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Inside And Out: From The Ivory Tower To The Daily Grind

MFA painters at IU got a nuts-and-bolts education about the job of being an artist when they mounted an exhibition at a New York gallery this summer.

It is often said that an artist creates because he or she has to. That sentiment might sound something like this–

“For most of us, anyways, I don’t really think it’s a choice,” admits Gabriel Phipps, visiting assistant professor of painting in the Hope School of Fine Arts at Indiana University-Bloomington.  “It’s just something that chooses you.”

The way that happens might follow Joe Kameen’s trajectory. The MFA painter at IUB was on a full-ride computer science scholarship as an undergrad at Boston University.  He recalls,

I thought I wanted to work in the video game industry, and that I was going to be be a concept artist, maybe for movies, or maybe do storyboards for television or something. One thing led to another and I sort of realized that I was so much more in love with the actual making of the artwork than I thought I had been with the computer or technology side, so I quickly realized I wanted to be an artist.

“You sort of go where it takes you,” suggests Phipps. “But sometimes, when that happens, when it seizes you, you’re in for a rough ride.”

Even Rock Stars Punch The Clock

Why rough? The ride involves a lot of time spent outside of the studio, for starters–

“We all have day jobs,” Phipps begins.

Most artists, working in any medium, tend to have to have day jobs. Some of us teach. Others do–well, all kinds of things. When I was living back in New York I had a friend who was actually a world famous rock and roll musician. He plays in Sonic Youth, and he has a day job as a bartender. I think there are very very few artists who are able to just make money off of their art.

[pullquote]It’s not all about being an artist, you know? This is going to be a job.[/pullquote]

“Most [grad students] think they’re going to get some fabulous teaching job somewhere,” speculates Betsy Stirratt, director of the Grunwald Gallery of Art and another member of the Hope School faculty.

And maybe they will.  We have a very good record in the School of Fine Arts of placing our students in teaching positions. However, something they have to understand is that not all teaching positions are the same. You might be teaching six courses a year, plus all the committee work, and everything else you’re doing. It’s not all about being an artist, you know? This is going to be a job, you know?

That lesson had come through loud and clear for Joe Kameen, the computer scientist-turned-painter, who’s halfway through his master’s program at IU. “In order to be a successful painter now,” Kameen reflects, “painting is almost a subcategory of what you really do, which is go to shows, and make connections, and write proposals and get grants and curate shows.  You’re filling all of these shoes, and you have to have a new persona that’s best suited for all of these tasks.”

Kameen’s involvement in mounting a show at The Painting Center in New York this summer brought that lesson home. Inside and Out, which showed at the Chelsea gallery July 15- August 9, 2014,  featured the 15 painters in the current MFA cohort.

Along with the prestige and exposure the show afforded, Kameen acknowledges the benefit he derived from

actually going through that experience of being the proposal writer, and then speaking with the artists and choosing their paintings for them and then being the curator and hashing out the arrangement of the whole show and driving the paintings to New York and meeting the gallery staff and dealing with the hanging and going to the opening. It’s all these separate little tasks [that] aren’t making paintings but are what being a painter is now.

Nuts And Bolts

Kameen and his grad school peers had pitched the show to The Painting Center, a mainstay on the New York gallery scene for the last two decades, at the urging of their professor Gabe Phipps.  “When it began,” he recalls,

I thought of it as something that might be a bridge from the Midwest to the East Coast.  It might be a way to connect the grad painters here at IUB to the to the larger art world, and also a way for the larger art world to become attuned to what they’re making here in Indiana. But in the end, it became an opportunity for nuts-and-bolts education on top of some of the initial ideas that brought the show about.

The Painting Center project brought that nuts-and-bolts education about the job of being an artist to the center of Phipps’ curriculum, which, he concedes, tends to linger in the aesthetic realm. “I tend to focus on the creative process more than anything else,” Phipps concedes.  “If the topic of life after art school comes up, I give them the unvarnished truth, but I guess, with this experience, my pedagogy is changing a little bit.”

[pullquote]I’m not saying it’s impossible to make a living as an artist, it’s just impossible to teach it.[/pullquote]

Incorporating professional training into the fine arts curriculum is happening across the board in Fine Arts. In addition to the Associate Instructor training class all graduate students in fine arts are required to take–which introduces the rudiments of teaching–Betsy Stirratt teaches the elective course “Professional Skills for Artists”, which, she explains, focuses on such challenges as

going out and getting exhibits and getting your work out there and trying to sell it and how do you price it and how do you deal with opportunities that come along. I don’t cover how to make a living as an artist, because it’s impossible to do that.  I’m not saying it’s impossible to make a living as an artist, it’s just impossible to teach it. I would have to become a career center and I can’t do that. What I do is I try to direct them to certain resources that they can look at to try to get jobs.

“Professional practice is something that we value very highly,”  asserts Professor Arthur Liou, Director of the Hope School of Fine Arts,

and it’s a very important component of contemporary art education. It’s a competitive world, now. Students with a better portfolio, better track record, better resume, are more competitive in their graduate application as well as their job applications. So professional practice doesn’t start now after you graduate. It has to start when you’re in school. It’s something that a lot of our faculty emphasize in their curriculum.

[pullquote]It’s a competitive world, now. So professional practice doesn’t start now after you graduate. It has to start when you’re in school.[/pullquote]

Like the New York show Phipps encouraged his painting students to mount, Liou asserts that many faculty build the exhibition process into their courses —whether those shows are on campus, in Bloomington, or farther afield. Additionally, Liou suggests, students’ professional prospects can grow simply through their connection to the Hope School’s internationally pedigreed faculty.  “Our faculty travel around the world and exhibit so we have good connections,” Liou asserts.  “It’s important for students to share that perspective and for us to share that resource and prospects for shows and professional practice.”

Only Connect

Stirratt reiterates the importance of making connections.  “Keep up every connection you have,” she advises her students,  “whether they’re a collector, whether they’re an artist, whether they’re your aunt Mildred, because that’s where the opportunities come from.  There’s a lot of great people out there, but if you don’t know anybody, it’s not going to happen for you.”

For someone studying art in the Midwest, forging those connections can seem especially daunting. Do those connections have to be to New York, or Los Angeles, or Berlin?

“I think it’s essential,” claims Phipps,

The picture that so many of us have of the painter painting on the mountaintop is something that comes out of narratives like that of Vincent Van Gogh or Paul Cezanne, but the truth is that almost all of those painters were part of an arts community before they withdrew to their respective mountaintops. So I think as young artists it’s really important to be plugged to an art center of some kind–for the quality of one’s work and thought above all else, but it’s also important in terms of one’s daily bread.  It’s where the money is, it’s where the galleries are, it’s where the museums are.

Liou takes a slightly differently view—

I think students should try all sorts of opportunities. Both in major art centers around the world, as well as trying to make their environment better. You can really enrich you own and many people’s life experience by creating exciting art events. It should be in their vision to create an art experience that matters, no matter where.

“Who knows, I’m young,” muses MFA painter Joe Kameen, “but I definitely feel like, no matter what happens, art-making will always be a sort of friend that will be there.

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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