An Artist Reflects on Growth through the Eyes of His Community
Staying small sounds a bit counter-intuitive to creative types, especially artists.
Take into consideration the many years of art school where teachers keep telling students to "work bigger" so that they can "see that piece done on a much larger scale." Sometimes it speaks beyond the formal issues of a piece: understanding that the effectiveness of its meaning and concept can be directly related to the size of the audience it has reached.
I've been thinking about this topic of scale my entire career, not just as a studio artist, but as a teacher and arts administrator who constantly has to create opportunities for others in the field while maintaining some sense of respect for my own creative ambitions.
My full-time paying gig is serving as the Director of Artists-In-Residence at The Ragdale Foundation, where artists, writers, and composers are offered time and space to get important work done.
As administrators, we are constantly balancing the working conditions of the artists, especially when it comes time to "gather round the dinner table." Yes, sometimes the space where we consume our food is more important than the size of the studio where we make work.
We've kept the number of residents to about a dozen residents per session, so everyone can sit family-style at one large table rather than in separate clique-y style cafeteria tables. This is just one example of how to keep the residents engaged with appropriate peers (Author's Note: You can read about the various types of programs through the Alliance of Artist Communities.)
I am also a teaching artist at an afterschool arts program called Marwen, which is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. I literally grew up alongside this organization, taking classes as a teenager back in the late 80s. I followed their growth from a small studio for a dozen kids to a state-of-the art facility that offers dozens of courses and college planning and career development to a few thousand students per year.
Take a look at this series of videos of people who talk about their experiences with the organization (full disclosure: I am featured in it and say only positive things—my respect for the place comes from personal experience).
Marwen is a great example of how an arts organization can maintain its integrity and focus even with a history of steady growth in the number of students it serves. It's an accomplishment that occurs because of the long-term relationships developed with their alumni.
On yet another spectrum, I want to offer some ideas about my own community project space, North Branch Projects as it relates to growth. It is unlike Ragdale and Marwen in so many ways, but I have taken aspects of both when it comes to serving others in the creative field.
I opened the space in my childhood neighborhood of Albany Park, Chicago, as a community bookbinding facility. The goal of the studio is to expand peoples' perception of the creative process—specifically in this neighborhood where you just don't find many venues to engage with art.
The books arts are used as the catalyst to get people to new, exciting places. Anyone who is interested in learning about making books by hand and related artists' books can show up and take advantage of free community binding sessions that are offered six times a week.
It is not a nonprofit. Rather, it is a business offshoot of my studio practice that relies on the production of art objects through equal exchange: you make two books; one you keep and do as you wish, the other stays on the "Neighborhood Archive" shelf or is sold to help pay the bills.
Utilizing the book format is one way I have dealt with scale in my work. It's a necessity for someone like me who has never felt comfortable with attention but at the same time felt the need to share.
I kept sketchbooks avidly because they were small enough to use as a portable studio when I was nomadic, and the format always encouraged conversations with non-artists who were able to relate to my personal, intimate ideas as they could hold it in their own hands. The dosage was comfortable and I could impact others without resorting to force. I learned early on that this could be applied to work not just in the studio, but in everything I do.
I've struggled with the notion of growth as an organization, especially when trying to understand its impact on the neighborhood and the people it serves. Sometimes only one person comes in during the week to make books with me—and it's one of my volunteer assistants.
It's difficult to imagine that North Branch has any impact on days like these. But I believe the fundamental idea of community exists on the highest level at that studio worktable with only a few present. We fold, cut, and stitch book parts in unison. We talk shop and compare our life histories as we learn about each other's families.
As a teacher, I can share technical skills with the assistants who come in, but it doesn't compare to the intense thrill of having them in turn come back a few days later with two of their friends, both convinced that there is something joyous to be found in the binding process.
This cycle allows me to keep the doors open. It's a reciprocal environment that was intended to be experienced on a small scale, much like the dinner table at Ragdale.
My studio assistants are the true community builders in a space like North Branch. Without them, the space would be just like any other artists' studio, revolving around the artist (myself) and his (my) ego.
So when I think about growth, I always have to take into consideration what this will mean for the one assistant, because they are the first tier of this community. They are the ones that allow for the conversation to begin.