Interview: Ken Nash

A few words with the multi-talented American illustrator who helps run the Alchemy open mic

A talented illustrator, animator, musician and writer, Ken Nash also finds time to help run the Alchemy Reading and Performance Series, one of the linchpins of Prague's English-language literary scene.


Sam Beckwith finds out more, including whether Nash is really the world's most prolific creator of e-cards:


How, why and when did you come to Prague?


I'm a rexpat, actually. I first came to Prague in '92. It was a complete whim, nearly equivalent to throwing a dart at a map. I knew nothing about the city at the time. I just wanted the experience of living abroad. But I fell in love with Prague.


I left in '94 with the intention of possibly coming back. It took several years of wandering and developing my work skills before I felt the time was right to come back to Prague. I booked a flight from San Francisco to Prague. It turned out to be September 11, 2001.


What do you like and dislike about living here?


What's not to like? OK, there are some things about any big city that can be depressing. And Prague has its surly side. But visually it's a very powerful city. It's hard to get tired of just wandering around its streets. It's also the perfect-sized city. Most everything is within walking distance. Big enough to feel some sense of anonymity at times. And small enough to easily have random encounters with friends.


Can you list the various projects you're currently involved in?


Sure. I list them all the time in my notebooks so that I can remember what I'm supposed to be doing:


• Freelance illustration and animation (my clients include BirthdayAlarm.com, Zuno.com and Marianne magazine)

• Organizing the Alchemy Reading and Performance Series


• Participating in the Prague Independent Music Collective, producing CDs and organizing music events

• Performing in the Ken Nash band. Well, at the moment it's sort of a one-man band with the occasional guest musician

• Volunteer face-painter for Little Clown

• Occasional readings and publication of my short fiction work

• Commercial songwriting. So far, BirthdayAlarm.com is my only client for this, but I've written maybe 25 birthday songs for them


Recently I gave up organizing life drawing classes, but miss those weekly drawing sessions.


How did your involvement with Alchemy begin?


When I moved back to Prague, I was looking forward to getting involved with local readings. But the weekly open mic, Beefstew, keeled over and died shortly after I returned.


I was new to the scene, having been gone so long. I just wanted to help out, not undertake something on my own. But there was, for the first time in a long time, a void where there wasn't much happening with the English-language literary scene. My dear friend Jim Freeman cajoled me into trying to start something up. I got the poet Laura Conway to give me a hand. Shakespeare & Sons on Krymská street was on the verge of opening, so I met with them. And that's how and where Alchemy began.


What's your current role with Alchemy?


I do the scheduling, promoting, mail list, sound, etc. Occasionally I host the event but there are many other people who lend a hand.


Could you describe the Alchemy concept for people who don't know it?


The evenings take place in two parts.


We start with a featured performer -- usually a well-regarded writer or musician from outside of the Czech Republic. It's good inspiration for us, but it's also great for these performers to be able to come to Prague and know there's a guaranteed audience waiting to hear them.


The second part is an open mic. Writers, musicians, performance artists, cranks, etc. all sign up at the start of the evening and can read or perform for up to seven minutes. The emphasis is on recent work or work under development. It's a testing ground. And for a lot of people, myself included, it's part of the editing process. Reading or performing your work out loud to an audience changes the way you think about it.


I've been to a lot of open mics in different cities and countries and I'm very proud of what we have here. It's one of the best anywhere. But you have to embrace the nature of an open mic. Anything can happen. Anyone can read. The quality of work is up and down. There are accomplished writers who smoothly recite their prose followed by young kids with shaky hands reading their work out loud to an audience for the first time in their lives. But both can be equally captivating in their own way. There's something really beautiful about that that you can only find at a good open mic.


Could you summarize your career as an illustrator/animator? (And are you really, as your website states, the "world's most prolific creator of e-cards"?)


Well... I have no way to prove it for sure, but I got involved with doing e-cards very early on. Unlike a lot of studios that make e-cards, I work alone. (I create the concept, storyboard, illustrations, animation, and, until recently, all the sound.) So there aren't a lot of delays in the production process. I've probably done over 450 cards for BirthdayAlarm.com and another hundred for other websites on top of that. Them's a lot of e-card happiness.


How would you describe your art?


I've been really interested in the literary discussion about "irony" that's taken place over the past several years, with some critics declaring that the Age of Irony is over. I've always relied on healthy doses of irony in my work. With irony, like metaphor, I think you can actually get closer to real feelings than approaching them directly. It's sort of like, for me, how watching someone trying bravely not to cry is often more moving than someone bursting into tears. The diverted expression is often more powerful than the direct expression.


Anyway, at my best (which isn't always the case) I try to use humor and irony as a Trojan horse to get my army of deeper meaning past people's defenses. What?! Is that a crazy metaphor? Anyway, it means there are usually two layers of meaning, one on the surface which is very playful and "light" and one beneath which is much darker.


How would you describe your music?


I think I just did! In a lot of ways my art, writing and music are just different manifestations of the same impulse.


How often do you play live?


On average, twice a month around Prague. Last year was the first year I started performing outside of the Czech Republic. In 2009 I released a CD called Magic Squirrels and I will start recording the next CD at the end of January this year.


Who are your main influences, as an illustrator, a musician and just generally?


Why does this question make me uneasy? I think my whole psyche is such a hodgepodge Frankenstein's monster of influences that it's hard to know specifically where things come from. I know that some of the first music that really meant something to me was a lot of prog-rock bands, like Genesis and Yes. But on the opposite extreme I loved the sprightly playfulness of the Talking Heads and The Beatles. And Gary Larson was a tremendous influence in my cartooning.


How long do you plan to stay in Prague?


Until she lets me go.


• Ken Nash will be playing live at Potrvá on Monday, February 24 from 7:30pm


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