"So much of being an artist is based on doing it yourself," said Deke Weaver '85 looking back on the trajectory of his career as a multi-media performance artist and college art professor.
"You have to make your own communities and your own venues and most of all you can't wait for people to come knocking on your door, giving you a shiny show. Making art—and living a life making art—is really one of those last woman or man standing type things," he said.
For Weaver, this was an understanding he developed even while earning his Masters in Fine Arts at the Universtiy of Boulder—Colorado and his undergraduate degree in biology and visual arts at Bowdoin.
"Art was something I very much found at Bowdoin," said Weaver of his visual arts major with a concentration in photography. "It was really the inspiration I got from a couple of my professors."
"I remember being asked to look at one specific Cartier-Bresson photograph from the 1930s of a guy leaping over a puddle. You can see his reflection jumping and behind him there is this poster for the ballet," he said.
"In the poster they're jumping too and you can see its reflection. I remember I saw that photograph and I just went 'Damn.' I never really thought about a moment like that—or thought about seeing a moment like that before—it was a real eye opener," he said.
"For me, Bowdoin was a really great foundation, but it was graduate school that was the real eye opener," said Weaver. "You know, I went to the University of Colorado—Boulder having not really talked to anybody—I just signed up for classes that looked interesting. Somehow the first one I took ended up defining my relationship with making art."
Despite being first attracted to the class for its emphasis on photography, Weaver found that the class was in fact much more based on performance art.
Weaver explained that he remembered so vividly that first day of class and the formative experience of watching performance pieces from the 1960s and 1970s.
"It just blew me away and at the same time it made so much sense," Weaver said.
"The next class we were asked to make our own performance piece, and it just felt so good. What was really important about that step," said Weaver, "was that it made me realize what I was most attracted to about photography and it was the stories behind the photographs. It wasn't necessarily what was in it but what was outside the frames. With performance it all just felt so visceral and incredibly immediate."
After graduating from Boulder, Weaver pursued art first in San Francisco and later in New York City. In both cities, while working as an animator during the day, Weaver pursued a career as a performance artist at night—performing in as many venues as he could.
"When I first got there I performed in these little stripped down theaters and cafes and it was really just talking, just telling a story. You know, I would perform just about anywhere. At the time, my work was a mix between really autobiographical and really absurd stuff," he said.
"Every once and a while I'd throw in something completely different, something completely absurd or racy or grotesque," he said.
"That was a critical time for me because I realized that was a place I really liked my work to go—to that weird place that opens up a space for crying or laughing. I feel successful if I can get the audience to that place," he said.
In San Francisco, Weaver explained that the importance of self-motivation and persistence really became clear.
"It was something I was realizing—that I had been realizing since Bowdoin—there are always going to be those stories of someone who is really talented and really famous and really celebrated," he said.
"But at the same time there are always going to be a hundred other people who are just as talented and just not as lucky. And of course there are also going to people who are really celebrated and not talented at all," he said.
"I know that if I'm going to be sitting around waiting for some big theater to call me it's just not going to happen. I'd rather just figure out how to do it now," he said.
After his time in San Francisco, Weaver moved to New York where he lived for six years. Although not directly connected to his performance work, Weaver explained that continuing to work as an animator taught him a lot about video, design and motion graphics that have since informed and entered into his performance pieces.
In 2005, when the pace and the attitude of city life had begun to ware, Weaver made a move that he felt had always been on the horizon.
"I always thought I'd go into teaching, and after being in New York for a while I realized that this was the time to take the big plunge towards the teaching brass ring," he said.
"So I got a portfolio together and pitched myself as the guy who could do video and performance and after sending my application out to 45 different places around the country I settled—really happily into life at University of Illinois—Champaign Urbana," he said.
This year marks Weaver's fifth year teaching art to both graduates and undergraduates at the university and Weaver explains that the move into teaching is one that has continued to bring him great joy and fulfillment.
"You know, Illinois may not be the most beautiful place, but it has a ton of support. There's a lot of opportunity here with incredibly great people. I've been so happy with this transition. There are times when I'm showing some video and I just can't believe that this is really my job: being able to teach what I love while still being able to make my own art."
For the past two years, making art has come in the form of working on his long term project, "Unreliable Bestiary."
"It's the most ambitious thing I've done," Weaver said of the project in which he plans to create a performance piece based on an endangered animal or an environment for every letter of the alphabet. Each performance takes about a year and half to imagine, create and rehearse.
"I'll be working on this until I'm 75, or something like that," Weaver said laughing.
"This interest probably grew out of my biology degree," Weaver explained, also noting stories his dad, an avid ornithologist, has been "hammering into me my entire life."
Weaver cited an interest in looking into the idea of what it means to be an endangered species and also the inherent quality of magical realism that he sees in all animals.
"We're in one of the biggest extinction periods since the dinosaurs," Weaver said. "Some of these stories we have about these animals are completely amazing, and as soon as [the animals] go extinct they are really gone. And what's left then? Take your polar bear, for example. So when the polar bear is gone what does that mean? We're just going to be left with this fluffy thing in the bookstore and this marble thing hanging out there? What happens when the image gets completely separated from the real thing?"
After finishing his first piece on monkeys in February of 2009, Weaver is currently hard at work on his second piece on elephants, which he plans on completing in September 2010.
"I'm taking this one to a scale I've never taken my work to before," Weaver said. "I'm bringing in drums from a marching band for part of it, a slightly larger than life elephant puppet, video projections that are like forty or fifty feet long. The thing is with this—with all of my work really—I don't ever want to let it just sit in a chair. I want to always be working to make it daunting."
Visit UnreliableBestiary.org for more information on Weaver's project.