VERY FEW PLACES ON EARTH ARE AS INSPIRING AS THE ISLAND CUBA. THE ISLAND HAS BEEN PRESERVED AS IF IT WAS IN A TIME BUBBLE WHICH HAS RESULTED IN A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN LIVE HISTORY AS IT WAS TODAY. AND THERE IS MORE. CUBAN PEOPLE ARE AMONG THE MOST BEAUTIFUL IN THE WORLD. THE NATURE IS BREATH TAKING. ALL THESE ELEMENTS ARE ENOUGH FOR PEOPLE LIKE KEVIN SLACK TO LOOSE THEIR HEART TO CUBA. FOR EVER.
Kevin Slack is a photographer who lives in Toronto, Canada, but lost his heart to Cuba. His photographic work – Kevin has many portfolios that relate to the island and its inhabitants – breaths exactly that same nostalgic and melancholic feeling as the island does itself. Specially for our Cuba Special we looked him up, only to realize that when Kevin talks he has the ability to make you loose your grip on time, as does Cuba itself. His work and his stories have that same beauty as the island itself. Today we bring you the first part of our long conversation with Kevin Slack, and we will learn about the person behind the camera and his great passion for traveling, encountering new cultures and his love for Latin America.
Kevin, can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Kevin: I live in a rented apartment in Toronto with my partner, Marlon and my dog, Kira. Yes, I’m still renting. Evidently I cannot commit to property. Meanwhile, I am originally from about three hours from Toronto, a small town called Hagersville. Hagersville – famous for not much more than milkshakes and a tire fire – is a tiny little two-stoplight village that for the most part has remained unchanged since 1970. I grew up in a draughty farmhouse with two brothers, one older and one younger. In Hagersville we had more space and more time than we knew what to do with, or at least I did. You had to be creative, I think, to entertain yourself. I wrote and drew and opened a detective agency and re-constructed a scaled model of Bedrock out of cardboard.
Born and raised on a farm in Ontario, for sure that upbringing has influenced your photography and subjects?
Kevin: I hadn’t really thought of it. I suppose in the same manner that the tension on Jack while in the box might affect the way he springs out of the box. Growing up, I lived in my own head, I think. Dad would leave me to my farming chores and I would build a robot or perform a one-man show of the Wizard of Oz to the cattle. Creativity might only be an answer to dissatisfaction, right? As for the subjects – other places and boys – these were the sets and players of my dreams, yes, even then. From high school algebra I have many doodles of other-wheres and of boys too.
If we are well informed, we understand you started photography while being in 5th grade. Can you tell us about your first experience?
Kevin: At the corner drugstore, where I bought candy, I saw a tightly folded 20 dollar bill on top of the chocolate bars. I did not take it. I ran home – about five minutes – and asked my mother if I could take it. She said that I could. I ran back – another five minutes – and, glory, it was still there and I took it. I probably bought another nickel candy because, now and then, I hate going into a store and not buying anything. I had a conspirator at the time. Her name was Sharon. The daughter of a minister, she lived across the street from the Presbyterian Church. The house is still there. She had a Kodak camera and I bought film with my money. One afternoon, in her backyard, we took turns playing photographer and model. It was lurid before we understood what lurid was. I also remember, upon finding the photos, which I must have developed at the corner drugstore too, my mother’s look of fear and distaste.
Ha ha ha, we can imagine. So, after that it seems logical you ended up studying visual arts. Kevin. And knowing your mothers initial reaction to your first creative expression, it seems logic you also studied English. After your studies you brought both disciplines in practice: teaching English and painting murals. Tell us about that last one, the painting…
Kevin: When I first started university, I was only preparing for an English degree. I had always loved literature and writing. And I still do. But when it came time to decide on courses for my second year, I was bored. I needed to be visually creative and so I took an art class, just to see how it was. And I loved it. I still have honey-coloured memories of that particular class. I maintained both English and Visual Art classes but my focus in my art classes – while I took sculpture and photography too – was always painting. Although it never really settled, as far as I can tell, my painting was mostly a photo-realistic style with saturated colours. I started a business to pay for university called, ah crap, I had forgotten about this, “The World’s Worst Student Painter.” I still remember the stationery I had made up. But it worked for the most part. I painted a giant hospital mural – I think it is still there. And a doctor had a room in his basement for just his train sets and I painted all the walls like the Rocky Mountains. He loved it but I remember it started to make me dizzy. My apartment in University had something on nearly every wall: Batman in my bedroom, Calvin and Hobbes in the bathroom, Flattop from the Dick Tracey movie in another bedroom, Superman in the hallway, and a beach scene in the living room. I also did skate board ramps and people and pet portraits and book illustrations.
Is teaching English and/or painting what brought you to Korea?
Kevin: When you’ve got a degree in English and Visual Arts and no particular focus, it seemed like the best thing to do: to go to Korea and teach English for a year. The experience stands out now as extraordinary and fantastic. In the book of my life, that chapter is on gold leaf. It was the best thing I could have done. I was finally living in one of my otherwheres. And I made some great friends and even fell in love a little.
How did you eventually end up living in Ecuador?
Kevin: After Korea, I returned to Toronto. I worked in a bank for a while. I taught high school English for a while. And, as always, the wanderlust and the dissatisfaction came back. I wanted to travel again. I wanted to go someplace I didn’t know anything about. But I didn’t want to go back to Asia. I wanted something new. So I picked Ecuador. I didn’t even have a job arranged when I left. I just got on a plane and hoped for the best. I started in Guayaquil. But when I got there everybody – the locals – told me that Guayaquil was too dangerous and that I should go to Quito. So after three of four days of more of this strenuous and consistent advice, and of exploring the earthy charm of Guayaquil, I took a bus to Quito. I found a hotel. I went out to look for dinner. Two hours in Quito, I got mugged and stabbed. I wouldn’t have got stabbed, I suppose, except that I would not surrender my knapsack. Instinct, however reckless, made me fight for it. I got away with all my stuff. I still have a scar on my hand from that. At the hospital, while I was getting stitched up, the doctors and I shared a cigarette. I like the irony of that story. I stayed in Quito anyway and found a job teaching English at a Catholic University.
Wow, that is some story. You would think after that you were done with South America but you did develop quite a passion for it. Is it here where you fell in love with Latin scenes and people?
Kevin: It was a good start, yeah. But I don’t remember that I left Ecuador feeling exactly sparked with a new passion. I loved the culture and the language and, of course, the boys. Sexuality was so open and so, so, unapologetic. I found this fascinating and attractive and altogether enviable. I had three jobs. And for a brief period of time a larger number of boyfriends.
Back to Canada Kevin. After living in such exotic places, corporate life must have been quite a culture shock…
Kevin: Back in Canada, I returned to a bank for a while. And then I taught high school art. And then I went to another bank. And then an accountant firm. And then the government. I think I must like change. I might have been a gypsy in a different time. I still don’t like sitting still. I still don’t like cubicle life. I have never been able to answer the question, at least sincerely, where do you see yourself in five years. I don’t know my future after this weekend. And I don’t want to. I stole that from Björk. But it’s still apt enough. -B-
Return to BeautifulMag for the second part of Kevin Slack's interview on May 12, and learn what brought - and kept - Kevin to Cuba.