Intuition Artist and five other Healthy Artists videos.  He rides a motorcycle and is one of the most badass filmmakers in Pittsburgh.  We initially connected on Craigslist to collaborate.  Since then, we’ve built a body of work, screened it at Pittsburgh Filmmakers theaters, and published it on Michael Moore’s site.  

We have a thirty-minute documentary soon to debut online called, Healthy Artists (the movie!).  It’s about the entire Healthy Artists project and centers on an exhibition we curated with judges from the Criterion Collection and beyond.  21 top Pittsburgh artists gave their talents to the pursuit of universal health care and the results were awesome.  The film was directed by Garret Jones and Anthony DeAngelis.  Check back at the Healthy Artists site in the coming weeks to watch the film!

 Bird Beard by Gabe Felice

Are most of your films cause-related? What challenges do you see in cause-related filmmaking?

I’m currently directing and editing a feature documentary, Aspie Seeks Love.  It’s about David V. Matthews, a writer with Asperger’s syndrome looking for love on the internet.  Is it cause-related?  Yes.  Is it cause-driven?  No.  It’s character-driven and that is what’s important to me. 

No matter what kind of storytelling you do, you don’t want to lose character to plot.  I think the Healthy Artists project works because it prioritizes character.  We visit an artist’s studio or home and really get to know the person.  Our documentary short on Jenn Gooch exemplifies this.  Gooch is a fantastic musician and conceptual artist recognized by NPR and USA Today, who happened to fall victim to medical bankruptcy.  90% of the video is spent learning about her as a person and artist, 10% is learning about the cause that impacts her life.  

 

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Julie Sokolow is the award-winning producer of the Healthy Artists documentary series and the director of the feature documentary, Aspie Seeks Love.  Her short films have appeared in TIMEHuffington Post, and Boing Boing.  Last week her short film Street Doctor went viral via Gawker and Upworthy.

All images by Gabe Felice