Houseguest: James Kerns

Photography and text by Abby Greenawalt and Erin Scott


If he was stranded on a desert island with only a Swiss army knife and a few Richard Simmons videos for motivation, DC’s James Kerns would not just survive; he would build a jungle dream house.  His use of common items is as inventive as MacGyver‘s, while his methods are as thoughtful as a Buddhist monk’s.

Kerns, the self-described “incidental artist,” visited Pitchfork to discuss his deep appreciation for material, opportunity, and the (extra)ordinary in the every-day. He also laid out his retirement plan, which includes sitting on a beach, being a general nuisance, and making art well into his 80’s.

James Kerns’ website is, but be sure to visit Boundary Road, Teddy and the Bully Bar, Copperwood, Toki Underground, Chaplin, or RedLight to see some of his work in person.


How did you start creating things?

As a younger person I worked on timber framing for houses, and I always marveled at the amount of material we wasted. I would find all these materials that were often useful but discarded, and I’d build something from them. The object would incorporate the history of the place, and I’d just leave it in the home for the owners. It was always something practical, like a pot rack. I kept making more things and eventually selling them at the flea market, and people were buying them. Then I thought, ‘I’d like to see if there’s something more here that I can make with these old parts.’

And that’s where you felt you were becoming an artist?

Well, I didn’t set out be an artist. I just wanted to reuse these neglected things that nobody else loved, and people happened to appreciate it. So thankfully I don’t have lofty “artist” expectations that are difficult to meet.


How do you decide what materials to use?

I have a fundamental respect for material and for well-made objects. For me, seeing these items thrown aside or abandoned is my opportunity to incorporate them into something new. It’s stuff we look at daily. The inspiration is everywhere – you can go by a church and see a particular corner, where the red meets the white, and it can tell you everything about its age, history, even tradition.

I’ve heard you say that you “think differently.” Explain?

I think in metaphor in many situations. It gives you this capacity to see things in a way that’s otherwise not available. When I see a mattress on the side of the road it’s not just a mattress. It’s actually expressing itself to me, and I immediately see a new future for it. On one hand this thinking helps me be creative, but it can also be a detriment in that I sometimes can’t look at things plainly or come up with the most practical resolution.

Do you ever struggle to make your work… work?

Oh of course. You’ve got to let yourself get to that point where you’re connected to an idea, in that abstract artist part of you, and you’re just crazed with creating. You have to wallow in that space for a long time, because the first 20 things you try are going to be crap. When I’m trying to get to that sweet spot of creation, I have to get around the tools. I have to butcher a piece of wood and say “Nooo! It’s not right!” Then I have to weld some pieces at bad angles and say, “This isn’t working.” But finally you get past that, past your brain, and back to what is inside you.

What do you mean by “get9974-Bting past your brain?”

Don’t let method get in the way of creativity.  It’s not bad to have a plan. Have a plan. But it’s also not bad to abandon that plan when it’s not working or when the plan requires revisions.

Do you have a hard time getting out of that zone and switching back into, for example, “dad mode?”

Oh yes, I’ll be in my car driving home and still solving problems in my head. “That light could be moved six inches. That might be better in a different shade of blue. Hey lady where’d you get that sweater?” (laughs)

Do you have an ultimate life goal?

My chief desire is for my life to end in a convenience store, giving exact change. If the total is $1.37, I count out my pennies: 36, 37, then boom, gone, cashed out. Just disappear, like that’s it man you’re done. The exact change is a reference to using up everything.

You sound like you’re enjoying your life. Is that fair to say?

To me, most of the ordinary things in life are extraordinary. Anything can happen if we allow it to. Just the ability to be who we are and make it part of our everyday life can be an incredible thing.


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Thank you  to Boundary Road for your support in feeding this month’s house guest. It helped us to create very serious art like this:


Music by ZOE.LEELA

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