Ivan Jenson has worn many hats during his career, but throughout stints as a pop singer, a painter, a poet, a sculptor and more, he has maintained the soul of an artist. In his new novel, Dead Artist, Jenson delves into the world of New York City and explores issues of art and soul. 

Dead Artist’s protagonist, Milo Sonas, is a mid-career artist who has experienced varying degrees of success in his endeavors. As a young artist selling his work on street corners in New York City, he experienced tremendous success and acclaim from New Yorkers of all stripes. But after a nervous breakdown sends him reeling, he questions his talent and previous triumphs. When a New York art dealer named Nick rediscovers his work and grooms him for success, it seems things are taking a turn for the better, despite Milo’s persistent insecurities.

The book contains a wide array of colorful characters, including Milo’s hilariously written mother, his siblings, and New York City itself. Even more ambitiously, Jenson brings to life Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso as advisors and friends who mentor Milo through his second chance, his relationship with his old flame, Samantha, and sticky family matters.

Jenson used stories from his own life experience as a street artist, a New Yorker during 9/11 and others, to create a novel that charms, entertains, and ultimately gets at the heart of what it means to be a modern artist.

GALO: Briefly describe your book for our readers.

Ivan Jenson: In that book, I had always had an idea or an inspiration to write a book about an artist where Van Gogh and Picasso are kind of his advisors. I wanted to write a book which captured the New York City street art and art world. And it became kind of a quirky family drama. It’s a combination of things. It’s a tragic, funny story. And it [has] a touch of magic in it, [while having] gritty insights into what it’s like to pursue a career in art in New York City, and also what it’s like to have a second chance to make a comeback. Interestingly, it’s kind of correlating [with] what’s happening for me with my writing career right now. It’s interesting how life imitates art.

GALO: Of all of the great masters, why Van Gogh and Picasso?

IJ: Van Gogh is a character and a tragic, iconic figure. It just came to me. I’m very spontaneous. I’ve always been a Picasso fan. He’s the ultimate successful artist. He’s prolific and addicted to his own talent — almost a successful megalomaniac. I think that he single-handedly did most of the important things that needed to be done to create modern art. When I was 13, I used to live near Indiana University and there was actually a very special art gallery library, and they had some original Picassos there as well as some really fantastic Picasso books. They used to call me “the Picasso kid” because I kept going there every afternoon, and I was the one who checked out all the books about him. I’m always interested in prolific artists, because that’s what I aspire to be. I believe in producing a lot.

GALO: So, it was one of your interests as a kid. Did you do any other research to get the essence of their personalities?

IJ: Well, I’m well versed. I lived art history as a kid because I kind of fell for each phase of art history as I grew up. In other words, I was first entranced by Greek and Roman sculpture, and then I edged my way into Renaissance. I remember when I first discovered modern art, I wept. When I saw conceptual art, I couldn’t deal with it at first. I grew to like it. But I’m well versed, and I’ve read books about Picasso and Van Gogh. I read Lust for Life, the novel. But what matters is that they came to life for me as I was writing it. All my novels, they just happen, visually to me. They come alive. If they’re not coming alive, then it’s not going to work. They’re characters. They’re iconic characters. Once they’re in the book, they’re acting and responding to the scenes that they’ve been put into. Or who knows? Maybe I am visited by them. But I won’t tell.

GALO: Do you see them as fathers and mentors to any artist, or do you think there’s something really special about Milo that they would have identified with?

IJ: Van Gogh is coming to Milo because Milo is trying to become a success while he’s still alive, and Van Gogh is an example of an artist who became successful after his death. So, Van Gogh is there to make sure that he gets it right, while he’s still alive. Milo is a special artist, a sensitive artist, and born from the streets of New York City. They’re both there to give him different bits of advice. One is Picasso giving him his kind of advice and then Van Gogh trying to live—these are people that are living, out in the spirit world, different lives in the novel. Van Gogh finds love in the novel. I’m giving them a gift, too, in my novel, treating them well.

GALO: I know you’ve worked as a street artist and have other things in common with Milo. How much of this is autobiographical?

IJ: To say its autobiographical takes away from the fact that things were experienced, but they weren’t written, and to write them properly and with gusto is a whole different thing. These are synthesized experiences. There is correlation to my life, but these are magnified experiences. So, when you say autobiographical, it takes away from the fact of how much work has to be done to make these experiences work in a drama. In other words, these people are loosely based; some people are combinations of people or family members that I might know. But there is no order. There is no order to life.

When you create something or write a novel, there’s a lot of work to be done to put it into shape. That’s like saying, if a sculpture is a portrait of someone, “Oh! It’s autobiographical,” or “It’s biographical.” It has to be transformed into another form. There’s a lot of work to be done to find the funny, to remember the funny. There’s a lot of correlation. I was out there on the streets. What I’m happy about now, starting my writing career over the last five years, is the gift I’ve been given by having such trenchant experiences. I was really out there on Fifth Avenue, on Second Avenue, having those gritty experiences and ups and downs. My experiences, coming up as an artist, were almost like coming up as a Vaudevillian. There were so many wild characters that I met, having nightclub shows and gallery shows, and being out there on the street. So now, as an author, I’ve been given this gift of such vivid experiences to grab from and I’ve written quite a few novels now where I draw from different facets of my life. So, I’m kind of miming [mine].

(Article continued on next page)