INTERVIEW: Aron Conaway of The Mammoth on their space, art, and holy burritos!

Back in my misspent youth, I had the good fortune to encounter Aron Conaway, a local artist and ally, who at the time ran one of the most interesting spots in town via The Lava House. Located in Germantown, that space eventually (and perhaps ironically, if only for the name) burned down, leaving many artists and musicians without a proper home. Conaway and company were quick to establish a new locale, The Mammoth, which hasn’t had the best of luck either. Meeting with structural issues from the Fire Marshall, the space was relegated to limited and specific use, serving as a venue only recently again, and only outdoors. Conaway is currently working to alleviate that issue via the Imagine Greater Louisville 2020 grant, which is offered to members of the community to enrich the arts. You can help Conaway by going here and writing a few words about why you think The Mammoth is deserving of such an award, and learn more in their words here. For my two cents, if you are or ever have been in a DIY band of any stripe, I highly encourage you to consider doing just that. Watch a quick video on how and why you should help below, and know that the deadline is tonight, so the time is now to get into it! We caught up to Conaway to ask about his art, helping The Mammoth, and his relationship to karate!

Never Nervous: Tell us a little about yourself

Aron Conaway: My name is Aron and I am a visual artist, and curator here in Louisville.

NN: How did you get involved in the DIY/indie/art scene in town?

AC: Although I had gone to dozens of music and art shows since middle school, I really started my creative involvement in the DIY scene upon graduating with my BFA degree in photography from the University of Louisville. In 2001, kind of freaked out by the idea of having no creative community beyond the University, and yet totally inspired by the art movements throughout the previous hundred years, I felt the need to find a creative community. I was determined to find a space and start an Art Collective there to meet a need resist the current capitalist system, haha. Sounds funny, being so idealistic, but not joking. It just didn’t seem like making art to sell off was going to be fulfilling for me. So the universe worked its ways to quickly put me in touch with my old friend Bart Herre, whose dad had just purchased a warehouse in the armpit of Germantown. We had both just graduated and were settled in and on our way within a month. Then was born the Louisville Assembly of Vanguard Art – LAVA – the LAVA House.

NN: How has your relationship with that scene evolved over time?

AC: I guess I would say that my personal evolution has just been right in line with the rest of the local scene as it has developed. We all met each other over time, learned from each other, inspired each other and collectively have become who and what we are now. I think an important part of my involvement has been going with the flow, accepting that this city is growing and changing and my role has been to try to make the best of it as new people come from other places, as people leave, then return with ideas and inspiration from other places, as people who have grown up here find a creative spark to do something that moves them. I try to help make that happen by providing encouragement, resources, whatever I can do.

“My personal evolution has just been right in line with the rest of the local scene as it has developed. We all met each other over time, learned from each other, inspired each other and collectively have become who and what we are now.”

I have always wanted to be a little bit outside of the central, establish active places. I grew up in the Highlands and left after high school. While Bardstown Road was hot we were in Germantown, then when it got too interesting, ran northwest to Portland to try and be a part of that community and bring my friends’ attention that way. Now that Portland is starting to vibrate rapidly, I’m happy to be nestled a bit on quiet 13th Street, just south of Broadway. Now hoping to get the MAMMOTH good and healthy so it can become a real, usable asset that exists in the West End.

NN: Were you ever in a band? If yes, tell us about it. If not, why?

AC: I did perform Burning Down the House at Atherton for Vaudeville with a bunch of my friends. Does that count? Haha. I have never really been IN a band, but used to spend dozens of hours sitting on a couch in my friends various band practices. I do really love sitting by myself, making strange rhythmic noise with my guitar and then every once in a while jamming with friends. Maybe someday I’ll join an experimental band, so I don’t have to memorize a song structure. My brain just won’t do that. But I do live vicariously through seeing bands and it’s totally gratifying to feel others’ creative output.

NN: What got you into art? Tell me a little about your work.

AC: I guess I realized that being a professional artist was possible from my brother’s wife, when I was a kid. Always liked doodling and sketching, playing with Legos — that sort of thing. But I think I really realized the importance and potential power of Art when I was in school taking art history classes, and film classes. I was inspired by the work and lives of artists who were challenging the world as we see it. It made me want to knock the world upside the head. I didn’t really have a preferred medium, so when I went to Albuquerque to the University of New Mexico for a two-semester student Exchange in 1998, I decided to go with photography because it had the potential to be a source for basically any other visual medium, as well as documenting on multiple levels. It gave me an opportunity to become comfortable with composition and then image manipulation on the computer, which really opened a lot of doors creatively.

But I love to work in all sorts of mediums — an idea, concept, or the function of a artwork will often dictate what medium and the form a creation takes. I just like to try new things, so I push myself to learn the behaviors and possibilities for a medium and then just go for it. Conceptually a lot of my work is based in social commentary of some sort, with a little touch of optimism and/or pessimism mixed in.

NN: How is the MAMMOTH relative to the LAVA House, if at all? In what ways are they similar or dissimilar?

AC: The LAVA House experience was super enriching, as it taught us a lot about ourselves and about working together with other people, But we were all really young and very inexperienced with group dynamics. There was a wildness there that was exciting and provided lots of freedom to experiment on lots of levels, but it did not lend itself to a solid foundation for a sustainable movement. A couple of us tried to leave several times, but it just didn’t happen until the Universe kicked us in our asses in 2008 – and the building burned to the ground. The MAMMOTH allowed us some control so we could take what we learned and start over.

NN: When did The Mammoth start? What’s the mission statement for the space?

AC: In 2005 Hallie Jones and I went searching for new Space to create a totally new entity. We went through a roller coaster ride, searching spaces, working with various folks to develop a new vision. We got started and then ran into a wall so many times — to a point where we had basically given up hope. Then one day I walked into a warehouse at the top of the hill on Oak Street and asked if they ever would be interested in developing art studios and such. They said I needed to go down to 13th Street to meet their brother, so we did. We met Carl Boyd, he agreed to owner finance us, we sold our house and gave him all our money. His patience and willingness to give us a chance were key to the possibility of us doing something new and exciting in this run down old building.

Our mission… we’re figuring that out right now. Our working version is something along the lines of helping people realize their creative potential.

“Our mission… we’re figuring that out right now. Our working version is something along the lines of helping people realize their creative potential.”

NN: In terms of helping the Imagine Greater Louisville 2020 grant, what can you tell us about the Reawaken the Mammoth and Mammoth Gardens initiatives?

AC: We are asking for grant help to embellish the MAMMOTH GARDENS with several dozen raised bed gardens, which will be open to the California Neighborhood Community as well as the artists and participants here at the Mammoth Community. We are also looking to expand our Garden Collective to include folks from all across the city.

On the second grant application we are asking for city money to help fund the MAMMOTH’s hiring of a structural engineer and an architect to give a full assessment of the structural repairs we need to make to this 152 year-old historic building. In addition this will also pay for a design plan for the 40-50 basement columns that need repair. We will then submit these plans to the city to acquire a building permit and be on our way to getting the repairs completed in 2018, allowing us to REOPEN THE MAMMOTH!!!

NN: What kinds of events do you hope are hosted at The Mammoth? What do you see as the future for the space?

AC: Really any type of event that is positive and brings people together is always inspiring and good things usually come of it. Whether it’s a punk rock show, a hip hop show, experimental or folk music, or all of the above mixed up for some sort of benefit show, we’re all about it. Events are one of the rewarding things we have in our society – you know, we work all week so we can go enjoy ourselves by going out and enjoying ourselves. Here at the MAMMOTH we, the Collective work hard to provide a space that inspires and gives people the canvas to help realize their own creative expression — to fulfill their creative dreams – in order for people to come together and enjoy each other’s creative spirit as well as ideas.

NN: What have you hosted already that you are satisfied with?

AC: Well, we did 12 or 13 events in 2012, at the very beginning that were totally raw in the filthy, dark warehouse. Those underground music shows were happening here when there were very few venues around at the moment. We had hip hop, punk rock, experimental music of all types. We had visual art mixed in everywhere — as that is part of our goal here — to integrate the two in unusual and unexpected ways. That energy was pure magic and was great until we were told no more public events inside until we addressed a number of public safety standards for the space. We pulled hundreds of hours of volunteer work from dozens of friends and people new to the situation here – everyone working towards this totally ambiguous vision that included anything that we could dream up. We did everything we were supposed to do for the City in order to make that happen — as long as we got a special event permit.

Here in 2017 we have had another dozen or so events – A MAMMOTH Fundraiser, a Books for Prisoners Benefit with tons of awesome bands, a 13-hour Local Hip Hop Festival, Faun Fables came through again, and we hosted a three-day medical benefit event for the Charlottesville tragedy.

NN: I know that the space has been around for a while, but ran into some structural/zoning problems or something like that. Can you walk us through what those problems are and what you’ve done to work on them?

AC: Well, it is a 152 year-old building, built at the tail end of the Civil War. Over the decades water has leaked in through the back of the basement and saturated the bottom few inches of a few dozen 12”x12” poplar wood posts. At first I spent a lot of time averting the water and trying to keep it dry. I was in the process of working to get them all fixed when the building was shut down in 2015– which meant we lost a lot of income. Since then I have been struggling to pay the bills — doing so by working on various projects like the Butchertown mural and other creative stuff, even doing house renovation work.

Over the last couple years I have been working around the building on various things with my girlfriend, Rhian, including amazing Gardens that began to set shape to the outside of the building. She has helped me get through a lot of this on the emotional end of things too, which things were most bleak. Then in Spring of this year 7 amazing young folks came from Michigan and Arizona to volunteer thousands of hours – three months plus of work — to help turn the backyard into a really beautiful functional space — a space they dubbed “the Baby Jungle”. They were doing music events and then the MAMMOTH began to host other events for other people’s needs. It has been a very exciting year!

Now a core group of really talented Louisvillians have come to the table to help to pull this thing out of a perpetual nose dive. I’m trying to work with everyone to put in place a working structure so we can go from a seemingly impossible one-man business operation to cracking it open to become a collectively run space that provides answers to all of our dreams 🙂 Now that we’re coming together as a core group — having written this Imagine Greater Louisville 2020 Grant for the Community Gardens outside and funding to pay the structural engineer/architect for this full assessment and a cookie cutter repair plan – we will clear our first hurdle. In 2018 we will be doing a big fundraising push to pay for the repairs, then hopefully will be kicking the doors wide open for the public to enter once again.

NN: What barriers have you found to getting a functioning space off the ground, other than finances? Have there been issues with the city or has the local government worked with you on the space?

AC: To be honest it has been a real frustrating mess. They have been patient with me to a large degree over the last year or so, but I don’t feel like there has been anything that resembles really acknowledging or even recognizing the potential for such a space in the city at large, and especially in the West End, for that matter. Due to the climate of the powers that be, I don’t even feel comfortable saying much more than that… unfortunately.

NN: What do you think the Mammoth brings to the neighborhood as a local space? How do you hope to see that relationship, between the Mammoth and the neighborhood, grow?

AC: Well, if we get the 2020 grant for the Community Gardens I think that we will be a big part of connecting more deeply with the neighborhood. Right now having done the storage business here for five and a half years I have met tons of people from the area. People stop to say hello all the time and find out what is going on, because it seems the scenery here inspires curiosity. I have met so many people from the nearby areas and several have become close friends that have devoted many hours of volunteer work here. They believe in helping to push this thing to be a more viable asset – a place for the California, Park Hill, Russell, Beecher Terrace Neighborhood’s residents to participate in. At this point many are waiting to see it become a destination. Once able, we will have more events that involve art and music from around the area. We are looking forward to working with the Louisville Urban League who is just around the corner. As Beecher Terrace changes, I expect that that the older community, and the newer developments will be somehow connected with the MAMMOTH. The Louisville Central Community Center and Central High School are both a quarter mile away, and look to connect with them to have more involvement. Kids classes, more events, Community Gardens, anything we can all come together on.

NN: On a scale of 1 – Jump Kick, how good are you at karate? Do you think you’d side with Danielson or Cobra Kai? Explain.

I’ve taken Tai Chi a little bit — slow movement that veils the practice of the fight. I’d say I would be a very creative fighter if pushed to do so, so maybe a very sneaky, unexpected 7 or 8? Yeah, I can’t truly play the dark side too deeply, and I’m usually for the underdog…. so Danielson would be my dude.

“I’m usually for the underdog, so Danielson would be my dude”

NN: Can God make a burrito that is so hot that even God cannot eat it?

AC: Yes, God makes mistakes too. Also thinking, God needs a burrito stand and should call it, “Burritos as Big as your Godhead”

NN: What has you inspired lately? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything that’s gotten you fired up?

AC: I rediscovered a book that I picked up in college from the library called Utopia and Revolution. It’s got the greatest quotes in it. It’s the only library book I ever stole (That’s my big confession). I’ve also been rereading The Celestine Prophecy, which seems to be adding good energy to the serendipitous year that has been happening over here at the Mammoth.

NN: Last but never least, what are your top three records at the moment and why?

AC: Well, I just bought the newest Anwar Sadat record the other day after seeing them kill it at the Zanzabar the other night — but haven’t even had time to listen to it yet. That’s what I’m looking forward to playing at the right moment. I’ve also been revisiting last year’s Nocturnal Habits record New Skin for Old Children, which is basically a reunion of two-thirds of Unwound. I also just finished a few videos for Watter, so have listened to that album a bit prior to its upcoming release in a few days. I definitely highly recommend it!