Justin Duerr was brought to my attention a few years ago when I came across the documentary he was a part of, ‘Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles’ which turned five this January.
Justin, an american artist, musician and writer began the search back in 2005, seeking to explore and find the source of these strange tiles that were popping up all over streets in the US. I became borderline obsessed with the documentary and Justin himself, and even years after I had seen it I still found myself thinking of it from time to time.
I had Justin’s website bookmarked for a while before I got up the nerve to actually contact him about the enigmatic tiles, his artwork and other endeavors. I’d like to thank Justin for not only agreeing to answer my questions but for sharing his incredibly awe inspiring autobiographical comic book with me and his amazingly unique artwork which has connected with me and ignited something within me on a creative and spiritual level.
How much do you find yourself still thinking about your experience and research into the Toynbee tiles? Do they still or have they ever influenced your creative work?
I don’t think about the experiences which are described in the film very often – but because the film reached such a large number of people, particularly when it was on Netflix streaming, I was reminded of it by other people almost daily. That then became a whole different, essentially unrelated experience which has continued in fits and starts ever onward. It’s hard to remember sometimes what the original feelings were, as the events were unfolding as told in the film and which happened beforehand.
As I remember it, it was a really exhilarating time, trying to document something I found important and meaningful which was not being documented at all. In the late 90s not everyone carried a camera – all my photos were taken with disposable cameras from drug stores…. and many of the Toynbee tiles I caught on camera weren’t photographed by anyone else, as far as I know. As for the question of influence, the tiles at the time I was most interested in them acted as sort of gateways that would activate a special part of my mind. To encounter one unexpectedly was such an unparalleled feeling of discovery. They served as a source of wonder at the vastness of the world and the human experience. My artistic style – my style of lettering etc. was already well formed by the time I got into Toynbee tiles. Maybe part of what attracted me to them was that I saw some similar quality to my work, only really in the repetitiousness and seriousness of the message – vague stuff, hard to put into words. I also used to do “street art” (wheatpaste) in the 90s/early 2000s, though the tiles were far and away more sophisticated than that approach. Aside from a few very literal examples such as songs I’ve written with the Toynbee text as lyrics, the simple/short answer is no – there was/is no influence.
The Toynbee tiles, and of course the documentary you were apart of, is still a ‘mystery’ people are intrigued by. Are you still curious about the Toynbee tiles or is the case completely closed for you now?
I am kept up on the new developments by other people, but I’m not actively interested. As seen in the film, once I figured out who made the original Toynbee tiles I’d been seeing for all those years, and once I realized how sensitive this person seemed, I saw there was nothing more to learn in respect to the things I had been hoping the Toynbee tiles would teach me. I realized I was hoping they would teach me something but I didn’t know what it would be, and the twist was that that ended up being more about my own inner journey more than any external “object,” tile or otherwise. After this realization I started telling Jon (the filmmaker) that I wanted the documentary to be modeled after the quest for the Holy Grail, and referring to us researchers as the Templars. To what extent he used my idea I don’t know exactly, but it was him who sort of realized the narrative arc first, then I had the realization about the Grail story. I actually think that’s one of the reasons the film was able to resonate with people beyond street art aficionados – it has a very universalized core story.
Some people hate the ending because they just want “the thing” i.e. the guy who made the tiles to give a full telling of his story on film and for everything must be “surface level,” but I think those people miss the point – not just of the that movie but of a lot of things. That would be the materialistic version of the story, but it’s a psychic type movie, ethereal, and such is the story. Also it’s a documentary so things happened as they did. But obviously fate was at work so they happened the way they did so the future story would be as it is.
And so it is.
You said you had recently created an autobiographical comic book, what inspired you to tell your life story and experiences in this way rather than just the traditional memoirs?
The autobiographical comic book is a project I started after some friends were telling me I should write down my life stories, of which I have a lot that I’ve encapsulated into little segments over the years, verbally. The easiest way seemed to do it on paper seemed to be by working the images and words together – words alone turned into abstractions and images alone also became non-narrative. Somehow the two together could contain the narrative. It constitutes issue 66 of my zine, Decades of Confusion Feed the Insect, and tells about my life from ages 0 – 15. The zine began in August 1995. I sold 200 copies of the second issue at the boardwalk one summer night to drunk people who had no idea what it was! That issue was just my poems with a few small drawings. I gained a pen-pal from that who I wrote to for about four years! I made about 50 copies of the first autobiographical one. It’s officially “out of print” now. I’m hoping to have issue 67, which will also be the second installment of the autobiography ready in 2017.
On your website, it says that you “continue to investigate several art mysteries,” can you tell me more about these?
In the very end of the Toynbee tiles movie there are some “what are they doing now” blurbs and mine says I’m “tracking down the lost works of obscure cartoonist Herbert E. Crowley.” Well, that’s what I’ve been doing! I came across Crowley’s work in an anthology of forgotten early comic strips called “Art out of Time” around 2008. His work absolutely swept me off my feet – I was (and am) deeply fascinated by it. The biographical entry at the end of the book claimed nothing at all was known about his life, so I decided I’d make it my mission to try to rescue his work and life story from oblivion. I’ve uncovered a vast cache of unbelievably stunning artwork, and connected most of the dots of his life history. He was born in 1873 in England, and was a trained opera singer who suffered from stage fright, worked briefly in a banana plantation in Costa Rica, drew an incredibly unique comic strip for the New York Herald in 1910, exhibited in the famous 1913 Armory Exhibition, and traveled all around the world.
He was an associate of C.G. Jung, who had some interesting things to say about Crowley’s work and its relation to the collective unconscious. He died in Zurich in 1937. He attempted to destroy his work near the end of his life, but much of it was saved. I’ve been actively researching Herbert Crowley and compiling a monograph about him since roughly 2010. I spent several weeks in Zurich with his niece in 2014, and have had many uncanny and synchronous moments – such as discovering a hundred year old hand-colored print by Crowley in a raccoon’s nest in the ruins of an artist’s colony he lived at in the early 1900s! The book, which will include the biography and a large collection of artworks by Crowley is planned for publication in 2017 by Locust Moon Press. They contacted me about the project after seeing the mention of Crowley in the Toynbee tile movie, actually, as they are a Philadelphia based publisher specializing in comics of the artistic and historically significant bent. It will make me so happy to see that book go out into the world after so many years of research and discovery.
I also have done a little research on a local Philadelphia-based artist who I love named Renee Leshner. She was part of a self-taught artist’s non-profit which I was also in (and still am though they relocated to Florida) and was really a brilliant visionary person, one of my favorite artists of all time. I had an odd coincidence regarding her soon after she died in 2012 – I had always wanted to learn more about her life, since she couldn’t tell a very coherent version of it. At a group show for Coalition Ingenu, the self-taught artist’s collective, a man happened by to see an unrelated show of recent art school graduates in the same building. He recognized Renee’s work – it turned out he had been engaged to be married to her in the 1960s! So he knew more about her life and what she was like in her younger years. I recorded an interview with him which would make up part of the book. I also have lots of amazing letters from Renee and of course her artwork would be the main focus. I always stay tuned for interesting things that seem underappreciated or which fly under the radar. The Toynbee tiles used to be like that, though they’re widely appreciated now.
I was really captivated by the ‘words’ section of your website, most of which are experts from your zine ‘Decades of Confusion Feed the Insect #66’. When you feel inspired to make art, do you know if it will be in word form or drawing form? Do you plan it out or just let your creativity take you?
I draw what I can’t write and write what I can’t draw, usually. Sometimes I’ll work the words into images or vice versa. The relationship of word to image is a good thing to explore as it reveals deeper layers of understanding the essences of things, how words and images nest into one another/become each other. I don’t plan it out so to speak, but nor am I inspired in any way necessarily.
I always suspected “inspiration” might be the big art-myth of the past couple hundred years or so, like the idea of “genius” as a self-contained person instead of an inhuman force which can use a person as a vehicle. I go through the art process as a labor, a piece of hard work that is in no way “fun” or any kind of cathartic release, but which by its very difficulty can cause envelopment in the bliss of a transcendent state. So the artwork is work performed as a meditative practice, more or less, and the material residue is the husk or shell which tells about the process. I was taught this by a discarnate entity which came over me due to sleep deprivation at a factory job! A viewer could get into looking at it and get a similar positive experience, I hope. One piece of “inspiration” of that type is good for a lifetime!
To find out more about Justin visit his website: www.justinduerr.com/