Community Profile

Paul Conte

July 14th, 2021

Paul is a writer, photographer, and fashion enthusiast. He tells us about his work in the non-profit sector, and about the works of art and literature that inspire him.

Paul wears the Collection I Cordura® Combat Wool Blazer andLayered Pants.
You work in the non-profit sector for a museum. What does that entail?

I have been working for museums for the past three years, but am currently transitioning out of non-profit work to be a consultant. What I love about working for non-profits is how tangible the goals are. You can see how clearly the funds available determine what you can offer the community. I have been very lucky to work for a very community-centered art and history museum that has a focus on public welfare. Particularly I am passionate about the role of museums play in the processes of truth-seeking and reconciliation concerning histories of colonial violence and appropriation.

The other thing I greatly enjoyed was how small non-profits force you to be a jack of all trades. Even though my position is ostensibly focused on fundraising and finance, there's never been a shortage of other things that need attention. One example is that I have a background as a musician, and so I ended up being the person who sets up a soundboard for bands playing at community events. It was always fun to pop out of the office and jump into something different, especially when so many of the events and programs felt like they were so positive for the community.

Covid lockdowns have been brutal for small museums. Coming out of lockdown, I want to encourage everyone to support their local institutions. Many places closed permanently in the last year and I think that is really sad. One way I recommend getting involved is by becoming a member at a museum. There is an organization called the North American Reciprocal Museum (NARM) Association that thousands of museums are members of. If you get a NARM membership at a museum, not only is the cost of it tax deductible, but you get free entry to all of the museums in the organization. I think that regardless of where my career takes me I will always want to have NARM museum membership as museums are places I visit anytime I go to another city.

Poetry has been a big part of your life. How did you become interested in poetry?

In my early twenties I was really passionate about writing poetry. While most of it makes me cringe now I think it was a really valuable experience. I wrote for a literary journal for a year in college and self published some chapbooks of my poems. The whole experience of collecting, printing, and binding my own books was really cathartic at a very confused and painful part of my youth. I think this connects to what I especially love about poetry in the sense that it lets me gain an ontological perspective on experiences and emotions.

So many poets have extrapolated their experiences into such interesting forms. HaiZi is one of my personal favorite poets who, I believe, took his pain and used it as a juxtaposition to reference ideal happiness in a way that I find incredibly powerful. I like to compare him to Van Gogh, who is well known for doing that in painting. HaiZi even wrote an incredibly bizarre poem referencing Van Gogh that really cemented the comparison for me.

What other poets do you think deserve more attention?

Hart Crane is another poet that I can’t recommend enough. If you only read one poem of his in your life it should be Voyages. There's a lot I could say about that poem but the thing that stands out the most to me about it is his coining of the term “transmemberment” in it. For me this concept conjures the image of an ethereal appendage that leaves one body and moves to another; or moves between time, space, memory, present, and future. It moves like you or I would walk between rooms of a house. This image helps me to think of how art can move us into different perspectives on being, while allowing us to be a part of those, as a living organ. This experience isn't about merely looking in from a different angle, but about inhabiting those spaces. This is a lesson I have taken into my understanding of all forms of art. And it's one reason I think fashion is such a powerful medium- because we literally inhabit it.

At the same time, I think it is important to keep in mind how double-edged this experience is: you can never really see art work from just the artist’s perspective just as you can never really understand a work from only your own. You always have to balance your tendency to read in against the information you have available. One of my favorite examples of this from my own life was a friend in college who used to read Pablo Neruda’s Ode with a Lament to his love interests. One reading, and how my friend understood the work, is from a longing and heartbroken person who can not fully love the subject. However, with a little context on Neruda’s life and based on when the poem was written, you'd find that it was most likely about his daughter who was born with hydrocephaly and Down’s syndrome.

The point is that the poem may feel cathartic when you make it about your own feelings, but it takes on a much different meaning when you understand the context better. Does this diminish one's own feelings? I don’t think so. For me it helps to understand how you are inhabiting the lines with your own experiences without completely overwriting them to make them about yourself. For me this is the worthwhile, but hard to achieve balance.

Underneath The Blazer, Paul wears the all-black Spiritus Overshirt from Collection II.
You're also an avid photographer. How did you get started?

Growing up my father was a passionate amature photographer. He had a darkroom set up in our garage and I spent a lot of time sitting in the red light enamored by the process and the smells of strange chemicals. He mainly did black & white landscape photography, which became a large influence on my appreciation for photography. My first cameras were all film and mostly black & white.

Besides your father, are there other photographers who have made a significant impression on you?

Hiroshi Sugimoto is a photographer that really captured my attention for his use of texture and perspective. He has a famous series of seascapes that were taken for many years all over the world. At first glance many of them seem very similar but especially if you look at many of them in sequence you start to pick up on how different the texture of the water is in each. This is something that has really stayed with me and helped me to focus on the value of subtlety. I have a vivid memory of visiting PS1 and seeing a gallery with a long series of mechanically produced paintings where a silver reflective paint was sprayed on dozens of identical canvases.

The initial confusion was so strong that it really made me focus to try to understand what this could possibly mean and what the subject even was. I found myself reading everything in that gallery just to try to understand what was going on and realized the focus was on the difference in the texture of the paint and how the light would strike each one. Even though each was seemingly identical, moving around the canvas and perceiving the light from various angles let all these small differences stand out. Eventually I started to feel such excitement when I would notice a series of small cracks or bubbles in the paint. Individually the paintings seemed so mundane but the whole experience really changed my perception of the subject in art.

What are you working on next?

Something I am not personally great at but respect is when photographs have multiple points of interest in them and do not insist on one particular subject. So I'm trying to incorperate that into my photography.

I like to think of my experience with photography to be one of constant learning. In the end a good photo for me is one that I learned something from taking. I recently inherited an old Leica and medium format Hasselblad 500. Not having access to a darkroom since I was a kid has made it hard to work with film, but I had a realization that I could start scanning negatives and editing the images in Photoshop/Lightroom. This is the next photography project that I am really excited about. It feels like a merging of my past and present, and I am thrilled to be working with black & white film again.

You can follow Paul on Instagram at @registerofghosts.

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