An artist I have admiring 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 alumni 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.
I think artist Becca Cerra is among many truth tellers. Unique in artistic approach and disciplines, Becca's work challenges unrealistic, perfectionist beauty standards and misconceptions around mental health. Her work also calls attention to disability stigmas. "My art is a necessary respite from these messages, showing beauty in unexpected and unconventional ways," she says. "I aim to shatter assumptions, educate the public, and empower individuals living with disabilities."
Learn more about Becca right here. In this interview she shares about her process, the art she has been making, and the resources she has accessed to move her career goals forward. In particular, you will read about "Altered Aesthetics," a project that focuses on people living with amputations. Recently exhibited with Made Here, "Altered Aesthetics" continues to show, traveling from venue to venue.
Becca, I am so interested in your interdisciplinary practice - from sculpture to performance art. When did your approach of blending disciplines first start?
I started combining visual and performing arts during my senior year of college at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). I was splitting my time between my sculpture practice, dance rehearsals, and acroyoga classes and felt like I couldn’t justify spending so much time participating in dance and acrobatics when I really needed to be preparing for my senior thesis. But I wasn’t ready to give those activities up so I found a way of bringing them into my visual arts practice and blending media to create something that felt uniquely my own.
I was first introduced to your work via your project Altered Aesthetics. Exploring the body seems to be an ever present theme and subject in your work, particularly body image. What kind of stories or messages do you hope to convey by talking about and being curious about the body?
Rooted deeply in visual art principles, my project “Altered Aesthetics” pushes the boundaries of contemporary art by combining sculpture and the human body in unexpected ways. Through my art, I shed light on Western society's unrealistic standards of beauty and perfection. I offer new perspectives on how to defy these expectations. I am driven to create my work because beauty standards, mental health, and disability stigmas are pervasive, sneaking into nearly every form of media we consume. Having lived with disabilities for much of my life, I have an intimate knowledge of the stigmas and limiting perceptions people with disabilities face. My art is a necessary respite from these messages, showing beauty in unexpected and unconventional ways. I aim to shatter assumptions, educate the public, and empower individuals living with disabilities. My artistic practice is a catalyst for a societal shift in which all are revered for their unique and inherent beauty.
Altered Aesthetics is a traveling show now. How did you envision the project from an an art project and to an exhibition?
When I first had the idea for Altered Aesthetics, I wasn’t really sure what form it would take or how I would go about creating it. So I applied to Forecast Public Art for a research and development grant which I received and used to help me troubleshoot the idea. Once I got started I realized how powerful the work was going to become and I just didn’t stop until it was complete. One of the perks of the way I work, is that it requires multiple collaborators and project partners who each have their knowledge and experiences that they are bringing into the work. So as I became more sure about the direction of the work, the others involved were able to connect me with resources they knew of to help get Altered Aesthetics viewed by more and more people.
What’s next for Altered Aesthetics?
I initially debuted Altered Aesthetics in September 2018. Since then it’s been featured in several other exhibitions, magazines and online publications. My goal is to keep exhibiting Altered Aesthetics for quite awhile. It’s about to come down from an exhibition in downtown Minneapolis with Made Here and move to Hudson Hospital in Wisconsin where it will be on view for 3 months. In 2020, it will be at the Phipps Center for the Arts and Hopkins Center for the Arts. I’m currently looking into how to get it displayed at Mayo Clinic and a few other locations. I want to keep expanding the scope of my work and reach more audiences so I am open to suggestions!
What kinds of art resources have you used to expand your work and network? Have you received grant funding?
I’ve participated in several artist residency programs which have given me access to a global network of artists to call on for support as needed. I’ve received funding from the East Central Regional Arts Council, VSA Minnesota, Puffin Foundation, Forecast Public Art, and private donations when I ran a GoFund Me to support Altered Aesthetics. A few years ago I participated in Forecast’s Making it Public series and have since attended a few workshops they have hosted regarding career development. Jen Krava from Forecast has been a huge help to me, by connecting me with other artists further along in their careers who have provided me with insight and guidance in the early stages of my career. I also have taken a few workshops from Springboard for the Art’s Work of Art series which were invaluable.
How do you approach setting and sticking to art career goals?
When I get an idea in my head, I don’t stop until I see it through. When I decided that I’d become an artist for my career not just as a hobby, I knew it would mean making sacrifices and working really hard even on days when I don’t want to. What has helped me a lot, is to look at my art as a business. Yes it’s my passion and the thing that brings me joy. It’s also a business, and I need to run it as such.
Right now I’m completing a business class with Women Venture which has really helped me clarify my career goals and identify what my next steps are. In 2017 I took what felt like a big leap forward by establishing an LLC and this year my big goal is to write a business plan, which I’m currently in the process of doing with the support of Women Venture’s class. It has helped me figure out how to make a sustainable and profitable career as an artist. It hasn’t been easy but I’ve been learning a ton and receiving great feedback from viewers and customers as I get clearer and clearer in my path.
Beyond Altered Aesthetics, are you working on anything new?
Yes! Right now I’m in the research and development phase for another sculpture/dance hybrid, this time centered around mental health. I’m currently working to find funding for this project so I can really get started. I’m also working on several commissions ie: wind chimes, door handles, coat racks, candle holders, bottle openers, trivets, etc. which are all such a blast to work on.
Where can we find you online?
All images of Altered Aesthetics is courtesy of the artist.
I am excited to introduce to you Twin Cities-based artist Erin Maurelli. What interests me most about her artwork is how she explores aspects of the human body through printmaking and book arts. In her work, the machine is a metaphor for the body and vice versa. I think this is powerful to think about, particularly with how Erin approaches subjects like infertility and adaptation.
Erin talks about being an experienced teaching artist in this interview too. She offers insights into being an artist and shares more on her background. Please read on and learn about Erin!
I am really curious about you, your art and your history as a printmaker and book artist! Tell me more about you and your practice.
I was trained as a Master Printer at Tamaind Institute of Lithography. It was two years of the hardest, most enjoyable work. In that time I perfected my print technique. More importantly, I learned to collaborate. As an artist, I hit a particular challenge to put another’s vision over your own. I also refer to this time as my “brainwashing.” I came to think of prints in very black & white terms. Graduate school at the University of Iowa allowed me to loosen up, explore monoprints, collage, folded structures, installation, fiber, video, and more. In my new found freedom, everything still had to be well crafted, as a rule!
Both nature and the machine are recurring themes and visuals in your art. Where does that inspiration come from? What drives you to approach such complexities?
Babies. I appear to be a typical suburban mom, but my road to motherhood was a struggle. I would describe my sex education as basic, minimal, and brief. When I became pregnant, switches and functions went into auto-pilot mode! I was amazed. I was becoming a baby machine! 15 years ago, science/medicine was just making claims about the benefits of breastmilk to premature babies. My first child was born 6 weeks early, and I quickly became versed in this world. My whole graduate thesis was based on this comparison of body vs. machine. I did work surrounding breasts (their function vs visual appeal), and raised awareness to breastfeeding mothers’ needs. I worked with the University of Iowa's Hospital Milk Bank. It was so cool!
Then my body failed me. I had multiple miscarriages and lost twin girls at 25 weeks gestation. It felt like a total betrayal of this body I had invested so much time and admiration into. This led my husband and I to consider IVF and egg donation to become pregnant again. Another strange and amazing view into a secret world. Six years ago, we had secured an egg donor, and began hormone therapy to “convince” my body it was pregnant, so a lab-grown embryo could be implanted in my uterus. Talk about science fiction! Infertility is such a taboo subject in our society, that it breaks my heart. Couples are quietly grieving the loss of hope, wonder and expectation.
What are you currently working on?
My current obsession is prosthetics and biomimicry. I am a big nerd at heart. The natural world always delivers a sense of wonder. I take that wonder a step further by imagining how humans might adapt plant, insect, amphibian and reptilian characteristics to improve our lives.
So many artists, myself included, become teaching artists. It’s rewarding and inspiring to teach others. It’s a great way to build an income as an artist too. It can also be exhausting and time consuming. How do you balance teaching with being creative?
I maintain a studio practice. I give myself deadlines. I apply to residencies and shows to give myself deadlines. I am in control of how many days a week I teach. My goal is to load my classes on MWF, so I can have time to spend in the studio. I need to create during the daytime hours, so I can pick up the mom-role in the evenings & weekends. Treating my art practice as a side business has helped me to make room for it, and be open to success.
What kinds of classes do you teach?
College: Art foundations mainly. Drawing, Color Theory, Approaching Art which I describe as visual literacy. Occasionally print or book arts. I act as a mentor to many younger artists. The art world outside of an undergraduate program requires so much more hustle than most are prepared for. I also teach adult classes at different venues around the Twin Cities.
How did you get started as a teaching artist?
I taught classes as part of my graduate training. In 2010 I was invited to be a visiting artist at Concordia University. From there, I was offered teaching positions. I find I’m frustrated when I see people doing things “the hard way,” especially in printmaking. When I ask if I can offer help or share a trick, most people are receptive. I love when teaching occurs in an organic way.
Do you have any advice for artists who are looking to starting leading workshops or finding work as a teaching artist?
You are more talented and capable than you think. Teach the things that you feel you are well experienced in. You don’t have to be an expert, because we all are improving. Be clear. Keep things simple. My lesson plans can be applied to young children as easily as they can be applied to adults. The user/student brings their own experience to classes.
What’s your favorite part about being an artist?
This is a slippery question. I am wrestling with the question of the Artist: from Shamman to Slacker and back again. I think those who make art are feared and revered and dismissed and detested in today’s society. It’s a crazy duality. This may be my first book topic. My favorite part about being an artist is people’s reaction to me when I say that I am an artist. The word “Artist” is loaded, and people’s reaction reflect where their own definition lies.
What’s your least favorite part about being an artist?
Not being paid for my talent, insight, creativity, vision and interpretations.
How do you find art opportunities?
I am constantly looking and networking and looking at other’s art. I have several websites that I hit on a regular basis. I also think of ideas and pitch them to galleries, groups, collaborators. The worst they can say is “No.”
What art or artist websites do you like to visit often?
Springboard, MRAC, NEMAA, MNbookarts, UICB, and Facebook. I also have a running list of shows, residencies and galleries - and what the deadlines are, ‘cuz I love a deadline.
Where can we find you online?
All photos courtesy of the artist Erin Maurelli.
All I do is live and breathe art so why not dedicate a series of interviews featuring other creatives. There is really no reason not to!
My love for art and artists is endless. I say this a lot. I learn a lot by talking with and getting to know other artists. By asking someone about their creative process, what their path has been like, where they find opportunities, I have come to see that we are more similar than we are different. I also see that we are diverse. I see that we are multifaceted. I see that often our art practices are connected to who we are as people. I see that our values and what matters to us most is wrapped up in why we make art and why we call ourselves artists. I also see that artists possess a strong work ethic and that we lead through our independent vision and innovative nature.
Beyond just being curious about other artists, I get a lot out of admiring their work. I am a fangirl. I love to geek out on and over the talents of others. I feel the more that we can offer and share with the world our creativity, our expressions, and our passions, we will reflect who we really are. The more we can do to support the work of others, the more that we can hold hands, lead with our hearts, and feel more connected.
We are rich. We are compassionate. We are strong.
With these interviews I want to bring us together, building larger and stronger creative communities. I want us all to gain by getting to know more artists, learn about who they are, why they practice, and what they may recommend for others as they manage their own career as an artist.
Feel free to send me an email at email@example.com. Share an artist with me that you admire. Tell me if you’ve learned or connected with something new by reading one of my interviews. Or just say hi! I want to get to know you too! I am really excited to start this project, so I want to know what you are thinking! I want to know what you are doing!
You can also share about yourself in comments. Then we can get to know you too!
My first interview in this series is with Bunny Portia, a painter that explores self-portraiture and concepts of youth and beauty in her art. Around her 60th birthday, she started making a series called Momento Mori. So many of us within the Twin Cities art community got hooked on what she was making. We haven’t stopped wanting to see more from her! So, please enjoy getting to know Bunny Portia!
Hi Bunny! Tell me more about you and your art practice? What mediums do you work with?
I’m primarily an oil painter. But I also make encaustics and prints.
I have admired your art for quite a few years now. I remember when I first saw “Love Letter to My Body,” it brought me into reflection about the use and care of my own body, particularly as I was aging; not really thinking ahead or how one thing or the other could impact my future self. I think some of that is related to neglect or body ignorance...and having some hate towards my body. Your art really had me thinking! Now, I am like “EMBRACE YOURSELF,” especially when I am confronted with how my body has been changing as I have gotten older. I will be 40 this year! So this theme “of becoming” is ever present. This piece was part of a larger series, right? Tell us more about it. Where did this work first start?
My Bunny Portia Memento Mori series started around 2012 when I turned 60 and started exploring the themes of aging and traditional ideals of women’s beauty and cultural worth. It was at the start of my transition of identity from middle age to old age, as I was experiencing first-hand, society’s negative perceptions of older women in both subtle and obvious ways.
In 2015 I was invited to participate in a group show at Groveland Gallery of “Love Letters from Artists”. Creating a love letter to my body proved to be a continuation of the therapeutic process of painting about old age from a female point-of-view.
“Love Letter to My Body” was created with images from my life-size Memento Mori paintings. On the left is me as a 19-year-old Playboy Bunny holding hands with 60-year-old me on the right. I use the Playboy Bunny image as a cultural symbol of youth, beauty and female sexuality. It’s a symbol I grew up with. To me it represents the Western idea that “youthful beauty equals female worth”.
The most gratifying aspect of this piece has been the response from all ages of women (and a few men) who’ve told me they identified with the feelings expressed. Many told me that they have my print hanging on their wall as a reminder to take care of themselves and to be kinder to themselves about body image. It feels good that my art has helped them.
Where has this series taken you as an artist?
My Memento Mori series started as a visual memoir and as a way of working through my anxiety of moving from middle age to old age. I’m still using this series as my therapy in dealing with the realities of old age and mortality.
What’s next for you? Is there a project that you are currently working on?
I have a series of “#MeToo paintings I’ve been working on for several years. I’m almost finished with the first one. Many of those years were spent percolating in my brain. I spend months thinking about ideas for paintings before I commit anything to canvas. Not the most efficient, but it’s my process.
I’m also working on a large scale “Love Letter”. A street artist on Instagram approached me about pasting one on a building someplace like a huge mural. I love the idea but need to find a building and some funding for that to happen. I’m too old to be dodging the police at night so I want to get permission. Although that kind of takes the “street” out of “street art” doesn’t it? If anyone has ideas about how that could happen, please let me know.
I am always curious about how other artists manage their art careers. Being an artist is awesome, but it has its ups and downs, as the case for most jobs. Everyone has their own path, too, but we can usually benefit from hearing other artist stories. So, what’s your favorite part about being an artist?
My favorite part of being an artist is not having to make excuses. I’m a binge painter. It’s my process and I’m fine with that. I’m just now coming out of a year of not producing much.
What’s your least favorite part about being an artist?
The toughest part about being an artist is the vulnerability I feel in face-to-face conversations about my art. When people find out that I worked a college summer job as a Playboy Bunny, I get so many strong reactions: admiration, disgust, curiosity, anger, and worst of all...MEN CHECKING OUT MY CHEST! I’m a 66-year-old introvert grandmother who is enjoying her “invisibility” after years of getting too much of the wrong kind of attention and feeling “watched”. When I see someone “checking me out”, I want to loudly shame them with, “If you’re looking at my boobs, you’ve missed the point. And, BTW, thanks for the creepie hug!” But instead, I do what I’ve always done: pretend I don’t notice. As if not validating what just happened means it didn’t happen or it wasn’t that bad. I suppose it’s more their curiosity than anything, but it’s especially unnerving after years of not having to deal with the male gaze.
When I took the job of Playboy Bunny, I knew what I was signing up for: lots of “the male gaze” in a skimpy costume in exchange for big tips in a non-threatening atmosphere. Now, at an art opening or casual meeting, I feel vulnerable again, reacting in fear to perceived threats of disapproval and/or unwanted, inappropriate attention .
How do you find art opportunities?
Most opportunities I learn about from other artists. Also, Springboard for the Arts has been a great resource. Every month I look at www.callforentries.com for shows to apply to, but don’t enter many. I’m against the “pay to play” business plan that many galleries have resorted to. They may need to do that to keep their doors open, but it feels financially askew if they’re charging $35 or more to enter a show with no guarantee of admittance. That system of showing my work isn’t financially feasible for me.
What art or artist websites do you like to visit often?
I’m completely addicted to looking at art on Instagram. Looking several times a day, almost against my will sometimes. But, hey, it’s work related, right?
Where can we find you online?
All images courtesy of the artist Bunny Portia.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.