Oh Amy Wilson, where have you been all this time?
Ugh. I’ve been busy. Busy in that “collapsing after a 17 hour day” kind of busy, and also busy in that “endless navel-gazing, question-asking, living-in-my-head, going around and around, thinking too much” kind of way. The last few months have been a lot, and they culminated in the last six weeks of hell.
Over the last six weeks, I went from having a minor toothache to a major one, to a swollen face, to emergency surgery, to more surgery, to yet more surgery; loads of antibiotics that didn’t work, exhaustion from the non-working antibiotics and the infection itself, nightmares/depression/anxiety, seeing things my body SHOULD NOT DO, and finally – as of this Monday – a huge gaping hole in my mouth with about 20 stitches holding it together, loads of Vicodin, and yet more antibiotics. Not fun, and I’m not out of the woods yet. But I do kind of feel like I got a kind of break from the ordinary (bodyhorrorvacationinhell?) that is maybe giving me perspective on things… or maybe that’s just the Vicodin in my bloodstream.
Or maybe it’s that December is upon us, and with it the end of the year and all sorts of summing things up and wanting to put a nice cap on everything. I don’t even know anymore. But here are some things I have in the works, and have had in the works:
1. I was in a really nice exhibition at Montserrat College in Massachusetts. It doesn’t look like there’s a link up on their website, but we got some press from the Boston Globe, which was great.
2. More Art commissioned me to make a series of drawings for their Envision 2017 project, in which several artists are asked their hopes and wishes for NYC in the future. (One more set is forthcoming.)
3. I started my school’s first old-fashioned (non-digital, all by hand) Fiber Arts class, which takes up the crafts of spinning/weaving/sewing/knitting/crochet/etc in a school/city that is very craft-adverse. This has been a really interesting experience and has lead to all sorts of conclusions in my head that I don’t know if I’ll wind up going back on; everything from the growing generation gap between my students and other people my age (see footnote 1) and the difference between art vs. craft (footnote 2).
4. I’ve been a little obsessed with this drawing I made (actually a page from an artist’s book) over the summer, which combines drawing with writing and embroidery. Here, it’s out of context and the photo sucks, but maybe you can get a sense:
…and it’s informing the newest piece I’m working on right now (more info in a bit).
So, that’s a start – a first stab at getting back to normal and getting back to blogging! I’ll end it there to not go on over and over and over, then obsessively edit, then delete because it’s not good enough…
1. I’m amazed at the difference between my students’ opinion on art events vs. what you hear from the majority of artists, or at least the artists/art critics/dealers/etc of a certain age. For instance, my students are nearly unanimous in thinking that Chris Burden’s New Museum show sucks (I haven’t seen it yet, but have only heard glowing things from my colleagues); meanwhile, they loved Matthew Day Jackson at Hauser & Wirth, which was pretty universally panned by critics and fellow artists. I don’t think they’re doing it to be contrary; I think these are genuine reactions to a genuine difference in opinion. It’s interesting.
2. Thinking about the difference between art vs craft has been a nearly 20 year long obsession of mine; it’s something I want to eventually write a book or at least an essay (or something!) on. But my newest definition between the two is this:
*Art (at least as we understand it now) is somehow connected to the notion of the avant-garde
*Craft is connected to the idea of tradition and history
This is not to say that art cannot draw upon history. It’s just that art’s relationship to history is more antagonistic than craft’s. This is also not to say that craft cannot be innovative; it’s just that craft doesn’t seek to “kill the father” in the avant-garde sense. (This definition creates all kinds of problems – but, I should mention, they’re problems that I rather like. For instance, 19th century academic painting would now be re-classified as craft. To me, that feels right. It also eliminates the previous twin signifiers of craft – utility and materials – from the discussion. Given how much art has changed over the last 50 years, I think this is super important, and that there’s way more to the difference between the two than just “art is made from paint; craft is made from string” or whatever.) Anyway, this theory is very much still a work in progress, but this is what I have so far.
… I know you think I’ve forgotten about you.
But this song accurately sums up my feelings toward you:
I’ve started and trashed at least 30 blog posts. Somehow, I’ve been unable to finish anything.
But I swear, you were always on my mind. And more is coming soon.
I owe this blog a major update, because I have been up to a whole bunch of things. But what kicked my butt in finally getting me to write a post was this morning’s sleepy internet surfing, which lead me to discover this artist’s work:
Chéri Samba makes work that is like Frida Kahlo meets David Wojnarowicz meets… I don’t even know. And not knowing much of anything about the politics and culture of the Congo, I find myself completely unable to really pull apart the exact meaning of this work. But the imagery! The colors! My god. I love these paintings.
(Yeah, I know – everyone knows about this guy but me. As always, I’m lagging behind. But still… I had to share these paintings. They’re so great.)
For more, go to http://galerie-herrmann.com/arts/samba/
Something artists often gripe about when they’re around fellow artists, is the constant call we always get to donate work to charity. It usually starts off small – when you’re starting out, you create this pile of art work no one really wants, and you’re happy to donate it to a few charities that you think are cool. But then it escalates and escalates; I don’t know if you wind up on a list of people likely to donate work or what, but there have been years where I literally would have to dedicate 100% of my studio time to making work to give away, if I granted every request for free art. And it’s one thing if it’s a charity you care about (maybe an issue you are deeply committed to, or a charity that has assisted you or a friend in a time of need), but most of the time, it isn’t. I just got a request a few weeks ago from a children’s science museum in a state I’ve never been to, from someone I’ve never met…. and they actually expect that I’m going to give them a $2,000 drawing, because, why? How does that make any sense? How is this supposed to strike a chord with me? I don’t have kids, I’m not involved in science, and I don’t live in the community in which the place is located. Do they actually think I’m going to look around my life and see absolutely no one else in need that I’d rather help more?
There’s the whole issue of artists being generally broke, just scraping by in their existence, and how donating a work can adversely affect sales of their work that they so desperately need. I’ll leave that alone for now. Instead, I thought I’d share my new strategy I’ll be using whenever I’m approached by a charity to donate work:
1. Determine if said charity even tangentially fits with my own moral/ethical/social/political/intellectual ideas. (If not, it’s just a flat no.)
2. If so, and if I’m unfamiliar with the charity, ask for a full accounting from that charity as it pertains to their expenses for salaries, benefits, real estate, etc. It should be information that they keep around anyway for tax purposes, and should be freely open to public scrutiny. And I’m not an unreasonable person: I know that Executive Directors have to be paid competitively, that benefits are expensive but should be offered to all employees, and comfortable, decent offices in easy-to-get to locations are important for the long term productivity of the charity. I GET IT. But I also get that if you’re going to hit me up for a donation, I deserve to see exactly where my money is going and what it’s being used for.
I really think all artists should do this. It shouldn’t be weird, or rude, or anything like that – it’s just a simple, non-invasive way of checking out where your donation is going. You’re not showing up at the charity with a clipboard, making notes; the charity is reporting their information to you. They could easily lie if they wanted, but you’re going to trust them enough to take their word for it.
But I think this could be a really good way of making charities not look at artists as this endless bank of free money. When they ask for this benign thing of a “gift of art,” what they’re really asking for is the gift of money – they’re going to turn around and auction or sell off the work anyway, and keep the money. So call it like it is, and be transparent. Because, after all, if I was going to give a major gift like $2,000 (which that is a very major gift for me) to a charity, I’d want to know where the money is going, and it would be understood by the charity that this is a fair question. So why should giving them a work of art be any different?
Some of my favorite charities include the Innocence Project, the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Clinic, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and just about any and all charities that promote low cost medical services (including birth control and abortion) for women. Should any of these charities ever want art from me, EVER, they’ve got it, in a heartbeat. But that’s where my priorities are – not teaching kids about the wonders of electricity in a state-of-the-art museum blah blah blah whatever.)
Elektra KB has two solo shows up now, and they are amazing. In her work, she creates a mythology in which she plays both the theocratic ruler of an imagined land, and the entire insurgent guerrilla army rising against that ruler. Spanning across photography, collage, sculpture, book art, and even performance, her work creates an all-encompassing vision, where life in this place mirrors our own, somehow both absurdly and succinctly.
In conjunction with these shows, there is a free performance that she is staging. The flyer is below:
I’m the kind of person who plans everything, all the time, down to the tiniest detail; running different scenarios in my head over and over, so that going into any given situation, I have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C (and sometimes all the way to the end of the alphabet). It occurred to me recently that the one area of my life that I haven’t obsessively ran a million different versions through in my head, is when it comes to teaching. What do I want my “teaching career” to be? Where will I be in ten years, or twenty?
I fell into teaching very naturally. Well, actually – first I tried and tried to get a teaching job and failed miserably, gave up, moved on, and then years later was offered first one job and then another. And since then, I haven’t overthought it; I’ve just taken what’s come my way, proposed what has been of interest to me and had it accepted, and learned by doing. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience, to the point where I really get shocked by it all when I stop and think about it. Somehow, eight years have zoomed by.
And so, the question naturally comes up: where am I going with all this? I am extremely happy with my position I have now (extremely, extremely, and I’m not going anywhere short term), but if I’m being honest, I don’t think it would shock anyone to say that I don’t want to be in the same exact job in twenty years. Spending much of your life pledged to one company/institution/whatever doesn’t seem realistic anymore. Sure, when I was a kid, I had relatives who would get a job at Company X when they were 22 and stay there til retirement. Now, though? Now it feels like you blink and twenty years are gone, and somehow you wind up without money for retirement or whatever, and hey, it’s your own damn fault, because what? – you thought the company was going to take care of you?
More to the point, I’m increasingly finding NYC to be unliveable. I recently rented and watched the new Morton Downey, Jr. documentary (which was quite good) for the sole reason of seeing footage of the NYC/NJ that I remembered so fondly as a kid… and that’s just sad (I mean, really: When you fondly look back on Roy Innis punching Al Sharpton and get all misty-eyed, you have to wonder what the fuck is going on). NYC today is practically unrecognizable compared to the city I fell in love with and pledged I’d be with forever when I was in my late teens. And NJ? Well, change has come more slowly, but all those shots of the Seacaucus wetlands that aren’t there anymore were a real battle cry to me that the time has come to really start thinking hard about everything.
So, in trying to think of all this reasonably, I came up with a Best Case/Worst Case Scenario for my future self. They break down like this:
Best Case Scenario: I am teaching somewhere beach-y but with access to rural areas (or rural, with access to beachy areas, although the formal is preferred). I ride my bike to work every day, or walk. My students are centered and grounded and love art, but really don’t care about the art world. We make art together, and talk about art and philosophy and critical theory. Some of the students write poetry; the university/college has a commitment to diversity in terms of race/age/etc, and so we wind up learning so much about ourselves through late night jam sessions involving roaring bonfires at the beach and tearful conversations. Everything is beautiful. I have tenure (or something similar), and can afford a one-bedroom house/apartment.
Worst Case Scenario: I am teaching somewhere landlocked and sun-bleached, and religious (Mormon, Catholic, Evangelical – whatever, it’s all the same). Every day, I get hauled into the Department Chair’s office to explain why I’ve shown “obscene art” to my classes, and at least once a week I have a football-y student ask me if it’s true that “Jackson Pollock was a homo.” It’s hot all the time unless you’re indoors in the freezing cold air conditioning, and I have to drive everywhere, and all the radio stations I can get on my car radio are Top 40. I start drinking heavily, and ducking into the women’s room to cry on frequent occasions. Everybody hates me and thinks I’m weird and stuck up. I’m an adjunct, and earn less than a McDonalds fry cook.
What I’ve learned from this exercise is that the two things important to me in a teaching job are: 1. quality of students and 2. location. (What’s a given is that I want to earn enough money to support myself, but I’m not especially salary-driven.)
Students: I have amazing students now. They would be super hard to ever leave. I feel like I understand them and they understand me, and we work well together.
Location: My location currently sucks. But it could be far worse.
But getting back to students: I’ve been thinking lately that art students require a certain… finesse? skill?… in communicating with. And it’s one that I’ve come to really love and enjoy, and really deeply get. And it’s a connection I won’t be quick to get rid of.
Say for instance, I say to a class full of art students, “I want you to fold a piece of 8 1/2 x 11 paper in such a way that the 8 1/2 sides meet, and you wind up with a piece of paper that is folded at exactly 8 1/2 x 5 1/2.” It’s a pretty reasonable request, but I’ve tried this experiment with my classes before, and I know what always happens: about 1/2 of the class gets it right; another 1/4 get it totally opposite (folding the paper horizontally instead of vertically), and the remaining quarter will do some variation of the following: make a paper crown, eat the paper, fold it in triangles, cut themselves with the paper, start crying (possible a combination of all of these).
This is because I have made a crucial error in my directions (this, I have learned from years of working with art students). I used something that resembled math (aka, numbers) in my directions, and math stirs up in art students a kind of primal fear that can’t be abated or calmed in any rational, normal way. You’d think that numbers under 20 shouldn’t really wig them out so bad, but they do – and they sort of panic and freak out unnecessarily. They detest math, and are actually deeply afraid of it.
You cannot use math to communicate to art students. If I do the following:
“Fold your paper like this,” (hold up paper correctly folded)
“Fold your paper hamburger, NOT hot dog” (ok, I needed someone to tell me this one, but I swear it works. NO REALLY. Every time. They laugh and think I’m nuts, but they fold their paper right.)
…everybody gets it. That’s because I’ve just explained things visually. Art school kids are incredibly visually literate. They’re also culturally literate, literature literate, critical theory literate… and so forth. They’re just not math literate. In fact, they’re deeply math-phobic. Math makes them terrified and afraid, like some sort of cornered, feral animal. And each one is horribly ashamed of being this way and thinks they’re the only one, until they realize that everyone else in their class is and then they become sort of weirdly proud of it. (There are other things, too – other little tricks you learn along the way that helps you to relate to them, and explain things thoroughly so that they really get it. It’s not just math, it’s a whole communication style that’s different. You can’t just port the pedagogical approach used by a successful biology teacher into a studio classroom. It doesn’t work that way. And it makes sense – it really shouldn’t work that way, if you think about it.)
It also helps that I will forever be, in my heart and soul, The Kid Who Made The Paper Crown:
And so the problem becomes, now that I have a firm grasp on how to speak to art students, where does that leave me in my “teaching career”? Will I ever be able to shift gears and go talk to jocks taking Art 101 because it’s required? Or older folks going back to school “because it’s fun”? Or have I somehow screwed myself, by becoming so enamored with art kids, that I’ve severely limited my career options for the next 30 years?
This is what I’m trying to figure out.
… your friends die.
Not in that sudden, unexpected way that your friends die in your teens or twenties, where someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time, or suicidal, or being stupid. But, like, they die of diseases. Like grownups die.
They die of heart attacks or cancer, or other prolonged illnesses that had hints along the way that were ignored. Because of course you’re going to ignore them, because what’s the alternative? Being a total weirdo who runs to the doctor for every little thing? Come on. You want to be normal and like everyone else, and to go out and have fun and be the way you’ve always have. What’s so wrong about that?
Well, nothing. Except that I’m left here, feeling old, and not really sure what to think anymore. Were you an asshole for ignoring it all, or just human? I don’t know. Judging you would make this easier, but that doesn’t seem right, either.
Dear Gallery Front Desk Person,
You probably don’t remember me, but I recently brought a group of students to see your gallery space. We were all alone in your space; in fact, I kind of suspect we were among the only people to come to your gallery that entire day, even though it was well after 3pm at the time.
My students quite liked the show that you had up. We spent a lot of time there, and at one point, several of my students got into an animated conversation about one of the pieces. Now, as a reminder, they were the only people in the gallery, and if screaming could be considered a 10, they were at most speaking at a 4. Which is to say that they were probably speaking slightly louder than one normally does in a gallery, but not at all in the vicinity of complete inappropriateness.
You might recall your reaction to this. You singled out one particular student, and made a “shushhhhhhhhhhh!!!” noise like you were a deflating balloon, and barked at him to lower his voice. I was standing across the room (maybe 15 feet away) and hadn’t noticed that anyone was speaking especially loudly, and was taken aback by your rude silencing of my student. I watched as you barked at this student, and commanded him to take his loud conversation elsewhere, despite the fact that he had been speaking about the work on the wall to his peers, and hadn’t even been doing so terribly loudly.
I wanted so desperately to walk up to you at that point and congratulate you. Good job, Gallery Desk Person: you just rudely shushed an autistic student, and embarrassed him in front of his peers. You must feel really good about yourself for having done that. This student has worked really hard to be mainstreamed in with other students his age, and I, as his instructor, have also worked hard to not single him out or draw attention to his difference. But, wow; you and your complete and total lack of acceptance for anyone deviating from even the slightest social norm…. well, hey. Way to enforce the status quo. Way to support stupid ways of being, purely for the sake of keeping things as they are. Did you realize you were going to be this much of a total conformist when you decided you wanted to go into art? Because really, you might do better (financially, at least) at a real estate firm, or perhaps an insurance company. I can see those being much more lucrative fields for you to pursue.
And not only that, you just rudely shushed a person who was genuinely interested in the work on your walls. How many people walk through your doors and actually have a reaction to the art on the walls? How many people get stirred to passionate conversation by the work that you are exhibiting? Not many, I’d assume. You should be pleased that the work elicits such a reaction, instead of shutting it down.
Ugh. You sir, completely horrify me.
Dear Super Fancy Gallery Security Guard,
After the experience detailed above, I was honestly ready to throw in the towel, and then you saved me. You saved me… like you can’t possibly ever know.
I entered into your gallery with a couple of remaining students, and encountered a show of an artist of whom I know little about. When my students asked me for clarification, I was honest with them and told them I didn’t really know. You came over, and started explaining to us. Your explanations meant the world to me. You made sense. You connected with us on a human level; you answered our questions and didn’t look at us like we were weird or stupid, and you had lots to say in terms of your own opinions of the work on view.
Your time with us was a godsend. I was reminded of why I wanted to be an artist in the first place, and why I always felt so at home at art galleries. We talked and asked questions, and then other people came over and asked you questions, too, and you so generous entertained everyone who came by. Your job, as much as I understand it, is to stand by the wall and make sure people don’t steal/harm things. And yet, you went above and beyond; you gave a shit, to the point where you demystified work that had been very opaque to us before you entered the conversation. You didn’t have to talk to us, but you did: because you’re genuinely curious and engaged with the world, and want others to be as well.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. You completely restored my faith in the art world. I mean this sincerely, and from the bottom of my heart. I was completely ready to pack my bags after the encounter I detailed before this one. But you saved it, and for that, I will always be grateful.
I want to write a book this summer, with drawings and text intermingled, and finally write down a bunch of the stories I have in my head from growing up. Not a “memoir” per se, but more a disconnected group of random stories (with pictures), all of which have been important to me.
This one just came blasting back, and I think it’s pretty representative of the kind of things I’m thinking about:
She freaked out. The class I was in at school and the neighborhood I was living in were all white, and she was convinced I had become this racist living under those circumstances. She immediately trotted out all these tales of racial equality, about the suffering of blacks under whites, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, and so forth.
What it just dawned on me was, what I was really asking her was if *I* could ever be a garbageman, or if you had to be a black guy to do it. I was obsessed with garbage from a really early age (still am) and consider garbagemen to be one of the most important, key figures in any society. You can do without stockbrokers… you can’t do without garbagemen. I’ve always thought about garbagemen as these incredible, heroic people who just make all the bad stuff go away… and what I was really asking was, Could I ever be that worthy, that good?
I’m still obsessed with them. Sometimes, at 5am, I hear the garbage trucks on our block, and I wake up annoyed that something has disturbed me and my sleep; but as soon as I realize that the sound is that of people hauling the garbage away, I breathe a happy sigh. It honestly comforts me.
The well-worn and tired motifs of:
- the drug/alcohol/addiction memoir
- the eating disorder/mental health memoir
- the portrait of the artist as a young whatever.
I find myself more and more committed to writing an illustrated book this summer. And, in effect, hiding behind these motifs while also revealing/honestly considering myself.
These motifs as cliques that now reveal nothing about the author.
They become their own style of fiction. There is nothing confessional about them.
And yet, as readers, we’re drawn to them because they supposedly lay bare a kind of “truth” we lack otherwise. And so, how do you hide behind the lie as a way of exposing the truth? Is such a thing even possible? Or is this just a descent down a rabbit hole of exchanging signs for meanings for signs for meanings, again and again? And if so, is it worthwhile to pursue?