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Meet Kazmier Maslanka – Mathematical Visual Poet

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kazmier Maslanka.

Kazmier, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I grew up in West Tulsa, Oklahoma in a neighborhood full of guns and Jesus. While that may sound tongue in cheek, it is pretty accurate. I have always been pretty adaptable, was a good kid and had little choice but to follow the local culture. I come from a family of artists on my mother’s side yet, my father always wanted me to follow something [practical] and always supplied me with toys that would stir my engineering creativity. Even as an adolescent I was always designing things and following my own personal aesthetic whether it be art, engineering or mathematics. The neighborhood I grew up in was not affluent to say the least and while there were some good teachers at my schools there were some bad ones as well. I remember that the school system in my formative years was focused on Oklahoma history and glorifying the local culture. This myopic focus was great in promoting pride in the local culture however the culture outside of it remained to be a mystery. Asian history was never discussed and I remembering wondering at one time were the Chinese real? — or were they somewhat an obscure being similar to Martians.  In high school I had a good art teacher and was exposed to contemporary art history. I grew extremely fond of artists like Giorgio De Chirico, Rene Magritte, Max Ernst, and Salvador Dali. It was during those times that my passion for art was kindled into a fire, though I must say, I had interests in other things such as sports which eventually enabled me to receive a track scholarship to a junior college — yet, it turned out to be in the middle of nowhere Kansas. The school did have a library but it was very limited and there were no art books on my favorite artists. Fortunately I was able to talk the librarian into ordering books on art and my favorite artists from the nearby state universities. I read everything I could on my favorite artists.

Concerning religion, I was raised in a very southern fundamental Christian church and was a pious boy who excelled in confirmation school. Yet, when I became 19 years old my parents moved me to Kansas and once there, I started questioning everything I was taught in church. I especially questioned a dark cloud of attachment I had to sin and eternal punishment … the more I thought about what I was taught in the church the less sense it made. I tried to shelve the whole question of God. Oddly enough though, I was insatiably concerned with the greatest mysteries in the universe. That said, I did keep religious studies at bay for another 10 years.

While at Wichita State University I received a BFA degree in sculpture but my academic direction was a constant battle during the first few years due to my father’s plan for my life. Eventually he quit supporting me in school for a couple of reasons; one due to the
all encompassing attachment to my first girlfriend, Collette — but the most important reason he quit supporting me was that he didn’t want me to be an artist.  I remember him saying, “Son, I never sang a song in my life and I have food on the table.” Or another profound epistle of his was: “Son, if you can’t eat it or sell it — then throw it away.” During the first few years of college, I switched majors a few times trying to appease my father’s desires but finally told him, I was going to be an artist, didn’t need his help, and I would work my way through school.  

While in art school I had three professors who influenced me the most.  I studied art history with Stockton Garver, a brilliant teacher who constantly made me question my values in relation to other artists in history.  Furthermore, Stockton respected and encouraged me no matter what direction I took. I studied music with Arthur Wolff an open minded, eccentric and inspiring teacher who exposed me to microtonality and the brilliance of composers like Harry Partch — but most importantly he exposed me to John Cage. It was Cage who secretly illuminated my spiritual foundation. I say secretly, because while obsessed with studying Cage’s philosophy, I had no idea that Cage’s teachings would connect me with Buddhism and eastern philosophy — for he never directly promoted Buddhism as something to study even though Cage’s work was deeply connected to Zen.  Art Wolff and I became and continued to be great friends all the way up to his death 3 days before my birthday in 1998. I received a birthday present from him at his funeral.

I also had the fortunate experience to study with Robert C. Morgan, a brilliant New York City based artist and art critic. It was through him that I was exposed to aesthetics, conceptual art in general and Bernar Venet in particular. Through my years of study, I have noticed that those promoting aesthetics have always been confused when it comes to the aesthetics of art and the aesthetics of things normally thought outside of art. There is a dubious conflation giving people the idea that everything is art. Continuing on that thread, I was very excited with Venet’s work even though I found —- and still today find him confusing the aesthetics of science and mathematics, with the aesthetics of art. Though, I must say it was those confusing concepts that opened and inspired me to read Gary Zukav’s “The Dancing Wu Li Masters”, a pop-science book that connected Einstein’s theories on relativity, quantum mechanics, subatomic particle theory with Asian mysticism. I have noticed when looking back over the years, I was continuously resonating with eastern philosophy long before I knew what it was. So in 1979, I was at a point in life where knowledge I had gained between the concepts of John Cage and knowledge expressed in the “Dancing Wu Li masters” solidified into a philosophical fascination with the East.

While the “Dancing Wu Li Masters” underscored my interest in Eastern Mysticism, the book’s illumination of contemporary physics principles and theory changed my life by igniting an voracious desire to study mathematics and physics. Yet, it was frightening for my past track record with math was horrible and inner voices were not those of my father telling me to study math, it was the voice of my soul.

The years while I was studying math, physics and chemistry all of my closest artistic friends were starting to leave to either New York City or Los Angeles — and yet, I was approaching 30 years old and had no vision as to how I would join them. Furthermore, I had this silly, yet, dangerous idea that I should be in New York ‘making it’ as an artist or I should die. Yet, the craziest part of this notion was that I never really defined what ‘making it’ meant. While subconsciously, I held this destructive belief, I never consciously made a plan to kill myself.  But it didn’t matter for my ego was going to destroy me anyway. I was struck with a severe case of mental illness and suicidal thinking. My father experienced this same illness when he was 33, was hospitalized, given electroshock treatments and kept in a padded room. I also was admitted to a hospital to insure that I did not kill myself and spent a few weeks in the psych-ward while a psychiatrist experimented in feeding me different medications. To make a very long story short, I will just say that before this event I was a pretty cocky young man but soon became humbled and angry. I felt that my desires were trying to kill me and I needed to get away from art, quit school, become normal and start a business. I was working as a night watchman at an aircraft manufacturer while I was studying physics but also started a business designing/installing disco lighting systems and providing the lighting for rock concerts. Working in the Rock and Roll industry was wearing on me due to all of the cocaine addicts, alcoholics and egomaniacs.  In addition, I could tell that I did not want to be a night watchman for the rest of my life — so I started looking for a possible career. While working as a night watchman, I noticed that the marquee in the personnel building displayed all the different jobs that the company was hiring. Over a few months I noticed the job listings changed but at the top of the list always displayed the need for a ‘Tooling Engineer’ – I didn’t know what that was but, I was told a tooling engineer is the person who designs the machines that build the airplanes. That sounded very interesting — so I set out to get a job doing that. I pestered the engineering department for over a year before they would let me in. Eventually they gave me a job as a file clerk running an large stinky ammonia filled blue print machine. I begged for time on the drafting table and eventually taught myself engineering. This is how I have been putting food on the table for the last 35 years.

My current artwork or ‘Cogwork’ as I would rather call it, came into focus in 1980 when I finally was serious about taking math classes.  I had noticed inside math equations were variables which were basically empty boxes for which I could put anything in. The equation defines a relationship between the variables and gives the mathematical expression meaning. Math functions perfectly as a language for the sciences. Yet, my epiphany was, why can’t I use math as a language for art or poetry. At that time, I felt math-poetry was just another creative thought to add to my many, yet, I had no vision that I was formulating my ideas for the future … and I would be making mathematical visual poetry for the next 35 years.  Though I must mention from 1984 to 1998 most of my energy was trying to navigate the sulfurous caverns of hell in an attempt to battle mental illness, and the insecurities that it manifested. During the 1990’s I was so terrified of art and my brutal ego, that I left the pursuit of art, studied mostly music and focused on my spiritual path. Though, I was occasionally pestered by mathematical poetry inspirations, I did not seriously revisit this discipline until 1999

During the 1980’s I spent thousands of dollars trying to find good psychologists and psychiatrists. But finally in 1990 I had met a great psychologist who taught me cognitive therapy, a method by which helped me immensely with combating irrational thoughts. It was also at this time that I had another spiritual meltdown yet, found the work of Joseph Campbell. I purchased a VCR tape of the PBS series ‘The Power of Myth’, an interview of Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers.  I cannot count the times that I went over and back over and back over that interview. It finally liberated me from the conflicting concepts presented to me by the Church. I finally had a logical and clear idea of what God is and how Gods come to be. I originally paid $250 for the 6 VHS tapes of the series. If today — I could have another 6 hours of video that would influence me with the same enlightening magnitude, I would gladly pay $10,000 for it. It became the foundation to my spiritual path.

It turns out that the knowledge I gained from studying Campbell added to my interests in eastern mysticism.  In the year 2000 I met my wife who had travelled from Korea to study nursing in the United States. We dated, fell in love and married in 2007. She opened and exposed me to Korean Zen and gave me the ability to meet monks, study Zen and spend time in the monasteries of Korea. It was through this connection that I was exposed to the brilliant monk-teacher, Hyon-Gak Sunim. It was his Dharma talks on the Diamond Sutra that changed my life, and became a source of creative inspiration, thus greatly modifying my spiritual path. Much of my recent ‘Cogwork’ is inspired by the concepts learned from the wisdom of Korean Seon (Zen).

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I think the biggest challenge for people like me is to continue to have the energy to do work, even though very few people encourage you to do it. I reside in the cracks between fine art and applied science. It seems people who are in the cracks always struggle to produce work that has any “cultural magnitude”, that is, large numbers of avid fans. It seems to me that those who are interested in poetry are not interested in producing expressions in math and most who are interested in math are not interested in producing poetry  —- or art for that matter. When one is constantly alone in their thoughts with little feedback, it is easy to believe that what one is doing, possesses no cultural value.

Obviously, if few people like your expressions, then your expressions must be of no cultural value. These thoughts are very discouraging and the only way I have found to combat them is to produce delusions of grandeur. Silly as that sounds, one must pretend that they are great works and worthy of being produced. Otherwise one will never have the energy to produce the work. So my advice is to forget that others don’t care for your work, for I have found that most criticism I have experienced comes from people who are not qualified to judge it. That may sound harsh but, one must hold the same values that you hold, if they are to judge how well you expressed those common values. It is ridiculous to think that a ordinary stock broker will have the ability to understand the theory involved in the expressions of an experimental music theorist. Then why would you think that an inflexible painter who was adamant about only painting with pallet knives could judge a painter who was inflexible and adamant about only using their fingers to smear the paint. The fact that they are inflexible and have conflicting values make them incapable of judging each other.  It is time to move on and find someone who shares the same values, so that they can constructively criticize your expressions based on the language of your common values.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
I have seen quite a bit of work where people have thought it would be a novel idea to place a mathematical equation next to an image in order for the viewer to make some sort of connection between the two. Yet, there are only a few people that I have seen in the English language who have put words or concepts — in side — of the variables of mathematical equations. Most of what I have seen is problematic from a semantic point of view in the sense that they felt it would be novel as an experiment to juxtapose concepts inside an equation. But if one studies it, one can tell that they have no intention of saying anything with any semantic clarity. Some might call that type of expression gibberish. What sets my work apart is the visual language, the verbal language and the mathematical language all function in a synergistic system with the intent to create a polyaesthetic (many aesthetics) experience. I am not going to pretend that my work can be fully enjoyed without an understanding of how math works as a language and how metaphors function for poetic expression. In general most people view art as something that you don’t really need to think much about. Generally, art is experienced through the senses in real time and you intuitively know if you like it or not. The aesthetics of mathematics is quite different in that one does not experience the aesthetics of math through direct sensory experience. Of course one uses their eyes to read it, but the ‘aesthetic experience’ is not coming from the ink or pencil symbols written on the page. The ‘aesthetic experience’ comes from what the symbols ‘point’ to.  It is the activity of pondering the thoughts in ones mind that gives one the pleasure and beauty in the mathematical experience. Thus, my work resides in-between these two concepts yet, the aesthetic experience from my viewpoint, is mostly experienced within the aesthetics of analyzation and thinking as opposed to the aesthetics of direct sensory experience.

What I do is, mathematical visual poetry and how I describe it is, a method of using visual and mathematical structures for poetic expressions. There are a handful of people that are interested in it but from my perspective it is a wide open field and there is plenty of room for everyone.  If you are interested I have published papers and provided a lot of information on my blog: http://mathematicalpoetry.blogspot.com  Concerning my blog – I occasionally post things that are submitted to me that I have not done nor do I own —- and some of it is not “mathematical visual poetry” at least by the delineations I have described. However, I publish it because they are related things of interest.

What were you like growing up?
As a kid I was curious, inventive and loved to design and build structures, whether it be physical models or electronic experimental kits. My father and mother were good about providing me with plenty to stimulate my mind. I became fascinated with radio when I was 12 and studied very hard to pass the test granting me an amateur radio license at 14 years of age. I started a ‘ham’ radio club in my Jr high school and got 5 other students interested enough to pass the exams and receive a license. I built my first transceiver radio kit when I was 16 and used it to contact other operators all over the world.

I have an older sister who exposed me to rock music when I was very young and she inspired me to buy my first record in 1964. (Time is on my side by the Rolling Stones) She also exposed me to Jimi Hendrix in 1967 after she had bought ‘Are you Experienced’, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first album. Anyone who knows me from those year knows I was crazy about Hendrix. I remember taking one of my (100milliwatt) walky talkies and tying a rubber band around the body of it in such a way that the transmit button was continually pressed down. This enabled the walky talky to constantly transmit a radio signal to the other walky talky. I would take the other corresponding walky talky and plug in a set of those big bulky, rubber-foam headphones, place it on my head and slide that walky talky into my back pocket so I could listen to the other “transmitting” walky talky while I was out riding my bicycle. I would place that first transmitting walky talky in front of the speaker of my old monophonic record player thus enabling me to listen to Hendrix while I was out riding my bicycle. Due to the noise reducing headphones, I was also able to listen to Hendrix while mowing the lawn.

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