OVAC Workshops: Public Art, Art 365 Proposal Writing

Reaching For A Star by Flickr user Laura Burlton. Click image to view source.
Reaching For A Star by Flickr user Laura Burlton. Click image to view source.

The Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition is gearing up for their 2009-2010 Artist Survival Kit Workshop season. (I'm on the workshop committee, so you can read more about them here in the coming weeks.)

First up is "Dreaming Big: Public Art," two workshops to answer questions and help artists prepare to apply for the Public Art Mentorship. The Public Art Mentorship will offer commissions to three artists, totaling $75,000, as well as the assistance of experienced public artist, Lynn Basa. This workshop will be held in Tulsa on August 22 and in Oklahoma City on August 29.

In September there will be "Artist Proposal Writing" workshops. Each of these will focus on proposals for the next Art 365 and Momentum opportunities. This will be held in Tulsa on September 10 and in Oklahoma City on September 15.

I've been to several of the ASK workshops held by OVAC, and they are not to be missed. I always come away feeling well-informed and energized.

Click here for a full listing of OVAC's upcoming workshops, plus registration links. This page will be updated regularly, so check back.

Not an OVAC member yet? Here's why you should be.

I Get Interviewed

A nice young lady from Rogers State University interviewed me some months ago. Here's what I told her. What did it take to get to your position?

The short answer is: hard work, believing in myself, and a healthy dose of good luck. The long answer follows.

I was born in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1980. When I was still a baby, my family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we lived for the next twenty years. My parents both have backgrounds in the arts. My father, John Atlee, was a professional potter when I was born. Since then he has practiced in a number of other media. My mother, Emmy Ezzell, studied art in college and became a book designer a couple of years before I came along. She is now Production Director at the University of Oklahoma Press in Norman.

Sarah's Mom Draws Sarah Drawing, ink on paper, circa 1984 by Emmy Ezzell
Sarah's Mom Draws Sarah Drawing, ink on paper, circa 1984 by Emmy Ezzell. Click image to view full-size.

I am not alone in believing that all children are artists, and the lucky ones who are encouraged continue to be artists when they grow up. My parents have always understood the value of art in a person's life, so while growing up I knew that making art was not silly or wasteful.

By the time I graduated from high school I knew that I wanted to study art in college. I didn't yet know if I wanted to pursue fine art as a profession, because I knew that career path was a difficult one with no guarantee of success.

I attended the University of New Mexico on scholarship. I majored in Fine Art Studio with a focus in painting, and graduated in 2001. [See that gif on the Art Studio program page? The barest hint of my worktable is visible in it, behind James Pitt's paintings. Yeah, looks like they haven't updated it lately.] My education at UNM focused mostly on the conceptual side of art rather than the technical. I feel I got a very good education in how to think and talk like an artist. But while I was there, my desire to produce technically excellent drawings and paintings was met with confusion and occasionally discouragement. The practice of making pictures of things was definitely not the norm at UNM.

I understood that I didn't really fit in at this program, but I set my sights on what I really wanted to make. You may be familiar with Juxtapoz magazine, which entirely changed the way I looked at art. (At that time, most of the students and faculty at UNM hadn't yet heard of Juxtapoz.) I spent a lot of Friday nights in the studio, alone, trying to make paintings that were as good as just one frame of Batman: Arkham Asylum (a graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean in the Batman lexicon). I'm still not that good, but I recognized that to get there, I had to reach very high. It wasn't enough that I do work as good or better than my fellow students. I had to make work as good as successful professionals in the field. (Although I didn't yet know just what field that was.)

Jaded Girl, acrylic and ink on canvas, 2001 by Sarah Atlee
Jaded Girl, acrylic and ink on canvas, 5 x 7 inches, 2001. Click image to see more of these.

I spent the next two years out of school, living in Bloomington, Indiana. (My Mom had moved there for a new job following my parents' divorce.) I kept painting, and I booked a few gallery shows around town. I did some part-time work, but mainly my Mom supported me during that time. My paintings were not what I wanted them to be. I realized that I didn't have the skills, guidance, or enough practice to be the painter I wished I was. I decided to go back to school.

In 2003, I enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, New York) as a graduate student. RIT is a technical university, but they have very good programs in the arts. I majored in painting, minored in illustration, and graduated in 2006 with a Master of Fine Arts degree. My graduate thesis was about the use of cartoons in contemporary painting.

[I'd like to interject here and say that going to graduate school was frighteningly expensive. Most art students enter grad school intending to become professors. This never interested me; I was in it to become a better painter. I did that. It was worth it. But I also racked up student loans that are too big to talk about here. So if you are an art student considering grad school, please don't feel like you need to rush into that. It is not your only option.]

While at grad school, I learned from one of my professors that being a professional illustrator was a viable career choice. Thousands of illustrators are employed every day by magazines, book publishers, companies who need images to sell their products, etc. Turns out, illustration is everywhere once you start looking for it. Every time you see a picture, remember that *someone was paid to make that picture.* And it's not all made on computers, either. Birthe Flexner's Coffee Cups, ink sketch by Sarah Atlee, 2008
Birthe Flexner's Coffee Cups, ink sketch, 2008. Click image to view source.

Upon getting my master's degree I hoped to become a professional illustrator. In 2005, my Mom had returned to Norman, Oklahoma, for a new job. I followed her there, eager to reconnect with my Okie roots. What I found when I got here surprised me. Oklahoma has a growing, thriving contemporary art community, made up of people of all ages and backgrounds. As an artist, I was welcomed with open arms.

Of course, there were a couple of proactive steps I took to help myself along. I joined the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition and sent them a portfolio to put up on their website. I cannot emphasize enough how important a resource this is for Oklahoma artists. (JOIN.) Julia Kirt, the Director of OVAC, looked at my portfolio and offered me a slot in an upcoming group show. Ashley Griffith, a photographer and gallery owner in OKC, went to that show, and offered me a show at her gallery. Meanwhile, I also submitted my portfolio to Mainsite Gallery in Norman. They offered to put my work in their annual Emergent show. That was in late 2006, and things have just snowballed from there. In art, as in any other industry, word of mouth is the best advertising.

I believe that talent exists, but by no means is it the deciding factor in a person's success. I do believe that luck favors the prepared. I have been blessed with many opportunities. Certain professional skills have helped me take advantage of those opportunities: having a website where people can see my work, having a quality portfolio (on the web, on cd, and in book form), having business cards, returning people's calls, sending thank-you notes, shaking hands, being willing to ask for advice and learn from other people. These kinds of things apply to every business, not just art, and they matter just as much as the paintings I produce.

My current job title is gallery artist, or working artist. I never thought it would happen, but I've become an artist who shows work in galleries (and even sells some). I don't hesitate to say that living in Oklahoma has helped to bring this about.
Submerge, acrylic on canvas, 2009 by Sarah Atlee
Submerge, acrylic on canvas, 2009. Click image to view source.

What do you like about your job?

I love that I get to follow my calling. I make art, and nobody gets to tell me what that art should look like. I have complete creative control over my product. I have a fantastic network of support and mutual creativity in the Oklahoma art community. I feel very lucky.

What do you dislike about your job?

It can be very challenging to make time to make art. Remember those things I mentioned, like shaking hands and returning phone calls? Administrative tasks like that can take up a lot of my time. Not to mention things like grocery shopping and walking the dog. But I've learned to manage my time well, stay organized, and summon the energy to complete the necessary tasks that stand between me and my paintings.

What is a typical day in your profession like for you?

I have a part-time job as a lifeguard for the YMCA. [Note: I left this job in April 2009.] I work the early weekday shift, which means I get up at 4:00 am, leave the house at 5:00, and open the pool at 5:30. (Getting up early is something I seem to be good at.) My shifts are four to six hours long, so I leave work before noon and have the rest of the day at my disposal. I come home, and spend an hour or two changing clothes, eating, and reading my email. I resist the urge to spend the rest of the day reading blogs on the internet. I keep project notes and to-do lists on index cards, so I go over those and see what my tasks are for the day. (Check out David Allen's book Getting Things Done for more advice on this subject.) I like to get quick things out of the way first, to feel like I've accomplished something. I try to save errands and run them all in one day.

Some days I don't make art. But usually I have a project going that has a deadline, such as an upcoming gallery show. I like to work on art during the afternoon and evening, for at least two hours at a stretch. I have a portable DVD player on my desk, so I play movies or listen to music while I'm working. Wearing headphones allows me to shut out the outside world and focus on my work. Listening to some kind of media helps me park my verbal brain elsewhere, and lets my subconscious mind come out and play. This way, I'm better able to make aesthetic decisions without over-analyzing and second-guessing myself.

Currently, my studio is a room at the back of our house. (I now live in OKC with my boyfriend.) It's awesome having a dedicated space for my work. I also like working near a kitchen, a bathroom, the mailbox, etc. Working at home is a good situation for me. [Note: I have just moved into a studio/office at the OKCCoCo, which is also near a kitchen, a bathroom, and a mailbox. It's swell.]

I have never been a night person. I like to go to bed early.

(If you are interested in how other creative people organize their day, have a look at the Daily Routines blog.)

Whats your favorite color?

Gray. One of my college professors described the color gray as mysterious. It turns any other color into something that's much more difficult to describe. Gray is ambiguity.

When I give this answer, there's usually a voice that pipes up and declares that gray is not a color. From a certain technical standpoint, smartypants is right. But when I go to the art supply store, I can pick up a tube of paint that says "gray," and bring it home and put it down on a canvas. So that guy can suck it.
Crazy Aunt Millie, oil on canvas, 2005 by Sarah Atlee
Crazy Aunt Millie (Was Burned at the Stake), oil on canvas, 2005. Click image to view source.

Do you have a favorite artist?

I have many. Here are some of my favorite artists of the moment: Joe Sorren (painter) Maira Kalman (painter, illustrator) Mike Disfarmer (photographer) August Sander (photographer) David Hughes (illustrator) James Jean (painter, illustrator) Ruth Ann Borum (painter, Norman, OK)

Where do you get your inspiration?

Inspiration comes from absolutely everywhere. Books, movies, music, magazines, internet. Right now I'm really excited by old signs for businesses around Oklahoma City. I especially love hand-painted signs. I'm often inspired by other artists: when I see a picture that I really like, I think to myself, "I want to do that, too!" So I may paint my own interpretation of that picture, in my own style.

As I mentioned, luck favors the prepared. I try and keep an open mind, and recognize that ideas can come from anywhere without warning.

Carrie Ann Baade Interview at Hi Fructose

Wedding Portrait of Madam Himmelblau, oil on panel, 2005 by Carrie Ann Baade
Wedding Portrait of Madam Himmelblau, oil on panel, 2005 by Carrie Ann Baade. Click image to view source. This painting is from the Secret Lives of Portraits series.

via Right Some Good.

The Hi Fructose blog is featuring an exclusing interview with contemporary pop baroque painter Carrie Ann Baade. Reading Baade's description of her working process, I found that she uses collage as a sketching method, just like I do! Quote:

The spark of the muse that could be called intuition is present when I make the collage for my work. I begin this process by covering the first floor of my house in photos and ripped out pages from books. After the floor is covered I walk around looking for images that fell on top of each other in an interesting manner…this is similar to reading tealeaves. Often I will have a question in mind while diving into the piles of picture images, such as, “What can I say about the horrors of dating in Tallahassee.” This process reminds me of reading tarot cards and getting an answer through the cards that can sometimes be uncannily accurate. Looking for the divine spark to speak to me through these images, I collect and adhere together with cellophane tape to paint later. I know something is really working if I involuntarily laugh aloud at the juxtaposition.

I feel the same intuitive connectivity when I'm making collage sketches. Sometimes the best compositions happen by accident, because I left two scraps in the same pile. I look over and realize, with a little rush of adrenaline, "Of course those go together!"

Ostrich, collage sketch, 2007 by Sarah Atlee
Ostrich, collage sketch, 2007 by Sarah Atlee. Click image to view source.

I like how Baade allows the collage aesthetic to show through in her finished paintings, without her images appearing slapped-together. She does an excellent job of creating integrated compostitions from a variety of sources. The world is a vast grab-bag of information, and our job as artists is to interpret, reinterpret, and dis-cover meaning through our medium. Although Baade has been told that "paint was an inadequate media to display the complexity of [her] ideas," her intricate creations overflow with narrative and emotion. You can explore more of Carrie Ann Baade's work here.

As I was reading this interview on the Hi Fructose blog, I felt an eerie similarity between Baade's collage process and my own. This feeling was redoubled when I saw the previous blog post about the release of Isabel Samaras' new monograph by Chronicle books. The gent on the cover bears an uncanny resemblance to this guy here. The similarity is a coincidence.

This post is part of NaBloPoMo for July 2009.

Steve Brodner Interviewed by Steve Heller

Steve Brodner has posted an interview (by Steve Heller) on Drawger. Anyone curious about why artists do what they do should read his point of view. Edit-O-Lax, drawing by Steve Brodner

Brodner speaks with remarkable clarity about visual communication:

SH: Many of your caricatures are politically motivated. Do you believe that your art will have some impact on politics? SB: Nope. I learned a long time ago that the point of it has got to be the love of communication in pictures with strangers about important things in a way that has a chance to be meaningful and compelling. How people react is up to them. Some engage, some don’t. My job is to light the lamp as best I can.

Read on.

How and Why to Title Your Work

Julia Kirt, the director of the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition, published a post today about labelling your work when you deliver it to a gallery. Snip:

I recently organized an exhibition with 18 artists in it. Several pieces had no name on the back, much less a title or contact information. Of those pieces, a few were delivered when I was not in the office, so could easily have not known which was which.

I had a similar experience in 2003 when I was an intern at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe. We were mounting a fundraising show called Inside [8*3], an open call for works less than 8 inches on a side. We had hundreds. Can you guess how many of those pieces were called Untitled? Answer: waaay too many. We even had a few mixups in which buyers got incorrect pieces delivered to them because the works of art were indistinguishable on paper. This brings me to the crux of today's post.

Title Your Work

Please, do this. "Untitled" is a cop-out, unless you have created a work that is intentionally formal (that is, concerned mainly with forms), and/or you wish for the piece to reflect as little context as possible. For my part, I'm incapable of making paintings that don't reference visual culture in a thousand little ways, so I might as well create titles that provide additional content.

(I began actively titling my work under the instruction of Martin Facey at the University of New Mexico. It was one of the lessons that stuck.)

Another reason not to rest on "Untitled" is that it makes your work harder to distinguish and identify. As Julia mentioned above, it can be headache-inducing for gallery workers as well (and you want those people on your good side). Imagine you've just delivered 20 paintings to a gallery for a solo show. They have twenty different prices, but they're all called "Untitled: oil on canvas." It would be difficult enough for the gallery staff to properly identify your work, not to mention audiences at large.

Note: A good solution to this is to provide your gallery with a detailed inventory including thumbnails. I'll be talking about this in more detail at an upcoming OVAC workshop; see note below. How To Title Your Work

Language is a frequent trigger of my creative process. In my character-based work, I may start with a name and put a face to it, or vice versa. I keep a file containing my favorite idioms, and another for the almost-correct-but-mistranslated-sounding advertisements that appear in my email spam. Maybe I'll latch onto a song lyric or movie line. Sometimes I'll be working on a painting, and an appropriate phrase will float to the surface of my consciousness. All these can become titles.

If coming up with titles is difficult for you, here are some suggestions for semi-random word generators.

Reader's Digest or any newspaper or magazine. Pick a column. Read the last word of each line in that column. Choose a sequence of 3-5 words that sound interesting. ex. "Teaches how they sip." "Working love had most empathic."

Babelfish. The AltaVista Babelfish translator is a great source of slightly innacurate language. Begin with a common phrase, such as "All roads lead to Rome." Send it through the translator multiple times through multiple languages. I had it translated to Russian, back to English, to Japanese, to English again, to French, then Greek, back to English. "Action of all streets to Rome" is what came out.

Channel surfing. Flip through channels on the boob tube. Write down the first word that you hear each time you turn to a new channel. Repeat as needed.

Diceware and the Beale List. Roll 5d6 (or one six-sided die five times) and write down the six numbers that come up. Repeat two more times, or more if you like. You will have three five-digit numbers. Each of these numbers corresponds to a word on the Beale list. (This is an excellent method for generating memorable but hard-to-break passwords.) ex. "Noun walls fauna." "Feels bozo spire."

Place names. This is how I created the characters of Normal, OK. Use an atlas or actual road signs. ex. Pernell Foster, Guthrie Perkins Cushing, Stillwater Hennessey.

Your birthdate and a book. Say your birthday is April 4 1967. (Mine isn't.) Grab any book off any shelf. Turn to page 4, look at the fourth line, and note the first, ninth, sixth and seventh words. ex. "Writing as is uncertain." "Worthy now as I." Modify this as you see fit, by matching the digits of your birthdate to chapters, pages, lines, or words.

Speaking of books. Look at your bookshelf. Read one word from each consecutive book title, three to five in a row. ex. "Dawn to Modern Ambassador." "Name Visual Working Basics." "Geek Garlic Housekeeping." "Sylvia Companion of Insects."

Phone book acronyms. Open the phone book and choose the first name you see (first or last). Write words that begin with each letter of that name. ex. "Paul" becomes "Please Accept Understanding Limes."

Wikiquote. Use a quote as is, or for extra fun, switch the words around.

The Internet Anagram Server. Begin with a name or phrase, then send it through the anagram generator. For a more concise result, I set the maximum number of words to no more than three, and the minimum number of letters to three or four. Here is such a result for "All roads lead to Rome." That's right, 654 anagrams. That's why I leave this up to a computer. Amoral aloe toddlers, anyone?

New proverbs.

Go ye and title.

UPDATE. You can find some more colorful phrases at this page detailing the animal naming scheme for various versions of Ubuntu (a popular distribution of the Linux operating system).

Related: I'm going to be giving a talk about organizing one's art inventory on November 22. It's part of OVAC's workshop series called A.S.K. (Artist's Survival Kit). The Business of Art 101 will be at the Edmond Public Library. Visit OVAC's site to register. I recently attended an OVAC workshop on building your portfolio, and it was a great experience. I came away feeling energized, motivated, and well-informed. Most of these workshops are only $15 for non-OVAC members! You can't not go.