Reflections on talking and thinking about art as a visiting artist and human
Last month, I was a visiting artist at Ox-Bow School of Art in Saugatuck, Michigan.
Ox-Bow is like a summer camp for artists. It’s set alongside an idyllic lagoon, very close to beach access on Lake Michigan and the Kalamazoo River. There are cabins and studios for painting, printmaking/digital media, ceramics, metal, and hot glass.
Visiting artists usually stay a week. Due to some scheduling conflicts, I arrived on Monday evening and left on Saturday morning. My visit was too short, yet it was also just perfect. I fit a lot into a short amount of time.
Over the course of a week, my responsibilities were to conduct an artist’s talk and 12 studio visits. The artist talk was held under a tent with open sides next to the lagoon at sunset. I crammed 5 projects from the past 2 years into a whirlwind talk. I realized that my images convey only about 10% of the story of my projects, so I have to convey the other 90% verbally.
I decided to frame my talk with a focus on accessibility, and the ways I was able to increase accessibility in each project. For example, some projects were bilingual or trilingual. My most recent project includes Braille and tactile graphics.
There were plentiful questions during the Q&A—a fantastic sign of engagement and a healthy learning environment. Many students asked questions about accessibility or positive psychology. I heard from some faculty that some of the ideas in the talk and Q&A reverberated in more conversations among the students.
Artists’ talks are necessarily synopses of art practices. They elide how artists arrive at their practice—the uphill battles, dips and turns in the journey of artistic development. Some people asked about how I arrived at my interest in social practice, or my use of flags. I can respond by mentioning influences I know about, influences that make for a good story, and influences in incubation, percolating under the surface of consciousness.
Presenting my work the day after arriving did two things. First, introducing my work helped me feel welcome and make connections in a community that had already been in formation for two weeks. (The post-talk reception/after party also helped!) Second, students were invited to sign up for studio visits with me after my talk. Then students had more to respond to, speak to our commonalities, and ask additional questions.
Someone in a studio visit pointed out the myth of the artist as a tortured genius, and how mental distress is romanticized as a source of creativity. They said they found it refreshing that my practice associated artists and art with mental wellbeing.
I try to be open, transparent, and honest about my interests in psychology, and how there’s still so much I don’t know. I think this factored into having unstructured conversations around campus which touched upon emotional intimacy, vulnerability, and feelings around life transitions. In some studio visits, we talked about artistic practice and development. In other studio visits and conversations, we talked about life and personal histories and experiences. A lot of art practice is about finding your artistic direction and voice. Yet we’re all developing our capabilities as humans; our emotional maturity; and our abilities to relate to others, care for others, and care for ourselves. We’re all learning how to navigate everything that life throws at us.
Ox-Bow’s culture is queer- and trans-centering. This is made colorfully visible in part by 26-year Ox-Bow veteran, Buildings and Grounds Manager John Rossi. Queer nightlife culture is integrated into camp culture with flags, party lights, costumes, and over-the-top performances. (I missed the Dungeons and Drag Queens themed closing party.) I’ve been thinking about the curb cut effect: when wheelchair users advocated for improved sidewalk accessibility, an unintended consequence was improved accessibility for others, such as anyone using a stroller, walker, or cart, or people with other types of mobility. When queer and trans people show up as who they are, especially in critical mass, there’s probably a net effect on everyone in terms of authenticity, vulnerability, non-judgment, or open-mindedness.
I think that there’s a zeitgeist at Ox-Bow this session, some combination of it being a space for artistic experimentation, an LGBTQ-positive culture, and positive dynamics within this specific group of people, that made it possible for people to be more authentic and whole-hearted. That’s something I want to think more about: whole-heartedness as it relates to being a human and being an artist—how one’s life experiences influence what you make and want to share through your art, and how a person can grow as a human and an artist in parallel.
After a year of isolation and social distancing, it was really intense to go to an art camp, to live among 60 strangers and eat all three (delicious!) meals with them (if you desire) every day. I was lucky I had a cabin with my own room. As an introvert, insomniac, and artist with a looming deadline, I definitely needed some down time to myself to rest, recharge, and work.
This year, due to the pandemic, there was a smaller number of people on campus. In typical years, there’s 100 or so people during the summers. I was very grateful to be in this smaller, more intimate group, to work out the rust from my social muscles.
I haven’t worked with students or been in a school setting in years. Prior to this, my studio visit experiences have been on the receiving end, where I share my work with curators, or in a peer setting where I’m sharing work with other artists in a cohort. I haven’t been in this situation of being the visiting artist, who is positioned to offer critical feedback, advice, or references. This of course replicates the hierarchical “bank” model of education, in which a teacher deposits knowledge to the student. I tried to acknowledge what I don’t know, such as feeling out of my depth when it comes to the discipline-specific discourses, as in painting. But gradually, as I did more studio visits, some of the brain fog dissipated, and I got back into the hang of looking at, reflecting upon, and talking about art and art practices not my own. I was very gratified when references to artists, exhibitions, articles, books, or podcasts that I suggested resonated with the students, or when I was able to frame or reframe an idea in a way that I sparked something generative.
One thing that is really cool about Ox-bow is that students and staff could sign up for studio visits. I did 13 studio visits: mostly students and fellows (graduate students who take classes but also have more self-directed studio time), as well as with two staff. If I had more time, I would have done more visits with more people, and to follow up as more responses came to me. So many people on campus are artists with interesting practices which are not secondary to their roles at Ox-Bow. I’ve worked in a kitchen as a prep cook and dishwasher, and I could imagine how frustrating it would be to be an artist in an art-centric setting where you’re not acknowledged to be an artist (one of many reasons that art handlers become jaded). Many people at Ox-Bow are from Chicago, which I haven’t had the chance to learn much about. I have so much to learn about artists, their practices, interests and communities, and I feel like I just scratched the surface.
If that wasn’t enough, at Ox-Bow, I had the chance to be a practitioner for a few hours and access a studio I never usually have access to. I got to blow glass for the first time since undergrad, which is over 20 years ago. I’ve been wanting to blow glass for years, especially the past few years as I’ve gotten more connected with glass artists and institutions. But the opportunity to blow glass never presented itself. Finally, I worked up the nerve to mention my interest to staff, and glass studio head Nick Clayton very generously devoted a morning to a private tutorial. Many aspects and movements came back to me, but many things did not. It was humbling, hilarious, and tons of fun! Blowing glass was a peak experience in a week full of peak experiences. I’m so grateful to Nick and to Ox-Bow. Many art studios are not set up for an individual not enrolled in a class to be able to handle molten glass and red-hot metals. But at Ox-Bow there’s an extraordinary willingness to trust artists, and to take risks as part of generosity in support of fellow artists.
An important aspect of Ox-Bow is its setting on a peaceful lagoon home to birds, fish, turtles, and muskrats. The quality of light is stunning. Due to a fluke in scheduling, I sandwiched this trip to Ox-Bow inside a trip to NYC. It was a 180º in mindset to go from being all-in on project details to sitting on a rope swing next to a lagoon. This was only possible with the support of Times Square Arts, whose staff and fabricators were working hard to realize my project after I’d put many pieces in motion, and to Ox-Bow, where the culture recognizes the importance of play, rest, connections, conversation, and experimentation.