The Laws of Nature

Monday, May 24, 2010

Artist to Artist: An Interview with Wendy Richmond


Dear Readers,
I'm going on holiday for a week and want to leave you with a substantive post to digest while I'm away. Today I have a special treat for you. Recently, I asked artist-teacher-author Wendy Richmond for an interview for this blog and she generously consented. You’ll remember that a few months ago we discussed on this blog Wendy’s marvelous book Art Without Compromise, and some of you were lucky enough to win free autographed copies. You can imagine how thrilled I am that Wendy consented to an interview, and I learned a great deal from it. I hope you will as well! But first, here’s some biographical information for those of you who are unfamiliar:

Wendy Richmond is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology, and creativity in contemporary culture. She began mixing traditional and new media at MIT in the early 1980’s, co-founded the Design Lab at WGBH in Boston, and developed courses in expression and media at Harvard University. Richmond’s photographs, installations and collaborations have been shown internationally. She is the recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center residency, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a LEF Foundation grant and the Hatch Award for Creative Excellence. She is the author of Design & Technology: Erasing the Boundaries and overneath, a collaboration of dance & photography. Richmond’s regular column, “Design Culture,” has appeared in Communication Arts magazine since 1984. Her new book Art without Compromise* is published by Allworth Press.
For additional information, please visit Wendy's website at http://wendyrichmond.com/

*********** THE INTERVIEW *************************

Kathy: As an artist, what label do you apply to the type of work you do?

Wendy: I see my work as three intertwined areas: art-making, teaching and writing. Each area feeds the other. For example, I think a lot about the process of making art, and I write and teach about that. Another example: my writing explores questions concerning “What is public? What is private?” and my last body of work was about overheard cell phone conversations in public urban spaces. In regards to the medium I use in my art, it ranges from etching to photography to video projection to interactive media. I try to choose the medium that best supports the message.

Kathy: What do you see as the significance of your work?

Wendy: In my writing and teaching, I hope to be supportive, especially to help people to understand their work more deeply, and to identify and give credit to their own particular process for making their own work.

Kathy: That’s an interesting mission because it’s outwardly directed. Most artists strive to bring attention to their own work and identity as they struggle to compete with other artists in this tough market. How do you go about promoting your artwork? How do you find opportunities to exhibit and sell it?

Wendy: You are very right that my answer, which was just about my teaching and writing, was “outwardly directed.” I don’t think about the significance of my artwork other than its significance to me personally. In terms of promoting my artwork, I find that one thing leads to another, if you take advantage of it. For example, after a show at a museum a few years ago, I was interviewed on the radio. By alerting people to that interview, a lot more people were then made aware of my work, which led to an article in the New York Times, which then led to a TV interview, which led to another exhibit…. In other words, use the media, spread the word. It also helps to figure out what makes the work topical and interesting for the media. My exhibit was about surveillance, cell phones, which is quite topical. In terms of selling my work, it depends on the medium. Some of my work is basically un-sellable, because it is performance- and installation-based. And a lot of it is collaborative. It is easier to sell work that hangs on the wall. I have a few collectors who tend to buy my work. But I have to admit that selling work is low on my agenda.

Kathy: When did you first self-identify as an “artist” and what inspired you to do so?

Wendy: It is hard for me to use only that term to identify myself, as it is hard to use only the term “writer.” The work is so integrated that to use one label feels like I am short-changing the others. The subtitle of my first book was “Erasing the boundaries.” That has always been my underlying philosophy— to erase boundaries between art and technology, between disciplines, between media, between cultures, etc. etc.

Kathy: Yes, your approach is very integrated. However, most artists aren’t interested in writing and often feel lost when it comes to the mandatory writing for exhibition purposes (e.g. the Artist’s Statement and Biography). You, however, seem to be as inspired to write as to create art. How do you account for that?

Wendy: Yes, I can relate to artists who have trouble writing about their art. It is very difficult. I have two kinds of writing. The first is very free form. It is literally a conversation with myself. The second kind of writing takes a huge amount of effort, where I really am trying to communicate a specific idea to an audience, and I want to do it as clearly and accessibly as possible. (I write regular column in Communication Arts magazine called "Design Culture.")

Kathy: How do you balance writing, which is a left-brain function, with your
art, which is a right-brain function?

Wendy: This refers back to your previous question. I don’t see writing as left-brain at all. Most of my writing begins with “freewriting” which is a stream of consciousness. It is not at all linear. It jumps around like mad. I could even say that it is more left-brain than art making. Sometimes it is illegible, which doesn’t matter because I rarely go back to read it, until perhaps years later, for clues to what my state of mind might have been.

Kathy: What are the top three concepts that you want to convey to your readers?

Wendy: This addresses my creative process, which is in my book in the chapter titled "The Creative Process Loop." Sorry for the brash self-promotion, but that really is where it is most clearly stated.

Kathy: Readers, Wendy has given permission for me to reproduce that chapter here:

From Art Without Compromise*
Wendy Richmond
"The Creative Process Loop"

I have a young friend, Ariel, who is a gifted photographer. Her images are unique, quirky, and fresh. One day while we were talking about her work, Ariel confessed her persistent fear: What do I do when the ideas don’t come?

Anyone who has seriously pursued creative work has faced this problem. It is the visual equivalent of writer’s block, and it’s especially troublesome when the work is client-free, self-motivated, and personal. We often assume that we have to ride it out, like a physical disease, until that random lightning bolt miraculously returns.


But I believe that the problem is not a lack of inspiration. Instead, it is that the initial spark of an idea is so delicate that it is often prematurely stifled. It is subject to the terrible forces of nature: doubt, distractions, fear of the work being derivative, overwhelming technical complexity, lack of time, lack of discipline, and lack of money, to name a few. There is the desperate need to have the “answer” before one allows a simple germ of an idea to grow and morph, and to finally achieve its fullest realization. This all comes down to two opposing fears. On one hand, you have the fear of the unknown: not having a clear idea of what the final product will be and wasting valuable time in a state that feels aimless and amorphous, without any sense of accomplishment or progress.

On the other hand, there is the opposite fear: that you will commit too quickly to an initial idea and invest so much time and energy in that path that it becomes too precious. At that point you cannot abandon it, even if it is not what you want, and you continue, plagued with the pestering feeling that if you had stayed in a more exploratory stage early on, you would have found the right direction.

Is there a way to sustain one’s creative confidence and energy throughout the entire process, from spark to product, keeping a balance between the unpredictable state of not knowing, and of tangible, visible progress?

One practice that I have developed to support the creative process—not only for my students and readers, but for myself, as well—is the Creative Process Loop, a disciplined approach to maintaining a balance between these contradictory poles.

The Creative Process Loop consists of three stages:
1. Observe. This is a natural act for any artist: watching, looking, and focusing on unnamed quirks of interest. Anything, from a stray hair on a sleeve to two people engaged in an explosive argument, can spark a nascent creative idea. The observation is accompanied by a method of recording, such as sketches of the strand of hair or notes of the couple’s dialogue. These are not meant as final pieces, but simply as actions that set the scene firmly in your mind, as you might record a dream when you wake up.

2. Reflect. When you look at the sketches or notes you have made, which ones hold your attention? These pages are full of unformed, valuable nuggets that are often not evident until you look back on them. Reflection requires the discipline to review the notes and sketches and see what sticks. I have found that when I apply that discipline, it provides the space to daydream, and furthers an idea in a non-pressured way.

3. Articulate. In the first two stages of the Loop, the work is for your eyes only. The thoughts and ideas are not spelled out and are not in any cohesive, comprehensible order. They make sense only to you. Articulation is the hardest stage, the one that requires the greatest discipline: stating these ideas clearly, translating them into a tangible form that can be communicated to others. It’s also the stage that reaps the greatest rewards. When
you articulate, i.e., create a physical piece that can be presented to others, you achieve a sense of accomplishment and visible progress. But, because you know that it is merely a small piece in an iterative process, you don’t have to be so invested; it is a step along the way. When you present this tangible piece, you begin the cycle again: observing the reaction, reflecting on the feedback you receive, and creating another iteration—in other words, engaging in the Creative Process Loop.

The most important part of repeating this process is to maintain the balance between not knowing and having the “answer.” Imperative to the success of the Loop is that you move quickly through the stages, resulting in a form of rapid prototyping that removes the preciousness of investment. With each cycle, you move closer to your goal.

Kathy: I really connected with this chapter in your book when I first read it, and I think that many of my readers did as well. Although I don’t keep a physical journal I do keep a mental journal and seem to remember most parts of the narrative and images as time passes. If I’m correct, it looks like you’re suggesting an integrative process whereby artists use a synthesis of logic, emotion, and intuition before committing to the physical act of artmaking. Is that correct?

Wendy: Not quite. I feel that it is useful to make a physical act immediately. What I mean is that one does not have to commit right away to a defined path. So yes, we use logic and emotion and intuition, over and over and over, in an evolving process of mini commitments.

Kathy: You’ve applied what you know to teaching graduate students in a
university setting. What are your general goals as a teacher?

Wendy: To clear the runway of obstacles, so that my students can take off and fly.

Kathy: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Wendy: I am going to combine the last 2 questions, with this amazing quote. It is a guidepost for me, not only for teaching, but in my relationships of all sorts.
This is from Lawrence Wechlser’s book “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin.” In the book, Irwin explains that his teaching is focused on helping each student to develop her own sensibilities. He says, “I think the most immoral thing you can do is have ambitions for someone else’s mind.”

Kathy: That’s probably the best advice I’ve ever heard! Thank you, and thank you for this interview. Best wishes for success in all your future endeavors!

12 comments:

Jeremy Elder said...

Valuable stuff - especially the creative process loop.

hwfarber said...

Great interview and I agree with everything--I also consider writing (except for artists' statements) a right-brain function.

I read this twice; can't believe that everything "feels right"--I like those sparks.

-Don said...

Great interview! Thanks to both you, Kathy, and to Wendy.

I like what Wendy said about erasing the boundaries between 'art' and 'writing'. I see writing as an art form just like painting is, so, the delineation in my mind would be painter/writer. With that said, I think when it comes to painting and writing my process goes Right brain/Left brain/Right brain for painting and Left brain/Right brain/Left brain for writing. I use both with each, but in different ratios.

Wendy's description of the creative loop is excellent! ...and, it works. In fact, I think I'm going to return to my studio and do a little articulating right now...

Happy Creating,

-Don

layers said...

a substantive post and interview for sure-- so much here that all artists deal with in different ways and at different times-- but still universal

Dan Kent said...

This is a great interview and a wonderful, thought-provoking passage. It was very generous of Wendy, I think to permit you to publish it. I will be reviewing this again.

Anyway, we will miss you. Think of us, while you are in paradise.

Celeste Bergin said...

“I think the most immoral thing you can do is have ambitions for someone else’s mind.”

Oh dear. I am afraid I am guilty. I see work and want to put it places. I want to help get it there. I see work and I wish I could tell the person what to do or not do (I DO restrain myself here, that is definitely verboten). I just think all those years in a salesmanship/marketing situation cursed me. lol.
Great article.
K, I can "see" you in the Allan Stone

Stan Kurth said...

I very much enjoyed reading Wendy's book and all the comments about it on the blog. I'm still working on the daunting task of assembling a small book of black and whites of the art in my life; my own and others work which I have been attracted to throughout my years (even though I don't like some of it now). I think there must be something in artists genes that compels them to share so much of themselves. You and Wendy do it very well. You both are incredible women.

Nice surprise by the way.

Mark Sheeky said...

Thanks for that refreshing interview. Enjoy your holiday Kathy. I'm missing your posts already :)

Mary Paquet said...

Kathy, may you have a refreshing holiday. Thanks for the wonderful interview. I have an innate need to write - that's how I learn, how I process what is happening in my life, and how I visualize the world and make it orderly for me. I always thought my writing and art went hand in hand. Thanks, Kathy and Wendy, for exploring the relationship of writing and creating art.

PAMO said...

Wonderful interview- I like Wendy very much. Wendy's creative loop is incredible. Makes me think I need to spend a bit of time refining my art journal techniques- or maybe it's OK just to go through all the random files and notebooks.
Thanks Kathy! And thanks Wendy!

Kathy said...

Thanks, ALL, for your great comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the interview and I really appreciate Wendy's willingness to do this.

Celeste Bergin said...

p.s. forgot to say! Welcome back!