Artist Feature Series: In Conversation with John M. Carnright
By Atreya Mathur
“Poetry and art- it was a great interaction. That is something I will always value. One of the key parts of art, for me, is you create.. and then poetry puts it all together.”J.M. Carnright, Interview with Center for Art Law (August 16, 2022)
John M. Carnright is an artist, an author and a poet based in Connecticut. He received his BFA degree from the University of Colorado and his Masters from Pratt Institute in New York. His artworks have been collected in over 200 Private, Public and Corporate International Collections. A few years ago, Carnright learned that a significant number of his artworks that were collected by and gifted to a company in New York were discarded and destroyed, without offering the artist an option to retrieve his artwork and with no possibility of salvaging the work after it was discarded in a city dump. Carnright had no recourse to save his artwork or receive any compensation or damages for the destruction of his art by the company.
While Carnright decided not to seek damages for his lost art, in the summer of 2022, the Center for Art Law spoke with Carnright as part of our Artists’ Legacy Clinic, to learn about his artwork, the challenges he has faced as an artist and his advice to artists who may find themselves with their art being discarded or destroyed.
Q: Thank you for offering to speak with us. Please tell us what are the different kinds of work you enjoy creating? Apart from visual art, you also have mentioned you are a poet and writer- what do you think defines you as an artist?
I work on paintings, sculptures, larger pieces and smaller pieces as well. I create artwork with metal, I enjoy a mixture of painting while bringing in different elements of metals and even rocks that tie into characters. I did a series on cro-magnon (primitive) characters of the early man and humankind as well.
Apart from visual art, I have also authored “Aria Hahn: The Sena Project” which is a science-fiction book set in the future. It’s all about our environmentally negating nature, how we are not paying attention to the Earth’s needs as we do our own needs. The book was also recast as a “cinematic e-book” in 2012.
I also write and perform poetry. While I was in high school I had the opportunity to interact and work with the Beat poets, and 30 years ago I was invited to the Beat reunion in New York where I met with the Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ray Manzarek and several other Beat period poets and journalists (Al Aronowitz, Jan Kerouac, Michael McClure, Gregory Corso, Sax Man, Bob Feldmanamon) among others. Ferlinghetti and the other Beats poets also endorsed my poetry and considered me as a part of the Beats reunion and movement which blew me away. What I love is that a lot of the Beat poets were artists as well. Poetry and art- it was a great interaction. That is something I will always value. One of the key parts of art, for me, is you create… and then poetry puts it all together.
Ferlinghetti’s response & endorsement of Carnright’s poetic verse “In A Dream ” at the 1994 “NYU BEAT REUNION ” The poem was originally written in 1962 during Carnright’s high school days.
Q: When did you begin creating and exhibiting artwork?
I began painting in 1972. A collector from Austria, who was an expert on art, also visited my studio in Brooklyn back in the 80’s and shipped a ton of work to Europe. I have also sold artwork in California, which served as a strong collectors’ base. I also worked with collectors from China and Japan apart from the United States and Europe.
Over the years I had both solo and group exhibition shows across the United States in Los Angeles, New York and Washington D.C as well as internationally in Austria and Germany. For the complete list of Carnright’s exhibitions and portfolio, see HERE.
“DOORMAN AT MOMA” 1969, J.M Carnright (Private Collection of Original Founder Couple, MOCA, Los Angeles on Photo-chemical Paper; credit: http://primitivefuturisms.com/1960s-thru-1970s.html)
Q: Have you copyrighted/registered your artwork? Have you ever faced any instance where creators, artists or any others have infringed on your artwork?
I never got any of my art copyright protected or registered with the Copyright Office. I felt my artwork was different enough; it had my own signature. There were a few people who did rip off my artwork– there was one person who copied the style and I actually talked to him one day and told him that “I was glad that you liked my art.” But I never got to a point where I thought about copyright. The art market today is different. I think art has become more repetitive and copyright protection is probably much more useful now for artwork.
I use copyright in my writing but not in art- in art, I find it a little strange. There are artists who do it, of course, copyright is a necessity. But in art I just hadn’t thought about it. People have duplicated my work as I mentioned, but I would not chase them out, it doesn’t affect me.
Q: What about with your writing, have you ever faced any infringement issues there?
When my book “Aria Hahn,” came out in New York in 2012, it was doing good. There were a couple of people who were in touch and they came together with a plan, they knew the book was coming out, it was already out. And they took a copy to a well known film maker. The film maker took elements and different scenes out of the book but I never went after him. There are scenes from the book that are in the film maker’s work. And my book came out 20 years before his work did and my book was also handed over to him so he knew about it.
Q: Did you ever get in touch with a lawyer?
I wanted to get in touch with a lawyer, but it was a lot to deal with, especially monetarily. I did not know the process or have the fiscal resources to do so at the time.
Q: Now, can you describe the crux and the background of the issue you faced with your artwork being discarded?
I worked with Raiffeiseizerzentralank, Raiffeisen Bank International in Austria (RZB) for a few years and I was close to Dieter Beintrexler, the President RZB. Dieter, who ran the place, had viewed my artwork before and asked if I would be willing to sell some of my work to them. I said yes, and so RZB purchased a good amount of my artwork at a good price. I also gifted some of the work to them.
At one of the RZB functions, I remember one of my art pieces was given to the RZB assistant, Diedre Braun. I thought she liked the artwork and then a few years ago Diedre called me up and said that they threw away my art; 45-50 pieces of my work, small and large pieces. All of my artwork was in a city dump in New York) and was going to be crushed and destroyed. In fact, she told me specifically not to come and that the work had already been destroyed.
Q: What was your response to what happened?
I walked away- the damage had already been done. I was angry. I was surprised with myself. I despise her for what she did, but there was just nothing I could do to get my work back. It was crushed and destroyed.
Q: If you had the opportunity, would you want to take action against them now?
This was some of the strongest artwork I had created. The whole thing bothered me for a few weeks- but as I mentioned, it was meaningless- the works were gone. I couldn’t understand their thought process, I am sure they had other options available but chose to do what they did.
I did not get in touch with a lawyer or anyone after this had happened. I actually did not know the process, the costs involved and I did not even think of it.
If there was a way of suing now, I would do it. But it is 5 years too late. More than anything, being able to take action against the collectors would help bring some justice.
Q: What were some of the pieces that were part of the collection?
Located on the RZB/RBI archive wall there was “Evolution” (circa 2003). This work expresses the passage of time we feel and we see in dreamscapes that we all tend to drift in and out of. “Evolution” is meant as symbolic of the experience we grow with and evolve with during our own daily lives. Another, located in the RZB/RBI reception area was “Ages”. (circa 2002). An abstract artwork expressing the bending and stressing of space and time perhaps linked to humankind bending and stressing of the self throughout our lives to conform or not to conform; to live free of confinement or to accept confinements.
“After the Dust”, J.M Carnright, Series of Photo-chemical paper towels (this particular artwork was on originally treated paper towels exceeding 50 years old) (Credit: http://primitivefuturisms.com/1960s-thru-1970s.html)
Q: While working with dealers, collectors, or galleries- are there any precautions you generally take to safeguard your work or your interests? Do you have any contracts or agreements?
Generally, none. Most artists don’t. I don’t think at the time it was a very common practice to have contracts either, maybe now it is different. If I had ever known someone was going to discard and destroy my work though, I think I would have had an agreement or something on a contractual basis for my artwork. If I can muster it up and have more exhibitions and such now, I think I would have a contract. I think it is prevalent now.
Q: Do you have a ton of your artwork with you right now? Do you have any ideas for legacy and estate planning concerning your artwork?
There are a lot of art pieces and sculpture- both large and small with me. My wife is the heir to the artwork. I think having a will is important for artists and planning for the legacy and estate as well. It is important to think about what happens to your artwork during your lifetime and afterwards.
“Exploration Space” 1979, J.M Carnright
Q: What would your advice be to artists who may face a similar situation or may wind up in similar circumstances?
It is important for artists to be cognizant of who they work with and what people are doing with their work. I think copyright protecting artwork may be helpful but more than anything having an agreement going forward is necessary. I think artists should have some contract which defines what happens to their work and includes clauses and protection that ensures the work will not be damaged or destroyed or that it would be given away or discarded.
This conversation and agreement should happen at the outset. It is sad that this is the case and that this needs to be done, but these things happen and I did not expect what happened to me to ever happen at all. This would be helpful and I would advise other artists to take this into consideration as well.
Center for Art Law would like to thank John Carnright for taking the time to speak with us and sharing his story and advice for other artists with us.
The interview was conducted by Atreya Mathur, Director of Legal Research in connection with the Center for Art Law’s Legacy and Estate Planning Clinic and our newly launched Artist-Dealer Relationships Clinic. For more information and for pro-bono consultations with Volunteer Professionals and our legal clinics, view Center for Art Law’s Clinical programming HERE.
“This is a new art form. a hybrid of literature and cinema and also art and music. One key reason we decided to make it this way is to get reluctant readers to start reading again. By combining cinema and music with the written word, we hope it acts as a kind of stimulant to start reading.” John Carnight, Interview with the Daily News, available at https://www.courant.com/ctnow/arts-theater/hc-cinematic-ebook-0313-20120313-story.html ↑