One of the things I’ve been wanting to do this year is make more art. That’s always the case, but it’s been especially true this year. Despite being at home most of 2020, I didn’t do a lot of art-making. While I started out the year strong by finishing a lot of incomplete projects, shortly after the pandemic started I lost all interest in sketching for a couple of months. While I would eventually create my facemask project and my annual holiday cards, I didn’t draw nearly as much as I would have liked. I haven’t berated myself over it because we’ve been living in a pandemic for almost a year now, but I also know I’m capable of creating on a consistent basis if I commit to it. My daily abstractions experiment from 2019, not to mention the Inktober challenge I did this past year, are proof of that. Moving into the new year, I wanted to reset that focus.
My desire to create more work only amplified toward the end of the year, when I found a deer skull during one of my walks. Not to be morbid, but I love drawing skulls because of all the visual opportunities they offer in terms of line, light, and shadow. And given my ongoing interest in drawing inspiration from local environs, I found this skull all the more intriguing. A potential series immediately came to mind, but that’s happened countless times at this point, only to have the ideas lose interest within a couple of weeks. Since I have a history of now always following through on artistic endeavors, I decided to take a critical look at my creative practice and make some changes.
The first thing I did was get a journal so I could actually write out ideas and suggestions for myself. I’ve never done this for my artmaking before, but given how helpful journaling has been to my prospectus process, I thought writing down ideas and creating plans for following through would be useful. So I wrote down what I wanted to do, and started thinking of ways to accomplish it.
And through this process, I learned that I needed to change my sketching practice.
I’ve been sketching for years, but it hasn’t always been consistent. Sometimes I’ll carry a small sketchbook for quick pencil studies done in situ, but more often I like to take my time on larger sketches, using pen and ink and acrylic watered down to resemble watercolor. The rationale is that this will give me a more complete template should I ever want to make a finished painting, drawing, or print down the road. In actuality, it means that I’ve developed a mixed media approach to drawing, with the sketches themselves acting as the finished work more often than not.
The issue with my approach was that I wasn’t drawing consistently, because I always thought it required a significant time investment in terms of set-up, clean-up, and actually drawing. The result was that I was only sketching on the weekends, which left little time for other projects, like prints, paintings, or even finished drawings. In order to make time for these endeavors then, I needed to make sketching a more consistent practice.
So I’ve changed how I go about sketching. Instead of only doing it on weekends, I now sketch during the week, leaving time on the weekends for other projects. Additionally, instead of taking on the whole sketch at once, I now break it up into stages. I’ll start with a quick pencil sketch on-site, taking my sketchbook with me on my daily walks. These gestural studies are something I can do in five minutes or less, but give me a sense of the forms, the distribution of light and shadow, and so forth. I’ll then finish these sketches at home during the evenings, when I can set up all of my paints and ink.
The result is a compromise between all the ways I like to draw. I can still do the detailed, mixed-media sketches I like, but I don’t have to take all of my equipment with me on my walks. I also get to practice quick, gestural-style drawing through the preliminary pencil studies. Additionally, finishing the sketches at home in the evenings, as opposed to on-site in the woods, means I get to spend more time with Brandon, as I’ll usually be drawing while we’re either watching T.V. or talking about our days. Finally, because I’m drawing more consistently during the week, I’m in better form overall for artmaking. Instead of feeling like I have to spend the weekend sketching because I’m out of practice, I can launch right into more ambitious projects because I’m already drawing regularly.
That means more time for actual preparatory studies for future paintings or drawings, like these:
In November I talked about a new exhibition I’m working on with the Barry Art Museum that looks at robots and automata. Today I’ll review what I’ve been up to since that initial post.
I made my first on-site visit to the Barry Art Museum (socially distanced and fully-masked) in early December. I went there to see the gallery I’d be working with, assess the exhibition furniture, and overall get a better sense of the museum as a collection and space. Since the Barry is a new institution, its furniture is in great shape and there are a lot of pedestals, movable walls, and other pieces available, which is really helpful since there will be a lot of three-dimensional objects in the show. The galleries are also well-lit, with Soraa bulbs (the brand the Roswell Museum used when it renovated its gallery lighting a couple of years ago) illuminating the spaces brightly and evenly but without overwhelming glare. Seeing the space in person also revealed some of the quirks of the gallery, as no exhibition space is perfect and there’s usually at least one peculiarity to work around. In the case of the Barry, one end of the gallery receives more natural light than the other, which is important to keep in mind with light-sensitive objects. All of this will be very good to know when it’s time to start laying out the show several months from now.
After that visit I began reading about some of the theoretical and philosophical concepts associated with robots and automata. One idea that pops up frequently with robots or any simulation of humanity is the Uncanny Valley, or that sense of unease we get when we see something that looks human but isn’t quite pulling it off, either due to the way it moves, the lack of animation in the eyes, or something else (for examples, see critiques of the movies The Polar Express or Cats). Masahiro Mori initially defined the concept in a 1970 article, but an English translation only became available in the early 2000s, so it’s become a lot more popular in recent years.
One of the reasons why I’ve been exploring these concepts is to find ways to connect the historical automata to not only the contemporary works that will be in the show, but also to the lives of visitors. Automata are objects we don’t often encounter regularly unless we either collect or build them, and the clothes they wear or the activities they do aren’t always immediately analogous to how we act today. I mean, how many of us would regard ourselves as fans of the Commedia dell’Arte, for instance, or enjoy the antics of clowns? If you love either or both, all the power to you, but I’d argue they’re not exactly mainstream the way the Marvel franchise is, for example. Yet even if these machines look strange to a lot of us now, or seem obsolete and old-fashioned, they remain relevant because they tap into a longer history regarding the tension between humanity and the mechanical other. Exploring how automata have encouraged people to think about changing technology, questions of humanity, and the weirdness of encountering machines that simulate us is something that we can connect to the 21st century, especially given ongoing concerns over robots as companions, caretakers, and workers.
More recently I’ve been alternating my reading material between historical automata and the work of contemporary artists interested in robotics. As historical objects, automata fascinate me because of how they embody change via class relations. Prior to the nineteenth century, automata were custom, hand-built creations. Often made in sumptuous materials such as precious metals, these objects were playthings of the extremely wealthy. By the nineteenth century, however, industrialization had enabled the mass production of clock parts and other materials needed for automata. As such, they could be produced in greater numbers, and started to be marketed to middle-class consumers looking for elegant, artful objects to decorate their drawing rooms. The activities these automata participated in, whether dressing up as stock theater characters or playing music, also reflect middle-class pastimes such as going to the theater or partaking in music. Automata embody a lot of other nineteenth-century realities too, such as colonialism, racialism, and expected gender roles, and I know I’ll need to address these issues.
In terms of contemporary artists, I’m keeping my options open-ended. In addition to looking up artists myself, I’ve also been seeing what kinds of robot-related shows other museums have been mounting for the past few years, both to get inspiration for my own show, and to see what I’d like to avoid. My greatest concern right now is to make sure that I don’t end up working exclusively with white artists. Robots, and more broadly the so-called hard sciences, tend to be associated with whiteness, both through popular media and the gatekeeping practices of the academy and other institutions. As long as I default to white artists, I will reinforce that expectation. Since one of the objectives of this exhibition is to attract new audiences to the museum, I want to make sure that white visitors aren’t the only ones who feel represented.
Fortunately, there are many BIPOC artists out there creating fascinating work. Stephanie Dinkins, for example, creates work that resists the whiteness associated with robots by rooting her technologies in Black narratives and experiences. In her ongoing piece Conversations with Bina48, Dinkins converses with an anthropomorphic robot about the race, gender, social equality, and how they intersect with other issues. In another work, Not the Only One, she endeavors to create a new kind of AI that draws on the multigenerational memories and experiences of a Black family, allowing the device to learn and narrate from people and sources that often don’t get represented in so-called traditional modes of AI and computer-driven work.
I’ve also been looking at examples of robotics intersecting with Indigenous art. Transformation Mask by Heiltsuk artist Shawn Hunt explores transformation through a mask that synthesizes robotics, virtual reality, and Indigenous knowledge. The work takes inspiration from the transformation masks used among different Indigenous groups and cultures along the Northwest Coast, though it doesn’t copy or replicate any specific dance or ritual. Usually made from painted wood, these masks are equipped with strings that, when pulled, reveal a second face, an action that becomes a performance of transformation, such as from animal to human or from the physical world to the spiritual one. In Hunt’s Transformation Mask, 3D printing and other contemporary technologies are used in lieu of wood and paint, and instead of revealing a second mask, the wearers themselves become the mask, with the raven’s head opening to reveal their own face. Additionally, when the wearer puts on the mask, virtual reality lenses begin producing images that only they can see, enabling them to embark on their own visual journey. Through these intersections of Indigenous practices and technology, the wearer undergoes multiple transformations.
I still have a lot to learn and I’ve got a lot more work to do regarding representation. At this point, I’m not committed to any specific artists for show. Instead, I’m working on expanding my understanding of the variety of art, artists, and messages out there, and so far, it’s been an exciting experience. Aside from being a nice change of pace from my dissertation work, this project is allowing me to stay involved in the museum field while also learning about some fascinating new art.
As promised in last week’s post, here’s my first update on my dissertation work for 2021. Since we’re covering what I’ve been up to since finishing comps, today’s post will be a bit longer.
At this point, I’ve been doing more thinking than finished writing. While I do have a growing repository of free-write sessions and mock prospectus samples in my dissertation folder, the main thing I’ve been working on is figuring out what my core research interests actually are beyond whatever I find interesting within the context of a specific seminar or exhibition.
As I’ve mentioned since starting this blog, what I want to write about are federal community art centers, but what I’ve been trying to figure out since finishing comps is the context in which to write about them. After all, what’s the point in having a great research topic if you don’t have any engaging questions for it? So for the past few months, I’ve been thinking about what my framework actually is, and ultimately, what my core research interests are beyond any specific topic like the CACP.
This means that I’ve been reading about various subjects and discussing potential theoretical frameworks with the dissertation writing group I joined last fall. Given the connection between museums and art centers, I’ve been reading a lot of museum theory in terms of power relations and the way museums maintain the status quo through their collecting, exhibition, and labor practices. This has included classics such as Tony Bennett’s The Birth of the Museum, which draws heavily on Foucault, as well as more recent publications such as Joan Baldwin’s and Anne W. Ackerson’s Women in the Museum, which considers how museums both empower and constrict women through their professional cultures. As I mentioned in my previous post on SECAC, I’ve also been interested in cataloging and archival practices and how they shape the art canon, particularly through a lack of documentation or visibility.
From an archival standpoint, I also finally went through and organized some research I did on the Mildred Holzhauer Baker papers at the Archives of American Art, which I visited in the fall of 2019. Baker was the director of the FAP’s Exhibition Section and assembled all of the traveling exhibitions for the CACP (which, considering that the total was over 500 shows, is impressive at the very least), so she played a major role in the program’s educational trajectory. Since the CACP was a Depression-era project, I’ve also been perusing works that explore the material and visual culture of that time. Jani Scandura’s Down in the Dumps has been a particularly engaging read, given its somewhat personal approach to the archive, and its geographic variety in terms of case studies offers a model for my own work, as the CACP was not restricted to one specific state or region.
The other subject I’ve been reading into is art amateurism. Not necessarily folk art or outsider art, per se, but art made by nonprofessionals or people who didn’t get their training from the academy. So I’ve been reading about forums such as Etsy where people share or sell their work, celebrity art teachers such as Bob Ross and other icons of art populism, the paint-by-number fad of the 1950s, and even the emergence of chain art supply stores or mail-order suppliers like Michaels or Blick. What I’ve been focusing on is not so much what people actually make, but how they access the education and supplies needed to create this stuff.
What I’ve been learning from all this is that as a scholar, I’m interested in questions of art access, particularly for nonprofessional art practitioners. What engages me aren’t so much the careers and works of professional artists, the people associated with the art world as defined by curators, gallerists, and collectors, but rather than millions of people who make art without ever being recognized in a formal capacity. I’m not even talking about so-called outsider artists or folk artists, people who have been identified by specialists as being worthy of the canon due to what they consider their untainted creativity. I’m talking about the millions of people who, like me, make art but not professionally. Maybe they’ve taken a few classes; maybe they learned to draw from a book or watching tutorials. Maybe they even manage to make a living outside of the gallery circuit, whether through selling on Etsy or by the roadside. Or maybe they make pieces for their family and no one else.
This brings me back to the CACP. Initially, I became interested in this program because of its national travel infrastructures and the mobility underpinning its operations. As a curator who often transported exhibition materials myself, either in my own car or in a rented Uhaul, the idea of a national traveling exhibition program that brought art materials to different places by train really intrigued me. This still interests me, but it also ties back into the question of access, because what made this program unusual (to me at least) was that it catered to nonprofessionals. Unlike the workshops, murals, and other projects associated with the FAP, which hired professional artists, community art centers were designed with amateurs in mind. Sure, the staff who taught at them might be professionally-trained artists, but the students they imagined taking their classes, both adults and children, were not. Indeed, FAP administrators continually stressed that community art centers were not intended as professional schools, but as places where people could learn to appreciate the arts through looking and doing. And I think that’s worth exploring more deeply.
Why? First off, by focusing exclusively on artists who have been deemed worthy of the canon, we’re ignoring a lot of creative output. Maybe it’s not the most original or innovative material out there, or maybe it is, but so long as we only focus on the artists who show their works in museums or galleries, we’re always going to have a limited understanding of what people make when they envision themselves as artists. Second, taking a closer look at how people working outside of public schools or academies access art resources could help us better understand the state of art accessibility in the United States. We tend to lean on the narrative of art access being dismal in this country, but what if we’re using the wrongs metrics to gauge it? I’m not saying that formal art enrichment programs aren’t necessary or important, but they might be more effective if we study how different communities or individuals learn to make art without the benefit of a school or similar organization. This, in turn, leads to my third point: how museums can better engage their audiences. As ongoing critiques have pointed out, museums often uphold rather than challenge inequality and other social norms through the art they collect, the artists they show, and the classes they offer. What would happen if museums shifted their emphasis away from defining canonical art and instead focused on art-making as a creative practice performed by all members of a society, community, or culture? What would that look like?
These are all huge questions that go way beyond what any dissertation can cover, but thinking about these big-picture inquiries has helped me get a better understanding of what interests me as a scholar beyond the specificity of the CACP itself. The next step is to narrow this down to something manageable.
Admittedly, this has been a new experience for me. When you take classes in the semester format, you usually have to figure out your paper or project topics fairly early on so that you finish on time. Especially for someone like me who spends a lot of time revising my writing, this means going with the first or second idea. Similarly, when I was curating full-time, the logistical demands of the exhibition schedule meant that I had to pull together concepts fairly quickly so that there would be enough time to print labels, check artworks for conservation needs, prep galleries for installation, and so on. Even my undergraduate thesis had to be written within a year, so I only had a couple of months to nail down what I was going to write about. All of this is to say that my projects have generally emphasized results over ideas, so I’ve tended to spend little time in the conceptual phase.
In some ways, it’s been liberating. Over the last few months, I’ve had to start reframing my understanding of progress and to recognize that not every accomplishment can be measured by the number of words written or edited. Some days I write a lot; other days I go for long walks and talk out different ideas or scenarios with myself. Some days I research; other times I completely switch gears and work on my art. I’ll admit, I often feel like I don’t have much to show for all this thinking. Yet by giving myself the space to think through different ideas or scenarios, I’m ultimately coming up with a more innovative dissertation while discovering new topics and questions that will fuel my research for years to come.
At the same time, it’s been overwhelming. Over the past few months, I’ve probably imagined at least half a dozen potential iterations of the dissertation. Some versions concentrate solely on the New Deal era. Some versions are more focused on exhibition practices. Others look away from museums altogether and explore the commercial side of art accessibility through the expansion of chain supply stores. With so many different ways to approach the question of art access, it’s admittedly been a bit overwhelming to realize just how many ways I can go about answering it.
But the key is to remember that I don’t have to pursue all of these directions. On the contrary, I can’t, because the resulting tome would be far too long for anyone to want to read, let alone write. Not all of these potential directions interest me equally, so the next task is to figure out my focus. After all, the best dissertation is the finished one, the one that gets me my degree, and in that respect, the one that works for my needs is the one that I’ll actually want to write.
Besides, all these other ideas mean future book projects, right?
With 2020 finally behind us, I’ve been thinking about how to be more efficient with my work. While I’ve always been pretty good about finishing the things that I start, I also want to get better at what I do, including thinking about different project ideas. Taking inspiration from my dissertation journal, for instance, I’ve started journaling about other projects I’d like to pursue, including steps I need to take to bring them to fruition. I have a habit of thinking about projects without necessarily doing anything about them, so writing down and prioritizing ideas is one way to begin following through with them.
I’ve also been thinking about how to make better use of this blog. While I’ve always been consistent about writing and sharing posts, shortly after finishing comps I started thinking that my posts could relate more directly to my work. For much of last year, my posts focused on reading lists and my thoughts about them, which proved really helpful when it came time to review. Given how useful this experience was for me, I decided I should continue to have the blog work for me, but this time as a means of thinking through dissertation ideas, sharing exhibition research, and other projects. I’ve done a similar overhaul with my Instagram account, but the blog is the best place to discuss ongoing ideas and research in-depth. If I’m going to spend time writing posts, after all, I figure I may as well incorporate it more directly into my scholarly and creative practice.
Today then, I’d like to share my new organization for this blog and give you a preview of the posts you’ll see in the future.
Essentially, the main change is that instead of viewing each post as a stand-alone piece, I’ve reorganized the blog around a monthly cycle of posts, with each post addressing a specific topic.
Week 1: Dissertation work. From now on, the first week of the month will focus on what I’ve been doing for my dissertation. I’ll talk about research, theoretical frameworks I’m considering, the actual writing I’ve been doing, and anything else dedicated to this project. Even if I haven’t done much of anything, I’ll talk about it and why I’ve been struggling with it.
Week 2: Exhibition Research. The second week of the month will highlight the work I’m doing with the Barry Art Museum. I might talk about specific objects or artists, overarching conceptual ideas, practical questions, and whatever else might seem relevant.
Week 3: Art. I want to be more consistent about my artmaking practice, so to hold myself accountable, I’ll spend week three of each month talking about what I’m doing, whether it’s sketching, creating more finished pieces, or even thinking about projects.
Week 4 (and sometimes 5): Miscellaneous. This final week of the month will highlight more eclectic posts that don’t relate to my work directly, whether it’s my musings on B-horror films or toilet paper.
Obviously this format can be adjusted as necessary, such as accommodating posts on conferences or other activities. If I end up teaching a class in the future, I’ll probably readjust further by switching out the miscellaneous week for posts on pedagogy. For now though, this is how it will generally look moving forward.
Essentially, I intend this monthly format to serve as a means of holding myself accountable and to follow through with projects while also documenting my ongoing work for future reference. It’s also a means of making myself more comfortable with talking about works in progress. I admittedly don’t like discussing unfinished projects because they’re well, incomplete, but it’s a crucial part of academic life, as well as working in general, and I need to get better at doing it. I’ve started doing this with my dissertation group, but the blog, with its public platform, offers another means of both sharing and documenting my ongoing work. In short, this new format will hopefully help me become better at what I do, whether it’s research, art-making, or just thinking about ideas.
We’ll launch this new format next week, when I start talking about my prospectus work. In the meantime, I hope your new year is off to a healthy and productive start.