Andy Knowlton, artist and poet. (Photo via Andy Knowlton).

Born in France, raised in the US, based in Seoul: playful artist and poet Andy Knowlton is a traveller at heart. After graduating college in Washington DC, he worked for a newspaper for a year before realizing that he had “settled down too quickly, with a job and bills and a car and rent – I wanted to do more adventurous things.” A friend based in South Korea suggested that he could move there to work and save money to travel, and Knowlton has been living there ever since.

It was around this time that Knowlton started making ‘drunken poets,’ dolls made out of trash and recycled material salvaged from the streets. Each doll holds a small bottle with a poem and are left for unsuspecting passers-by to discover and take home. Prior to moving to Seoul, he was writing poetry and fiction but because of the language barrier when he first moved to Korea, he “started doing more visual art to get [his] point across.” “Before I went to Korea I would write poems and leave them in places for people to find. I’d go to bookstores and stick them into books or I’d leave them in cafés,” he says. Since this wasn’t possible when he moved to Seoul, he started making dolls to take his work to a more visual place.

A 'drunk poet'. (Photo via Andy Knowlton).
A ‘drunk poet’. (Photo via Andy Knowlton).


Before the poets, Knowlton experimented with leaving canvases on the street. “There would be six canvases all next to each other, side by side, and I would spell out the world ‘poetry’ with different kinds of characters. Then I would put them on the streets for people to find. It was a cool and colorful project and was a nice way to decorate the streets, but I decided I couldn’t afford all the canvas, so I just started picking up trash and playing around with it. One day I made a mask and I thought it looked cool, but I didn’t know how to attach a poem to it, so my wife suggested turning into a doll. I learned to sew a little bit and started putting poems in bottles so I could attach them to the dolls.”

The name ‘Drunken Poets’ comes from the fact that dolls sit on the streets with little bottles, but is also a reference to the poem Be Drunk, by Charles Baudelaire, and the idea of getting drunk on poetry. Knowlton is himself a poet, and so often the poems that accompany the dolls are his own work. He draws his inspiration from his surroundings and the people he encounters. “I try to be observant of what’s going on around me on the streets. My poems are a little bit surreal, so I’ll observe something and then try to come up with what might happen afterwards… I mostly write about people and the interesting things that they do.”

Making the dolls themselves is an ongoing task. As Knowlton and his wife travel around, he picks up a lot of trash on the way, especially anything that looks particularly unique or that he hasn’t used before. “I’ve used a hubcap, old sunglasses, pine cones, seashells, feathers… I pick things up throughout the day and then go home and fiddle with it. I usually don’t have too much of an idea of what I’m going to do with it, I just put the pieces together like a puzzle,” he explains.

“I also get inspired by what I see throughout the day. If we go to a museum and I see different color schemes, I’ll go home and paint the doll with those colors. It really depends on the idea. When we were in Sucre, in Bolivia, we stumbled upon this wall and I thought it was just so beautiful that I decided I was going to make a doll specifically for that wall. That’s part of the project, not just making the doll but deciding where to put it.”

I ask if he’s ever sad to leave the dolls behind after having spent to much time on them and developing a personality for each one. Knowlton pauses. “There a few that I wish I could keep… especially more in the beginning, I was sad that I’d never see it again, but Instagram is a good way to remember it. I don’t get too sentimental anymore, but I definitely did when I started the project.”

(Photo via Andy Knowlton).
(Photo via Andy Knowlton).


Choosing where he leaves the doll very much depends on the city and the doll itself. As Knowlton walks around, he pays close attention to the walls in each town, looking for something that will give good contrast to the color of the doll, or walls with a lot of texture, with old paint peeling off or plants growing out of the cracks. While he tries to find the right wall for the right doll, the same applies for the poems. “If the doll is kind of funny-looking, I’ll give it a funny poem, if it’s sad looking I’ll give it a sad poem, so I fit the personality of each doll,” he explains.

Just as the dolls themselves are varied, so are people’s reactions to these unexpected discoveries. Generally, Knowlton says, people approach them with curiosity but they don’t really know what to do with them, and since he doesn’t leave any contact details with the dolls, he never hears what’s happened to them. As with everything, it really depends on the doll and the place – sometimes they’re gone within minutes, sometimes they’re there for a couple of days. People might also read the poem and replace it, or just take the poem and leave the doll.

I ask what the incentive is behind the project, whether it is a commentary on the plastic crisis and our culture of excessive waste. Although Knowlton works with trash, he doesn’t really see himself as an environmentalist, instead choosing finding beauty in things that have been left behind. His mission is to bring joy and mystery back into people’s lives. “I just want people to get a sense that there’s still magic in the world and that you can still stumble upon something that you don’t expect to see. People are so busy in their routines and are working so hard that it’s not often that something really, really unexpected happens, so I just wanted to fill people with a sense of wonder and a little bit of magic. It’s just a small gesture but it’s something I can do that’s nice for people.”

Many of Knowlton’s other projects have hinged on this altruistic drive, such as the ‘Umbrella Project’ in Seoul. He realized that in Korea’s monsoon season, you’d find broken umbrellas strewn around and so he would pick them all up and use the canvas to make a new design. “The thing with umbrellas is that they’re not generally so badly broken that you can’t figure out how to fix them,” he says. “You just see people go in and buy a cheap $2 umbrella and think ‘you know you could have gotten your old one fixed?’” Knowlton repaired and upcycled these umbrellas; instead of leaving them in random places like the dolls, he would go out and give them to people who didn’t have umbrellas, creating something beautiful in what had otherwise been abandoned as unsalvageable.


So what does the future hold for these drunken poets? Knowlton has been making them for years, and thinks that at the end of the trip he’ll take a break from it, though not for long. “I do lots of other projects as well, but the dolls are really my bread and butter. I just really enjoy making them and even if I weren’t putting them out on the streets I’d still be making them, because I like to pick up all kinds of items on the street that I find interesting.”

What he may do is make the placement of the dolls less random. His Instagram followers are dying to find a doll, or ask him to post them one, and although he doesn’t mind the idea, it defeats the raison d’être of these art pieces. Instead what he would like to do is to start giving people tips and clues as to where the dolls are, making the experience more interactive so people who want to find the dolls can go out and find them, like an Easter Egg hunt.

(Photo via Andy Knowlton).
(Photo via Andy Knowlton).


At the end of the day though, Knowlton makes these dolls because he enjoys it. “I don’t think of anything as trash or as useless. I always look and things and try to think of a different way to use them.” His work recaptures that lost magic in the world, presenting us with the unexpected and encouraging us to take in our surroundings and rediscover our cities. We so often spend our lives hurrying from one place to the next that we rarely take the time to stop and really look at what we’re seeing. Knowlton’s playfulness, his delight in discovering cracks and crevices to leave his dolls and his relentless collection of what others consider to be trash, can serve to remind us of the beauty and wonder left in the world, should only we take the time to look.

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2018-05-22 10:32:33

Emma Conn

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