"My intention from the start has been to create multiple iterations of Yours in Sisterhood, both to be able to include many more voices and to make the project accessible in more forms to more kinds of people."
IRENE LUSZTIG is a filmmaker, archival researcher, and amateur seamstress. Her film and video work mines old images and technologies for new meanings in order to reframe, recuperate, and reanimate forgotten and neglected histories. Often beginning with rigorous research in archives, her work brings historical materials into conversation with the present day, inviting viewers to contemplate questions of politics, ideology, and the production of personal, collective, and national memories. Much of her work is centered on public feminism, language, and histories of women and women’s bodies, including her debut feature Reconstruction (2001), the feature length archival film essay The Motherhood Archives (2013), the ongoing web-based Worry Box Project (2011), and the performative documentary feature Yours in Sisterhood (2018).
Born in England to Romanian parents, Irene grew up in Boston and has lived in France, Italy, Romania, China, and Russia. Her work has been screened around the world, including at the Berlinale, MoMA, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Anthology Film Archives, Pacific Film Archive, Flaherty NYC, IDFA Amsterdam, Hot Docs, AFI Docs, BFI London Film Festival, Melbourne Film Festival, DocLisboa, and RIDM Montréal. She has received grants from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, Massachusetts Cultural Council, LEF Foundation, New York State Council for the Arts, and Sustainable Arts Foundation and has been awarded fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Flaherty Film Seminar, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Fulbright, and the Rydell Visual Arts Fellowship. She teaches filmmaking at UC Santa Cruz where she is Professor of Film and Digital Media; she lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
I met Irene in October 2016 when I signed my friend Paige and I up to participate as readers for her new project Yours in Sisterhood, a film that explores letters sent to Ms. Magazine—the first national, wide-circulation feminist magazine in the US. I was inspired by Irene's feminist filmmaking approach, the topic of her film, and the potential of bridging history with the current day. I knew I wanted to be part of the project! I have stayed in contact with Irene over the last few years because she kept us readers and supporters updated along the way. Since Yours In Sisterhood premiered in 2018, the film has screened all over the world and continues to show, reaching new people all of the time.
Irene has been working on the next chapter of Yours in Sisterhood, expanding the film into an archival project so that she can share the many readings that didn't make it into the completed film. She recorded over 300 of readings! Below is the reading Paige and I read together!
I am happy to share this interview with you. Enjoy getting to know Irene and her project Yours in Sisterhood! Admire on!
Jes: I am moved by your work, Irene. I feel like everyone should see your most recent project Yours in Sisterhood, a film project that has toured the world, connected feminism with the past and present, and created a community among those invited to participate. When did this film idea first present itself to you? How long did it take you to complete it?
Irene: That’s kind of you! In some ways it felt like the project came together quickly (for me—some of my other films have taken 5-6 years, and this one took 3 and a half years, from research to release). But in other ways the ideas of the project have developed over a much longer time. Often things that feel unresolved to me in a previous film become the questions that lead me directly to the next film. After I had my son, in 2007, I found the experience of new motherhood to be really lonely (like many women). I started wondering about what felt, at the time, like an absence of feminist group, community, or public conversation spaces to discuss experiences that felt complicated or difficult. My research and search for role models led me to a bunch of 70s feminist documentary films that seemed to be doing a radical kind of work around making listening spaces (inspired very directly by the methods of consciousness raising groups) that I found incredibly compelling; and my viewing of these films set in motion a lot of thinking (and many questions) about the 70s, the kinds of conversations people seemed to be having, and how these spaces felt different (or sometimes not different) from conversations now. Some of these questions found a form in my previous feature film, The Motherhood Archives, but at the end of that film, I still wanted to do more thinking about the 70s, about speaking and listening, and about feminist conversation. So these personal questions about feminist conversation are what initially led me to the archive (most of my projects begin with archival thinking) to spend time with boxes of unpublished letters to Ms. I spent about a month during the summer of 2014 reading a few thousand of these letters. Once I started reading the letters, I immediately felt that they were amazing. There’s a powerful radical energy that I felt reading letters in the archive, and I wanted to think of a way to bring that energy out into the word—that’s how the experiment of remaking or restaging the letters started.
For those who haven’t seen Yours in Sisterhood, how would you describe your film and what is it about? How is this film different from your previous work?
Yours in Sisterhood is based on my archival research reading thousands of mostly-unpublished letters sent to Ms. Magazine—the first national, wide-circulation feminist magazine in the US—between 1972 and 1980. I collected a few hundred of these letters for my project—on a wide range of topics that are important to feminism—and then I traveled around the US for two and a half years, filming contemporary strangers reading these letters aloud on camera. Each letter was filmed in the city or town that it was sent from, and each participant had the opportunity to respond to the letter that they were paired with. I filmed these readings with over 300 people in 32 states, and the finished film gathers 27 of these readings to create a collective portrait of feminist conversation across time and geographic space. Most of my film projects begin with archival materials and a bunch of questions I am trying to work through—so in that sense Yours in Sisterhood is on a continuum with previous work and methods. But in most of my previous work I use a lot of archival or found moving image materials onscreen—in Yours in Sisterhood, I wanted the viewer instead to feel the archive only through the bodies and performances of the readers. Visually, the film never leaves the present tense. So that feels very different from some of my other work. It’s more performative, more durational, and more formal than my older work. I like to learn new ways of making with each project.
After watching the film, I am obviously struck by all of the voices represented. I replay many of readings of the letters in my head. I am interested in the pauses after the readings, where there is a prolonged moment with the person on screen after they are done reading. It made me think strongly about the passing of time but also how important moments are. With those pauses we, as in the audience, can consciously be with that reading, to acknowledge, reflect, and be in the moment with that reader and letter. Could you speak more to why you included these pauses and to how your film explores history, time, and the present?
Yes, the pauses are really important to the form of the film. Some audience members have called them “silences,” so it feels important to point out that, even though the pauses are non-verbal, they are really not silent at all—they are very sonically active spaces where the viewer’s attention can turn away from human speech to engage with all the other sounds of place (insects, birds, traffic). So one way that those pauses function is to foreground place. I also think of the pauses as spaces of time travel. I was reading a bunch of 70s feminist sci fi while I was making the film, and started to take seriously the idea that each reader in the project is engaging in a kind of time travel as they embody the voice of someone from 40 years ago. It feels appropriate to give each reader a few seconds to travel back to the present. I think there’s a lot of very active emotional work that is happening in the pauses. And finally, the pauses also give a pace to the kind of listening that happens in the film (both the listening that each reader does through reading, and the listening that an audience does). It felt important to give each encounter in the film a lot of time and space and to ask the viewer to listen with patience to each person (something we are increasingly bad at in our attention-challenged moment). I think the pauses teach the viewer how to attend to the film.
What kind of resources did you use to make your film?
I’m lucky to have a “day job” teaching in a university. Through my job, I have access to (small) university research grants to keep my projects moving even during times when I’m not able to get bigger grants—the amounts of money are much less than a conventional feature film budget would be, but it’s usually enough to keep working in a small and scrappy DIY way. This film was especially hard to find outside funding for—it is both experimental in its form and about women—two things that have not been exciting to funders in the past (though the climate around funding women-centered work has recently been shifting in hopeful ways).
Through my job I also get to know a lot of amazing young filmmakers, so I was lucky to be able to hire my students and former students to help with shoots, with research, and with assistant editing. I had really wonderful helpers who traveled and filmed with me all over the country. I produced, filmed, researched, and edited this film myself (which is unusual for a feature length film), which means that my budget was a fraction of a feature film budget where other people are getting paid to do all of those things. My tiny feminist crew was always just me and one other helper driving from town to town. At the end of the project I did need a bigger chunk of money to get to a finished mixed and mastered film, so in the last month before the film’s festival premiere I had to crowdfund to finish the film. Asking people for money felt scary and weird at first, but people were really kind, and in some ways it felt true to the spirit of this very collective project to raise a finishing budget collectively through many small donations.
Where can folks watch Yours in Sisterhood now?
The film is still showing around in film festivals and other cinema venues—this month it’s showing in L.A. at Los Angeles Filmforum, which I’m excited about, because I did my first shooting for the project in L.A., over three weeks in the summer of 2015. I’ve been really invested in trying to find screenings in places where I filmed with people. It’s showing in Italy in September and is going to have a French theatrical release later in the year. I list screenings on the film’s website and Facebook page so that people know where it’s showing. The film also has a distributor, the wonderful Women Make Movies. Their website lists DVDs at institutional library prices, which are very expensive, but they will secretly sell reasonably priced home viewing DVDs by email request.
I know that you recorded over 300 readings for the film and a select amount was used for the final cut. I imagine you knew this when shooting for the film. As someone who is a participating reader, I always felt I was part of the project, regardless if I was in the film or not. You always gave us updates along the way, encouraging the community that was making up your film. What has been your plan or intention with the readings that aren’t in the film and have you envisioned sharing them?
I’m so glad to hear you say that. I definitely felt acutely aware of reproducing the problem of the magazine editor, making my own very tiny curated selection of voices and leaving so many others out (even as I was trying to think critically about that exact historical process of privileging some voices over others). It’s really nice to hear that you felt like you were part of a project community—this is something I worked really hard on. I realized as I was making the project that I was feeling this incredible sense of feminist community as I moved from town to town meeting so many people, but each person I met was only engaging with me for an hour or two (and maybe the hour or two happened a year or two ago by the end of the project). And the many people in the project didn’t really have a way to meet each other. So it felt important to me to try to share that feeling of interconnection with people—even though it’s hard to stay in touch with 300 people! Some people have been in regular contact since filming, which has been amazing—I have a bunch of new project friends all over the country—but there are also people I never heard from again after we filmed together.
I did know as I was shooting that I would only be able to include a small fraction of the many readings I was documenting, in part because I also knew all along that I planned to edit the readings in the film with very few cuts. It felt important for each reading in the film to feel like a full encounter with someone (as opposed to a very different style of film I could have made, intercutting lots of readings and moving from person to person more quickly). My intention from the start has been to create multiple iterations of Yours in Sisterhood, both to be able to include many more voices and to make the project accessible in more forms to more kinds of people. Now that the film is out, I’m working on an artist book (that includes close to 100 readings) and an interactive archive that will include around 200 readings. The interactive archive will be a more inclusive and more accessible (with captions!) form of the project that anyone with a web browser will be able to engage with. The archive interface is in progress, but in the meantime I’ve been releasing a reading a week from the “archive” on Facebook, Instagram, and Vimeo. So that’s another way that people can see the project.
I am very curious about your path as an artist. What helped start your career and what has sustained it?
Starting and sustaining creative careers are both hard! I have these conversations a lot with my students, who are just starting out with their creative aspirations. My parents are immigrants with math and computer backgrounds, so I didn’t really have family models for being an artist, but I always drew and painted and made things, and I wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember. Practically, I was able to become an artist because I lived in an affordable city with cheap rent for most of my twenties (Boston—sadly no longer an affordable city) and could afford to work very part time and spend a lot of time developing my ideas and skills. I was really underemployed until my thirties, when I started teaching full time, and had a lot of free time. Emotionally it’s also hard to become an artist—I think you need to be able to sustain a kind of internal grandeur about your own ambitions for yourself over many years. When I was younger, I felt like I was performing a radical act of imagination every day that I woke up and told myself I was an artist (years before the rest of the world took me seriously as an artist). This is really hard emotional work (especially for women and people of color who often have fewer role models, less support, and therefore less confidence) but also critical. In my twenties, my other wildly ambitious creative friends were essential—we built a mutual world of belief in each other together. Now that I have a teaching job and have been making films for a longer time, it is much less scary and hard to be an artist and I have a lot more institutional support (though I also have way less free time, so nowadays my struggle is to clear enough time to make work that is exploratory, open, and can’t be made quickly). I have creative and intellectual communities, and my work with students also sustains my work in really important ways.
I am a self-proclaimed feminist artist and filmmaker, so I wonder about your own artistic practice and how it is influenced by feminism. For me it comes out in the aesthetics of my work, my approach as an artist, as well as through my perspective. How does feminism present for you in your creative work?
At this point in my work, I think it is part of everything I do—aesthetic choices, political investments, ideas about care and listening, ethical frameworks, production processes, and how I work with and center collaborators. There is a long history of documentary work that is not very feminist, a long history of exploitative, extractive, and violent documentary looking, and entrenched systems of hierarchical structures in film productions. These are all legacies I am really aware of working against.
Is there anything else you would like to add? What do you think you’ll do after you're done with Yours in Sisterhood?
I’m just starting to research a new project this summer… but it’s so new and unformed I’m not sure I’m ready to share with the internet yet! I can say that it’s based on one of the towns I encountered while filming Yours in Sisterhood, a place I feel compelled to learn more about.
Where can we find you online? How can folks learn more about you?
(and also the YIS Facebook and Instagram accounts).
Thank you for answering my questions and letting Paige and I be part of Yours in Sisterhood, Irene!
All images courtesy of the artist.
"People are often intimidated to claim artist as part of their identity and pursuing art as a career that supports you financially is difficult, but I think the beauty of being an artist is that anyone can claim the title!"
"Bloom where you're planted," is a phrase found on one of Laura Brown's recent postcards. Over the last couple of weeks I've held and looked at her postcard many times. I get a lot of inspiration from it by holding it in my hand, reminding myself to grow and appreciate where I am in my life. I just became a member of her Postcard Club so that I can collect more of her postcards!
Laura Brown is a printmaker, book artist, collaborator and teacher. Currently, her work uses the vocabulary of ubiquitous construction signage as a way of investigating social and political upheaval in today's American society. She draws inspiration from everyday experience, from the most mundane and routine patterns of life. She holds an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin. She has participated in residencies at the Myren Graffikk in Kristiansand, Norway; the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, California; Minnesota Center for Book Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York. Her work appears in collections at Yale University and the Library of Congress, among others. Her work has been shown internationally, nationally, and locally, most recently at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, MN. She teaches at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and is an active member of the print collective Proof Public, which aims to amplify marginalized voices through letterpress printing.
In this interview she talks about her installation work, what her first studio was like, goals she has for the upcoming year, what resources she uses as an artist, and more!
Jes: How do you describe yourself as an artist and the art you make?
Laura: I have a background in printmaking, and I mainly use silkscreen and letterpress printing processes. They give me a lot of flexibility in using color and producing work at a quicker pace and greater volume than other printmaking processes. I am working on integrating my print practice with my love of textiles and quilting. I have sewn since I was young and I see a really strong connection between printmaking and quilting in that they are both communal activities and lend themselves to socializing and connecting with others.
I am interested in knowing how you combine printmaking and installation work? When did these two worlds align for you?
A major shift in my work happened in grad school. There can be pressure in that setting to make Really Big Work. In my program, printmaking was not a cool media to be working in, and there was a lot of pressure to break out of just making prints to hang on the wall. This isn’t unique, there’s quite a trend of it in the printmaking community as well. I think this can be helpful, but I am not into making big work simply for the sake of it. But I knew that my program would be a challenge when I chose it, so I tried to embrace that.
Anyway, at some point, someone asked why my quilting didn’t seem to be connected to my studio practice. Until that point, I was keeping my sewing for myself and I didn’t want to directly merge the two in the grad school environment where I knew it would get criticized for being “craft” rather than “art”. But I saw potential for sneaking quilting practices into my studio work as a way to solve the challenge of making larger work. I started by printing on modular pieces of Tyvek and sewing them together to make signs that looked like construction signage, which was popping up seemingly everywhere. In the real world, the construction felt like a harbinger of upheaval, like inevitable gentrification. At the same time, I can see the potential for positive change, and I wanted to create work that explored that.
Graduate school felt really isolating to me, and I wanted to expand my making and showing from privileged art spaces like galleries and academia. So it all kind of naturally (and literally) grew from there, and my first installation was outside The Soap Factory, where people would encounter it anytime they were walking or driving by. That led pretty directly to the signs that are currently up in the skyway in St. Paul, a commission by the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Hundreds of people walk past them every day.
I can see a lot of potential for expansion with the materials and processes, which I’m hoping to pursue this next year.
Can you tell me more about your project Empathy Economy?
That project felt like such a serendipitous thing. I love the library, so when Northern Spark was slated to be there, I knew I wanted to propose a project. I am totally fascinated and preoccupied with money and the way it affects our lives in systematic and personal ways. Libraries are such a lovely alternative economy and it all got me thinking, what if there was a place where you could get what you need that wasn’t money? What does everyone need? We all need empathy and a space to be heard, I think. Cardboard seemed like an appropriately unsecure medium to house valuable resources, so I built a teller’s booth out of cardboard and printed a currency of encouraging notes and withdrawal slips with corresponding options. It led to so many amazing conversations! There were people who would step right up and tell me extremely personal things as they handed me their withdrawal slips and I was able to lend an ear and offer them a tangible thing that they could take with them to remind them that they are not alone.
I also pretty curious about Proof Public. How does belonging to a collective like this support your art practice?
A question I’ve been thinking about lately is, can community be an artistic medium? I mean, I think the answer is yes, and Proof Public is a place I get to explore that. I feel like the work exists in meeting and helping others express themselves through the medium of letterpress printing. It’s one of those opportunities where printing leads to conversations. Because we are all about providing access and encouraging people to print their voices, it opens the door to hearing about peoples’ perspectives, specifically around current events and issues. I love those conversations, and they definitely don’t happen when I’m working alone in the studio.
What was your first studio space like? What is you studio like now?
My first studio after college was in my parents’ basement! I lived with them for about a year. I can’t believe it now, but I bought an etching press on Ebay and set it up in a bedroom. They were really gracious to deal with the smells of ink and mineral spirits and me blasting The Arcade Fire. I’ve crammed my workspace (and that press! Though I eventually sold it) into a lot of different scenarios over the years.
Now I have a ridiculously gorgeous and big space in the Casket Arts Building where I sew, teach classes, and host events. I call it CHEER! because I want people to be encouraged to explore their creative impulse and find support to learn at any phase and level of interest. My long term dream is to have a space that is a storefront or something more accessible, where I can offer a community and resources to artists. I would love to have a reference library, coworking space for artists, and small residency.
I do all my printing at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, where I also teach classes. It is a phenomenal resource and I have realized that a lot of people don’t know it exists.
Speaking of resources, what kind have you used to support your career?
I have tried a lot of things over the years, and I would say that some of the most meaningful choices I made have been to take classes. There are so many community education resources in the Twin Cities! I talk to people, I reach out. I show up and ask a lot of questions, which means I get to know a lot of people and learn from them. Mentors have been so important to me, especially after I left school.
Many years ago, when Kickstarter was brand new (and then later, when it wasn’t so new), I used it to fund some projects that really helped shape my practice.
Some of my favorite current resources are Beth Pickens, Jen Armbrust’s Proposals for the Feminine Economy. I listen to a lot of personal finance and business podcasts, I read books about business and habits.
What kind of advice would you give someone who is trying to build or start a studio practice?
I would say, just start! With whatever you have, wherever you are. See where it leads. Don’t get in your own way. I hear a lot of people (myself included) making excuses about why they haven’t started yet, or why they can get started, but the truth is, you have to start somewhere. Ask for help when you need it (you will need it!). Don’t be shy. Don’t overthink it. Enjoy it! Read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Post Sister Corita’s Rules somewhere where you can see them.
People are often intimidated to claim “artist” as part of their identity and pursuing art as a career that supports you financially is DIFFICULT. BUT I think the beauty of being an artist is that anyone can claim the title! There are plenty of professions where you have to take an exam or go through long education and training programs. Not with art! If you want to be an artist, be an artist! I mean, I wouldn’t suggest saying you’re an artist without actually attempting some kind of creative engagement or inquiry, but it’s an occupation/hobby/career/thing that is literally open to anyone and everyone.
I recently joined your Postcard Club which I am so excited about. I love to get little surprises in the mail! For those who don’t know, what is the Postcard Club and how does one join?
THANK YOU! I started the Postcard Club for a few reasons: I love sending surprises in the mail! I also wanted a regular reason to play and experiment with printing in ways I might not usually, and I am experimenting with creating ways for people to support me as an artist, as well as the growth of CHEER! as a community space and resource. Printing is a practice where all the work is in the set-up, so it takes almost as much time to print one thing as it does to print 100. This makes it a natural medium for reaching an evolving number of people. I offered pre-sales through my website, but new members are always welcome through Patreon. Other commitments have kept me from really engaging with the actual Patreon site, but some recent growth in my number of patrons has me thinking about ways to expand the club and offer more rewards and levels of support (the key is to engage and garner support without creating a ton of extra work for myself--a delicate balance!). This is a great time to join, actually, because I’m a few postcards behind and I’m just sending all of my future postcards to everyone, even if they just joined. I think I’m on #4 and I want to catch up to #8 (of 12) by the end of August.
I follow a lot of your updates via Instagram. How do you prefer to use social media when promoting your art? What’s your approach?
My approach. . . varies. I like to be personal on Instagram, and transparent about what my experience is like, because I think when we are open and honest, it invites others to do the same. I also try not to spend too much time looking at it, or letting it dictate what I do or how I feel about myself.
Thanks for answering my questions, Laura! Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Thank YOU for the interview! If people are interested in connecting on Instagram, they can find me at @laurabrownart and they can check out more of my work at laurabrownart.com.
All images courtesy of the artist.
"When we make things, we find our associates and allies. We find our communities, and everything that comes along with that, including the power to resist and reasons for actual joy."
I found Jean's Smith's music when I was a teenager turning into a young woman identifying with feminism. That was more than 20 years ago! Flash forward to myself last year when I came across a video on Jean Smith’s Vimeo page and I discovered her amazing paintings! I hadn’t seen anything like her work before. My admiration for Jean Smith was rekindled!
Jean Smith is a Vancouver-based painter, writer and singer whose band Mecca Normal is regarded as an inspiration to the 1990s social movement known as Riot Grrrl. Her contemporary portraits, based on photographs, are about complex emotions related to feminism and anti-capitalism. She sells the 11 x 14" series for $100 USD on Facebook, making her work accessible to artists, musicians and writers she's met along the way. Sales above her monthly expenses go towards opening the Free Artist Residency for Progressive Social Change off the west coast of Canada. Jean is a published novelist and a two-time recipient of Canada Council for the Arts awards.
I am happy to share this interview with you. I was honored when Jean agreed to let me interview her. Please read on and while you're at it pick yourself up a portrait or two! Not only will you be supporting Jean but you will be helping her achieve her goal of starting an artist residency!
Jes: What’s your lifestyle like as an artist? How would you describe your daily routine?
Jean: I get up around 5:30 AM and I aim to begin painting by 8:00 every morning. This usually happens. I paint until around 11:00, photograph the finished painting, and post it on Facebook. I sell up to 30 paintings a month, so there is a lot of packaging involved. Groceries, cooking, walking, on the phone with my elderly father (93), hatching plans on the phone with my friend, artist David Lester. I'm not anti-social, but, at this point in my life (60), I'm not that interested in going out to events at night.
When did you start painting portraits? Why portraits? Who are the people you paint?
I started painting self-portraits in 1973 when I was 13. Both my parents were painters, but neither painted people at all. My dad was an art director for an ad agency who sometimes hired models for various campaigns, so I had both a curiosity and a kind of inside vantage point of how women are used to sell coffee or whatever. I studied my own face in the mirror and painted myself in a way that ran contrary to the perfection and abject beauty of models. From then on, I attempted to paint at least one self-portrait a year, but I didn't really show people until I was invited to exhibit laser copies of my teenage self-portraits in the Ladyfest art show in Olympia, Washington in 2000. In a way I'm just picking up where I left off.
I use photos I find online as a reference. It doesn't matter who it is because it's not really a painting of them. I look for strong faces photographed in light that defines specific features from perspectives I prefer. I do screengrabs if I see something while I'm watching a film.
I'm more interested in painting emotions rather than features, but the emotions aren't necessarily in the photo. I keep painting until all the elements work together. I have a good sense of knowing when to stop – although, it's not fool-proof. I've definitely painted beyond when I should have stopped and regretted it.
Whenever I do specific likenesses (usually a request) I end up in a quagmire of allowing their feelings about the person enter into my awareness. It's a long time to stand there wondering how they feel about their nose or their chin or whatever. It's just not that interesting. I'd rather be thinking about what works in the painting. I suppose it's like the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction. Once you develop skills for telling a good story, sticking to the facts is kind of boring.
I hate the point in when I'm forced to sacrifice a great bit of painting to push it more towards looking like a specific person. I'm way more interested in what I discover as I'm working – how every element affects every other element – watching this happen, changing things, compensating elsewhere. Extreme looking! Elements being: composition, color, perspective, light, style (bits of realism plunked into abstraction), features on the face – nose, mouth, eyes primarily – and the overarching awareness that personality is more important than beauty.
You have been raising funds through your portrait making to start an artist residency. Can you tell me more about this project? How do we buy a portrait to support you?
I'll be opening the Free Artist Residency for Progressive Social Change in 2020. I had hoped to buy a place outright, but now I'm considering a mortgage situation because the location I want to be in is more expensive than simply buying the crappiest house in the province outright. There is very good reason to be on one of the gulf islands off the west coast of Canada. Basically, it will be for artists in any discipline who are working on projects that intend to change the world. I need space for the writer's cabin. Soundproofed rehearsal studio. Painting studio. Accommodations, etc. I'm getting very close now! I'll be the owner and it will be legally bequeathed to an activist art group yet to be named.
When I realized I was making more money than I needed, I decided to bring my Facebook audience into the process, making them aware that first, the paintings are both very good and very cheap, and, at this point, only available from me. They want to see the residency program realized. Many of them will want to come and stay there.
All sales above my $1000 USD monthly expenses go towards buying property and opening the facility. I post totals throughout the month saying how much has been raised. Lately I've been selling between 20 and 30 paintings a month, so I've been able to set aside between $1000 and $2000 a month added to family money that has come to me, keeping in mind that my parents lived in a mobile home park.
I don't want to feel like I've accepted donations from people who then have expectations about any of this. Supporters at this point are basically buying a painting and I'm telling them where the money will go. I'm a bit surprised that there hasn't been any kind of infusion of funds or offers of assistance for the project. People seem to want it to happen, but only one person (Steve) officially donated $100 USD on an IndieGoGo campaign I ran. Granted, I was steering people away from using the campaign platform to avoid fees, and there definitely were escalated sales at that time, but that was my big push and it fell flat. But hey, I set up the parameters for how funds are to be raised, and people are buying paintings; it's just that I'm at a point now where I want to get on with opening the facility. Plus, I have 300 paintings in stock. That's $30,000 USD I could really use right now. So I'll put it out there: I need $100,000 USD to purchase a facility that can be up and running before the snow flies. I have 35 years worth of intense cultural activism, a high percentage of follow through on projects I start, and public accountability regarding my intentions and integrity. I don't want to piddle along for another two years raising funds when I could be operating a facility for artists to come and stay for free on an amazing island in Canada by October, 2019. Philanthropists, ahoy!
Back to Steve. The guy who donated the $100 USD. He was inspired by the potential. He equated it to a specific person he admired who helped individuals fleeing persecution during World War II. As a gesture of gratitude to Steve, I sent him a painting I wasn't going to sell that I knew he liked. He made a great video of himself opening the package before he went to the Bikini Kill show in LA! The world needs more Steves! Send me your Steves!
(View the video of Steve opening the artwork here.)
I know other people get it. I know everyone has their own dream and there isn't a bunch of money around for the arts, but I also want to challenge how land is usually bought and held by individuals. I want to be in a position to extend what I have enjoyed about the community I've been in for 35 years. When we make things, we find our associates and allies. We find our communities, and everything that comes along with that, including the power to resist and reasons for actual joy.
Almost a year ago the apartment building where I've enjoyed low rent for 25 years was put up for sale. I won't be able to pay the going rate for another rental situation in Vancouver, and, with my painting taking off, I need more space. I don't actually want to leave Vancouver. I was born here, my friends are here, my band is here, my elderly father is here (I keep an eye on him), so it's weird to be pushed out, but I can see myself living on one of the islands. A certain number of musicians I know – and a recording engineer we've worked with – live on the one I'm looking at, but basically cannot afford a place. I ripped over there a week or so ago to look at a single-wide mobile on a sloped lot with very little usable land. The agent believed it would sell for more than listed price, which was already a lot more than I have. Like $40,000 USD more. I ripped back home and painted up a storm, but I could use some help painting myself out of this corner. I'm open to various ideas for financial structuring, while being protective of the fact that I need to paint and sell my work. I can't get swept into anything too complicated.
I imagine other political artists will be pushed out of where they are (in one way or another) and I want to have a place available for those situations, so it isn't exclusively a time away from chaotic life to focus on work. I will be able to offer a place for various circumstances within a very broad community of political artists.
I don't have a partner or kids, so I'm inventing my role within my artistic community in a tangible and useful way. It's like with my paintings; people frequently tell me to increase the price form $100 USD (11 x 14") but I really like being able to put good art into the hands of people who don't normally see themselves as buyers of art. The vast majority of my buyers are women (usually in their 40s and 50s) and the faces I paint are almost all female or ambiguous. As an older woman, the freedom I allow myself in painting and the experiences I've had are there, in the painting. I've had a lifetime of expression writing novels and singing on 13 albums with my great collaborator David Lester on guitar.
I post paintings first on Facebook, so people can friend me there (and tell me they saw this interview) or email me directly after looking at paintings currently available on my artist website.
Jean Smith FaceBook page:
Jean Smith Painter website:
What resources have supported you as an artist?
Receiving two grants from the Canada Council for the Arts to write two different novels was extremely important to me. It gave me time and confidence.
Because I'm a known person in indie music and resistance culture, I have a certain amount of reach in place. I get a lot of support from individuals who tell me that my work has been meaningful to them over the years. I'm not much on joining existing groups.
For me, social media has been the way forward. I keep up on it as it occurs, from Friendster to MySpace – and now Facebook, etc. I've made websites and hundreds of videos (YouTube and Vimeo), so I had everything I needed to get my paintings in front of people. What I didn't know was how much people would like them and want to buy faces of non-specific people. Total surprise! The first one I posted sold immediately and then I had someone offering to pay me in advance for the next one! That's where the series started. With a painting of my guitar player's wife in a big black hat. I didn't think it looked enough like her, so I didn't show it to them. I liked it as a stand-alone painting, but I thought the hat also had a lot to do with its appeal, so I painted women in hats for a long time. It was a big deal for me to move on to the "No Hat" series, but no there have been about 625 of those along with a bunch of other sub series like scuba divers, pioneers of aviation, astronauts, headphones, etc.
For the 10 or so years prior to painting being my focus, I was writing novels (two are about online dating) and I frequently wrote about and posted stories about dates, jobs and family. So, I inadvertently built up an audience that way. Friends of the band, cultural activists – people I've met along the way. I was writing in the early morning then going to various joe jobs (a gym for women, retail) that paid my bills while I waited for my agent to sell one of my manuscripts (still waiting!). I had a really awful boss in a store situation, but when I quit I had some trouble finding anything suitable, so one day, out of desperation, I posted on Facebook that I was going to paint every day (actually, I think I said I'd do 5 paintings a day) and sell them for $100 USD. That was January 2016 and I'm still on track.
You have explored a variety of themes through your art, such as politics, gender, patriarchy, and dating. What kind of topics have you been attracted to exploring right now?
Well, at 60, when it comes to themes, I'm not really exploring, per se. I'm always interested in creating political art that functions as direct action, but that's a tough mandate. I don't have much truck with party politics, but I have created paintings about women's rights, Water Defenders at Standing Rock, Pussy Riot and several other fairly literal approaches, but my forte is more nuanced work and I consider the work I have done in music and elsewhere carries over as information that can be applied to my painting. Because I have a strong background in song lyrics (both the very direct and the oblique and ambiguous), and novels (with both political and more nuanced plots and characters), I recognize that I can't control how my paintings are regarded. I don't like to be overly literal. If I use text in a piece it's usually not integral to any meaning viewers may want to impose on the work – like, for instance, if I put the word 'hotel' on a painting of an attractive woman, it doesn't mean she's a sex worker, but those are features that the viewer must regard and grapple with, or not. If I put the word 'pool' in a painting of an attractive woman wearing a bathing cap, it doesn't follow that we can assume her out-of-frame body is one way or the other, in a bikini. These are ways to nudge a viewer towards considering what isn't 'said' in the painting. Likewise, with gender. Probably best not to assume faces with visible make-up are women. My Facebook audience is very savvy. I've painted a good many trans models and many more where I feel the features are more male, but there is almost always some kind of mask. It was funny the other night when a friend PM'd me wanting to buy the 'three with the masks' and I was thinking: they all have masks. She meant the astronauts, but it made me realize how much paint itself is a mask as I apply it to create features and emotions, altering the masks until it resonates as finished.
I don't tend to use the titles in a clever way or as clarification. I know that's very popular right now – and as a writer it seems like a natural fit to be calling feminine paintings "Robert" or whatever – but it's just too easy to flip the script and lose the ambiguity. Then it starts to feel like a gimmick. Then I'm the person painting men dressed as women, when what I want to achieve is a more spontaneous acceptance of other qualities than the instantaneous gravitation to identifying which of two genders a person in a painting is. For god's sake… does a painting have to have a gender?
You practice in multiple mediums. Does your music, writing, short filmmaking, and painting influence each other?
Absolutely! The longer I paint, the more I've become aware that it is an extension of building characters in novels. And, of course, I have a long history of extracting sections form novels and turning them into song lyrics.
How have your experiences as a touring musician impacted or influenced your visual art?
Being in a band that tours impacts all of my creativity. Playing live in front of an audience is such a luxury. Creating art in this way, when you can feel how it's affecting people right there instructive and it imposes an accountability that doesn't exist in the same way in art forms created in solitude. A live event requires that you consider the temperament of the audience, at the very least.
The way I've set up my painting empire has some of that performance energy. Sometimes when I finish a painting I can't wait to post it! To get a reaction to it! Sometimes it sells right away and other times it might be slow to get 'likes', but all of this has to be processed in the same way a performance in front of an audience needs to be processed. There are so many unknowable variables as to why songs and paintings might not connect with an audience in any kind of live setting like a club or on Facebook. There has to be a certain acknowledgement of that unknowableness.
In both arenas it's great to be able to read an audience and make changes as necessary. With painting, I can feel people waiting to see what I do next. I never like to do any sort of replica of the most popular ones, but I do spontaneously delve into series that stop and start and may or may not be particularly successful, which I try not to let impact what I do next. I was recently doing a series called Sun Hats, painting the shadow on the face under the brim of big straw hat. They weren't really getting a lot of reaction, but I wanted to keep painting it. Some months later, someone came along and bought 3 of them, but overall, I think having been in a band that set out to change the world rather than entertain people set me up really well to conduct a business where I'm not derailed by people's reaction or lack of reaction.
When I started the "Affirmative" series of astronauts, people were snapping those up and I did end up doing maybe 30 of them because I was really enjoying painting the helmet, but I will also admit that it was a thrill to have them sell as soon as they were posted and because the image was a deviation from my regular work, I felt I could keep going for as long as there was interest in astronauts. So, that was something almost like commercial art, I felt, but it was interesting to see this sort of intensity for a particular painting and so, I wanted to see how it was going to pan out without me limiting supply.
There are currently still a few of them available. Eventually the fervor died down and now they're just in with the other paintings available. I guess it was something that was generated within the confines of my Facebook audience, something that I'm actually not trying to re-create. I'm not looking for the next "Affirmative" in the same way that I don't want to increase my prices just because that's what's supposed to happen. Also, even if I doubled the price, they'd still be way too low.
I'm really interested in the idea that the people who were early supporters find that they eventually have something worth much more than they paid for it, which is likely to happen whether or not I raise my prices. I've had so many incredible experiences in music that I'm not really looking to get the same thrill by being in a gallery. I know my work is good. I prefer making unique situations viable in D-I-Y economies. That's more of a thrill to me. I'm not saying I won't go with a gallery at some point and move along to some other enterprise, either much larger paintings or maybe running the artist residency will replace painting and that will be fine. For the last 3 years, I've been alone in this room an awful lot. It works for me, but there are other things to do in life.
It's likely that something will change and there won't be $100 USD paintings posted almost every day. Cripes… there are over 300 in stock. That alone could eat away at my self-worth. All these great paintings and because my audience is basically limited to my Facebook friends, they pick and choose and let 10 good ones go by, before a few sell. Some days that alone is really annoying. At $100 USD I figure they should all sell immediately, but it has always been about half. Actually, it has just recently increased to about a third remaining in stock.
It's interesting that there are fewer sales around the end and beginning of the month as people pay bills and also Christmas has been slow because I guess $100 USD is a bit expensive if you have a lot of gifts to buy, but really, these are damn good paintings and at some point, something will make them too expensive for the people who are currently have fairly exclusive access to them. In May, I sold 20 to an interior designer who is now selling them in her store, but I don't know for how much. That's fine with me. I can be regarded as a wholesaler. I'm both an artist and an entrepreneur. There's creativity in both areas. I figure the situation is in a state of flux. I just want to keep painting and paying my bills, but the whole thing has turned out to be way more than that.
What’s one question you wish someone would ask you?
Interviewer: "Jean, you're funny, smart, and sexy as all get out – how is it possible that you're single?"
Jean: "Why you narrow-minded little twit! I oughta… !!! Wait… what?"
Do you have a question for me, Jean? You can ask me anything!
I love the painting you bought. It was one that was supposed to be a specific likeness. A fellow wanted a painting of his partner who is quite strikingly beautiful. I told him I wasn't taking commissions, but I gave it a try without him knowing it. I went over and over the features trying to get it to look like her, but, along the way, some fantastic things happened and I just couldn't bring myself to lose them, so it ended up looking a bit like her, but in a very unflattering way. I didn't show him because it would have been too weird. I posted it on Facebook and he may have seen something of her in it. She might have seen it and wondered if I had some beef with her. I wondered (and worried) about how they might see it.
My questions: Do you as a buyer want to know the painting's history in this way? Is it of any interest? Would you prefer not to know it? Does knowing the back-story change how you see it – in either a positive or negative way? Did you suspect there was any particular drama associated with the painting? Does it show?
Oh, are you aware of the Jealous Curator's blog? She's from here, so I'm wondering if she's known beyond my scope. At one point in 2017, when my sales dropped off, I emailed her a bit of a pitch and hoped she'd eventually read it and maybe consider posting my paintings on her blog. Well, she wrote back immediately saying she loved them and she featured them a day or so after and my sales wentthrough the roof. Many of those people have since bought second and third paintings.
So those are two questions, but I realize they are more about me than about you, and I guess that's because I'm focusing on answering questions about myself. In a more normal dynamic, I'd be asking you about your work and the history of the blog and… everything else.
Yeah, it would be great if we could have done this interview face to face, Jean! I have been doing interviews like this for a long time. I started to do them when I was the Festival Director at Altered Esthetics. I wanted to help promote and feature the artists I was working with. I realized over time that I liked to do them generally because I like to learn about other people, especially other creatives…their processes and how they manage their careers. I hope one day that I can do these interviews more conversationally, either in person or over the phone…one day!
I have heard of the Jealous Curator. The blog and Danielle Krysa are well known here in the United States. I own a few of Danielle's books and have loved her podcast Art for Your Ear. I do know she has presented here in the Twin Cities a couple of times. I even signed up for an event she was supposed to do at the Minneapolis Institute of Art but it got cancelled. It’s exciting that you were featured on her blog!
As for the art I bought of yours, I am interested in knowing the back story. I am actually surprised there is so much of a background on the one I got. I had known that you generally work from images or photographs and that the images weren’t necessarily of particular people… I had been looking at quite a few to buy (I am sure I will be getting another at some point!) and I kept coming back to the one I selected. I think it was her dark hair and eyes...and her indirectness. I feel like the character was caught mid-sentence or looks like she wondering about something. It's very dramatic! I love it and it hangs in my living room!
Thanks for answering all of my questions, Jean! I really appreciate it!
All images courtesy of the artist.
If you have never heard of the Jealous Curator, check out the blog here.
An artist I have admired for years is Dana Sikkila! So, I am thrilled she agreed to participate in this interview series. I first read about her Project Bike initiative and her printmaking while I was finishing the Hinge Arts Residency with Springboard for the Arts - Fergus Falls in 2017. She is an alumnus of Hinge Arts too! I knew right away that she was someone amazing and I continue to be impressed by her passion and dedication to the arts!
A Litchfield, MN native, Dana received her Master of Arts in Printmaking as well as her Non Profit Leadership Certificate from Minnesota State University, Mankato. At just 33 years old, Sikkila has been named as one of the most well-known creative leaders of Southern Minnesota, developing and executing numerous grassroots cultural project and programs throughout the state. Still based in Mankato, she concentrates on her studio practice as well as being Executive Director of the 410 Project Community Art Space, as well as holding studio art and education adjunct professor positions at Minnesota State University, Mankato. You can find Sikkila's name leading and directing independent projects such as Project Bike and M.A.C. Public Access Program. Since 2014 Sikkila has served as a board member for the Prairie Lakes Regional Arts Council, Minnesota Citizen's for the Arts, as well as a Grant Review Panelist, and Artistic Evaluator for the Minnesota State Arts Board.
First known as a visual artist, Sikkila's practice combines printmaking, sculpture, and site specific installations with an impressive sense of scale and playfulness that push new ideas of contemporary art. Her work has been viewed and discussed all over the state in places such as the Minnesota Museum of American Art Project Space, Macy's Department Store, Hennipen Theatre Trust, University of Minnesota, Minnesota Children's Museum, and Ridgewater Colleges in Hutchinson and Willmar Minnesota.
Over the past seven years of being Director of the 410 Project she's introduced numerous art programs and special events for both children and adults to help strike creativity, positive self esteem, and art awareness in all of Southern Minnesota. Besides these duties Sikkila has received numerous awards including 2017 Women's Center and President's Commission on the Status of Women's “ Women's Courage and Vision Award”, Mankato Free Press 2016 “Outstanding Woman in Business”, 2015-2016 Art Educators of Minnesota "Distinguished Service Outside the Field" Recognition, 2015 Mankato's YWCA Young Woman of Distinction, and featured artist on PBS's Off 90 in 2017, and Post Cards, Pioneer's PBS Art TV Program in 2016.
So, yes, I said she's amazing. And she is. Enjoy getting to know Dana! After you are done reading about all of her awesomeness, please head over to Project Bike's Gofundme campaign right here! Please help support her work!
Jes: Dana, I love your DIY approach, your community-focused nature, and your leadership style. One of my goals with this interview series is to show how making a career as an artist is multifaceted. Can you talk more about where you are from and the many hats you wear as an artist?
Dana: I grew up in a very small farm town in west central Minnesota. As a young person listening to punk rock music, dyeing my hair blue, and just all around not fitting into the general system, I struggled as a teenager. Many people ask me if I grew up drawing or painting, or if I grew up in a creative household, but neither is the case. When I was young I wasn’t exposed to art or creativity outside a few art classes in high school. All I knew at that time was that I learned best by working with my hands. I took a lot of woodworking and automotive classes to stay afloat with my grades, and put myself in classrooms where I was the only female, which helped me grow a layer of tough skin.
Finally graduating high school by the skin of my teeth I had no desire to attend college. But with a hard push from my mother I ended up applying to Minnesota State University, Mankato. At first I was rejected, due to the poor nature of my high school grades. With reality staring me in the face I persisted, re-applied and was finally accepted. At that time I did not think attending MNSU would change my life, but it was the first open door I walked through that allowed me to truly be who I am; it showed me that there were creative people out there living and working. After that my grades and outlook on life completely excelled, placing me on the dean’s list my first semester.
Now, 15 years later, I wear many hats when it comes to being a creative professional. We often ask ourselves who we want to be. For me, that’s always been a very collaged thing. I am different things to different people at different times, which is difficult. I feel sometimes that my brain and hands are in a storm of focusing on my own visual work and studio practice, leading organizations and projects such as the 410 Project, and Project Bike, using my passions to teach, along with always being an advocate for importance of art and culture in our state and education system. Everything is intertwined in some way, I truly never feel like I am “done” working for the day. What I do in my life is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle that I am constantly learning to survive in, becoming accustomed to some days not being able to buy food or new shoes, waiting for my next paycheck to come in the mail.
This rings similarly to a quote I recently read from you in your Springboard Creative Exchange feature where you said, “My career in the arts is a constant daily progression from one thing to another, and every day I have to balance these things with my practice as well.” I connect to what you are saying. As an arts administrator I find myself teaching an artist statement workshop one day to curating an art show the following day to writing a grant application the next day. I am often also doing similar things on my own as an artist. Is that what you mean when you say that you daily progression is one thing to another? What are your strategies in finding a balance between a career in the arts and a career as an artist?
Everyday for me is a different type of work day. I switch between teaching, administration, studio time, board meetings, gallery work, and it never really slows down, but if it did I might sink. Some people look at my lifestyle and that of other artists and see our lives as unhealthy and unpredictable. It’s not something to dive straight into, you need to teach yourself how to sustain this way. I look at it now and really don’t know how else to live, this lifestyle has been completely wired into my body and brain.
Strategies for me in making it all happen are being completely organized, working outside the normal work hours, knowing the line of my artistic integrity, and not being afraid to “cold call” for an opportunity. If I see an opportunity with which my skills and knowledge would aline with, I have no problem emailing or calling to inquire about it. Many jobs I’ve received have come from myself starting the conversation, bringing something new to the table.
So, it’s not really about balance for me, sometimes things have to be pushed to the side. It took me a long time to understand that. I kept finding myself down a path of being overworked, no money, and feeling truly confused on my mission as a creative professional. Once I stepped back and allowed myself to define goals, I was able to feel confident in formalizing what type of creative schedule I want and need.
I can totally relate to how your art practice and work approach has shaped into a lifestyle. I can also see how when you have to push some things to the side that it's a from of decision-making to help stay above water! I know I do that too. This leads me to ask you about Project Bike! It's pretty awesome! It looks like a lot of work to pull off. Where did this project start and what keeps you doing it?
So to start, Project Bike is Minnesota’s only woman led bicycle tour with visual artists and their studios setting the destinations. For the past four years I’ve set out on a one of a kind art/bike tour, advocating for the important point that every artist has skills and creative ideas to help grow and sustain our communities. That we all have stories to share and that our art is the way we tell those stories. With my bike, trailer, and film crew, I’ve has biked over 2,500 summer miles connecting with Minnesota artists living in communities ranging from the rural to large cities, learning what motivates my fellow Minnesotans to create art. Project Bike's mission is to showcase that art and artists are truly part of our chemistry as individuals, as communities, and as a state.
Each year along the way my bike tour is documented through film and photography by Minnesota based filmmakers, with the goal to capture the true tales from the trails along with sharing artist's personal and thought provoking stories. These documentaries allow followers of the tour an in-depth and personal view of each artist, bike route, and of the personal struggles of each year's adventure.
At each artist stop I then collected two to four pieces of art, which travelled along with me by bike trailer as I return back to Mankato. Over four years Project Bike has collected and later displayed over 90 works of original art. Each piece, ranging in price from several hundred to a thousand dollars, were wrapped up in layers of bubble wrap, water resistant plastic, cardboard, tape, and tarps, and placed on the trailer behind my bike. This work collected on the tour, ranging from ceramic, drawing, painting, sculpture, glass, and printmaking, travelled along through rain, wind, and severe heat.
The idea of Project Bike started in 2013, one year after I became Executive Director of the 410 Project Community Art Space. At that time I had been out of grad school for a few years and was really trying to define myself in this leadership role. So instead of imitating others, I looked strictly at myself and what my passions were in life; at the time and still to this day they are community growth through art, and biking, so I thought why not put those two together. In 2015, after two years of trying to gather the courage, I set out on the first Project Bike. The first year I biked every mile, filmed every second, and planned every minute all on my own. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I remember getting home and telling myself I would never do that again. But a month later I displayed the 12 works of art I had collected from artists and premiered the 8 minutes long film I had made. By now the project has its own film crew, I have a riding partner, collected over 100 pieces of art, and has grown to have hundreds of followers from all over the country.
Over the years we’ve connect with over 100 artists living throughout the state. Each year the project grows in supporters, miles, and effort. It’s a huge undertaking of which 90% of the work falls in my lap. Project Bike has given me some of the best times but also the worst times, it’s a project that tests every part of my mental, spiritual, and physical strength. Project Bike has completely changed and shaped my life, I don’t know where I would be without its success.
I look forward to visiting the 410 Community Project Art Space one day. What kind of opportunities does the space offer to artists and your local area?
410 Project is a volunteer managed community art space started in 2003 by three Minnesota State University Mankato art majors, who combined their money to rent out a storefront in downtown Mankato to make and show their artwork. Through the years it’s grown to offer one of a kind experimental art and culture programs. Our mission is serving both artists and community members throughout southern Minnesota, offering the opportunity for all people to understand and value the arts through innovative experiences with contemporary art. Through exhibitions, programs, and special projects, the 410 Project presents a welcoming, integrated, and diverse experience that encourages questioning, creativity, and critical thinking.
We are a 100% community funded space that has produced and supported many emerging artists and exhibitions. We developed our very own youth mentorship program, and started and led beginning projects such as our very own Project Bike, on top of many other programs and events. 410 Project is becoming known as an art space that celebrates all forms of art and artists, working and creating with many underserved audiences. I feel lucky everyday for the opportunity to have lead this space for over the last 7 and a half years. Yes, it has a lot of stressors, it can be overwhelming enough to sometimes make rent on your own house, but imagine also holding the financial responsibilities of keeping a gallery open. The reality is that it has its challenges, but the positive outcomes make all the hard work worth it.
What kind of resources have you used to help your art career? Do you have any books, ideas, or approaches that you recommend to others as they are trying to figure out managing a career as an artist?
Truly the one way I’ve learned to manage my career is learning from my own experiences. I’ve taken a lot of risks to figure out who I am. I’ve tried to understand myself through the typical self help/leadership books and taking workshops, but the breakthrough came in high school, when I realized that I learn best by working with my hands. The directions we choose are not always the best, especially in the creative field, it’s a lot of putting myself, my work, and my financial stability on the line. But managing it all is truly defined by you, not a book; I say approach things with a strong creative voice, don’t be afraid to share your ideas with the right people, and work with those who respect and value your talents and time.
Where can we find you online?
People can find more information about my work at my website danasikkila.com, but make sure to reach out through social media! You can find information about my work, Project Bike and 410 Project on Facebook and Instagram…...COME FIND ME!
Thank you for answering my questions, Dana! I am truly inspired by you and your work!
All images courtesy of the artist.
I am excited to share a special Artists I Admire interview! Molly Parker Stuart and Maret Polzine have been kind enough to answer some last minute questions! They are currently promoting the 6th season of the Altered Esthetics Film Festival, a program I started in 2014. Back then it was a one night event showing around 20 artists. Now the festival shows over 50 artists within a two day schedule!
Molly Parker Stuart is the director of the Altered Esthetics Film Festival and an interdisciplinary artist best known for her experimental films. Molly works with and within structures, including social, cultural, physical, and digital structures to push the bounds of art making in order to create accessible and meaningful experiences. She was selected as a Featured Artist for the 2017 Altered Esthetics Film Festival and has been recognized for her work in the Trans community.
Maret Polzine is a filmmaker, arts organizer, and teacher in the Twin Cities. They founded and direct Video Variant, a film screening series exclusively dedicated to supporting the work of local LGBTQIA+ filmmakers. They are a teaching artist with COMPAS, offering classes on film and animation to all ages. Maret is the host of FilmNorth’s Cinema Lounge, and spends time moderating film conversations in festival settings. Their work is experimental, communicating unnameable feelings through abstract imagery.
As Molly and Maret prepare for the next festival, I've been super curious about what they have in store! I admire their artwork and leadership, so read on to learn more these amazing artists and their plans with the Altered Esthetics Film Festival!
Jes: Molly, I am so excited to get to interview you again! Last time, we checked in, it was August 2018 - almost one year ago! How have been things going?
Molly: It’s been a busy year! I had some of my works shown at the Weisman for Slow Art Day, I’ve screened a few times locally and nationally, I help Maret with Video Variant whenever they need it, I am working with a project of, by, and for trans women called Malleable that has been funded by MRAC and will be running this winter, and I’ve taken over your old position as the director of the Ae Film Festival, which I suspect you may have heard about. That’s a lot! I’m very proud of it all, too.
That's so awesome about your work showing at the Weisman and your Malleable project. Congrats! I am also excited that you are now leading the Altered Esthetics Film Festival too! Such great opportunities! Tell me more about how the festival is doing and what your goals are for the program?
It’s tough times right now, but the future looks incredible. As you know, we lost our space at the Southern, so everything is a lot tighter this year and we got a late start. Maret and I make an amazing team, though, so with the help from the Kickstarter, we’ll get through this year and come out running! I’m really excited for the future!
I want to give people a little background first. Most people know that I am a trans woman, and when I transitioned it pretty much brought an end to my arts career. Nobody would work with me. There’s a dead zone in my resume surrounding the time when I came out. Having lived through that and come out the other side, I can say with full certainty that I owe my career to you, Chelsea Arden Parker of Feminist Video Quarterly, and the Altered Esthetics Film Festival. I would not be here without that. Knowing that, my goals with the film fest are driven by the idea of being able to replicate that act of loving grace for everyone who needs it.
So with that, I have short, medium, and long term goals in mind. The short term goal is to get through this year intact. That’s what our Kickstarter is about. We’re going to do it, it’s going to work, and it’s going to work a lot more smoothly with the help of others. Film festivals are expensive and labor intensive, and your donations will be well spent. Every little bit counts! So please take a look at the Kickstarter, donate if you can, and share it with your networks.
For the medium term, we’re looking to expand on the microcinemas that Ae ran last year, and to use them as a way to get access and support to people who are currently left out of the film arts. We’re going to do that by partnering with community organizers and organizations to fund their own microcinema events for their own communities. We’ve been talking with queer and trans organizations, north Minneapolis community organizations, and others, and there is no shortage of interest from people who want to provide film arts access to their communities. As Ae board members roll off, we’ll be looking to replace them with people who participate in these community based microcinemas, so that as we go on Ae will become an organization made up of marginalized artists serving our own communities.
My long term goal is to eventually extend this format out into the country. The last time we did an interview I talked about growing up in rural Iowa, and I want to give back to the places where I come from. My hope is that by working with marginalized artists living in the city to bring people in the country access to the arts and culture we can begin to heal that political divide. By doing so I believe we can help build the solidarity needed so that we can create a better future for all of us together.
Wow, Molly, those are some amazing plans! I am so glad that the festival was there for you when you really needed it and that you are working towards extending that same support to those who are in need too. Since you mention partnerships, I noticed that the upcoming season will be held at The Trylon. It’s a great venue! When did this partnership begin?
It began last year at my retrospective. It really shook me how much of a difference it made to see deeply experimental works in a professional theater. It was a truly breathtaking experience. I was also really impressed with how accessible they were, and how responsive they were to making sure that everyone had access to the theater regardless of how their bodies work. The folks at The Trylon honestly care about cinema and want everyone to be able to experience it. So when the need came up I reached out to them. The price was right, they were interested in supporting weird, wild cinema, and it all just kind of fell into place.
As you mentioned your Kickstarter campaign launched recently. What will folks expect if they contribute to funding the 2019 program?
First and foremost they can expect to be supporting an inclusive and accessible program dedicated to showing the best experimental films the world has to offer. That goes without saying. I could go on for days about all of the radically experimental narratives, abstracts, and completely indescribable films I’ve seen at the fest over the years, and given the opportunity to do so I will!
Tanin Torabi has been a regular award winner with her short films focusing on dance in Iran. They are deeply beautiful and moving films. Our Creative Vision award winner last year, “Float” by Karli Evans, told a story of grief, loss, and acceptance experienced by a queer black woman. The thing that struck me about that film is how incredibly concise it is. The story it tells is so deeply imbued within every part of it that you know the whole of it from even a single frame. It is truly a masterpiece. We also always have a strong showing from artists who eschew the narrative form all together, which you can see in Maret’s works combining animation and film to create a strong emotional landscape that really sets a feeling inside you. When you watch one of their films, there is no path to knowing, you simply know. You can also find that in the purely abstract films that always have a place in the fest, which includes my own history. Ae has always been just ahead of the bleeding edge of contemporary film arts, and that’s not going to change. Many of the films shown at the Ae Film Fest challenge what it even means to be film, and that’s a rare thing to find anywhere. I honestly believe that the best way to understand it is to experience it yourself, so please come watch some films with us this August 28th and 29th at the Trylon and see for yourself.
We offer a number of gifts to say thanks for supporting our Kickstarter as well. Everyone gets a thank you card from the Ae board of directors. For $10+ we’ll get you a ticket to one night of the festival, for $25+ we’ll get you a ticket to both nights of the festival (or two for one night) and a place in the credits, and for $100+ you can have a sit-down critique/consultation with either Maret or myself. If you would like to donate an even larger sum, please feel free to contact me and we can find an appropriate gift of thanks.
For those who are skipping around, you can find the Kickstarter here. Please take a look, donate if you can, and share it widely within your networks.
Maret - Congrats on your Featured Artist Award! What can we expect from you at the Ae Film Festival?
Maret: Thanks so much! I’m currently working on a hand drawn animation for Ae. Hand drawn animation is not something I typically lean heavily on-- it’s usually the supporting actor. This will be my first entirely hand drawn movie to date. With the honor of receiving this award comes some reflection and meditation on my practice. I’ve observed in the past that the work I make that is the most “successful” is the work I make about past traumas and hardships. However, this is also the work I make compulsively, rather than intentionally. It ends up feeling bad to make, and bad to show. For this project, I am moving with intention, and with connection to other artists. I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on how it feels in my nervous system to be connected to the earth with both feet and both eyes, how it feels in my nervous system to meet people in a space of connection and engagement. More of my life has been spent cold than hot, and I find myself interested in tracking the progression from cold to hot in a visual way. So I guess it’s kind of a brief autobiography, told with abstract shapes and textures. I’ve invited my friends to join me in this venture, by asking them to touch the piece with their own instincts, as a way to communicate.
I am excited to see such personal work, Maret. I am sure there will be other films at the festival that will offer such vulnerability too. I believe sharing first-person cinema is the purest and bravest type of cinema. We just don't see enough of it! Local artists of Minnesota can submit to the festival for free, right? When is the deadline for consideration? Do you have any recommendations for folks submitting?
Maret: The deadline is July 15th! As for recommendations, be bold! Submit the works you took risks on, the works that challenged you, the works that felt like fire to make. We want to honor your explorations and growth.
Molly: I love what Maret said! Show us what feels like fire to make! As a featured artist, Maret will be setting the tone for our fest this year, so step into your warmth and show us your flames! I’ll also add that while we will continue to accept films from everybody, we will proudly give full throated support to queer and trans filmmakers, especially QTPOC and trans women. If you make films and have an identity that has been historically excluded from the film scenes, please know that we fully understand that, have experienced it ourselves, and we will welcome and celebrate both you as an artist and the works you make!
Thanks for answering all of my questions! Is there anything else you want to share?
Submit your films, be kind to yourselves and each other, and take a moment to remember how beautiful you are!
All images courtesy of the artists.
If you don't know who Nik Nerburn is, you're about to!
Nik Nerburn is an artist working in collaboration with place. He makes films, books, photos, and zines. While working as an educator and exhibiting artist, he also develops long-term documentary projects that tell stories about communities. He organizes free family picture days, storefront photo shows, live-narrated neighborhood home-movies, marathon polaroid portrait giveaways, and rural outdoor experimental cinema screenings. Guided by the belief that sharing stories can create bridges across great differences, he collaborates with neighborhood organizations, public housing residents, churches, corner stores, families, small businesses, after-school programs, non-profits, libraries, and museums. He lives and works in Duluth, Minnesota, on the far western edge of Lake Superior.
Nik is one of my favorite artists, hands down. He makes you laugh. He makes you care. He is a sincere and engaged artist, and there is an authenticity to his approach that I admire dearly. So, enjoy the interview! He references Lucy Lippard so you know he has to be cool! Also, make sure to watch The Great American Think Off when you are done with the reading!
Keep on making Minnesota proud, Nik, and thanks for answering all of my curious questions about your art practice!
Jes: Nik, tell me more about your book The Grand Terrace Photo League. I read it recently and I love it dearly! I reminds me a lot of a Photovoice project that I have done with folks I work with at Avivo. What is your project and how did it get started?
Nik: Thanks Jes! It is similar to the Photovoice project in a lot of ways. The Grand Terrace Photo League grew out of a collaboration with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership (SWMHP) and Artplace America. SWMHP has a program where they bring artists in to work with the organization, in their service communities, or, in my case, directly with the residents of an apartment complex that they’ve built in Worthington, Minnesota. I ran an after school photo club for resident youth, shot lots of family portraits, and generally made myself and my photo practice available to building residents.
My goals were to activate the communal space in the building, document the daily life within the apartment complex, and actually provide something useful to the folks who live there. Sometimes the portrait-making process was loud and raucous, and other times it was quiet and intimate. Curious friends and family would drop by and find themselves involved in setting up or taking a photo, youth participants would help direct subjects and organize equipment, and residents would ask questions of each other and learn about their neighbors by flipping through that day’s collection of prints. In the end, we made a beautiful 96 page photo book documenting the process, copies of which were donated to over 100 local libraries and individuals (including everybody in the building).
The project was an exercise in what I call “useful photography” (a term that I use rather than “family” photograph, which I based off of Rick Prelinger’s “useful film” theory of advertising, industrial, and home movies), collaborative ethnography (which is a riff on the colonial legacy of ethnographic and anthropological documentary storytelling, which, thankfully, has been totally turned on its head the past few years by a subjective, often POC gaze, with ethnographic subjects often in control of their own representation), and a place-based research residency in a Middle-American immigrant community. So yeah! Trying to do something new and different with a documentary project while also being present to the needs of the community I was working with.
The litmus test of an image’s quality wasn’t if I liked it - it was if my subject found it pleasing, or fun, or important to them. I was absolutely interested in representing daily life in Grand Terrace to the outside world, but my first audience was always the building residents. This meant often making images I wasn’t primarily excited about making (prom photos, for instance), but instead images building residents wanted to see. Rather than emphasize the “window” power of photography (a view into a distant world you’re not a part of), we used the camera as a “mirror” (to show building residents how they wanted to be seen). My aspiration is that together, the residents and I could split that hair and do a little bit of both.
I have seen you describe yourself as a “documentary storyteller.” How does that present in your art? What kind of stories are you looking to tell? Where do you find your stories?
My practice has been a bit of a back and forth between still and moving images, and I’ve always been interested in telling stories from the real world. I’m also deeply committed to regionalism, which Wendell Berry described as “local life aware of itself”. So I spend a lot of time looking right around me, to the culture and history of where I live.
Another place I look to is archives, both formal (like libraries) and informal (like home movie collections). A few years ago, for instance, I made a film about the myth of Paul Bunyan and how he’s been used to erase the legacy of the U.S.-Dakota War, which was an absolutely enormous war of extermination against the Dakota that was instrumental in the consolidation of the Minnesotan state. While researching the history of the Red River Logging Company, whose ad executive William Laughead invented Paul Bunyan, I found a collection of photographs that made me pause. Laughead had a lumberjack pose for him doing “manly” lumberjack things, like splitting a log and flexing his muscles, which he would then draw Paul Bunyan from. Before I saw those photos, I had only thought about how the story of Paul Bunyan helped erase the Ojibwe and the Dakota from Minnesota’s past. I hadn’t really thought about how Paul Bunyan has also influenced how we think about masculinity in Northern Minnesota. It took a trip to the archives to do that. And it had a big influence on how I thought about my film.
Place, memory, and community are themes or subjects that come up in your work. Where does that interest inspire from?
I think having artistic and politically engaged parents who grapple with these subjects really primed the pump for me to do the same. The American legacy of genocide, slavery, and expansion have a lot to do with it. But it’s also specifically the vernacular, backyard, roadside and “small h” histories that interest me. A major part of my education is in the essay film, home movies, and vernacular moving image forms, all of which are first-person. They foreground the hand of the artist. Breaking down the “voice of god” documentary form happens when we uplift personal histories, especially those on the margins of our shared colonial/genocidal heritage. And for me, it’s not about creating a new dominant narrative that’s more “woke”. It’s about fundamentally questioning the idea of the single story, especially about rural life, small towns, and the landscapes of Middle America.
Lucy Lippard, whose work I love, writes that “narratives articulate relationships between the teller and the told, here and there, past and present. In the absence of shared past experience in a multicentered society, storytelling...take[s] on a heightened intensity”. Stories are how we place ourselves, not just geographically but historically. As somebody highly sensitized to the power of place, I can’t not hear and tell the stories that help me make sense of the landscape. Everyday knowledge and vernacular histories are how I enrich my own knowing of sense of place. This is why my interest really is in narrative, as opposed to just film or photography as mediums, you know?
What is your art process like? Do you go after an idea or do you wait for ideas to come to you?
I practice unstructured time. I budget a few hours into my schedule to go for a long walk, take a leisurely drive, or take a deep dive into the library. I’m a real believer in the chance encounter. It’s a bit of both. As I get older, I feel like I’m getting less interested in making didactic work, and instead embracing a bit more ambiguity. Some of the work of mine I’m most proud of came when I let go of my sense of control.
I’m always questioning my assumptions about place, and stories that contradict my assumptions are always exciting. Recently I’ve been using my own family’s immigration history and genealogy as a source of inspiration, but I’m still in the research phase of that work.
You have a new documentary called The Great American Think Off. I am really excited about seeing it. I understand it’s about the New York Mills annual philosophy competition. I would love to know more about the film. Who is in the film? What is the competition? Where one can view the work?
Yes! OK here’s the deal: every year, rural New York Mills, Minnesota, population 1,199, hosts a philosophy competition for everyday Americans. Four people from around the country are chosen to debate in front of the citizens of this west central Minnesota town, arguing over questions like “Does Life Have Meaning?”, “Does Technology Free Us or Trap Us?", and "Does Poetry Matter?”. At the end of the competition, a new Great American Thinker is chosen by a citizen vote in the high school auditorium.
Each year, residents of the town propose the question for consideration. The New York Mills Cultural Center, which hosts the debate, then solicits submissions from around the country, encouraging writers to consider the question using "personal experience rather than philosophical abstraction". Past contestants have included a truck driver, an assembly line worker, and a prisoner on death row.
I made a film about the 2018 competition, which features a stay-at-home mom from Nashville, a chess champion from Virginia Beach, a business consultant from Austin, and a barista from New Orleans. The film is a classic contest documentary, following these four remarkable people as as they each reflect on and debate the 2018 question: what has more of an impact on shaping one's life - success or failure? I won’t spoil it for you.
The film debuted on public television in the region, and will have a re-run on May 31st at 11:30 am. Pioneer is also hosting the whole doc on their website, so you can watch it there!
It’s a really beautiful example of a story that contradicts most people’s assumptions about small towns and rural places. Why shouldn’t we expect a philosophy competition to happen in a town of 1,000 people?
I’m working on a sequel this year, where my mom participates as a contestant (true story).
I am an artist who practices with video that hates to sit at a computer for hours at a time. I think that’s why I have gravitated towards painting lately. I spent a great deal of time between 2013-2016 working on films where all of a sudden I couldn’t do it anymore. How do you manage the computer side of things when it comes to working in photography and filmmaking?
Excellent point. Part of my recent transition to more still-image based work has to do with being unable to handle more than a few hours on a computer each day. It can be a grind, especially when you’re not making money at it. I’m a believer in having a place to work that you can shut the door on - sharing your immediate living space with your computer work space is a no-no. I really try to prioritize being in the world with a camera, which is what made me fall in love with this type of work in the first place. Part of that is having an analog photography and darkroom practice, but it’s also about being intentional about finding ways to use image-making and storytelling as a way to spend time with people. I’ve transitioned to a standing desk and I use some of those gamer-glasses to keep out the blue light. I’m not convinced they work, but they make me feel cute.
"Slowing down with film gives me the break I need from the digital world," Nik says. "This is the old Bethel Swedish Church in Duluth, Minnesota, one month before demolition. Neighbors think that squatters started the fire. I shot this on an old camera with some old film, which made me feel really good."
What kind of resources have you been able to use as artist to help your career?
I’m a strong believer in residencies as ways to jump-start and re-focus your art practice. I find opportunities on the Springboard job board and on MNartists.org. I also think a conference or two each year is a great way to connect to people in your field.
Do you have advice for an emerging artist trying to figure out how to create a sustainable art career?
Part of the challenge as a young artist is taking your own work seriously. Maybe for some people it’s easy to call yourself a real artist, but for a lot of us it’s not. Call yourself whatever you want, but don’t be afraid to take your work really seriously.
I really appreciate Ira Glass’ advice to young artists regarding taste. As creative people, we have good taste, which is why we’re so often appalled at the quality of our work. We know what good work is, but it can be a struggle to make it. It takes years for our work to get as good as our ambitions. So, it’s important to just create massive amounts of work. You’re more likely to take a good photo if you just take a lot of photos. So get to it!
Also, I’m a strong believer in self-qualified education. I don’t have an MFA, which limits me in not being able to teach at a university, but it also relieved me of a certain debt and has challenged me to make my work relevant and accessible to everyday people, rather than academics. I think we all have a lot of learning to do, no matter how much we’ve gone to school.
Where can we find you online?
My artist website is http://www.niknerburn.com. I’m also pretty active on Instagram. Find me at @datanodata.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thanks for the chance to riff on this stuff, Jes! Much appreciated. Shout out to all my fellow artists making it work in the big wide open landscapes of middle America.
All images courtesy of the artist.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.