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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.