Paul Nosa is a travelling sewing artist and musician. Armed with his self-made, solar-powered sewing machine he drives around the United States in a green van, asking people to conjure five-word scenarios, which he then sews. In theory Paul is based in Tucson, Arizona – in reality he moves around too much to call one place home. However, as he explains to Sarah, things like his mighty silver school bus keep him coming back to the desert.
Paul Nosa. Can you explain what it is that you do?
I draw with a sewing machine. I got started because I wanted to make functional art. Art people can use. Originally I was a drawer – there’s not a good name for us. Draw-er. For an artist who draws.
A sewing artist who draws.
Well there’s not even a name for a sewing artist, other than sewing artist. People liked my work but rarely bought it. I decided, Ok I need to make art people can use. That way there’s more of a reason to buy it. I started putting art on candles. Those little glass, 10-inch tall, 8-inch tall candles. For the first time I started selling functional art. Then I thought about putting art on shirts – but silk-screening and painting on shirts, not only has it been done, but it also fades or peels over time. It seemed very real to me that the image should be made with thread. It’s a long-lasting way to make an image. I started putting designs on shirts, then ties, and dresses. Someone suggested that I make patches. I was like, no, why would I ever do that? I didn’t like patches. I never had any interest in owning, or wearing any.
Eventually I started making the patches. I always thought that people needed to see how I was drawing with a sewing machine. There was so much confusion about how the image was being made, I was like, if the sewing machine was just present, and people could see it happening, they would just understand how the process worked. I’ve been writing down all the lazy-brained questions people ask. When I started this year’s tour I gave myself a pep talk about dealing with the public. This is going to sound maybe ridiculous, because I am an artist. But try to treat every moment as an artist. To find the artistic value in the experiences. When I start getting frustrated with talking with the public it’s because I’m not thinking as an artist. I’m thinking as a businessman, and I’m letting the negativity fester, and it gets bigger. The more that I think as an artist, with all the interactions, and take things artistically, the more open I am, the more enjoyable it is.
The whole thing is part of the art.
Yes, exactly. When you start becoming like, I’m not making enough money, or, what that person said is stupid, the negativity lingers. Here’s a funny question someone asked. A woman came up and said, Where do I sign up for the drawing? She thought it was drawing for a sewing machine. I thought it was hysterical. So, the name of my business is Drawing with a Sewing Machine. I know that’s kinda lackluster, but it says what it needs to say. I’ve tried a whole bunch of different names for my sewing business: Solar Sewing, Stitchcraft, Freemotion Embroidery and Sewing Machine Designs. Ultimately, they’re all just confusing. All of those titles lead you to a question: What is it? What is it? Whereas, Drawing with a Sewing Machine explains exactly what I do.
Just point them to the sign.
I’ve done that. That’s very dismissive. Not a good sales tactic. People are like, I can’t even think of a scenario. I don’t even know what a scenario is! They want an example. There are so many possible scenarios in the world. I always try to give a new example. The only one I ever sort of repeat is, Eating… something. That’s me not wanting to think of a new scenario. I actually made a patch called Eating Eating because of this.
How do you even draw that?
So you have kind of a bigger mouth. Side profile. Then you have a spoon, and a guy on the spoon. Who is also eating. You have a guy who’s eating someone who’s eating.
And people get it?
No one’s seen it. It’s sitting in my bag, totally hidden from view. That’s been the nice thing about touring actually – usually, your art gets seen. I’ve made so many people cry on this trip, it’s crazy. I’ve sewed a lot of patches for people getting married, or whose parents have died. This woman and her fiancé at one festival asked for an engagement patch, how they met. I handed it to her and she began getting all teary-eyed. There was this guy yesterday, from Portland. He bought a patch, and then we started talking about why we do anything. It’s is a big question. In 2010, I asked every single person on my trip, Why? Why do you wake up in the morning, why do you do what you do? My answer at the end was, I keep doing what I do because if I keep doing it I get better at it. I improve. There’s this growing expansion to my art, and also how well I make my art. If I were to stop, I would probably not get better. I would probably get worse. I’ve noticed that. You get worse.
What is it that you like about Tucson?
Honestly, I don’t know where I belong. Tucson’s my home base because I have the school bus there, but if all I had was in my van right now, that to me almost would be more ideal. I could just be like, right where I am is where I live. I could move to Pittsburgh. I could move to New York. Wherever I was could be where I live now.
Why don’t you do that? What’s the deal with the school bus?
My friend David and I, we were going to start a band. He was in China and I was in Scotland, and I flew to China to go get him. He wanted this, this was his plan too. We left China, we went back to the States and started the band.
Why did you have to go to China to get him?
I wanted to go around the world. I had never been to China, and it just made sense to go there and get him, and go back to America.
He just left and started a band with you.
Yes. At the time we were called Abacus Tweaker. Then we dropped the tweaking and we became Abacus. His nickname was Mathematics. At that point, when we came back to America, his parents gave him a loan to buy a vehicle. We both decided, We should buy a box truck – a moving van – and we’ll set up the band in the box truck. This was before 9/11, when gas was still $1.20. Very doable. We were going to drive around the country, literally drive down streets just playing our music in this box truck. We’d become the most popular band out of default because everyone would have seen us. I liked the idea because, as a drummer you have to take your drum set apart for the gig. Then you have to set it up and play the show. After all that you have to take the drum kit apart, and set it back up at your house.
That’s a lot of work.
That’s a lot of work for the drummer. So I was like, if we had a box truck, the drums would be set up and we could just start playing. Little did I know that, even with the box truck idea, or the school bus, there’s a whole other set of things you have to do. Like move your whole house. Which is just as hard really. Anyway, this idea of the box truck was so exciting to me; I was like, this has gotta happen. Then, the next day, he was like, I’m just gonna buy a pickup truck. That night I had concocted all these amazing fantasies. I was like, I don’t care, you buy your pickup truck, I’m going to get a box truck, I’m going to make this happen. For the next couple of years I saved up money to buy a box truck.
At one point the school district was having an auction, and they were selling their school busses. I was like, oh, I could get a school bus and save rent. I could save even more money to buy the box truck. So I bought the school bus, and lived in it. During this time David, friends and I started playing shows out of the bus. A school bus has so much charm I decided to forget about finding a box truck and keep the bus. We played shows in the Silverbus for two and a half years. Every Friday night we were the Silverbus band on 4th Avenue.
The dream didn’t die.
No, it never died. Well I guess it died a little bit, the bus could have a comeback. I brought it to fruition. I just did the dream for a while and got kind of tired of it. It’s a lot of work, keeping up that dream.
So at this point, just to clarify, you had a school bus that you were living in, and you were saving for a box truck.
Right. Then people started calling us Silverbus. Because I painted it silver. And if I’ve learned anything it’s that, whatever your name is, or whatever you brand yourself as, it should be what people call you. Don’t try to think of something other than what the mass public names you. So we became Silverbus.
Well, Kyle [who bought a really expensive patch] has potentially funded getting the bus back up. Do you usually break even on tour?
I actually got a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts to do an Arizona Sewing Tour. Which was the whole reason I’m even on this sewing tour, across the country. Arizona paid for me to drive around and make free patches for 13 different cities.
You just set up in the city center somewhere and do them for free?
Right. At different art festivals, or different art events throughout Arizona. The last event was in Northwest Arizona, in Kingman. It was 600 miles to San Francisco. The week after that event was Maker Faire, in San Francisco. I’m like, I might as well just go to Maker Faire – it’s a phenomenal event.
Do they have different Maker Faires in different places?
There are two main Maker Faires. And there’s a lot of mini ones, everywhere. I think there’s a Maker Faire in London. There’s a Maker Faire in Africa, there’s one in Japan. But the original one is in San Francisco, and then they branched out and did another big one in New York. It’s art and science fused together, inventions and all crazy things going on. It’s really amazing. But I knew that if I went to San Francisco I’d be on the road for the rest of the summer.
Do you know what Manifest Destiny is?
I would’ve just taken it as an idea about destiny. What is it?
The idea is, why not just – if you’re going to tour and do this thing to get exposure, it doesn’t make sense just to do one side of the country, you might as well do the whole country. You might as well go to Europe. You might as well do the whole world.
Yeah, that sounds like America. Why did you decide to start sewing people’s scenarios?
Well, when I had the portable sewing machine I realized I could make custom patches for people. The very first custom patch I did was a camera. This guy wanted me to sew a patch of his $4,000 camera. This was my first custom patch, I didn’t even know what I was doing. All I said to him was, What can I sew for you? And he was just like, Sew my camera. So I sewed his camera, and then he was like, How much do you want? I said, I don’t care, you can give me whatever you feel it’s worth. He gave me more than the asking price for any of my patches. Which actually – this is important. Because I’ve learned, if you’re selling art, and you say, Give me whatever you think it’s worth, most people will give you more than you expect. When you’re selling smaller pieces, most people will give you $20, $40, or $60. Of course you get those people who give $5 or $1. Those people are very rare because they know that’s insulting. It all balances out.
After the camera I decided to do more of the custom patches. But this woman was like, I want a house, with a picket fence, and it needs to be yellow and it needs to have these other things. She got really detailed with what she wanted in her custom patch. I was thinking the entire time, this is a lot of work, this is more of a commission. I realized if I kept it shorter, if I limited people to how many words they could use, then I could be more interpretive, I could be more of an artist, and I could put my own art into it. Thinking of a scenario is something that requires people to be imaginative and put something together. If I ask them for a sentence it might not have a visual image to it.
Have you ever watched Louie?
I love Louie.
Louie C.K. is great. There was one episode – he’s at some gig, and there’s a famous star, doing a show. Her stand-up.
It was Joan Rivers! And they go into the hotel room afterwards, and they drink and whatever, they talk. But there’s a moment where she’s like, People who bring happiness to people, it’s not just a job, it’s a calling. She was really adamant about that. This job that we have, as comedians, it’s not a job, it’s a calling. That really spoke to me, because I see how every person I make a patch for, it makes them happy. That’s what I do. I make people happy, by making my patches. Probably the most satisfaction I get is the fact that I’m making all these other people happy.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.