John Peña is a visual artist who has aimed to establish a routine where he connects with the world each and every single day, pointing out the ordinary moments you and I may not acknowledge as significant. Daily Geology, just one of his ongoing projects is a beautiful awakening to the little moments that give each day their personality. I was extremely excited to be able to pick his brain a little bit!

I’m insanely intrigued by your work. Probably because you make it seem so simple. I cannot imagine that it is. Looking at your projects, I get the feeling you’re having a lot of fun. Are you?
First off, thank you for your kind words. Secondly, “Yes!” I do have a lot of fun. But I would say it’s mostly a combination of excitement, frustration, confusion, elation, anxiety, dread, Existential dread, ambivalence and silliness.

You’ve stated that you are through your work, you are trying to communicate with nature and want to reveal the bond between it and humans. When did you know this was something to be sought out?
I don’t think this was a choice I made consciously. I just started making moves and took an interest in what was unfolding. It was then that I discovered that there was this voice rising to the surface and that the quality of that voice pointed towards my relationship to my environment and those around me. I have very little control over the voice that arises inside of me. I can either tend to it or ignore it. Both lead me in very different directions.

You’ve created a pirate radio station that plays extinct bird sounds. That’s pretty cool. What was your inspiration? And where do you get the sounds from, do you recreate them?

I actually collaborated with my friend Jon Rubin for this project. He is an incredible artist who makes works more explicitly in the public sphere. We had noticed this storefront at the end of a bridge in Homestead, PA, and had been talking about doing a pirate radio station for a while.  We played with some ideas and came up with the extinct dusky seaside sparrow. We got the first recording from a public domain website. We liked the idea that you would be waiting in your car at the traffic light and look over and be able to tune your radio to the sound of an extinct bird chirping.

Daily Geology is so interesting to read. I’ve noticed you don’t use color though. Will we see any in the future for this specific project?
Thank you! I am not sure if you will see color in the future. I have thought of it a few times, but it’s already really tough to just record some of the most painfully embarrassing thoughts and inner workings of my being that adding color seems so daunting right now. But maybe soon. There are times when I am trying to draw someone and want to show the color of their shirt or eyes but I can’t. So that’s kind of a bummer. Sometimes when I am really frustrated, I will physically write out the name of the color on the drawing with an arrow pointing toward the object.

Drawing each day—does it ever become a struggle? Do you ever feel like making something up from your imagination?
It’s a struggle every single day. I wake up most mornings of my life in a panic. All of my historical defense fire the strongest in the mornings. It feels like if I don’t get moving something will slit my throat or kill me. So, that’s an average morning for me. I’ve learned through eight years of therapy to take an interest in these feelings and to explore them. This has helped out tremendously. As far as the drawings, I dread making one nearly every day. But when I sit down and just start drawing, I am essentially taking an interest in the dread and allowing it to coexist with all these other feelings: uncertainty about what I’m going to draw, fear that I’ll fuck up and make a shitty drawing, excitement as something starts to take shape. When I stop struggling and allow all of these feelings to move freely inside of me, then things start taking shape. It’s only then that the drawing can unfold and emerge. That’s when it gets exciting because it feels like something organic is developing in front of me and I just have to get out of it’s way. It’s really quite a remarkable process.

In response to your last question: Life is so ridiculously complicated and full that there is no need to make things up. If I find myself thinking that nothing happened today, then I am full of shit. What I’m really saying is, “Nothing exciting happened today,” which is also bullshit. I have to allow the drawings to suck and be boring. If I’m always thinking that they must be smart, funny, clever etc, then I’ll never actually discover the drawing. I’ll be imposing my will on it. And that is one of the most disrespectful things I can do to a drawing and to my audience. It is really condescending and I know it because I have done it and been called out on it. I’m reminded of a great line by David Berman from “Actual Air” where he says, “I’m just letting the day be what it is: a place for a large number of things to gather and interact – not even a place but an occasion, a reality for real things.”

“Word Balloons” incorporated very simple, but heavy statements. What kind of reactions did you get from them?
This project was very well received but not many people discussed the sentiment of the words with me in person. It was mostly through social media. This project was what got me to join Instagram. A friend of mine on IG said that he kept seeing people posing next to my words balloons at the Mattress Factory Museum with comments that indicated people were really moved by it. When I joined, I found that these sentiments really resonated with people and I had lots of people on Instagram and Tumblr reach out to me to say that they could could relate to the content of the words. That was pretty cool because I started making art before the internet was really the tool it is today and well before IG and Tumblr. Back then, I would make a work of art and never hear any feedback other than that of friends and critics. But now, it’s so cool to be able to hear how your work is affecting people.

“Letters to the Ocean” is fascinating. I think what stumps me most is the discipline it must require. You’re going on your 12th year, do you have a timetable for it? How do you know you should keep writing? Or even, how will you know when it’s time to stop?
I don’t really have a timetable for it. I don’t know why I keep writing, except for one little impulse and it’s this tiny voice which has carried me for twelve plus years. When I started writing letters to the ocean, I was fascinated by attempting to mimic geological processes. Given this starting point, I decided that some arbitrary rules need to be established because the rules that a mountain obeys are governed by physics. The first of which was that in terms of geological forces, there is no inherent value judgement. A large chunk of granite rock slowly being eroded and carried down a river doesn’t stop and wonder, “Is this a good thing that I’m being carved away and carried downriver?” Maybe this whole erosion thing is a bad idea.”  This is largely because rocks are not sentient beings with a cerebral cortex capable of free will and free thought. But if we distill my existence in a similar manner, then I am nothing more than a two-legged mammal moving through space displacing matter. That’s it! No inherent judgement.

But that’s not how I experience life. It’s usually filled with a constant barrage of judgments which make deciding on the most simple thing nearly impossible. I decided to take a cue from geological forces and just make slow and gradual moves without piling on the all the judgments. In other words, my arbitrary rule is: Don’t stop and question every little move. Just make a move, albeit an insignificant one, every single day and see what happens.
Also, why the Pacific Ocean?
I grew up in the desert of Washington State and when we were kids we went to the Pacific Ocean once (maybe twice). When I was a kid it was so magical. As I got older, I would visit it more often and I liked how cold, raw and unforgiving it was. I liked the way it made me very aware of my own fragility and insignificance. It always pulled me out of my own head if only momentarily.If you got a response from the ocean, what do you imagine it would say?
I don’t really know. I have received anonymous letters from people over the years claiming to be the ocean and saying everything from “Please stop writing,” to “I look forward to getting your letters every single day. Keep writing.”What’s next on your agenda?
I’m making a bike rack for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. That’s been really exciting. Check out my website in late September 2015 and there should be some pictures online. Also, I post regular art updates on my Instagram @johnpenastudio. I am also selling copies of my book “Daily Geology: Year 2014,” via my website Each book contains every single drawing I made in 2014. They go for $20 plus shipping. I made a special promo code for your readers too. You can get 15% off your order if you enter “Venison” at checkout.

The phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty once described language by writing, “Is it even possible that this language we speak is the voice of the living Earth itself, singing through the human form.” I think about this often, because the implications are profound. This idea challenges our limited notion of language and how it creates our perceived relationship to the natural world. What I like most about it is that I often find myself staring at a tree and thinking, “This is the part of the earth that speaks itself as a tree.” As I write a letter to the ocean, I think, “I am a part of the earth that speaks itself as a human and I am calling out to another part of myself, the ocean.” So really, i’m just talking to myself.

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