How Artists Have Changed My Art

Inspiration

I don’t know about you, but I have seen art that has changed my life. Pre-pandemic, I had this experience numerous times. On one unforgettable day in 2012, I walked into the Brooklyn Museum to see the El Anatsui Gravity and Grace retrospective and the monumental scale, the beauty, the materials and the meaning just transformed me entirely. 

For starters, seeing work on such a massive scale cracked something open in me. It gave me permission to imagine working on a larger scale, larger even than myself. There’s something about working on a grand scale that puts us into perspective. We all know that we are mere specs on this earth and that our time here is limited. Working large enforces that fact and creates a tangible environment that locates us in time and space.

El Anatsui Gravity and Grace retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum
Nick Cave’s Horses Soundsuits

I also had the thrill of seeing Nick Cave’s Horse Soundsuits performance in 2013 at Grand Central Station in New York City. Cave, whose fashion background has long informed his work, created 60 horses who were inhabited by young Alvin Ailey dancers. His use of natural and fashion materials, his scale and his collaborations with musicians and choreographers have deeply inspired me. His willingness to bring his gay, Black identity into his work gives me permission to pour my identities and alternative materials into mine.

Here’s one more example. In 2005, after 26 years of planning and 21 million dollars raised, Christo and Jeanne-Claude presented The Gates for two weeks in New York’s Central Park. They created over 7,500 16-foot high gates made from saffron fabric that ran 23 miles throughout the park. The scope and audacity of this vast public art project will stay with me forever. It was beautiful, evocative, and massive. Once again, the scale rocked my imagination. As did the logistics. 

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates in Central Park

These three exhibitions all helped give birth to my new work begun in 2016 that began to use recycled materials and raise consciousness about the plummeting bird population world-wide. Thanks to a larger studio in Mexico, where I could afford the space and staff, I began to work on a much larger scale. Themes of environmentalism, eco-feminism, Judaism and design and decoration populate my work without apology. I stand on the shoulders of the artists cited above, each of them giving me permission to bring all my passions and aspects of myself into my work.

What advice do you wish you had gotten when you were younger?

What advice do you wish you had gotten when you were younger?

Art is Important!

I’m trying to imagine a younger artist sitting in front of me and what I would tell her. For starters, I would tell her that making art is important. Most of the people in your life will think it’s frivolous but it’s not. Looking at art and considering its meaning has changed me and changed how I see the world. I have learned things I didn’t know. I have had spiritual moments of awakening. Art is powerful and that is why there have always been artists throughout history. We are the stewards of ‘seeing what is going on’ and putting our version of that out into the world. 

You need Support

It’s critical to surround yourself with people who understand and support your drive to make and create. They do not have to be artists themselves, although many of them will be. Other artists (and by this I mean every kind of creator) REALLY get it. They understand that making things and seeing the world through the lens of creativity is key to who you are. They will celebrate you, encourage you, lead you towards this life and eagerly share it with you. 

Most of us have some level of self doubt. This is normal, especially in a culture or family that doesn’t understand how important art is to you. There’s no room here for jealousy, criticism, sniping. Cut out people like this immediately.

Find people who will help you figure out how to make an art centered life. This could be a mentor, a support group, a dear friend. Creating this life is not easy unless you are blessed with a lot of financial resources. For most people, we need to figure out how to support ourselves and also make time for our art. And maybe we also need to figure out how to be in a relationship and have a family. There’s a lot of moving parts here.

There’s also no set formula. Every artist needs to figure out how to work these elements and each life will have a different set of solutions. And trust me, this is an ever-changing conversation that you will have with yourself because life is also ever-changing. 

Finding the Balance

How you balance having a family as a younger artist means making certain decisions that fall away when you are older. Having aging parents can also impact your art-centered life. Throughout all of life’s stages, you will continue recalibrating how to continue making art central. This realignment never ends but like art itself, it always evolves. 

There may be years where you can make less art because you need to make more money or spend more time with your family. This does not take away from your identity of being an artist. It just may be necessary to keep things going. And sometimes you don’t have the perspective to see that you ARE moving forward. This is where having friends, especially older friends, comes in handy. They have already walked this road and can assure you that your time will come. 

When I was a young mother, I was desperate to have two art days a week. Sometimes those days were only 4 hours in the studio. But those 4 hours sustained me and I never gave up on myself. Now I can work full-time. Your time will come! So never, never give up on yourself or your dream. Your circle of supporters will help you keep that dream alive with you. 

Money

Let’s talk about money. You won’t find a lot of people who are comfortable with discussing this with you. But we live in a world that requires money for overhead and enjoying a balanced life. There’s really no way around this. How you crack that nut is entirely up to you, your skills, and your personality.  

The reality is that very few artists earn a living from their art. Even if they are fantastic artists. It doesn’t mean that you won’t, but it’s unlikely. I know hundreds of artists and almost none of them are self-supporting. If you are clever and social media savvy, you may be able to figure out how to support yourself from a Patronage program like Patreon. The conflict that most artists come up against is making money from more commercial avenues vs. making the art that they envision that may not be commercially viable. 

Some artists will be fine with pursuing a commercial avenue. I know a photographer who was happy to do corporate photography just to keep his hand on his camera. I tried doing textile design for many years but I was deeply frustrated and unhappy. Some friends didn’t understand this. They would say “How wonderful that you are earning a living from your art!” In reality I was chained to someone else’s creative vision and spent my days making their (in many cases atrocious) ideas come to fruition. I really didn’t have the stomach for this and eventually turned to a non-art related form of income. That way, when I did have studio time I felt fresh and eager to work.

That’s what I mean about each person finding their own way. It’s perfectly fine to make a living as a barista, a lawyer, a teacher or a nurse if that avenue allows you a way to continue creating your unique art. Like trying different media, you will also need to try different solutions to solving the challenge of making a living.

Visibility and Voice

At some point in your career, you may feel pulled towards showing your work, playing your music and sharing your writing with a larger audience. It’s hard to know when you are ready for this. Sometimes opportunities present themselves and that is a signal that it’s time. Maybe visibility won’t be important to you. But for many of us, getting feedback and affirmation, and maybe money for sharing your creativity becomes a gravitational force. 

The danger here is that where you show, etc may alter what you are doing. The challenge is staying true to your vision and not letting the visibility (gallery, editor, etc) steer you away from your version of creativity. 

So don’t rush into this stage. Get solid with who you are creatively. Find your distinct voice. Identify your message, your content, what it is that you want to say. Solid, but not rigid. 

Sharing your work should enhance your career and sense of self. I’ll talk more specifically about gallery life in another blog/video/vlog. However, the point is to be solid enough not to be swayed by current trends or other people’s opinions. Think hard about what you want from visibility. Be specific.

Art Centered Living

In closing, let me once again reaffirm that living an art-centered life is desirable and for most creatives, necessary. Be creative in all the ways that living this life demands. Keep your eye on other people who have figured it out and draw them into your conversation and evolution. Being an artist is sacred, it’s a privilege, it’s a responsibility, it’s fun and honestly, most of us don’t have a choice! Keep the flame alive and in the center of your being. You can do this!

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Eszter Bornemisza

Sometimes I like an artist’s work because it gives me new ideas, allows me to see things in a different way or just inspires me. I have loved the Hungarian artist Eszter Bornemisza’s contemporary fiber artwork for years. I find her work beautiful and elegant despite the torn, worn materials that she uses. There are also many overlaps in our work. Although I don’t know this artist personally, I feel an affinity for her work and evolution.

Like me, Eszter uses recycled materials. I always appreciate this in an artist’s practice. I think it makes good sense in our crumbling world. She is masterful in her use of shredded newspapers that are overprinted. Many of her newer pieces are ephemeral, semi-transparent or layered. 

We also share a passion for maps. Eszter uses maps of urban areas as the foundation for her work. They refer to both current and historical places and she considers “a city’s street network like its skeleton.” For Eszter, maps also provide “a visual metaphor for a journey to find her own identity…”

Both of us made art quilts before morphing into larger scale installations. Her maps give the work a grid-like structure familiar in textile-based artwork. However, she breaks the grid and uses it to liberate her elegiac pieces. We have also both explored using women’s clothing as a format.

Wounded Gown- 2016-250x148cm Machine sewn newspaper-ESZTER BORNEMISZA

Eszter is a member of the prestigious 62 Group based in the UK. This artist-run organization curates primarily fiber art exhibitions throughout Europe. We have been in many of the same textile exhibitions in the US and Mexico over the years. I hope that someday our paths will cross.

Resources:

https://bornemisza.com/

http://www.62group.org.uk/artist/eszter-bornemisza/

 

You are here 180x320x60cm 2017 Installation -ESZTER BORNEMISZA
You are here (detail) ESZTER BORNEMISZA
Lung of the City -300 x 100 x 80cm-2011-Machine sewn newspaper and string-ESZTER BORNEMISZA

Solidary/Solitary Exhibition

Every artist dreams of being in a major collection and this exhibition at the Nasher Museum is an excellent example of how powerful collecting can be for the artists and for the public.

Solidary & Solitary: The Joyner/Giuffrida Collection focuses on abstract African-American artists from 1940s to the present.

Lynda Benglis

For years, I have followed and enjoyed the fluid, voluptuous, abstract sculptures of Lynda Benglis. In the summer of 2016, I visited the new Museum of the Baroque/Museo Internacional del Barroco in Puebla, Mexico wanting to see the soaring design by the famous Japanese Architect Toyo Ito. Imagine my surprise as I walked into the contemporary wing and encountered a spectacular show by Lynda Benglis!

Japanese Bamboo Art

I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art just to see this exhibition, a collection of Japanese bamboo objects from the Abbey Collection. The show included a wide range of traditional basket forms as well as current work made by six artists designated Living National Treasures, who all evolved from bamboo lineages dating back to the nineteenth century.

Magnetic Fields

Whenever I travel, I try to tuck in visits to galleries and museums that nourish me creatively. While we were visiting family this summer, we hopped across the US starting in California, then Missouri and finally in North Carolina. I caught a gem of a show in Kansas city while we were visiting my friend and colleague Catherine Armbrust.

Naomi Wanjiku Gakunga

Long before I met Naomi, I followed her work because she has an uncanny ability to meld the unforgiving hardness of metal with the lyrical softness of thread.
Naomi’s work using weathered sheet metal and crocheted wire thread are autobiographical in the sense that they reflect all of Naomi’s personal history.

El Anatsui

I will be blogging periodically about artists whose work influences mine and why. I’m starting with the Ghanian artist El Anatsui who works in Nsukka, Nigeria. Now internationally reknown, he creates massive wall hung pieces and installations from thousands of bits of recycled metal tied together with copper wire.

His work defies categorization and lives somewhere between painting, sculpture and fiber. Like many artists working on a large scale, he employs dozens of studio helpers to fabricate the work. While there are some who question artists who use the labor of others in the construction of their work, this is now a common studio practice, especially for artists working on a massive scale. Here in Mexico, I employ six local Mexican women in the fabrication of my feathers and in the silk-screening process.

I am very intrigued with the concept of making something from nothing and in this way, I see a relationship between his work and mine. We both share a passion for patterning and also elevating recycled materials (metal bottle caps for him; plastic bags for me), by forging them into work that is both visually complex and brimming with meaning and cultural references.

 

I am deeply inspired by the scale, beauty, inventiveness, construction and originality of El Anatsui.

 

Additional resources about El Anatsui:

http://el-anatsui.com/

http://www.jackshainman.com/artists/el-anatsui/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Anatsui