The Tao of Maceo: An Interview Of Multi-Disciplinary Artist & Behavioral Economist Maceo Paisley

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interview by Summer Bowie

photographs by Dan Johnson

What does it mean to be a twenty-first century renaissance man? For Maceo Paisley, a wide range of disciplines comes together in a positive feedback loop that supports his indefatigable exploration of human behavior. Using embodied inquiry, he investigates his own identity and presents his findings in performance and film. A prolific writer of prose, he just released his first book Tao of Maceo, which takes inventory of his personal beliefs and aims to define his perspective more acutely. Stepping off the stage, he cultivates community through his Chinatown gallery, Nous Tous and a multi-pronged community practice/social innovation agency called Citizens of Culture. When he’s not writing, choreographing, curating, advising, and organizing, you might find him modeling or dancing for the likes of AirBnb or Justin Timberlake, respectively. Or you might find him enjoying a day to himself with a great book in hand. In the following interview, we learned about Maceo’s ever-expanding artistic practice, his time in the Army, and his unique approach to community organizing.

SUMMER BOWIE: Your short film, Dynamite investigates gender and identity, specifically the black, male experience through embodied inquiry. Can you talk a bit about the concept of embodied inquiry and any discoveries you made about your identity through this process?

MACEO PAISLEY: Yes, embodied inquiry, as I see it is a practice that deepens the thinking process by approaching ideas through the body. From the neurological perspective, we tap into kinetic intelligence, and somatics. From the more spiritual or philosophical perspective we tap into the bodies natural, sensual wisdom, as a reference point for our conceptual understanding.  

The most interesting discoveries have been around relationships, in partner dancing, where trust, communication, vulnerability, and boundaries aren’t just metaphorically applied, but fully actualized in the bodies of two dancers.

BOWIE: Speaking of masculine expression, I understand that before your career as an entrepreneurial creative, you earned a Bronze Star for your service with the Army in Iraq. Can you describe your tour in Iraq and do you feel this is a testament to your masculinity, or something else completely?

PAISLEY: I think that my time in the Army, was challenging, but it gave me access to a kind of masculinity that, when untempered appears as violent aggression, but when honed, can actually be useful as clarity and assertion.  It took me going to the extreme to know what limits I was comfortable with, but through that expression and exploration I was able to find a balance point and operate from there.

Iraq was a mixed bag, everyday was different, some days were almost boring, and other days there were mortar rounds blasting over our heads.

BOWIE: Aside from being a multi-disciplinary artist, you’re also a model, behavioral economist, an entrepreneur, a writer/magazine publisher, the president and director of Nous Tous Gallery in Chinatown and you oversee strategy and vision for a nonprofit called Citizens of Culture. That’s a lot to unpack and we’ll come back to these projects in detail, but have you always been such a polymathic person, and how do you manage to wear so many hats?

PAISLEY: It seems to me that my work is actually quite dynamic in practice but almost singular in focus. At core, I am deeply interested in the humanities as a field, so that might be the qualitative measurement of human behavior, or it could be the observational study of a couple arguing in a coffee shop, or the of publishing of works across whichever medium is most suitable for the audience.  

Art & science are often posed as opposites, but I believe that they are like twins separated at birth, who are both often misunderstood, yet each necessary to gain as robust a picture of humanity and it’s surroundings as possible.

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BOWIE: You just had your first book published, Tao of Maceo, a personal inventory of your beliefs in writing. You say that by putting your views on paper, you gain a better understanding of your fallacies and limiting beliefs. What’s the most important thing you learned about yourself through the writing process?

PAISLEY: The most important thing I learned about myself has to be that for as much as I am open and perceived as vulnerable in my work, I am a very private person, who isn’t nearly as open in my relationships as I am in the controlled context of sharing art.

BOWIE: You’re an avid reader and you publish a biannual print magazine called Correspondence. Who are some of the authors and magazines that inspire your writing and publishing, respectively? 

PAISLEY: Well, in 2016 I read about 115 books, both fiction and non-fiction. I really have to say that Oliver Sacks is one of my favorite non-fiction writers because of his range of experience dealing with the human mind. In the fiction realm, Octavia Butler is really a titan, that I keep wanting to go back to. As far as periodicals, I really love the Copenhagen Institute for Cultural Studies magazine SCENARIO, it has the most fabulous images, and deep insights about culture and identity from the individual and macro perspective.

BOWIE: You seem to be on a highly proactive odyssey toward excellence. Are you seeking an arrival point, or are you simply trying to see how much you can accomplish within your lifespan?

PAISLEY: The latter, I don’t know that “excellence” is the goal, it certainly was at one point. Now, I am more focused on finding peace and living in an urban environment, and contemporary society makes that a worthy challenge. My biggest goal at the moment is to understand what “enough” means to me, and how that idea changes accordingly with changes in my environment, and at various stages of life.

BOWIE: I want to talk about Nous Tous (French for all of us). What made you decide to open a gallery/community space and what does the decision process look like when curating artists and hosting events?

PAISLEY: Well, to be frank, we’ve never really said “No.” to anyone who wanted to show at Nous Tous. It would be contradictory to the name if we were to be exclusionary. Instead, I see my role as gallerist to be more of an editor, highlighting the best elements of whatever work is brought my way, and to coach the artist to trust in a shared vision, or in some cases, simply submit to the artist’s vision, and work to support it as best we can within our parameters and resources.

We have a manifesto that we reference, and works that fit naturally within it are usually what we attract, and other times we offer rental agreements to allow works to be shown with more autonomy. We then use that financial support to uplift other programs.

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BOWIE: Can you talk a bit about Citizens of Culture? How it came about and what you guys do.

PAISLEY: Citizens Of Culture is really about creating a place to have all the conversations we find difficulty having otherwise. Whether it be race, sex, politics, death, money, or morality, we support individuals and businesses as they approach cultural challenges in the hopes of providing the kind of clarity that can inform values-based actions. Practically, we are consultants for innovation, diversity and belonging, in companies, and that work supports, free or low-cost programs that are art-based, therapeutic, or support economic empowerment.

We have weekly meetings on Wednesdays, 7pm at Nous Tous in Chinatown if anyone wants to pop in and check it out.

BOWIE: Through Citizens of Culture you conducted a dating social experiment called, No Pressure, No Shame. What do you think are some of the current challenges that single people face in our current dating culture, and do you have any wisdom to impart for those who are currently trying to navigate the dating scene?

PAISLEY: The biggest challenge is that we have only been trying to marry for love for a short while in human history, and we don’t really have stale or universal definitions for what “love” is. So there is this mythology around it that we are trying to live up to, all while the ground shifts beneath us as to how we are supposed to go about achieving a loving relationship.

We first try to encourage people to clarify their intentions in the dating world, and that might mean having a flexible, working definition of what love looks like, and how a romantic partner might fit in to an ideal life. The next thing would be to set up some goals and boundaries that feel appropriate for our stage in life, and realizing that the work is never really done, so having compassion for ourselves and others along the way.

BOWIE: Is this an ongoing project or was it more of a one-time thing?

PAISLEY: No Pressure No Shame, started in 2015 with a 150-person queer, sex-positive, consent-based dating event, and we have been activating different iterations of the program as talks, art events, and parties ever since then. We activate something larger each October.

BOWIE: I’m really interested in a video series you feature on Citizens of Culture called Talking in Circles. Can you talk a bit about the concept of this series and any future topics you plan to cover?

PAISLEY: We believe that every great movement in humanity starts with people coming together to make collective decisions. Every one of our programs has some element of this, in the past we have covered technology, religion, police brutality, gentrification, and other issues, and moving forward I think we should be speaking more to addiction, sex-work, ideas of normalcy, economy, and mental health. As we move forward, we would like to be a go-to place for all of the most important conversations of our time.

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Maceo Paisley will be officially releasing Tao of Maceo and signing books Thursday March 14 from 7:30-9:30pm @ NAVEL 1611 South Hope Street. Please join us for a screening and performance of DYNAMITE, as well as a short Q&A with Maceo Paisley & Summer Bowie.