Interview with artist PONZ (aka Robert Ponzio), an activist blues lover, educator, and citizen diplomat

"The Blues is an universal expression of humanity. The Blues rises above the difficulties of life and finds a way to celebrate it."

Robert Ponzio: The Blues Art of Peace

Robert Ponzio was born in 1965 at Brooklyn, New York, under the zodiac sighs of Aries. He is an artist educator, activist, blues lover and citizen diplomat. Everyone calls him PONZ, (which is humorous in China as it sounds like “Mr. Fat” when spoken)! Ponzio is art instructor and chair of Fine Arts at Oak Hall School, director of the Cofrin Gallery and an internationally exhibiting artist. He and his principal worked together to solidify a partnership school agreement with an excellent secondary school in Changzhou, China.

"I see both Painting and music as equal expressions of the same emotions and ideas. I paint to music, which inspires my thoughts."

He does exhibitions and painting performances in Haiti, Middle East, China, United States of America (at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in Indianola, Mississippi). Also, have does workshops and lectures around the United States and South Korea, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Middle East and Bahamas. He usually paints live with Delta Blues musician, Willie Green.

PONZ talks about the Art, Blues, peace, Willie Green, B.B. King, and his projects around the world.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the painting?

Since childhood, I have always liked to draw. I would copy super heroes out of comic books. These were my first art lessons.  It was not until I was in college when I became serious about painting.

What does “Art” and “Blues” offered you? What do you learn about yourself from the colors and the blues?

I see both Painting and music as equal expressions of the same emotions and ideas. I paint to music, which inspires my thoughts.  I am not a musician myself, though I own and play several instruments for fun. In the early 1990’s I began to become jealous of many of my musician friends and their direct interaction with people as they create their art live. I began to question, why must I paint alone in the studio.  One night I worked up the nerve to set up a canvas on stage and tried to capture the energy of the moment on my canvas. As I did this more regularly, I discovered that the interaction with the musicians and the crowd inspired me. I began to think of myself as a “Visual Percussionist”.

What characterize PONZ’s work & progress, how do you describe your philosophy about the ART?

I think my best Art occurs when I don’t think about it too much.  When I am able to obtain a kind of “Flow”… when the colors and brushwork just happen spontaneously, it seems to just work. On the stage, it is easy for this to happen, but in the studio, I can often “think too much” or worry about the work unnecessarily. In order to fight this, I often turn to making my images with a grinder and chisels. I will grind into planks of wood to reveal the warm wood underneath a painted surface. This unwieldy tool forces me to improvise. There is just something aggressively cool about power tools!

What first attracted you to the Blues and how has the blues music changed your life?

I have always been a music lover… early on an avid Punk fan. As I got older and my tastes broadened, I was naturally attracted to the “D.I.Y.”… the “Do it Yourself” attitude of the Blues. Early on, they sang the Blues because they had to make sense out of their difficult lives. It didn’t matter if they knew how to play their instruments like an expert, they sang because they needed to sing. Everything goes back to the Blues.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

Because it is honest…  It is simple…  It is straightforward and accessible.  The Blues is an universal expression of humanity. The Blues rises above the difficulties of life and finds a way to celebrate it.

What are some of the most memorable drawing and paintings you've had?

I’m very excited today as I just got back from the Mississippi Delta, where I installed my biggest ever wood carving at the B.B. King Museum’s “Club Ebony” in Indianola, Mississippi. This historic establishment is where B.B. King got his start and is a landmark of Blues history.  My piece is installed on the stage, where great Blues musicians will forever play in front of it! While I was there we held a reception where I had the opportunity to paint live on the stage while Dr. Alphoso Sanders, John Gray Shermyen and Jack McWilliams jammed. It was great fun! The people of Indianola loved it, and I loved them!  I am thankful to be associated with this historic place and humbled by the hospitality the people of Indianola showed me. 

"The music inspires my brushwork and color. A fast rhythm of a good tune might make my brush dance across the canvas energetically…A sad song might slow things down. The mood of a song affects my color, light and mood. Music and painting are one in the same in my minds eye."

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the art and the blues?

I’ve had many great visual art teachers and influences. My Professors Jerry Cutler and Richard Heipp, (from the University of Florida), were instrumental in my development. Jerry for what he taught me about color, and Richard for teaching me what it takes to make a life as a working artist. Richard is in fact the bass player of one of our regions top Blues bands, the “R. Mutt Blues Band”. Hanging around with musicians for all these years really affected the way I think about art though.  From them I have truly learned the art of improvisation.

Which memory during of your progress makes you smile?I’ve given you several examples of this, but seeing my work installed at the B.B. King Museum’s “Club Ebony” makes me beam with happiness!

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

As an Artist and Art Teacher, I work a lot internationally doing various artistic, educational and cultural exchange projects. I have close relationships with people in many countries across East Asia, Central Asia, Haiti, The Bahamas, and the Middle East. Probably my best and worst artistic experience came simultaneously while working in Israel and Palestine. I am involved with a 3-way Sister city program between my city of Gainesville, Kfar Saba, Israel and Qalqilya, Palestine. We have a unique 3-way relationship that we are hoping will stand as a model for the rest of the cities in the region… in fact, we are actively pairing up other Israeli and Palestinian cities in similar relationships with US cities.  Our project is progressing well with many plans for mutual creative and cultural exchanges in the future. 

While visiting the West Bank, I was compelled to create a peace mural on the Palestinian side of the security wall. Many children and teenagers, who wished to help, joined me. I had about 3 hours to hurry and paint something. I was focused solely on creating the image. While we were busy painting together, (and without my knowledge), Israeli border guards in a nearby tower were apparently threatening us. It seems that part of the wall was in a sensitive area as it was close to an Israeli operated security gate. Luckily, the soldiers, (most likely due to the presence of children and video cameras), called their superiors before they took any action against us. They in turn contacted the Mayor of Qalqiya…who then told them we were invited guests and should be left alone. I was informed of this later as we were still painting and having fun. Needless to say, when I found out the tense details of the situation, it was time to clean up and get out of there! I found creating this painting was simultaneously rewarding and eye opening. I also had the chance to paint live in Israel to a friendly and appreciative audience. In getting to know personally the people on both sides of the wall, in my opinion I can honestly say that despite their political differences, I find that the people I met there, (and throughout the world), really are the same. Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Chinese and Greeks…we are all the same. We all love life, and all want to live happily with our families and our friends, we all want peace.  Sometimes Art and Music can help remind us of that. I’m proud to have painted those images in Israel and Palestine, but those experiences have made me understand how genuinely complicated things are in the Middle East.

The good news is that we are hopeful our efforts will make a real difference in the lives of many Deaf Palestinian children. When we visited we found out that there is no education offered to deaf students past grade 8. There are over 40,000 deaf Palestinians and they have not had adequate educational opportunities.  The school for the deaf in Qalqilya has a plan to build a wing to house grades 9-12, but they need $350,000 to build it.  The students at my school, (which has a sign language program), have been inspired to create BuildaDeafSchool.org in an attempt to raise the money they need!  We are hopeful that we will be successful in this effort to give these kids a chance at an education. In my opinion, we just need media attention and it will indeed be successful. Any help you can be in spreading the word would be greatly appreciated.

How does the blues music come out of your art? What kind of music you hear when you are on progress?

The music inspires my brushwork and color. A fast rhythm of a good tune might make my brush dance across the canvas energetically… A sad song might slow things down. The mood of a song affects my color, light and mood. Music and painting are one in the same in my minds eye.

"The Blues came out of this distressed culture to spread across the world. I think the Blues had a hand in the rise of the Civil Rights era in America. White people came to know and love the music and began to play with and interact musically with Southern Black musicians."

You have pretty interesting project interacted artistically with Blues musicians. Where did you get that idea?

I addressed this previously, but being a regular around music clubs, it came about naturally. In reality, I think I am just a frustrated musician!

Are there any memories with Willie Green and others, which you’d like to share with us?

WILLIE GREEN IS THE MAN!  Willie is a legend around here. He has played with an endless parade of great and famous Blues musicians. People around here call Willie “The Real Deal”. I am an Art teacher at Oak Hall School and have had the privilege of bringing Willie in to my school to interact with my students. My art students have drawn Willie as he plays, while our music students jam with him as well.  Willie Green also helped us when we held several Blues related Art exhibitions in the Cofrin Gallery, where Willie would come in and be master of ceremonies. Willie has also helped to win the trust and friendship of our visiting delegates from the Middle East when we held a “Sister Cities Blues Jam”. Willie jammed with The R. Mutt Blues Band, students from my school, as well as many other musicians from our city. 

Who from the musicians you have drew and paint, had the easiest pure original attributes for your painting?

I’ve painted Willie Green several times, he is always fun. Sam Rivers Trio and Moe Tucker were really fun shows to paint as well. I’ve had a lot of fun at Punk shows as well, the most fun being Dropkick Murphys and Less than Jake!

"I’m very excited today as I just got back from the Mississippi Delta, where I installed my biggest ever wood carving at the B.B. King Museum’s “Club Ebony” in Indianola, Mississippi. This historic establishment is where B.B. King got his start and is a landmark of Blues history. My piece is installed on the stage, where great Blues musicians will forever play in front of it!" 

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from your inspiration to make a portrait?

I’m not sure what the question is, but my most vivid memory might be once when I was in China, I met a shopkeeper who was a genuinely nice guy. He saw me painting on the street and tried his best English to communicate how much he enjoyed watching me paint. I stopped what I was doing and dashed out a quick portrait on of him. When I was through, I ripped it out of my pad and gave it to him as a gift. He later emailed me a thank you!  Art has a way of building bridges between cultures. It is more powerful than politics as it brings people together as friends. If you know someone, you are less likely to hate them… to stereotype them… or go to war with them. This is what I try to model in my Art and my teaching.

Which of the musicians were the most “difficult” and which was the most “gifted” on brush, canvas and colors?

As I don’t really paint “Portraits” of the musicians, (rather, I quickly paint the energy of the moment or event)… if it looks like them it is a bonus. It’s not really a problem, however if a musician is not very distinctive looking, it gets more difficult. A mustache, beard, distinct hairstyle or dress makes my job a lot easier.

What is it that draws (inspiration) you to paint an artist? To whom you would like to donate one of their paintings?

I regularly donate a lot of work to several charities. If any of your readers would like to purchase a “Major” piece to benefit Build A Deaf School, please contact me immediately! 

"The Blues helped to change everything in music and in American culture. The Blues are heroic for building a bridge between cultures."

What is your painting DREAM? Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet and drew?

Right now I have my mind set on meeting and painting B.B. King! I am trying to work it out to meet him when he comes back to Indianola, Mississippi next year. Keep your fingers crossed!

Do you know why the blues is connected to the Southern culture & what characterize the Southern culture?

Blues IS Southern culture. The B.B. King Museum does a great job of explaining the plight of the poor blacks in the South under extreme racism. The Blues came out of this distressed culture to spread across the world. I think the Blues had a hand in the rise of the Civil Rights era in America. White people came to know and love the music and began to play with and interact musically with Southern Black musicians. They began to befriend and look at these people differently. The Blues helped to change everything in music and in American culture. The Blues are heroic for building a bridge between cultures.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Come and watch Willie Green and the R. Mutt Blues Band. They will convince anyone that the Blues is alive and well. I’m sure the folks at Club Ebony and the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi would also have something to say about that!

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

I’ve led a pretty crazy, humbling and enriching life so far, but I hope THAT incident is yet to come!

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