[Note: the content of this blog has changed somewhat since this interview, however, it is being kept in the blog archive for the benefit of those who have bookmarked this page.]
Barbara Bartlett is an artist who has embraced digital media so that she can share her drawings for free. This is a curious move. Postgraduates in art more typically pursue (whether successfully or not) the studio practice / gallery exhibition career-model. Her blog, Continuous Drawing, gives next to nothing away about either these or any other aspects to her work. The work is simply there to see and download. My curiosity was piqued.
Was this reticence there to focus visitors’ minds on the content? Certainly, it was this content that made her work stand out during my search for drawings on art blogs. Her scratchy forms teeter on the edge of representation, each drawing appearing only as a stage in a sequence of re-drawings with no apparent endpoint in sight, as though they collectively illustrate their own review process, leaving them with a tentative status that’s in peculiar opposition to the bravura of their draftsmanship.
Then there’s the everyday scenes grabbed on the same iPhone she draws with. However, as I interviewed her for my book, I found myself wanting to share her comments here on Recent Items about how she arrives at her drawings more than those about the drawings themselves. At this time of year, tens of thousands of art students will graduate to find themselves with no job and a long road ahead of them if they want that career in studios and galleries. Barbara’s views offer an alternative model of practice. These may be the kinds of new thoughts that new media can give rise to when applied to existing creative avenues. The interview extracts begin with her use of blogging:
What does the social element to blogging bring to your drawing?
Before the blog, I had a great sense of community on Flickr with many of the artist/friends being part of the JKPP group –Julia Kay’s Portrait Party – they post self portrait photos and make images of each other using all kinds of media. It’s a large network of artists/architects, designers and musicians all over the world. Wonderful to read their comments, and also we share photos of art that we admire in museums and shows.
I started the blog to share the drawings with friends here in NYC who were downloading them from Flickr. The layout on Flickr wasn’t ideal for that since I upload so many different photos and drawings from different apps. The blog provided a way to create little suites of drawings and exhibit them in spurts rather than one big set or grid which can take forever to load on screen. But the grid also has some nice chance produced features. Click on Continuous Drawing 2012 and you will see the drawings in sequence from the start in May 2012.
I started blogging and […] it was wonderful to hear from other artists all over the world who are working like I am – not necessarily for the marketplace. Then I began to enjoy watching the reaction to the works – how many favorites etc. The stats don’t drive the work, but it is interesting to me what people respond to in the drawings. Sometimes people will write and guess what the image is, and I really have no clue, but they definitely see a certain story or figure or mood. Sometimes, I’ll riff on their idea later on.
What drawing have you done before your blog, and when?
I worked for a year as a mechanical drafter (when it was still done by hand!) and later, as an undergrad, I kept little idea drawings for paintings in a series of pocket-sized journals.
I never really focused on drawing until my graduate work. We had a drawing workshop which was blissfully unstructured. I was preparing an installation for my thesis exhibit, and was making drawings as usual in my journal. When I tried to draw larger, it was never right. Somehow, the intimacy of the journal suited (or perhaps protected) my process.
So when it came time to show my work for drawing-class critique, I enlarged the drawings at a local copy shop. To my amazement, my classmates and the professor wanted to have them. So I gave them all away. It was great fun to see my idea drawings hanging in everyone’s studios and offices. I realized then that I really had no connection to the commercial marketplace.
What commercial or institutional background in art have you had?
I have an MFA in Painting and Drawing from Ohio University. My BFA in Fine Art was from NY Inst. of Technology where the chairman, John Murray, was an amazing mentor who brought in all kinds of working artists to teach us in the suburbs (Long Island, NY). I also did an MA in Communications there which was focused on Painting and included Media Theory. I had a solo exhibit of large-scale paintings as my final project for the MA, and that led to another solo exhibit at a small local gallery. I had a nice review of a series of small square oil paintings in that show. After the MFA in Ohio, where I taught courses as a grad assistant, I tried teaching adjunct in NYC. I didn’t have the ambition to exhibit and teach and work the tenure track option.
I was fortunate to have contact with an extraordinary group of mentors and professors who emphasized how the role of an artist in society goes beyond merely creating and selling objects. This foundation has enriched my life in so many ways. Regardless of how much art I make, I relate to the world quite differently than an average person. I wish that more people could see the value in arts as a foundation for a life of inquiry.
You have an impressive art education, and have taught and exhibited. Why have you decided to omit all this from your blog profile?
I wanted be free of that convention, and let the art stand on its own. Credentials and explanations of art can be very boring. I’d like to let viewers find whatever they like in the art.
In what ways do you think that leaving academia has influenced your work since that time? And how do you view what you did before you left?
Sadly, in academia, I was halfheartedly trying to be a successful part of the institution. It felt premature.
After finishing the MFA in 1995, I moved to a very culturally diverse neighborhood in western Queens, a borough of NYC. It was like attending a performance piece based on chance – real life, not academic thought or theory.
I began to pay attention to all the effort, details and relationships contained in that vivid everyday world of working people. When participating in and documenting this display, I felt a deepening appreciation, a reverence, for the rituals and surprises of ordinary daily life.
Are you suggesting that the theoretical and commercial sides to the studio / gallery model of art practice can put artists at a distance from ordinary daily life?
Teaching and exhibiting are excellent and humane ways to have a life focused on art making. However, with too much comfort and separation, the mind can stagnate. This is why many art professors take a summer trip to open up their view. For me, urban life was an opportunity to be influenced by many different cultures and ideas after the cloistered feeling of graduate work.
My mind was forced to pay attention outwardly […] curiosity took over, an investigation into patterns of more communal life. On my street in Queens there is a church which rings its bell at 8 am on weekdays so that everyone is reminded to change their parking due to alternate side regulations. The subway is also a container for all kinds of patterns and contrasts. In the boroughs, at least neighborhoods close to Manhattan, most people rely on the subway – so we have contrasts of culture and type. New immigrants, families with children, working people, office workers and even sports fans unfamiliar with the trains.
I thrived in this very stimulating environment by paying attention to all these patterns and details and then retreating to digest and review everything I’ve seen or photographed. Portable art technology (smartphones and tablets) was the perfect answer to my desire to integrate daily experience and art making.
What do you do with your images offline?
Very little. I don’t have much time to work on that aspect, although I love the idea of little cards to be rearranged in velcro grids or some other playful, Fluxus-like game or interactive piece. I’ve also been experimenting with ways to generate grids or sequences by using formulas or chance theory.
A friend has printed up a few of her favorite individual drawings and created a grid on a wall in her apartment. I am really interested in [recovering] that same rewarding feeling when my classmates fought over photocopied versions of my journal scribblings to hang on their walls. I like the idea of open source art. Fortunately, I now have a self-employment situation (not art related) which allows me to make a living, to make art that doesn’t depend on the market, and therefore freeing me from the dreary project of self-promotion.
The best part of not making physical art is the not having to store it! And I can make a great quantity of work continuously, and people can see it. The cost of making the blog and all the artworks is so extremely low compared to all the tools and materials needed for physical work. I don’t need a studio, and never have to clean up a messy studio or clean brushes.
You could make physical drawings and then record and shar their progress as a promotional tool for selling them. The cost, space and messiness that you mention would presumably be offset by the income. How does your decision not to work this way relate to ‘how the role of an artist in society goes beyond merely creating and selling objects’? In what ways do you think this approach is enriching?
For the last 15 years, I have been making, on and off, physical drawings and paintings. I even rented a studio space in a raw loft in an industrial neighborhood. But all of the physical labor, time and cost of materials/space required a full time job to support. That life left me exhausted. There was no time left over for marketing or grant seeking. There can be the temptation to tailor work to the market which always seems disappointing intellectually and practically, particularly if you chase the market and still don’t make a living. My instinct has always been to support my own work and keep it free from influence. I am not saying that is the correct path for everyone.
Eventually, I tried to make my physical efforts smaller and more contained so a studio could be eliminated. Then I realized that I needed more time to shift between working mind and art mind. I changed my working situation to a more flexible (better paid) part-time situation to accommodate more art time. Even then, I wasn’t working to the degree I would have liked because I was still having to organize two lives and balance them.
About a year and a half ago, I was very ill with a bad cold. I was home and bored, and a friend shared a copy of John Cage reading his diaries. In that altered state, with Cage’s incredible murmur in the background, I picked up my phone and started drawing with my finger. I used Sketji which is a very simple but elegant app, just to pass time. As I worked and saved, worked, erased and saved … I found some kind of joy that had been missing. Also, [I found] a new confidence in this way of working quickly and immediately without over-critiquing every change – mostly because I had this sense that I could stop and go back to earlier versions or continue on with the drawings.
There was a new freedom in this way of working which opened up so many possibilities. Most importantly, I could work quickly and at any time. I began to find it easier to keep my artistic mind ‘running in the background’ and then bringing it forward when I had time. The phone was always nearby, and it changed from an entertainment/business device to my main art device as well. As I had adapted to urban life, I now found my mind adapting to holding all experiences at once. Art mind, business mind, entertainment mind, domestic mind, etc … the shift between various states became less dramatic.
The end result is that I am continually making art and enjoying the process much more than before. I am no longer frustrated by material concerns, physical and economic and separating my activities. Because this new medium is still emerging, it’s a thrill to be part of the evolution of digital art. Technology can enliven and inspire artistic inquiry as well as make artists less dependent on a system of sponsorship – whether government, commercial, religious etc. Of course, it would be ideal if society compensated fairly for artistic production, but many artists are silent because they do not have time or money to support a physical art practice.
What do you think your work can ‘do’? I ask this while bearing in mind the social-media sharing as much as any content or interests in art theory. I also ask while bearing in mind your comments about your foundation in life and your wish for others to see art as a foundation for themselves.
I often return to Beuys’ idea of the filter. I interpret it this way: everything in life flows through the filter of the human being and yields some product of the recombined and refined experience. An artwork might be one of the results of that living filter.
Most importantly, there is a sense of offering an experience to the viewer. I strive to make works that encourage a playful, open mind. A mind in that state can experience a break from habit and be inspired. If an artwork is interesting to a viewer, then perhaps that person is inspired to think about making art, or finding out about the political views implied or the subjects referenced. The work can also perhaps serve as a by-product or evidence of the reverence for [the rituals and surprises of ordinary daily] life I mentioned earlier.
My thanks to Barbara for her generosity in taking the time to answer the many questions I had about her work. Her work can be explored at her blog, Continuous Drawing. I’m interested in hearing about any creative practices that are an alternative to or offer a challenge to the studio / gallery format, especially those that use new technologies. Suggestions welcome in the comments section below, as are comments about Barbara’s iPhone art practice.