Astronauts, Art, and Slideluck: A Conversation With Casey Kelbaugh

Casey Kelbaugh, driven through a need for community and the gathering of creative minds, created Slideluck in Seattle fourteen years ago in the small backyard of his home, encouraging attendees to bring home-cooked meals and load slides of their work upon arrival.
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(Photo courtesy of Casey Kelbaugh)

A spoonful of homemade soup or a slice of cake can possess within the savor of each bite an array of stories, all held within its combined ingredients. The slow stroke of a paintbrush, a swirl of color on canvas, the flash of a camera capturing a view from space or from earth down below on a concrete road - personal expression can be conveyed in so many ways. Food and creativity go hand in hand, conduits of conversation and sharing. Photographer Casey Kelbaugh, driven through a need for community and the gathering of creative minds, created Slideluck in Seattle fourteen years ago in the small backyard of his home, encouraging attendees to bring home-cooked meals and load slides of their work upon arrival.

Slideluck has since expanded to become a truly global network of imaginative minds across the world producing events fostering collaboration and community. "It's not just a thing happening in the background. People sit down and we watch this thing together, experience it together and there's something powerful about the collective experience. People get emotionally charged and inspired and walk away changed a little bit," says Kelbaugh. From Seoul to Warsaw to Nairobi, Slideluck has grown organically through the enthusiasm of people around the globe interested in organizing events in their communities. There is also the youth initiative, using photography to encourage expression in young people, opening their eyes to new forms of capturing the world. I recently spoke with Kelbaugh about Slideluck and its initiatives, the upcoming fundraiser, and the importance of community.

J.L. SIRISUK: So you're a photographer. I want to know more about your background.

CASEY KELBAUGH: I'm from Seattle. I've been a photographer for about fifteen years and I've been based in New York for ten or eleven of those, and I shoot a variety of editorial and commercial work. This week I'm shooting for The New York Times, the Urban Land Institute, for the Fragrance Foundation and mashable.dom. So I do a variety of commercial and editorial and some European editorial. I've tried everything over the years but The New York Times I shoot for frequently.

SIRISUK: How did Slideluck get started?

KELBAUGH: I started Slideluck shortly after I started my photography career. I was in the very beginning stages in Seattle and I was really eager to get my work out there, to get feedback from other people and to also to see what others were doing because I quickly realized that there wasn't any community. I was meeting creative people, but there just wasn't a place where we could all kind of meet on the same level. I looked at trying to become a magazine photographer, a fine art photographer, a commercial photographer and the barriers of entry for all these things were very difficult, so it was like "how do you start? How do you build anything if you don't have any community?" So that's when I just decided to invite all the creative people I knew over for a dinner and I couldn't afford to cook for fifty people so I was like "let's make a potluck." This was analog, this was pre-digital so we were sitting in the backyard, in my little house, with an old Kodak projector and everyone would arrive and load their slides. That was the sequence, that was the curation and sometimes the presentations were upside down [laughs].

SIRISUK: So people would put their art on the slides, different forms of art?

KELBAUGH: Yes, so we had potters, we had fashion designers, we had painters, we had photographers. It was very diverse right off the bat. In subsequent years, after doing about twenty shows around Seattle it sort of grew organically. I moved to New York just for my photo career and I was thinking people "New York is too fancy. They're not gonna want to do a potluck dinner here, you know. Sit around and talk about art." But after about six months, I was like "you know let's give it a try" and I did one in my East Village apartment where I still am today, and one hundred and fifty people showed up and it was packed. People were so thirsty for this kind of authentic engagement. You have to remember, this is a little pre-social media, before TED existed, but people didn't really know about it -- before The Moth and all these other ways of sharing and telling stories. We often had people talk about their work and take questions during the presentations but in order to take the part out of it where people would go and on and their work, we put a five minute time limit per artist and we made it more about music or some kind of audio accompaniment. So it's rarely someone talking about their work unless it's pre-recorded. It differs from a lot of the other more didactic presentations where people get up and kind of pitch, you know. It's not a pitch thing at all. It's more about appreciating the creative expression and the creative process, and taking a wide range of artists. We'll be showing really famous iconic artists, Chuck Close, Elliott Erwitt, showing these artists next to people who have never publicly shown their work. So it might be someone who just graduated from SVA or it might be a lot of lawyer whose been working on some personal projects for twenty years and has never shown anyone. We're like the perfect venue for this because we're a very warm and accepting environment.

SIRISUK: It's like a genuine community with focus on genuine sharing.

KELBAUGH: A lot of people go to art shows and events. You can show up and make the scene and maybe buy a ticket, whatever, but you're in and you're out and you don't really feel anything. People aren't really looking at the art on the walls, they're looking to see whose there.

SIRISUK: It's more about the social scene and not connecting with what is there, what was created.

KELBAUGH: So this model in a very subtle way changes that dynamic because people are cooking food and bringing home cooked dishes. It's their grandma's recipe or something that they've tried to experiment with, so people are showing up with home cooked food or sometimes people pick something up. But regardless, you're contributing, you're participating. So there's a level of engagement, for some people it's humbling, for others it's exciting. It's a proud moment. For some people it makes them feel more vulnerable, it just sort of shifts the air in the room a little bit. So there's the breaking new bread, the eating, mingling, trying new things. It's always a nice to have variety of people, foods, and viewpoints, and genres of work.

SIRISUK: With the work and food it sounds like there's a real focus on expression. Whether it's the food you're bringing or the art you've created.

KELBAUGH: Someone who may not be the best painter, but knows how to make a mean carrot cake can still feel like they're participating. And then the slideshow, generally speaking it's twenty local artists so we'll have a range of styles and genres and usually there's a theme that its organized around and themes are very general ideas like family, change, mistakes.

SIRISUK: Tell me about the expansion.

KELBAUGH: As this thing gained a little steam in New York, people started to notice. Example, "I'm moving to Madrid and I'd like to try it there" or "you know my cousin was visiting from Washington D.C. and now he wants to try it." It grew very virally and then within a couple of years in New York there were a thousand people coming to all of our shows. And we're doing them in big photo studios and we didn't have a business model, we weren't a non-profit, we were just a total chaotic mess and it took us a few years to kind of get things under control. So today, Slideluck has been operational, has had events in about one hundred cities around the world. So this this weekend we have shows in Kigali, Rwanada, Savannah, Georgia, and last weekend was Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, right before that was Bogota, and Warsaw. Bolognia is coming up, Miami is coming up. I just came back from launching Slideluck in Seoul, Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong and on the way we did a show in San Francisco. So in every city there has been someone who approached us or an organization that has approached us and said, "Hey, we wanna try this. We think our community can be better. We think there can be more engagement." And that's sort of a hole that we help fill.

SIRISUK: I want to know more about the Youth Initiative.

KELBAUGH: Over the years a lot of people from our community that were active in the photo world wanted to do more and help. So we kind of took their energy and created a program in 2009 to start teaching photography and multimedia story telling here in New York City. We have always had a lot of demand in other cities as well, but we're still learning the ropes. It's hard working within the school system. We're not within the public school system, we're after school or community center. In the last year, we've re-booted. We're now in East New York and we just launched in Harlem in the spring and now we're launching in East L.A. right now. So we've been trying basically to scale back down, to really refine the curriculum and all the methodology. So the first thing we plan to do in early 2015 is launch a global platform, a web-based platform for a photography program around the world because we've already worked with them. Like Washington, D.C., Portland, the Philippines and Namibia. It's a platform for them to connect, for kids to upload their photos and to have dialogue between and across languages. We can essentially have someone, like the group in Brazil, assign a subject to the group in Philadelphia and then Philadelphia assigns it to the next group.

SIRISUK: That's so different. I haven't encountered anything like that.

KELBAUGH: We just have connections with all these organizations that are so great and they're all a little different. We're interested in creating dialogue and opportunities for all these kids and art. Our program, we have a lot of teaching artists, people working as a fashion photographer or a photo editor at The New York Times or whatever, come in and talk with the students, show them their work, explore their thoughts on things. We also do visits to photo studios and galleries and museums and try to expose these kids only to the range of expression, mostly the different jobs available in these niche areas because from the outside you would never know.

SIRISUK: It's so great for these kids to get exposed to this.

KELBAUGH: We started a partnership with Whole Foods and we now have two bodies of work from our students here hanging in the Union Square, in the café upstairs. I mean this café gets twenty seven millions visitors a year, is what I'm told. I don't understand how that adds up. But no less than a few million are seeing this work, which is kind of exciting for a professional photographer. So it's tons of exposure, it's work that they shot in the studio of each other, and there's quotes about each other.

SIRISUK: Now I have to go see this.

KELBAUGH: We are also trying to tie in a healthy eating component because we are food and we are art. Not overtly, but we are going try to make a cookbook next year. We have the senior center across the street from the youth center and we want to have the seniors teaching the kids recipes right and then we photograph that and make a little cookbook out of it.

SIRISUK: That's amazing! And imagine the stories behind the recipes shared with the kids.

KELBAUGH: The multi-generational thing is so exciting. We follow up with a slideshow of the kids' work at the end of the year and everyone brings their dishes.

SIRISUK: Again it's really about bringing from different ages and backgrounds together. What's another initiative you're working on?

KELBAUGH: So we want to start this project next year, kind of public space oriented where we're doing underutilized urban spaces and bringing some life to them with huge projections. We're planning to launch this initiative on the High Line in the spring, which I think is great example of urban renewal. It could be something that's a monthly series, you know. We have so much content.

SIRISUK: Tell me about the event on Wednesday the 19th. You're raising funds for all of your amazing programs.

KELBAUGH: The event is a dinner for fifty followed by a party for about one hundred and fifty, and then the auction - part silent auction, part live auction. It's run by Paddle 8 which is this online thing. So we have amazing artists from our community involved in the auction and then for the first time we decided to start honoring people who in some way represent our ideals and who we feel are having a strong impact on the community. I won't say it's a short list, but people who works across different mediums, everything they do has a similar aspect of social responsibility. So Hank (Willis Thomas) who we first showed, we did a show at the Aperture Foundation in 2009, has been someone we've admired for a long time and the opportunity arose to honor someone and we just felt he was young and he's carving his own way. I have a lot of respect for him so we had an artist who does 3D printing. She's a resident at the New Museum's Incubator program and she is designing an award that we're going to print out in steal. It's a cool object and it's being presented by his (Hank Willis Thomas) mother, who is incredibly well respected in both the academic and arts communities. She's a leader in her own right, so I think it's pretty cool. Our selection of artists is very ethnically diverse.

SIRISUK: Isn't there an astronaut in the artist lineup?

KELBAUGH : Yeah, this is so exciting. He's not just any ordinary astronaut I'm learning, he's really cool. He's definitely one of the most worshipped. He's like a rock star.

SIRISUK: What's his name?

KELBAUGH: Colonel Chris Hadfield. He did a song by David Bowie "Ground Control to Major Tom." He sang it in outer space and put it up on YouTube. It's so awesome. How cool is that. So he gave us the first prints that have ever been made of his work. He's been shooting for years, and we got a really cool print of the San Francisco Bay area and a really cool print of called "Havana to Washington" and you can see it's right above Havana, Cuba and the Florida Peninsula and you can sort of see how close and interconnected those places really are and then it winds on the coast. They're just stunning. I mean they're from outer space. We have an astronaut, we have a snowboarder, we have all these amazing artists, but definitely people who are outside the typical box

SIRISUK: I want to know what keeps you going with photography.

KELBAUGH: I have a complicated relationship with photography these days. I've been spending so much energy on Slideluck, and photography is kind of my day job, which is a weird thing because I do all kinds of assignment work but I don't have a lot of time for my own personal projects. In the beginning, I used to do a lot of personal projects that I would also show at Slideluck, but when it started to grow bigger and there was more competition to be involved in the shows, I felt bad putting my own work in the shows. So now I'm trying to focus on more personal projects that are not Slideluck and not assignments or commissions. I love photography. Photography is where I feel the most comfortable and I'm constantly looking and seeing things from a photographic perspective and it comes naturally to me. I feel like I have so much I still want to do in my photography career. I've just scratched the surface, there's always so much to explore as you grow and change.

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