Words Eddie Brannan Photography Michael Mundy
AJ Mason has a studio in Bovina, NY, where he constructs the pieces for which he’s become known, including photography and video, lamps, frames and furniture made from reclaimed wood and ironwork. The artist and artisan cuts a compelling figure: lean, with pronounced cheekbones and an aquiline nose and, with his long hair, beard and frontier hat, he recalls a woodsman of a century ago, though perhaps as imagined by a creative director rather than an anthropologist or historian.
But Mason’s rugged appearance is no mere construct. Together with his girlfriend/partner Taylor Foster and her child, he inhabits a small off-the-grid cabin on a secluded property. They carry in their water, use lanterns when the sun goes down and light fires when it gets cold, much as their 19th century forebears would have. There is also a 1950s Yellowstone Sunset trailer that Mason bought from a member of the Denniston Hill Artist Residency, which he uses when working on smaller pieces. Despite—or because of—its limitations, this is a conducive setting for Mason. “The trailer has a bed and high table and a barber’s chair that I bought in Harlem, and it has become my desktop studio for photography, ink drawing and mixed-media pieces. It’s a good vibe for the work, the way it’s nestled on the property.”
Mason works across a number of disciplines, but what links the pieces and makes them recognizably his is a layered, textured, weathered quality. They seem at once new and old, made and found, their conception modern but their patina conveying age and history. “It’s not a rule that I follow,” Mason explains, “but I’ve always been drawn to taking materials that would otherwise either be discarded and finding an alternate purpose for them. I really like certain things that have an energy and apparent history about them.” Mason appeared in a short experimental film by the director Rain Phoenix in which he can be seen, in blurry black-and- white footage shot on Super 8, perusing a stack of reclaimed wood. He, it, and the footage itself seem of another time.
Together with his girlfriend/partner Taylor Foster and her child, he inhabits a small off-the-grid cabin on a secluded property. They carry in their water, use lanterns when the sun goes down and light fires when it gets cold, much as their 19th century forebears would have.
Due to the lack of amenities, Bovina is still somewhat seasonal for Mason and Foster, but as Mason explains, “It’s a place we call home, and I’ve spent more time there in the past three years than anywhere else.” Mason’s words allude to his nomadic history. He has had two stints in Woodstock, NY, the first nearly a decade ago, renting a place as a weekend getaway. Then a three-week trip to Los Angeles turned into a year-and-a-half stay, during which he worked out of a 1920s stable-turned-studio on Mulholland Drive. But when he returned, Mason found that the Woodstock place was available once again and, with a couple of friends from Chicago, he moved back in and stayed for the next two years. After that, it was a short spell in New York City, staying with friends he’d met working in a Crosby Street gallery. It was during that brief period in the city, which Mason describes as a “recharge,” that he bought the trailer. By that point his relationship with Foster had begun, so he decided to park the trailer in Bovina while they worked on the cabin. It had been built a few years prior but never completed. “We decided it was a worthwhile project and fought to make it happen,” Mason recalls. “We put money and energy into it and now it’s home.”
That effort has paid off in terms of connection and community. He and Foster seem to live a charmed life in the picturesque Delaware Valley surrounded by friends and fellow creatives. Mason’s work has helped foster a deeper bond to the place and to the people. He recently had a two-month installation, Vacant Barn Hearts, in a two-story barn in Andes, NY. “I’d been approached about selling some lamps and things that I had made,” he explains, “but I really wanted a studio space where I could incorporate my own vibe and aesthetic.”
The barn had sat empty for several years and proved the ideal backdrop for Mason’s show of 20 photographs printed onto vintage blueprints of mechanical drawings. These were mounted onto birch board panels hung in such a way that they were offset from the wall a few inches. “It kind of reminded me of something you’d see in an old schoolhouse,” Mason recalls. The ability to show his work in an authentic period setting brought satisfaction enough, but Mason ended up also using the barn as a studio and workshop, creating a number of additional pieces. Most importantly, meeting kindred spirits and making new connections reinforced everything that Mason has come to value most about being a nuevo-retro woodsman in the everything-old-is-new-again upstate New York of the 21st century. “It didn’t come with a price tag or a paycheck, but there was something about that installation,” he recalls. “With the people that came through and the experiences and conversations that came out of it, that to me was payment enough.”