Monday, October 1, 2012

That Thing I Do

"Artist in Residence? What's that?"is something Cabrillo visitors ask all the time. Friends tend to say "A residency! How awesome that for awhile you get to spend all your time making art!" This residency IS awesome, but not in the way you might think; not that way.

The reality of making art for a profession is that only a percentage of your working time is spent making art. Even in my home studio, I spend just about a third of my time actually sculpting or painting, a percentage which encompasses all the creative stages, including parts you might not think of as "making": design and planning (both mental and on paper), the less visible construction aspects of art-making, finish work, and photographing and documenting the work. Tedious chores like reconstituting clay, making supports and molds, and assembling cradled panels, armatures, stretchers, and frames eat up a chunk of the art-making third, too. So do grinding, sandblasting, setting up for spraying, glazing, loading or unloading a well as the myriad problem-solving adjustments that are normal bumps in the flow of creativity.

What is NOT art-making? Grunt work that keeps the art-making process lubricated: studio and equipment cleaning, repairs, general physical maintenance, shopping and transportation of supplies, various organizational tasks. Chalk up another third here. Commercially successful artists have assistants who handle this portion, so they can focus more on creation. (Very successful artists even have assistants who are artists in their own right, subcontractors really, who create artworks for them. Dale Chihuly and Damien Hirst come immediately to mind.)

The final third is needed to attend to marketing, communications, paperwork, and the business-keeping end of things. If you're an artists who can afford to employ secretaries, accountants, publicists, business managers...awesome. The rest of us learn to do these things ourselves.

There's variation in all these proportions, of course. On a good run, I'll choose to spend an entire week doing nothing but making, and let the other things slide. Or, conversely, marketing or grunt work sometimes demand enough time that a week passes without even an hour devoted to creativity. 

Art residencies should in theory increase your art-making time; that is their point. With good planning, you can suspend your ordinary business tasks during a residency. And in some instances there's residency staff who maintain and organize the studio provided to you, who help you out. Ideally, a residency intends to expand that one-third allotment of creative time - substantially.

To this end, most residencies provide you with studio space. It could be bare-bones, or well-furnished, or in between. Some give you an equipment and supplies allowance so you can get your own things to the residency. Many (including most NPS residencies) also give you housing, which is typically on the same site as the studio...a real time-saver. Some provide your meals: the food and the prep, cooking, and cleaning up after! More time saved.

And then there are a few truly wonderful, prestigious and very competitive residencies that provide studio, housing, your meals, AND pay you a stipend.

Others require you to pay them for the privilege of the residency (I don't think any artist really likes these. I don't even see how they get to call themselves residencies.) But the vast majority are cost-neutral: you neither pay for the residency, nor receive pay. All National Park Service residencies are. (But even within this category where no cash changes hands, there's tremendous variation in terms of the benefits provided.)

The facts of my residency at Cabrillo are that it's unfunded, and provides no studio, no housing, no meals. I saved up money to be able to do this residency, just as I'd save for a vacation. I prepared a budget for myself. Fuel is by far my biggest expense, a whopping item on my budget. By the time I pick up my work after the exhibition, I will have made five separate round-trip drives of 1,000 miles each from my home city to San Diego, plus one round-trip airplane flight (short notice; no discount for early booking) for the final interview; plus roughly $50 in gas each week for the 7 weeks I'm here, just to commute between the park and where I'm staying in San Diego.

That is a lot of gasoline.

That's also a substantial amount of time that's not being spent making art. Alas. It takes an hour and a half just to drive back and forth from where I'm staying to the park. And although there's no charge where I'm staying (I'm essentially housesitting), I have chores instead, as a courtesy to the homeowner. Because I had to bring my dog with me, there's also time spent on pet care. Because I'm conserving funds by not eating out, I spend more time on grocery shopping and preparing meals. The place I'm staying doesn't have a dishwasher, so I also spend an old-fashioned housewives amount of time on meal preparation and cleanup. Or, I would if I washed the dishes regularly. Which I don't. Because when I'm at the house, I'm still working mostly on art. The dishes can wait.

And I'm writing this blog. And spending time preparing for 3 different outreach programs I'll be doing.Whew. If I could figure out a way to sleep during the commute, I'd be set.

There's no studio at Cabrillo, so I work off a rolling cart when I'm at the park, and I've set up a makeshift little studio where I'm staying. Actually, 2 makeshift "studio" spaces: one in the kitchen just for painting...

and one in the garage for sculpture: a workbench and a table, about 20 square feet of space.

Here's my working space at the park. It's very mobile, in paved areas. Often I take it to the whale overlook because there's a shade canopy. In the afternoon, I roll it back to the NPS administrative offices, transfer the damp sculptures to my car, finish the work later in the "studio" where I'm staying, and the next day bring a fresh bag of clay to the park.

Wednesday, and most Mondays, I've been at the whale overlook with the cart. A couple of times I've taken it to the lighthouse too. When I'm working at one of the other, unshaded overlooks in the park -- the ones you can drive to (the cove overlook, coast overlook, the first view overlook, and tidepool overlook) -- I work out of the trunk of my car.

So by necessity I work small. Paintings are just 8 inches square; sculptures are goblet to pitcher-sized, mostly maquettes or studies. At the end of October I'll go home for a month, take one or two of the best studies, and make larger sculptures of them. At the end of November I'll bring everything back (the studies, too) and install the exhibition for the December 1st opening.

So, you might ask, what exactly am I getting out of this unfunded, no-housing, no-studio residency? Aside from the freedom to break away from my ordinary studio routines? To spark new ideas? Aside from the rare opportunity to make sculpture en plein air? An abundance of inspiration, foremost. A few hours at the tidepools, or the whale or coast overlooks, or the bayside trail, or on the point watching the harbor, or soaking up the military and cultural history, and your creative soul is flooded with beauty and inspiration. For me, there's sufficient inspiration at Cabrillo to last a lifetime of art-making. A bonus is the beautifully odd and serendipitous connections I've made with visitors (and park staff!). I've talked with visitors from all over the world, from all kinds of backgrounds, and again this is an invaluable source of creative inspiration.

It's turning out to be an amazing experience.

1 comment:

  1. Your discussion of how you spend your time reminds me of Michelangelo in "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (the book, not the movie, and I hope you appreciate the comparison). The book describes the arduous process of sculpting, starting with the sculptor in the quarry, days away from his home, searching for the perfect, flawless piece of marble. No Hobby Lobby at that time.

    It's fun to hear about the residency and especially the back story. Thanks.