"I hope that my work can help the public look at a problem or a situation with new perspective and in a way that is empowering. Successful community organizing requires building power -- and I believe building power begins with having new insights and believing that change is possible."
Rachel Breen is a visual artist who works at the intersection of drawing, installation and public engagement. She has exhibited her work both locally and nationally and is the recipient of four Minnesota State Arts Board grants, the Walker Art Center’s Open Field fellowship, and the 2019–2020 Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship. Rachel holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota and an undergraduate degree from The Evergreen State College. She is a Professor of Art at Anoka Ramsey Community College.
Jes: Rachel, I am excited to get to know you a bit more through this interview. I watched your artist talk recently with the Minneapolis Institute of Art and I was so drawn to how you incorporate ethics and social justice into your artistic approach. I can tell you are deeply motivated to raise awareness and create conversations with your work. Can you talk more about your background and what inspired your current show The Labor We Wear at the museum?
Rachel: My commitment to social justice through art is deeply connected to being Jewish. One of the important values I was raised with is the idea of social responsibility -- that all humans are responsible for working to make the earth a better place for all its inhabitants. The fact that I am a descendent of immigrants, a member of a people who have faced and continue to face discrmination and am white and have an enormous amount of privilege all contribute to my belief in the need to work for change and advocate for social justice. I see art as a platform for communicating about solutions, ideas and values about justice.
My current exhibition at the Mia was inspired by horror over the Rana Plaza Factory collapse and the more than a thousand lives lost. It was also inspired by a realization that the ways garment workers are exploited are not new -- that garment workers have been mistreated since the birth of the industrial revolution. I realized this in part, because I connected this disaster to a disaster I grew up knowing about -- the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took place in 1911 in New York City. One hundred forty six mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants died in this fire, one of the worst worker disasters in the US at that time. I wanted to make work that showed that Americans are not removed from the exploitation of garment workers -- first because this kind of exploitation has taken AND CONTINUES TO TAKE place in the US today, but also because we are connected to these kinds of disasters through the way we purchase clothing made in these factories and under these unfair conditions.
Can you describe how community organizing or building has been represented within your art practice?
It really influences how I think about what I want my work to convey. I hope that my work can help the public look at a problem or a situation with new perspective and in a way that is empowering. Successful community organizing requires building power -- and I believe building power begins with having new insights and believing that change is possible.
Shroud, 1,281 used white shirts commemorating the lives lost in the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse, Bangladesh, 2013 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, NYC, 1911. People of the Jewish faith and the Muslim faith are both buried in white. All of the shirts were worn, discarded and purchased by the pound in Minneapolis -- showing the way consumers are complicit in the working conditions of the garment workers who made these shirts.
The Bottom Line, plackets removed from used shirts, This work draws attention to the way clothes are mass produced is inextricably linked to the bottom lines of major international brands. The color palette of this piece suggests corporate culture. The people who wear these shirts are making decisions that impact the working conditions – the pay and safety of the workers who made the same shirts.
I am so curious about your sewing machine! I know it’s so important to the art you make. Do you have one that you prefer to use, or do you use a mix of machines?
At the core of my practice is a sewing machine, which I think of as a deeply symbolic and practical object. Most humans on the planet wear clothes made by this same tool -- a symbol of our connectedness. I divert sewing's original purpose of creating and mending, toward social critique. I call attention to the stitch as a symbol of human interdependence, using it to express belief in the possibility of social change.
I have a lot of sewing machines -- people keep giving them to me! Many of my friends have mothers who have machines that they aren’t using any more so they call me up when their mothers are getting rid of them! I used many of them in a Northern Spark project I did a few years ago called Behind the Seams. I am beginning to plan another community engagement project that will involve many sewing machines so stay tuned.
My favorite one is still my Nechi, an old steel Italian machine that I bought at a garage sale for $3.00 a few days before grad school started because I thought it would be fun to play with in my studio. The rest is history.
I have heard you call the sewing machine your third arm. When did it become so instrumental to your creative voice?
In grad school I played with my sewing machine a lot but it wasn’t until the day I was sewing some fabric onto some paper and my machine ran out of thread and I noticed the beautiful punctures the needle made in the paper without the thread. That moment set a lot of things in motion for me -- I loved the mark and then I realized it also had a lot of meaning embedded in it -- which has now become embedded in my work.
COVID has put a pause on so many things. Life just isn’t the same. I am wondering how COVID has impacted you and how are you coping or doing during these times?
As a Minneapolis resident, COVID and the murder of George Floyd will forever be intertwined. They have laid bare the injustice of racism and the inhumanity of our economic and political systems that impact people of color more harshly than white people. I feel an even greater sense of responsibility in acting for change. In thinking about where my energy can be most effective I return to the community college environment -- which is where I teach -- it is such a powerful intersection of race and class and I see many opportunities for and critical need for making change.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
Time. It's always hard to find enough time to spend on making my work.
What do you love about being an artist?
I love having work that is so engaging -- physically, intellectually, creatively, and psychologically. I love that my ability to engage as an artist will continue (I hope) for a very very long time. I love being part of an amazing art community in the Twin Cities that challenges, supports and nurtures me. We are so rich with so many talented, smart and dynamic artists and it feeds and energizes me. I am proud to be an artist here!
What kind of resources have you used to help you with your art career?
I have been supported and mentored by many many other artists -- friends who have been willing to come to my studio and provide critical feedback in response to work in progress or read a grant application, for instance. Grant support has also been incomparable -- multiple state arts board grants and my recent Jerome Hill fellowship have been critical to helping me scale up my work. They have made it possible for me to accomplish ambitious projects that just would not have been possible without them. They have allowed me to think big.
I see that you teach drawing and painting at Anoka Ramsey Community College. Do you have any recommendations for other artists who are interested in exploring teaching as part of their art practice/career?
Teaching is not for everyone. If you think you might be interested in teaching I would highly recommend volunteering in a school or at a community center to see how you like it. Try working with different age groups -- each age provides special challenges and joys.
You have a variety of forthcoming exhibitions coming up. Can you share about these projects and what we might be able to expect from them?
I have an exhibition coming up at SooVAC -- it will open mid-November. We are working on the title right now. This work wil be a series of “maps” I have been working on for the last 6 years, since I returned from a research trip in Bangladesh. While in Bangladesh I collected a bag of fabric scraps taken from the many many mounds of fabric scraps piled up outside of garment factories outside of Dhaka. I have sewn these fabric scraps to paper in “map-like” configurations to show the connection between our clothes and these fabric scraps. I call these “supply chain maps.”
I’m excited to show this work because it is so different from the work that is currently being shown in my exhibition “The Labor We Wear” at the Mia -- which is installation based. The work at SooVAC is thematically connected but visually it is very different -- its works on paper and involved a lot of hand stitching. The making process is entirely different.
Thanks for answering my questions, Rachel. Do you have anything else you would like to share?
You asked a lot of questions -- I can’t think of anything else right now!
I did ask a lot of questions and you answered all of them! I so appreciate it!
All images courtesy of the artist. Interview and edited by Jes Reyes.
“As the child of immigrants, born and raised in New York, grind/ hustle culture is in my blood. But since I can’t do many of the social things I enjoy, I’ve been truly focusing on being still. Rest and healing is also part of the “work”. I don’t have to be productive to be of value. I don’t have to produce to earn my space in the world. I am valuable, you are valuable whether we are productive or not. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a coping strategy but this train of thought has been helping me during this time."
There's an amazing person I want you to meet. If you don't know her already, her name is Valérie Déus. For Minnesotans, we are lucky she lives in Minneapolis. Valérie is a poet, film programmer and radio show host. Her work has been featured in Minnesota Women’s Press, The Brooklyn Rail, Midway, the St. Paul Almanac, The BeZine and most recently in A Garden of Black Joy Anthology and Under Purple Skies: A Minneapolis Anthology. When she's not writing, she is the host of Project 35, a local low-fi radio show featuring music from all over the diaspora and poetry on KRSM radio. She curates Film North’s Cinema Lounge and is the Shorts Programmer for The Provincetown International Film Festival.
Jes: I am so excited to ask you some questions. I have always admired your poetry, film programming background, and community work. Can you share more about yourself?
Valérie: Thank you for being interested in interviewing me. So, I’m a Haitian American art maker and I moved here from New York. I’m a poet and I program local shorts for FilmNorth’s Cinema Lounge and shorts for the Provincetown International Film Festival. I am also the host of Project 35, a low-fi radio show on KRSM. I’m involved in several different practices because they influence each other and help keep me inspired. It helps when I get writers’ block and I need to jolt my imagination.
I just ordered a copy of Skull-Filled Sun! Can you talk more about the themes within your writing? Is it a collection of work from a particular time in your life?
Oh, wow thanks! Skull-Filled Sun are experiences from my hyphenated childhood.
What was it like to put your first book together? How did you get connected to Is a Rose Press? Do you have any recommendations for other poets or writers who want to publish their work?
Putting Skull Filled Sun together was stressful because my mom was really sick at the time and I couldn’t focus the way I needed to on the book. My mother passed when I was working on the final drafts and I’m just happy I had a wonderful friend and editor working with me and helping me through the process. Is a Rose Press is run by former Minnesotan and friend, Michael Dekel. He runs the press out of Jerusalem and has always been a fan of my work so when he approached me about publishing a book, I said yes. My recommendation to other poets is to send your work out, connect with people and make friends. Figure out which journals reflect your aesthetic and send your work out. Make your own chapbook. Find a group of readers who get you and send your work to them for feedback. I have a group of readers, poets and non-poets who give me feedback from various perspectives.
Thanks for that advice! I recently learned about We/Here! I love zines so I am definitely interested in learning more about this project and how it’s organized and distributed.
I love zines too but We/Here is unfortunately on hiatus. I had to put it on break because I overextended myself and needed to be realistic about what I can and can’t do well. I only have 2 issues of it out and honestly it was hard to get people to send me work.
That’s an honest answer that I can appreciate and also relate to. I often have to consider projects that way too. I feel sometimes as artists we can add too much on to our plate so it’s important to realize when we have to step back and make sure we are taking care of ourselves as well as honoring the quality of work we want to make. Speaking of taking care of ourselves, has COVID-19 impacted your art practice or career? Has it impacted your programming with FilmNorth or your radio program Project 35?
So, I get inspiration in lots of different ways and one of my favorite ways is to go to a coffee shop or bar or whatever and listen to the way people talk. Those bits of conversation will send me down a rabbit hole of thoughts. My favorite is listening to first dates. People say the most interesting things when they’re nervous or smitten. Well Covid-19 has made that not possible so I’ve turned to giving myself assignments and trying to read my enormous stack of books.
I have to admit my reading hasn’t been great either. It’s hard to lose yourself in a book when there’s so much going on and you’re worried about the world. It’s hard to concentrate and I have to make a real effort to focus and finish things. I try to be kind to myself and give myself time to feel, to grieve, to exist without feeling like I have to DO something. All of this is part of the process. As for programming for FilmNorth’s Cinema Lounge, Covid-19 has actually expanded our viewership because now it’s online and I am able to screen more filmmakers in the 5-state regional area instead of focusing on the hyper local or on folks who can attend the screenings.
That’s really cool to hear that you have been able to expand your audience. I have experienced that while teaching online. I am getting people signing up from all over the country for my classes; when normally I was only teaching people within the state of Minnesota. It’s been neat to see how online programming has increased reach and accessibility that way. Now that it’s been six months or so of living through a pandemic, what have been your COVID-19 coping strategies? What helps you stay positive?
There’s so much more to cope with besides Covid-19. There’s the shit storm political climate, climate change with fires and floods, coupled with state sanctioned violence against Black folks. It’s a lot and I have to remind myself that none of these things are new in the world, right? The only difference between now and the past is now we know about what’s happening in the world. Social media means we can’t be ignorant anymore. So, navigating the various levels of madness in the world definitely takes a toll.
As the child of immigrants, born and raised in New York, grind/ hustle culture is in my blood. But since I can’t do many of the social things I enjoy, I’ve been truly focusing on being still. Rest and healing is also part of the “work”. I don’t have to be productive to be of value. I don’t have to produce to earn my space in the world. I am valuable, you are valuable whether we are productive or not. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a coping strategy but this train of thought has been helping me during this time.
What kind of resources have you used to help your career as an artist?
My resources have always been people. Get involved, ask questions, get a mentor, connect with other writers and other artists, build community. Connect to artists outside of your discipline. I believe in networking and letting people know you are open to try different things and open to new opportunities.
I have personally been thinking a lot about values lately and how I can incorporate them into my practice as an artist. For example, I am deeply into sharing, collaborating, and building community. What values do you lead with in your work or artistic approach?
I have similar values, I love collaborating with folks like I tend to co-curate on special projects. I always like to connect my communities to each other, if you need someone with a specific skill, I probably know some who can help. I want people to reach their full potential and do what they need to do in the world and I just hope to help.
Are there challenges you face as an artist?
Time and money are my biggest challenges. Though I have time now, the pandemic overwhelms everything. It’s hard to focus on getting writing done but I make myself because that’s where the healing is for me. I can’t let this time silence me so I fight shutdown into my turtle shell.
Which artists do you admire?
Oh, wow so many! Edwidge Danticat, Jeannette Ehlers, Danielle Legros Georges, Betye Saar, Cauleen Smith, Harmonia Rosales, Amir George, Natalie Diaz, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Christopher Harris, Leila Fanner, Charles Aznavour, and so many others.
Where can we find you online?
On Instagram, I’m Urbnnerd.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
I worked on a project with Dara Beevas of Wise Ink and Mary Bruno of Bruno Press where we printed some posters that speak to our revolutionary times.
Thank you so much for answering all of my questions, Valérie! Thanks for helping me think about resisting the hustle and, importantly, to also remember that there's more to cope with right now besides COVID. I admire you! Now I am going to research all of the artists you just told me about...
All images courtesy of the artist. Interview written and edited by Jes Reyes.
"I realized that a large part of the Exit Strategy process was just coming to terms with my own experiences and feeling like I deserved to tell my stories. Making these works, and having the works programmed has been an opportunity to reconnect to myself, and to others."
Readers, I am going to get serious with this interview post with some self-disclosure. First, let me introduce you to Kym McDaniel.
Kym is an experimental filmmaker, media collaborator, choreographer and performer currently based in what is now known as Binghamton, NY. Her experimental films have shown at Slamdance, Chicago Underground Film Festival, Antimatter, and in group and gallery exhibitions including the Rochester Contemporary Art Center (NY), Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University, and Bow Arts Gallery (London), among others. She has an MFA inFilm, Video, Animation, and New Genres from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She currently teaches in the Cinema Department at Binghamton University.
It was a couple of years ago that I was first introduced to Kym McDaniel's work during a Cellular Cinema screening of short films. The program was curated by Ariel Teal and featured femme-identified filmmakers living or had formerly lived in Milwaukee.
I was immediately connected to Kym's work. It was her Exit Strategy series that appealed to me. I was interested in her ability to create consecutive works that explored the experiences of emotional and physical trauma, using video, movement, and her own body and voice to confront these themes. Not only could I relate to the premise of these films but I recognized the power of self-reclaimation found in the work.
"So how do I find my way out," Kym asks out loud in Exit Strategies. As someone who has personally experienced childhood abuse, I've asked myself something similarly. One thing trauma has made me feel is that I am alone. I have felt emotionally and physically trapped because of trauma. It disconnected me from own body, even as the trauma lived and breathed within me. Trauma stirred in my veins, in the crevices of every inch of my body. It compartmentalized in my brain. It found its way into my stomach, my shoulders, and my lower back. The emotional ramifications of the trauma I had experienced manifested into physical pain throughout my body. As a child and young adult, I hid my trauma, from myself and others, out of shame and disbelief. I lived knowing it was there. I lived trying to distance myself from it, quieting it to the point that it boiled underneath. It wasn't healthy.
Finding my way out of repression and silence, which I often used as a form of protection and safety, was difficult work. It's mind-body work. Motivations to this work came from deep hope, a desire to heal, and a place of exhaustion. I wanted to move past the pain and fatigue that went with being a victim of trauma. I wanted to find bodily interconnectedness. I needed empowerment to live beyond and find recovery.
So when I come across artists like Kym McDaniel I need to tell them how much their work matters to me. I need to be exposed to artists like Kym McDaniel because I need films like Exit Strategies. Art like this validates my experiences. This kind of art speaks to me and I know it does for others, because one thing I have learned over the years, is that I am not alone. Possibly you can relate?
I am lucky that Kim let me ask her some questions about Exit Strategies. It's not always the case that you get to ask people directly about the art they make.
And you know what else? Kym is returning to Minnesota! She will be curating a program of films in partnership with Cellular Cinema on March 15th. I will be there and you should be too! Check out more info on the event here.
Read and admire on!
Jes: Kym, I am so excited about your upcoming program with Cellular Cinema. Can you tell me more about it and what we should expect?
Kym: Thank you, I’m excited too. This program has been a real treat for me to curate because of it’s hybrid nature. I had the opportunity to integrate both of my worlds as a dancer and filmmaker.
The program is called The Language of Gesture, and includes both single-channel videos and live dances. Last fall I taught a class called Movement Media Collaborations, and one of their projects was to create a work about gesture. I was really inspired by their interpretations of what a gesture could be, and how the meaning of gesture changed in the different mediums of dance, film, and performance art. Their project prompt was an extension of my own work since gesture is a part of my creative process. I love when teaching and research have such a reciprocal relationship like that!
The works in the program investigate gesture in a way that is specific to each artist’s medium and voice. One thing that ties the works together is my passion for curating work by women and non-binary artists. I naturally gravitate towards the themes and stories shared in their works. Artists in the program include Chelsey Becher & Ivy Jerin Robertson (performance), Tasha Holifield (performance), Ariana Gerstein (video), Amielle Gibson (Super 8), M.O. Guzman (video), Terrance Houle (video), Marissa Jax & Maria Tordoff (performance), Chanelle Lajoie (video), Chloe Nagle (performance), Arneshia Williams (performance), and Nina Yuen (video).
I have been interested in your Exit Strategy project. As someone who has also experienced emotional and physical trauma, I have connected to the premise of the work. What’s next in this series?
Thanks for this question. It’s a privilege for me to connect with others in this way.
The works were created to be modular, but I hope #1-6 will be able to screen as one in festivals and/or other pop-up, DIY, or independent venues. They are single-channel videos, but I think of them as performative, so having them screen as one feature is another dimension of their performative life cycle for me. I also started seeing the works as episodic chapters in my life and recovery. When screened together, they embody oneself piecing together aftermath and moving forward as one entity.
When I watched #1-6 together last week, I couldn’t believe how fast the hour went! I realized these works represent 1/100 of my experience as someone in physical / emotional / sexual / spiritual recovery. There’s a sense of empowerment in that idea that I am the only one who truly knows what I have gone through. And, on the other side of that- an empowerment in sharing the series and having the privilege of connecting with an audience. I’ve been reading the book Blogging in a Postfeminist Age by Jessalyn Keller and she talks about a “pedagogy of hope” … I’ve been thinking a lot about what a pedagogy of hope means, and I think sharing the series as one feature is part of that hopeful process for me.
I am curious to know more about how making this work has been healing for you. Could you talk more about that?
When I started making the videos, the intention was to release embodied shame in the hopes that my chronic physical pain would lessen. The initial experiment of the project has grounded me over the last several years. Why is this story essential to tell, how does it relate to shame? How is this video considered an exit out of shame? Will telling this story facilitate a release so I can integrate a dissociated part of my psyche into my body?
The first time I watched the movie Thelma by Joachim Trier I was crying…There is a quote about the movie by Sheila O’Malley that says, “[the movie’s] engine is the emotional awakening of an extremely repressed girl, a girl who finds emotions so stressful it ruptures the fabric of her reality.”
To step outside my habits of repression, shame, and silence in order to create these works was a huge risk. I used repression and silencing as methods to keep myself safe when I was younger, but now as an adult, I realized those techniques were actually keeping me a victim. It was (is) a risk for me to be vulnerable. After I created Exit Strategy #1 and #2, I started translating this risk of vulnerability from within the series to my “real” life. The series became more than just making art, but about how to feel and cope with being human. This was something I had not allowed myself to do for almost 20 years.
I think I chose dancing as my original medium because I could express myself with choreography and the body, and I never had to talk about my experience directly. But, I kept getting injured. All of my feelings were bound inside me: physicalized emotional pain. When I first started working in video and tried voiceover, I couldn’t handle hearing my voice... I kept receiving critique to stop whispering! But I was only whispering because I couldn’t speak any louder. Since all of the strategies have a voiceover (except #4), I see how far I have come. I imagined my voice being a key I could use to free memories trapped inside my chronically ill body. But I’ve also learned this isn’t enough – I needed to transform my narrative of victimization. I needed to reclaim my own memory, and change the ending to stories I had kept in my body for so long.
I realized that a large part of the Exit Strategy process was just coming to terms with my own experiences and feeling like I deserved to tell my stories. Making these works, and having the works programmed has been an opportunity to reconnect to myself, and to others. The experience has been validating, bittersweet, and healing. I think a part of the series is about how I feel disconnected from my body, and how disconnected I feel to others, and the amount of pain, loneliness, and destruction that alienation has caused me. Connecting with others kinesthetically and empathetically has been an unexpected outcome and healing...
My Alexander Technique teacher, Luc Vanier, introduced me to a quote by Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind that is often on my mind about process. The quote in part is “In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking, you get wet little by little.” This is what healing has been like for me. I could not foresee the impact of this work on my identity and my transformation… it is not until later (or when I’m crying about Thelma) I see how the works have aided in my process of recovery and healing.
Thanks for sharing, Kym. It’s powerful to see how Exit Strategy as a series has not only created connection with others for you but that the creation of the works has supported your own voice and ability to tell your story. I think that means a lot, especially when it comes to using art as a way to process through events and experiences from our lives. It’s very relatable.
On different note: I have admired how you incorporate curation into your art practice. How do curatorial practices advance or add to what you do? Do you have recommendations for others who want to extend or expand this approach into their work? How do you manage to curate and develop the art projects that you have?
I view curation as an extension of my collaborative practice... not only between me and another artist, but how each piece collaborates with other works in the program. I think curation is a way to test out how themes work with one another and how the audience responds to a framework I have facilitated. I grew up playing competitive chess and curation feels a lot like chess to me. Piecing together moving parts and following a strategy with a goal in mind.
When I was living in Milwaukee, my curation practice started because I needed to keep my choreographic practice alive when I was in grad school for film. I would put on shows in the summer when I had a break from grad school. I was able to connect and build a platform for dancing, friends, and artists in the area and beyond.
I think a recommendation would be to think about the relationship of power, privilege, and oppression when you are in a role of power, like a curator. I think about who is visible and invisible in our society, culture, and art world. I also believe that art shouldn’t be separated from the artist. I want to support people who are doing the work and aren’t personally or professionally hurting the community.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
Getting paid for my work. Paying other artists for their work I’m curating when I don’t have a specific funding source. Believing in myself and my work. Not having health insurance, and/or the possibility of losing health insurance. Finding good mental health support when you’re moving around/can’t afford out of network/don’t have health insurance. The student loans. The instability, not knowing what’s next professionally/artistically. Finding time to make work in the sea of other responsibilities. Being a woman in this industry. Negotiating the idea that rejection does not have a relationship to my worth. Dating other artists. Dating non-artists. Honestly maybe just dating in general.
What do you love about being an artist?
Ultimately, I became an artist because I had to… being an artist is too difficult unless you are so in love with creating there is no other option… I love creating a life rooted in discovery, surprise, and self-expression. I love learning how my work informs me about myself, and feeling like my work is making an impact or helping someone else. I love the excitement of integrating movement, writing, and images into a practice, and meeting new minds through teaching/curation/choreography. I love being in collaboration with another artist and creating a work together that I never would have made on my own. I love the friends I have met along the way who understand me (and give me critique!). I’m grateful for the opportunity to have met my mentors who have changed my life.
What artists do you admire?
Chantal Akerman, Anne Charlotte Robertson, Dani ReStack, Wu Tsang, Zeinabu irene Davis, Trisha Brown, Pina Bausch, Stephanie Barber, Nazlı Dinçel, Carolee Schneemann, Will Rawls, Maggie Nelson, Yvonne Rainer, Numa Perrier, Roxane Gay, Robyn, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My graduate committee at UW-Milwaukee was amazing. I was able to work with Carl Bogner, Lori Felker, Kelly Kirshtner, Jesse McLean, and Cecelia Condit.
Where can we find you online?
My website is www.kymmcdaniel.com, and my instagram is @kymcdaniel
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The quote I mentioned earlier about walking in the fog can be located here. Thank you for letting me think about these questions and sharing this event!
Thank you so much, Kym, for being part of my interview series. I look forward to the event on March 15th.
All images courtsey of the artist.
Did you know that I am starting a new cinema program in St. Paul for women and non-binary/gender non-conforming filmmakers? I am! Moonplay Cinema’s first event is June 28th. Our first screening will open with a program of short films and conclude highlighting the work from Kiera Faber. You can learn more about Kiera in an interview I did with her last year.
Submit to screen with Moonplay here.
Contribute to our first season’s crowdfunding campaign here.
"I love that I can explore and cope with all the things that I am feeling and dealing with by making something, even if that thing doesn’t speak to anybody other than me."
If you haven't seen one of John Akre's films you've been missing out. Luckily, I am here to introduce you to him. John's one of my favorite local artists. I admire how he combines community and history in his art. He has a traveling animation studio where he creates spontaneous cartoons with the public. He also makes books, comics, and draws daily (making a monthly video featuring those drawings). On top of this he also organizes MinnAnimate, a festival creating a place for animation in Minnesota.
John is an animator and videomaker who has been playing around with movies since he was nine. He is always trying to figure out different ways to combine documentary and animation, and also how to make a living while doing the things he loves (I can relate to that!). He is a teaching artist who works with all ages of people through COMPAS, Film North, and other organizations. He teaches animation at Hamline University and is married to Beth Peloff (another artist I admire), an animator and videomaker, and they work together as Green Jeans Media (how cool is that?!).
Enjoy learning more about John. There's a lot of great videos of John's to watch too. Admire on!
Jes: Hi John! I am so excited I can ask you some questions. First off, can you tell readers about your films and how you first started making animation?
John: Hi Jes, thank you so much for asking me! When I was nine I started collecting and projecting 8mm films, and on my 10th birthday the father of a friend of mine gave me his wind-up 8mm camera. I immediately set to work with paper cut-outs on my bedroom floor spending weeks making a stop motion film. This film came back from the lab completely black because I wasn’t using any light other than the one on my bedroom ceiling, which was pretty dim. But I tried again, with more light, and had more success. At the same time I also started making goofy movies with my family and friends, stopping the camera to make one person change into another and making them move without moving their legs - animating people.
When I went to film school in Bozeman, MT I fell in love with documentary and, aside from drawing and scratching directly on film, I left animation behind. In my late thirties, because of some heart issues I was born with, I had a heart attack, and that made me think about whether I was really doing what I wanted to do with my life. I ended up starting to draw again, and trying to figure out how to do animation in this age of computers.
In my movies I combine stop motion animation with computer animation and usually try to bring in some humor. The influence of Walt Disney and the Disney studio is so overwhelming in the field and art of animation, and that is okay, but I am always trying to imagine what animation would be like if that studio wasn’t so influential, so I look to the work of pre-Disney animators for guidance. I also have a portable stop motion set-up that I carry around on my bicycle to create stop motion animation with whoever might come by at public events. I am really interested in cities, what they look like, how they change, and particularly what happens when people really get out in the streets and together in buildings and share this special kind of city life.
I am interested in how you first started combining documentary and animation. When did this approach first start? Do you remember your first project where this intersection occurred? How has it grown since?
When I was in college in Montana, in 1986, I took a one-day workshop with camcorder documentarian Skip Blumberg, and after that all I wanted to do was make one-on-one video documentaries. I found a home in public access television, teaching video production and creating video documentaries, and completely stopped drawing and making any kind of animation.
When I returned to animation in my early 40’s, I tried to think about ways to combine frame by frame work with my documentary work. Some of the first animation projects that I did digitally were these “face films” in which I would ask people questions and take a series of photos of them and then I would synchronize those photos with their response to my question. I also made a long movie of a train trip I did of the U.S. and Canada by drawing animated loops about the trip on post it notes and photographing them on the train windows. I was doing this all about 15 years ago.
The animation station idea came about when I heard that one of the first Open Streets in Minneapolis was looking for artists to do interactive art activities on the street. I thought I might try to take my stop motion equipment onto the street and see what might come out of it, and then I combined the animation with interview responses, like I did in those earlier face movies. Now I’m making some documentaries about artists who I know that are mostly filmed with the camera but might have some animated elements. I’ve also started exploring some of the family things I have collected, particularly scrapbooks and photo albums, and trying to make animated collage films with them.
Can you explain how you prepare for events like this and what it looks like for someone passing by? How do you get people to participate?
I am a very introverted person, so it first takes me trying to mentally prepare to engage with other people, which is difficult for me, but also so rewarding when it happens. Although we build the movie frame by frame, I use software that allows me to repeatedly play the movie that we are working on, and it grows as we add more to it. So, people walking by can see what has already been done, and that helps them to see how it works. I think that just getting a chance to see how that slow animation process works and builds, and that it all looks a little goofy, can make it enticing for people to participate in. I give lots of people my spiel about how it works and not everyone wants to participate, but everyone pretty much leaves smiling. Plus, I just get so hyped up because as an introvert I kind of need to do that to be out in public and I think people either get scared away or as hyped as I am. I often have art supplies like paper and scissors, or chalk if I am outside on the street, and all those art supplies can be very enticing too, at least I think so.
MinnAnimate is a great festival that you started. What kind of advice do you have for individuals who are looking to start their own screening programs?
I almost think it might be necessary to make your own screening program if you make your own films. The truth I’ve found is that there are a lot of screenings and film festivals out there, but almost all of them are not going to want to show my movie. I submit my movies to dozens of film festivals and screenings every year and get in way less than 10% I started MinnAnimate partly because I wanted to show my own films, so I include one of my movies in with all the others I collect every year, which is great in itself, because it’s like making a little family or community of movies. I particularly enjoy the process of sequencing or ordering the films, so that the collection of them has a narrative arc about it. And these days, you just need to figure out a space to do some kind of screening, and a way to let other people know about it. I’m never exactly sure how it all seems to come together every year, but it does, and getting a chance to meet all those other animators and the people who come to watch makes the work and the stress way more than worth it. The only advice I have is just to think that you can do it.
Are there any particular challenges you face as an artist?
You can feel free to cut this one if it doesn’t fit in, but it’s more a challenge I face as a human being, which I am much more than I am an artist. But when I was around 13 years old I saw a car run over a dog while I was standing on a busy street waiting for a bus. I decided at that moment that I was never going to drive, and I still respect that decision - I have never had a driver’s license. I think that if you have a city where the majority of trips are taken by car, which is almost every city in the U.S., you have a city that is all about cars. If the majority of trips in your city are not taken by cars, by walking, by transit, by biking, by skateboarding, and so on, you have a city that’s all about people, which is thankfully what the majority of the cities in the world are like. I think it’s a real challenge to live in a city that’s all about cars, just a challenge to maintain sanity. I would just like to go on a podium for a second and ask everyone before they take a trip by car if they really need to do that, or if there might be other options. And with climate change, it seems like reducing that fossil fuel burning is also a pretty good idea too.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on driving, John. I totally share some of your opinions. I do drive a lot and I would love to change that. Next question: What do you love about being an artist?
I love that I can explore and cope with all the things that I am feeling and dealing with by making something, even if that thing doesn’t speak to anybody other than me. It’s a way to get things out and release the things that might be bringing me down. That act of creation is really euphoric for me.
I think that creating beautiful things out of the stuff of our life is innate in us, and that if we don’t have creative outlets we’re lacking something profound. I’m glad I am able to access those things in myself.
Are you working on anything new?
Of course - I’m always working on ideas or making things. I do at least one silly drawing a day and am working on a few movie projects. Late last year I shot a few hours of video of an artist friend who has since passed away, so I have been grieving him by editing that video and creating animation inspired by him. I have an animated feature project (my fourth) that I hope to have finished some day, but I’m not sure in what year that day will be. I’m also starting to work on another animated short in a series I have been making called, “Hats of the New American Cinema,” which is kind of a set of silly tributes to these experimental filmmakers of post-WWII U.S. I also am getting ready to do a big participatory animation installation at Art-A-Whirl this year with support I received from the Minnesota State Arts Board.
What artists do you admire?
My parents told me that one of the first words I could say was “Louis.” I was born in late 1962, and in 1963 one of the biggest hits on the radio was Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Hello Dolly.” There was something about that voice and song that still calms me and makes me happy, and my parents said that whenever that song came on the radio I would get so excited and just say “Louis” over and over. So of course, they got me that record, and I would always play it when I was feeling sick or sad and I’d immediately feel better. Armstrong and other jazz artists, particularly John Coltrane and Sun Ra, have inspired me my whole life, giving me a sense of the spiritual and struggle and hope and improvisation.
I wasn’t much older when I saw the oddest and most amazing thing on TV and when I asked my mom what it was she said, “Charlie Chaplin.” I still remember that moment, and I still am so moved by the work of the silent comedians Chaplin and Buster Keaton, filmmakers who improvised their movies, making them without written scripts. Later I discovered the German Lotte Reiniger and the Argentinian Quirino Cristiano, pre-Disney animators who showed me how to make animated films with paper cut-outs and daring and little else. I also love to read, and among the many many writers I love is Raymond Queneau, who experimented in what text can do but also had a pretty strong sense of humor about it. Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, and Stan Brakhage were experimental filmmakers who embraced the fact that they were amateurs, that they made movies because of love, and that idea always guides me. My eyes were opened up to the community building possibilities of animation by the independent animator Helen Hill.
When they were at the Walker Art Center I got a chance to say hello both to Agnes Varda, one of my guides to the world of handheld documentary, and Joanna Priestly, who inspired me to take animation into the outdoors. And there are so many local and contemporary animators and filmmakers who I learn something from all the time that I would be hesitant to name, because there are so many and I would hate to leave someone out. And every time I work with young people, whether kindergartners or college students or any age in between, I learn new things about what we can do and how we can live, I just plain get inspired. And my favorite artist of all is my wife, Beth Peloff, who not only makes amazing movies herself but is always willing to give me useful notes to make my own work better.
Lately I’ve been trying to make about one film a year or so about an artist I know, generally people in their fifties and sixties, like me, who are just keeping on keeping on. I just like to hang out with my camcorder while they do what they do, because it is all so inspiring.
First, I am jealous that you were able to meet Agnes. Second, I really love Beth’s work. I am definitely going to ask her if I can feature her on this blog! John, where can we find you online?
My website is www.johnakre.com. There are literally hundreds of short movies there you can watch. I also post a picture once a day on instagram under johnmakre. And you can find out about the Sloppy Films Animation Station on Facebook at SFAnimationStation.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Thank you so much for doing this, Jes. I really appreciate it when people watch one of my movies and then have questions about it, or just have questions about what I do. Having to write or speak about it makes me think about it, and thinking about it gives me a chance to figure out what I really am doing. And I really appreciate you creating these illuminating and inspiring profiles!
All images courtesy of the artist.
"There are painful and funny things that I just don’t feel I can express in painting that I can with zines. I call this my “heart work.” But I also still love to paint. I don’t know how the two things work together, or whether they even need to."
Carolyn Swiszcz is the genius behind Zebra Cat Zebra, a zine I have been subscribing to for the last year. It feels like such a treat when I receive it in the mail. I love the zine so much I gifted three subscriptions to friends of mine in California.
The first time I was exposed to Carolyn's art was when I came across her videos, specifically "West. St. Paul." I became glued to following her work after that. In 2015, I was obsessed with her MAEP exhibit "Inventory" at the Minneapolis Institute of Art when I was interning in the Contempoary Art Department. I would go visit her display regularly, reflecting over her concepts and explorations of place, nostalgia, and memory.
Born and raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Carolyn moved to Minnesota to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she earned a BFA in 1994. In the late 90’s she spent three winters in Miami Beach on a fellowship from the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. Time spent among Miami Beach's faded apartment buildings inspired Swiszcz to take an interest in buildings and public spaces. Swiszcz’s work has been exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Drawing Center, Highpoint Center for Printmaking, Miyako Yoshinaga Gallery in New York, Steven Zevitas Gallery in Boston, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She lives in West Saint Paul, MN with her husband [photographer Wilson Webb] and their daughter.
In this quick interview, I ask Carolyn about Zebra Cat Zebra (of course!). I was also curious about the first place she ever painted.
Enjoy and admire on!
Jes: The days I receive Zebra Cat Zebra I gasp with giddiness! I am assuming I am one of many who stop in their tracks to open the envelope and start reading your latest zine. Can you tell me about when your zine days started and what you hope to continue doing as a zine-maker?
Carolyn: I started making zines in 2016 for an after school book class I taught at my daughter’s elementary school. I fell in love with the 8 page format that fits one sheet of paper - it was the perfect size for my thoughts. After the angst of the 2016 election zines became a way to feel less discouraged and connect with others. I have a great crew that helps me fold the zines, and I’ve made friends with people in my community when I’ve interviewed them. For example, I was curious about my exercise teacher at the Y and asked if she would tell me more about her path in life. I ended up making a zine about her, which I gave out in her class. It’s strengthened the bond in our little Wednesday group. The whole process makes me happy. I love sending things in the mail.
My goal is to make a book. I’m not sure if it would be a collection of these shorter stories or a longer narrative combined with paintings. I have a lot of questions, and I’m still trying to find my way both visually and with the writing. There are painful and funny things that I just don’t feel I can express in painting that I can with zines. I call this my “heart work.” But I also still love to paint. I don’t know how the two things work together, or whether they even need to.
I love how you put a spotlight on buildings, businesses, and street intersections in your art. Many of these places that would seem ordinary to most tend to render uniquely in your work. I often feel like I am touring the Twin Cities through your portraits. I am reminded of the places I have driven by or I am learning about new places. When did this subject matter in your work begin for you? Do you remember the first place you ever painted?
In my mid-20’s I had a fellowship in Miami Beach. One of the architectural fixtures on Lincoln Road is a huge mid-century office tower. It’s blue, and it’s topped with massive digital clocks facing all four directions. This was one of the main things I could see out of the window in my first studio there. This building made me laugh because it was so functional. It was also a kind beacon that oriented me during neighborhood walks as well as a scolding presence reminding me of the passage of time and how I needed to get back to work. The view of this clock out my studio window was my first architectural work.
Does memory inspire your art? Or nostalgia? Or architecture?
Not so much memory, but a desire to create memory and meaning, a desire to make my surroundings more interesting. I find that when I paint a place I feel like I own it a little bit. Painting it draws it into my story. Then when I go back out in the world and see the place again it’s more exciting to me. It’s not just the pizza place anymore, it is the “pizza place in my painting.” Seeing the world inspires the painting and seeing the painting inspires how I see the world.
And yes, architecture also inspires the work. Some subjects are chosen for purely formal reasons like “I have a great idea for how I can render that stucco.
Thank you for answering my questions, Carolyn! Where can we find you online?
My web site is carolynswiszcz.com and I’m on Instagram @carolynswiszcz. I post extra comics on Instagram that aren’t in my printed zines.
Hey readers, you can subscribe to Zebra Cat Zebra too! Check it out here.
All images courtesy of the artist.
"What I’ve come to enjoy the most about making a performance is all the little things I get to learn about making lots of other little things and getting to meet really cool people in the process."
I love this interview I have for you. It's with Bethany Lacktorin who is amazing in so many ways. I met Bethany through our participation in the Hinge Artists Residency. I have been admiring her work since. Not only is Bethany funny but she is also a super talented, caring, and engaging individual. Bethany's list of projects and artistic approach is inspiring and important.
Bethany is a performance artist, organizer and media producer. She creates site-specific, immersive, interactive, multi-disciplinary installation experiences that foster new perspectives, heightened awareness, and deeper connections to the spaces, places, and communities in which we live. Expressed as music, movement, sound, story and object Bethany’s work has been presented on stages and institutions across the US and Europe.
A professional sound engineer since 2001 she has earned credit as sound designer for feature films, documentaries, short films, television and radio. Bethany studied music performance for violin at Lawrence University, received her AAS in Music Production at McNally Smith College of Music and her BAFA in Experimental Media at Prague College School of Art & Design.
Currently based in rural Minnesota, she is Board Chair/Director of New London Little Theatre, serves as Treasurer on the board of directors for the New London Food Co-op, is a board member of the Department of Public Transformation and is graphic designer at her local newspaper, Lakes Area Review.
Jes: Hi Bethany! I am excited to ask you some questions. I have loved your work since I saw My Ocean. Where did that project start? Can you describe it to folks who have never heard of it?
Bethany: My Ocean was a performance installation that happened in August 2016 at Ordway Prairie Nature Preserve in Pope County. I grew up across the highway from Ordway Prairie at the home and business my family ran for 3 generations, the Lake Johanna Store. I returned in spring 2014 to care for my mom. She had cancer and would pass away later that year. In hindsight, I can see that My Ocean was a homage to her and the legacy she was trying to pass on to me. I am now the 4th generation of Norwegian immigrants who lived on this particular plot of Dakota land. Albeit, I am the Korean adoptee of said 3rd generation Norwegian woman. Throughout the making of the piece I was at odds with how much being adopted mattered. In the end I decided that everyone who ever lived here had been displaced. And that it was the land that brought us together. That through the land I would know them.
The performance was outdoors. It was about a mile long, 90 minutes. An audience of 12 would follow me on a trail starting at the general store to a hilltop finale in Ordway Prairie. There were stops along the way. I’d tell a story, we were visited by the wind god, a prayer led by Dakota Elder, Thomas LeBlanc at the fort, a harp in the woods played by Gretchen Vork. The walk was accompanied by live music composed and performed by James Everest and a choir of shape-note singers. The prairie was rigged with tiny bluetooth speakers that emitted carefully crafted sounds to support and further immerse the audience into My Ocean. Choir and audience met at a peak where we ended by singing “Gathering.”
This all makes me think about how landscape is such a prevalent visual element to your work as well as a theme. I remember in an article you wrote with Nik Nerburn on MnArtists where you discuss your place and personal history with land. I really enjoyed that article. What is your particular approach when exploring landscape and how personal do you get with this work?
Thanks for asking, so cool that you saw that by the way. That was a fun interview process! I think landscape may have been more of an abstract for me in previous works to My Ocean. My Ocean was the first time I actually brought the literal landscape into the story. In other performances the ‘landscape’ could be referred to as what was already present in the room, on stage, or just simply within reach. My first creative endeavors were as a songwriter. I would rearrange things I found or was given. There was a guitar in the house so I made songs with it. In the early 2000s a producer friend, Dave Olson gave me a hard drive full of samples and beats that I assembled into my first self-titled EP. Collecting and engaging what’s already in the room is part of my practice in musical improvisation and theatrical performance. A similar process happened quite naturally in the making of Reminiscencia (2014). The narrative was guided by an assemblage of room tones binaurally recorded of the theater, environmental and incidental sounds of the surrounding neighborhood and our own voices recorded in the theater. The effect was that the listener would cease to hear the difference between what was happening in real-time and what was pre-recorded. It had a dizzying effect.
With regard to your question about how personal I get with this work, I have a couple reactions. Reminiscencia was performed for one person at a time on headphones and completely interactive. In that sense, the relationship between performer and audience became extremely personal. In the same way, My Ocean was allowed only 12 people per performance. In Steady Wind (2017), I cut off locks of my hair and handed them to individuals (in a jar) and demanded that they plant it. Having a small audience was, in each case, an opportunity to create much more intimate, one on one experiences. From the standpoint of content and narrative, My Ocean was deeply personal as it was a reflection of a place and myself in that place more so than any performance work I’ve made previous or since. I’m not sure I could do it again.
Currently, you are the board chair for your community theater. I would love to know more about what you are doing in this leadership role since place, community, and performance are such strong components to your work.
The first theater experience I had growing up was attending school plays at Little Theater. I truly believe it set the stage (hah!) for my lifelong dedication to the arts. When I returned home 5 years ago I wasn’t sure what the possibilities would be as an artist in rural Minnesota. I’d been away for over 15 years, most of them in Europe so really away away! But a lot of my doubts melted when I discovered how much support for artists exists here. I became oriented in the world of nonprofit MN arts organizations: Springboard, the RACs, MSAB, Jerome, McKnight, Bush -- that when I heard about the opportunity to get involved with LittleTheatre I felt a little click. The voice in my head said this fits. This is how I can contribute and engage on all levels of my ability.
Growing up in rural Minnesota as an adopted Korean, I was often the only person of color in the room let alone the entire town. As I got older, without my parents as a buffer, my hometown sometimes seemed just as much a foreign country to me as Europe. There were a lot of barriers to overcome. As a place-based artist, I saw that performance as a way to communicate and exchange ideas needed more safe places in our community.
Right now, Little Theatre’s is going through a major transition. We’re going from being the drama center for the public school for 40 years to being the arts center for the community as a whole. I hope to help evolve Little Theatre into a role of community collaborator and facilitator. With this comes the challenge of re-introducing Little T, and the arts as a whole, as an integral part of our community, of our economic development and of our civic decision-making processes.
Our first step has been to expand our programming & outreach. Our 2020 Spring Season lineup will introduce performances of Dakota elder, Tatanka, Algerian storytelling performance, Midnight at Sunrise, a bike riding bard’s documentary, Music for Free on the Great Divide MTB Route featuring Ben Weaver, Local Somali refugee's homecoming, Rural Refugee, by photojournalist Erica Dischino and a screening of My Ocean.
We are also partnering with local workers co-op Village Spirit Cocktail Cooperative to bring custom beverages to select events. We have weekly Sunday Matinee showings of public domain films and documentaries. And we’re developing an artist residency program with a close participatory eye on the CAIR program happening in Granite Falls.
I know in the past you were a Book Arts Fellow at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. What was that experience like for you? What was the result of that opportunity?
That was a wonderful experience! I thoroughly enjoyed delving into the mechanics of paper arts. This was a yearlong commitment so at one point I was also in the middle of a Hinge Residency. I was using my time as a Hinge resident to develop a performance piece called “A Steady & Irresistible Wind.” The timing was perfect as I was able to put what I was learning at MCBA to immediate use. MCBA’s resources allowed me to design and produce “singing” kite-shaped songbooks that accompanied the choir during “Steady Wind.” MCBA instructors and fellow book arts colleagues were incredibly generous with their time and support.
Do you have any challenges you face as an artist? What are your current needs?
In general, I’ve struggled with clocks. Reading them. The round ones. It took me years to understand the difference between left and right let alone clockwise and counter-clockwise. Someone explained to me that the ‘clockwise’ concept was based on the sundial, the shadow’s direction. Mystery solved! That’s what I needed! That’s the kind of information I continue to crave.
As a mentee of Minnesota Center for Book Arts Mentorship Series IV, Bethany learned how to use the printing press, sew books and integrate electronics into paper arts. The production process for Steady Wind singing choirbooks was made easy with help from friends, instructors and book artists at MCBA.
What do you love most about being an artist?
What I’ve come to enjoy the most about making a performance is all the little things I get to learn about making lots of other little things and getting to meet really cool people in the process. Like for My Ocean I learned how to make birdhouses. For Steady Wind I learned how to make kites and books! For Reminiscencia I learned how to program midi and Arduino to playback sounds using door locks, and last year I learned how to make instruments out of clay for a recording project. Right now, I’m learning how to program lights at Little Theatre.
What artists do you admire?
Buke and Gase
Where can we find you online?
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Thanks so much for including me on your page, Jes!
Thank you, Bethany. I appreciate your time answering my questions! I love all of the work you are doing.
All images courtesy of the artist.
Hey artist readers! Hinge Arts is currently taking applications. The deadline is March 2nd! There's a wonderful new track that's been added to the residency that supports female-indentified artists in honor of women's suffrage centennial. I participated in 2017 and I can't say enough good things about the experience and opportunities the came out of being part of the program.
Artists can apply for one of three residency tracks:
Career Development: For artists who want to work on their own self driven projects.
Homecoming: A funded, project-based residency for artists who grew up in West Central Minnesota who are interested in reconnecting with their home region.
Hannah Kempfer Residency: A funded, project-based residency for female-identifying artists that honors the women's suffrage centennial. The Hannah Kempfer Residency is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts through the Art Works – Artist Communities program.
Learn more by downloading the application guidelines here. The Hinge Arts Residency is a program of Springboard for the Arts.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.