Over the past two months we’ve been busy working with a handful of artists to develop the remaining videos for our State of the Artist Documentary Project. For those who are new to this blog, our previous State of the Artist film projects are about past McKnight fellows Bill Cottman (click here to watch Old Rhythms Making New Sense) and Carolyn Swiszcz (click here to watch Perpetual Inspiration Machine). Later this month we’ll be posting a new video we’ve created with poet Dobby Gibson, but in the meantime, we wanted to share some impressions from our work thus far.
We didn’t begin this project with a preconceived notion of what individual artists today are thinking about, working on, or struggling with – and we’ve been surprised by the variety of stories and insights that we’ve heard along the way. Though everyone we’ve met is approaching art-making and life in different ways, we’ve started to notice some recurring themes. These may not come as a surprise to other artists (some have been explored deeply in other State of the Artist Blog posts), we’ve found it interesting just how complex these ideas are in practice; while in popular discourse, the stories we tell about artists and art-making are so often simplified to one or two dominant narratives.
One of the questions we’ve asked each of the artists we’ve interviewed is about the economics of their art-making. How do they find the financial resources to support their artistic practice, and their lives as a whole? One of the assumptions that I’m guilty of making from time to time, is the assumption that all artists want to make a living through their artwork, or at least make enough money to support their artistic pursuits.For some of the artists we’ve met, this is definitely true, and for those artists, the path toward financial stability has not been an easy one. But it hasn’t been impossible, and this is worth mentioning. Not one of the artists we’ve met fits the stereotype of a starving artist, though nearly all of them have found their own complex mix of paid and unpaid work, grants, fellowships, commissions, bartering, teaching, and day jobs.
A few of the artists we’ve worked with on these videos have admitted that they don’t see their art-making as an important part of their financial equation. They might make paintings and sell some of them, or they might have published a number of poetry books, but they never assume that this activity will bring them any financial gains. Instead, they do other kinds of work (in some cases quite happily) and make art when they have time and energy, finding other kinds of resources to support their creative lives.
Gathering & Connection
Another question we ask all of the artists we meet is about the places that they go to find creative inspiration and fellowship. Not surprisingly, many of these artists admit to a belief they held as younger artists that being a successful artist was about finding a place and time for solitary work. While they’ve all told us about how important it is to find some dedicated time to work alone, they’ve also described the complex web of connections they have both within their artistic community and outside of it. These connections bring inspiration, purpose, friendship, collaboration, and sometimes, a necessary artistic critique.
One group of artists that we recently interviewed have an even broader view of the kinds of connections and community they hope to build to sustain and develop their creative work. The artists behind The Gymnasium project are currently in the process of building a network of creative practitioners from the arts and far beyond. Their ideal gathering places would include not only other risk-taking artists, but scientists, engineers, designers, policy makers, and inventors.
Where Artists Learn
We don’t always ask the artists we’re interviewing about their traditional educational experiences, but the question of how one decides to pursue a career as an artist, and how they develop their craft, is a question that inevitably surfaces.
Yesterday, at a presentation by artist and McKnight fellow Seitu Jones, he confessed to the audience that although he’s been creating artwork for over 30 years, he doesn’t have a degree in art. Similarly, photographer Bill Cottman told us about how he pursued photography largely outside of his formal education and career in engineering. Dobby Gibson mentioned that while getting his MFA in fiction, poetry was appealing because it was something he wasn’t supposed to be doing. Painter Carolyn Swiszcz talked about how pursuing an art degree at MCAD provided a necessary “bubble” that allowed her to develop her creative process, but that it was really the work of illustrators that she encountered later, and the personal stories of her family and friends, that shaped her artistic practice.
What does an art education look like today? Where do artists find the creative connections that they need to sustain an artistic practice? What are the relationships between art-making and economics?
These are a few of the questions we’ve been mulling over as we meet with artists and learn their stories. If we had any assumptions, over the course of this project they’re being replaced by the inspiring idea that to pursue art-making is to be open to the world around you. To try new things, and to try again. To create not only artistic work, but the personal and creative context that supports it.
Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker are Collaborative Directors of Works Progress, an artist-led public design studio. Works Progress creates collaborative art and design projects that inspire, inform and connect; catalyzing relationships across creative and cultural boundaries; and providing new platforms for public engagement. You can find them on Twitter at @works_progress.