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The art of Neil Craver is an alluring treat for the soul, revealing an underwater world shrouded in metaphors, and all the mysteries of the human condition. The Omni-Phantasmic series is described perfectly by the name: “Omni,” by definition, is “a combining form denoting all, every, everywhere; as in omnipotent, all-powerful, omnipresent, omnivorous;” while “Phantasmic” denotes something apparently seen but having no physical reality, like a phantom, an apparition, or an illusory mental image.
The mystery in the Omni-Phantasmic series is moving, to say the least. In this vein, I’m compelled to appraise the stir inside me, as well as to satisfy this intolerable curiosity. So, it is with enormous pride that I was able to interview this gifted artist.
Neil, as I peek into the trove of your incredible works, I’m struck with certainty that you are sharing pieces of your internal life with your audience. Especially in the vein of your Omni-Phantasmic series, can you speak a bit on your explorations in consciousness, and the motivation behind these incredible underwater works? Has this journey changed you?
As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with transformations. From a young age I explored sculptural transformation in various avenues; no matter what medium I was using, it was always driven by my interest in the formlessness of water. Eons ago, we presumably began this evolutionary track from virtually nothing but water. My endeavor into the idea of origin and the simplification of existence extends into the water being a driving photographic element in my work. I think a lot about the origin of thoughts, of living creatures, and how to illustrate that abstract idea. I like the innate power of water to create and destroy in the same wave of energy. It’s only from a human’s point of view that we label each one good or bad; helpful or harmful. Our first 9 months we start floating in our mother. How strange to be floating in a container inside a human body – also made from water. How powerful it could be to retrieve the memory of what that water had been before it started forming human organs. Could it have flooded a valley of dinosaurs, been the urine of Jesus, or the fluid of a dragonfly’s eye?
The process I underwent in creating Omni-Phantasmic definitely helped me cultivate a deepened patience in my work. The ability to mediate on an idea for years and allow time and observation to bring my work to life is only something acquired with time. I developed a refinement in my work, seeing that each time my idea got clearer and more attainable as I put in more time. In earlier work, there was an impulsivity and instant gratification but now I see that I can communicate the intricacies of my mind via photos once I allow the longevity of a project to occur.
I absolutely have to know—what is your background? Can you tell me a bit about how you got your start in NC, and how your current artistry has evolved from sculpture and painting?
I grew up in the country in NC on some decent land with woods and a creek in my backyard. I’d spend hours every day wandering around and exploring which soon sparked my interest in creating. As a young kid, I remember one of my first sculptures was a melted crayon bottle. I wanted the surface to be liquid but also be frozen. I loved that the liquid was so out of control. I started a series of poured painting about 6 years ago, where I poured about 8 gallons of paint over a 2-month period into a 4×6 foot container. This resulted in some very interesting effects. I could slowly move the paint around by raising and lowering different sides throughout the process. I was most interested in the creation of ocean like ripples, and the pigments mixing themselves. Water was always a leading force in my ideas and creations. My path began as an abstract painter and figurative sculptor; photography holds all the intrinsic values of all the other arts, but differs in the fact that it is based on the foundation of existence:
“Nothing can exist without the photon, and every aspect is controlled by its usage”
Do you have any formal training?
My interest in the arts formulated itself in nature as a small child. I was inspired by the color palette of the outdoors: soft greens from moss and ferns, sea-foam shades of green from water and algae, the contrast of sunlight spilling into the wooded areas and casting shadows and highlighted reflections at once. The innate exploration attitude I had as a child has translated into my work as I am more of an experimental and curious photographer. I spent hours and hours locked away in my basement as a youth, all I wanted to do was create and explore my artistic capabilities. After high school, I studied commercial photography at Randolph Community College in NC.
Each of your projects are so energetic, and they charm the mind and the senses in different ways. Can you talk a little bit about the evolution or progression of your projects both in concept and in technique?
I believe my strongest distinctive feature lies below the senses, inside the intellect of the individual where the single experience of the image exists. It’s strange for me to consider the correlation between the ideas of the viewers of my work and my own ideas of the work I produce. The individuals who have built a framework of their world which is derived from their personal intricate sequence of experiences, view my work and proceed to incorporate it into their own lives as they connect my art only with what they know of their ideas and thoughts. Their life floods into my compositions with their emotions, fears, and rationalities ultimately controlling their final experience of my work. I take this into account, and not only ask myself how I want to control and display the outcome of the piece, but ask how the individual audiences are going to interpret it.
I try to use the shyness of the human form, values of art, and emotions of happiness in an individual as a tool to suppress the hollowness of society. Art for me is a by-product of life. The final form, or product is the transformation of time (in which experiences exist) into an external pseudo-solid state. This idea starts from non-living substance, coming from the beginnings of Earth, including raw materials like dirt and water. From this organic material comes life, and intelligence which takes the raw material, synthesizing it with our experiences, and producing yet another non-organic and non-living piece, like a work of art.
Photography is a type of “show-and-tell”; it’s about creating the images and feelings I have within myself. The images and feelings in my head are translated into the external world. Photography for me is like any other art form, it’s nothing but tools of an alchemist, and the body is the magic medium.
As for the technique, it really started as a dream. Visiting this location, visualizing the elements and years of observation, mixed in with trial and error until I had an in-depth understanding of what elements needed to be present for the correct translation of dream into reality.
Omni-Phantasmic is such an emotionally energetic series, suggesting and evoking such fluid yet complex feelings as I look at them. Can you talk a bit about what was going on in your life, internal and external, that may have informed this work?
For years, my work felt incomplete. I didn’t know the meaning behind a lot of the work I was producing, it just simply was being created and I didn’t fully understand where it was coming from. I began searching for meaning and the source of my ideas within which brought me into a philosophical study of consciousness that coincided with the production of my series. Here is the thesis of Omni-Phantasmic: This photographic series is a visual voyage of metamorphosis, into the subconscious waters of the mind. The ultimate metaphysical quest into the undercurrent of consciousness.
I began to understand that my work was coming from within, not from my external identity or ideas but from my subconscious being of Truth. I wanted to portray that through the symbolism and form I had been tinkering with my entire life, correlating the fluidity of the subconscious with the fluidity and formless nature of water. The self has no form; it resides inside of the human form. Here, I captured human form surrounded in the symbolic subconscious realm. So, through my self-exploration to find purpose in art I came to face the reality that I am not in control. I just simply am and my art is an absolute reflection of this uncontrollable place of being. A place of being OK with relinquishing control of what was once thought to be controlled, conscious action.
I’ve tried to imagine the creative and technical process of actually creating Omni-Phantasmic to no avail. What a challenging shoot this must be! Can you talk a bit about the process, and synchronization with the models and environment?
The timing of this shoot was very precise, with a very small window of opportunity to shoot each year so it definitely had a multitude of challenges. The angle of the sun hitting the rock quarry was just right in early fall; the water clarity was perfect if it hadn’t rained recently or hadn’t been too hot for algae to grow; access was restricted so I dodged quite a few law enforcers over the years; models had to not only be fearless but also physically able to handle the near freezing waters; I had to check conditions prior to bringing models down to the area to shoot; and all of these elements had to come together at the exact same time but the physicality and temperatures involved usually limited both myself and the models to less than 2 hours in the water each time. It took 5 years and 25 different models to gather enough material to complete the series. Each year I got more efficient and creative but no amount of pre-planning or ideas could really compensate for the natural elements of the timing. The more I understood the elements and experimental aspect, the better my photos became. The first year, I didn’t even have an underwater housing for my camera so I used a fish tank I rigged up with barbells to sink…that was the hardest year! But it gave me the first glimpse of the potentiality of Omni-Phantasmic, a vision of what was to come, and made me realize what equipment I truly needed and just how much time to devote to bring my vision into reality. It was kind of like a yoga process…practicing the same thing over and over doing the slightest adjustments each time until finally I perfected the process and reached my result.
Omni-Phantasmic is my favorite of your published projects, but I absolutely love your other works as well–especially your fashion photos, and of course, the Insectus series. If you had to represent yourself as an artist through only one piece or series, what would you present and why?
Omni-phantasmic as a whole. The elements symbolize the fluidity of the unconscious and the rigidity of the conscious. This project is meant to be consumed with your emotions, and not simply perceived with your sensory organs. I wanted a transcendental meaning behind them; not only with the use of chromatics and aesthetics, but with my intended focus on the philosophical theories. I wanted a “subliminal composition” to create an under-tow of messages to stress the strong influences of unconscious elements affecting and driving people’s lives. With the creation of a strong undercurrent of incommunicable thoughts; this is the stage for illuminating the subconscious intellect into absolute perception.
Between your American Ninja Warrior appearance, and the various action shots of you in beautiful locations, your media presence is probably of the most fun and engaging I’ve seen. You seem like an authentically fun and interesting person—not to mention, ATHLETIC! Does your athletic energy and lifestyle inform some of the choices you make in your photographic work? Do you have any funny or adventurous stories where these traits have come in handy?
I’d say Omni-Phantasmic is a perfect example of my energy, athleticism, and artistry coexisting harmoniously. If I weren’t in the physical condition that I am, I wouldn’t have been able to produce this work. If I weren’t an adventurous, high energy kid from the country, I wouldn’t have been able to produce this work. If I weren’t motivated by an artistic perfection I wouldn’t have had the patience to produce this work. Rock quarries are known to be highly dangerous areas of loose rock and unstable tree lines. I free dove every single time with only goggles and my camera as gear, typically 20 feet or more, and still had enough energy to grab hold of dead trees to anchor myself enough to then turn and capture the shot. I’d do this over and over again until either myself or the model was absolutely exhausted. My focus in anything I set out to do is definitely to have fun while doing it, so I guess I am a bit of an adrenaline junky with the calm patience of an artist! If it’s not dangerous it’s probably not worth doing, words to live by.
What’s next for you, Sir?? New projects/ gallery shows / another book, perhaps?
I always have new project ideas on the mind but lately I’ve been focusing a lot of my energy on my athleticism and propelling myself forward as an athlete, so finding a way to blend the two realms of my life is definitely on my radar. In the next few months, I’ll be working on a new photo series with yoga practitioners in picturesque settings, particularly in Australia. Coming up in May 2017 I have a gallery showing of Omni-Phantasmic in NYC so I hope to have a new series/book well under way by then.