The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Sharon Louden is an full-time practicing artist, teacher and entrepreneur. She graduated with a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA from Yale University, School of Art. Her work has been exhibited in the Whitney Museum of American Art, National Gallery of Art, Neuberger Museum of Art, Arkansas Arts Center, Yale University Art Gallery, Weatherspoon Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among others. In addition, her work has also been written about in the New York Times, Art in America, Washington Post, Sculpture Magazine, ARTnews and the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as other publications. Sharon currently teaches at the New York Academy of Art in New York City and at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she is a mentor to graduate students. She also organizes a popular Lecture Series at the New York Academy of Art where she interviews luminaries and exceptional individuals in the art world and from afar.
Louden is also the editor of Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists published by Intellect Books and distributed by the University of Chicago Press. The book has been #1 on Amazon.com's Bestseller List of Business Art References. It was also on Hyperallergic's List of Top Art Books of 2013. Press includes an interview in Hyperallergic blogazine, "How do Artists Live?" as well as many reviews, blog posts and mentions from publications such as ARTnews, Public Art Review, the College Art Association Art Journal and others. You can find selected press and information on the book here. She is currently working on a second edition of "Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Artists as Culture Producers" which will be published by Intellect Books and distributed by the University of Chicago Press in 2017, followed by a national book tour.
Sharon lives and works in Minneapolis, MN and New York, NY
BW: Where and how did your interest in art begin?
SL: I’ve always been an artist, I think since I was about five years old. It’s very interesting, my husband once asked me what made me “decide” to be an artist and I said I don’t think I made that decision -- I think it was just always there.
BW: As someone who maintains a full studio practice, while teaching, writing and lecturing, how do you balance all of these ventures?
SL: I’m glad that you asked that question! I believe the key for me is having an organized database/calendar that keeps me straight and directed. What I mean by that is every day I look at my database when I wake-up in the morning, which is basically my “assistant” which says to me “this is what you are doing today.” I look at it first thing in the morning when I wake up, and then I check my email which also causes me to change direction/course of what I do in a day. Those two things dictate my day essentially, and so do deadlines.
In regard to scheduling making my work: I like to work on a project-to-project basis and then I also work in my studio pretty regularly when I’m in town. Making my paintings and drawings as an ordinary, breathable practice keeps me grounded. It’s the backbone of everything I do.
BW: One of the things your book talks about is how to measure your success as an artist. How do you measure success?
SL: In regard to success, I think everybody has a different measure of success. For me, success is being able to have the freedom to make work, to strive to do what I want in my life. And I am very grateful for being an artist in this day and age. I feel like other than that, the practical issues of getting older, taking care of oneself health-wise and dealing with the prospect of mortality -- these are big issues that have nothing to do with being an artist per se, those are just issues of living as an adult and issues of aging. If I can just keep my health up, live with less stress and make work, I consider myself “successful.”
I’m currently doing research/developing my second book, “Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Artists as Culture Producers.” The contributors in this book have inspired me to do so much more in my life – more than I could ever imagine an artist could do. To reach beyond boundaries is also a form of success – to be able to go so much further than expected.
BW: We will come back to the second book and your original book that spawned both. I would love to get a little bit more into your work as an artist. I’m curious to hear about the central themes behind the work. It’s been described as anthropomorphic and I would like to understand how you think about your work. What is the central theme(s) in your work?
SL: When I entered into graduate school, I was working figuratively. I was a classic figurative painter, using paint heavily, as my influences were David Park, Joan Brown, Elmer Bischoff, Philip Guston and many other artists. As I continued to paint the figure, I slowly got bored with painting just the exterior of the figure, so I tried to explore what was important to me and what I was feeling about the figure – what was so important about using this subject for me. I began to break the figure down into lines and those lines became the backbone of the gestures I use today. These gestures, when they come together in installations in particular, hopefully create environments, communities of their own. I am totally community driven when it comes to my own life, but then in my work it’s a delicate intimacy and relationship with these gestures -- call them calligraphy, characters, gestures – they are from a language that is of my own.
BW: What changed your trajectory to move towards abstract art?
SL: Really, boredom has been an amazing trigger in my life.
The other thing is, through that boredom I was looking at other artists that really carried me to where I am now like Francis Alys, Cornelia Parker, Raoul De Keyser, Ken Price and many others… these are people’s work I admire and refer to often. And there is Richard Tuttle, too.
BW: Now your husband Vinson is a jazz musician and Tuttle’s wife, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, is a contemporary poet. Does Vinson’s practice influence your work in some way?
SL: LOL! For the last installation I did, the director of the museum asked me if I wanted to do collaboration with my husband and I said no! The reason is that we work together and he’s my everything. We work together all the time. I really respect him and his music, his political activism, his video work. Even though I love jazz, I love classical music even more, as I see wonderful lines in the music of Chopin and Bach, in particular. I just haven’t found a way to have a discourse with music visually. However, Andrew Simpson, the Accompanist for the National Gallery of Art, has accompanied my silent films with live music as a response to my work, which I love in the moment. But working with my husband in this way is not to be… yet! I’m open to it. Vinson and I have collaborated on so many other different things. He really loves and understands the visual arts community and he works within it.
BW: I was looking at a site-specific work at the University of Connecticut, called “Merge.” You mentioned that you work on a project-by-project basis, what does that look like, does it start with drawing or how does this come together to result in such a large volumetric piece made of such interesting materials?
SL: The process is: they usually start out with studying the space. At UConn, I was working with the architect directly (Jane Weinzapfel/Leers Weinzapfel Architects) who was amazing. I felt working with her was a collaboration in many ways, even though our visions stayed independent. The idea is always inspired by the space. I’m looking for a harmony between my gestures in space and what the space demands. It comes together very naturally – I don’t do any drawings that will explain what the work looks like in advance; it comes together like making a drawing in space, in the moment.
The most recent work I completed entitled, “Windows” is meant to create “windows” of infinite space through the materials used for this installation, primarily highly reflective, rare aluminum. The piece was made in the same way: many sight visits, studying the space and making a “drawing” in space on-site.
BW: You’ve embedded animation into your practice over the last 10 years. Can you talk about the integration of the digital and how you think about that and is it something that you continue to foster in your practice?
SL: The animations came out of the same itch responding to boredom. Maybe “boredom” should be my middle name! In addition to boredom, I really saw a need in the work for my gestures to come alive through movement. What animation does for my characters is that it creates a different meaning, a sense of figuration in the abstract, and a visual, moving narrative of the work. I feel that the animation is another medium that assists the vocabulary that I am trying to express.
BW: Is there anything that I haven’t asked about the work that is important to talk about the work itself?
SL: I would just say, like any other artist, my work is most important and central to my life, no matter what else I do. All of the work I do comes from that place.
BW: Can we shift to the book, “Living and Sustaining a Creative Life”, which is how we met? I went to your panel discussion on the book at Art Basel Miami Beach 3 years ago. What is the premise of the book?
SL: After I moderated a panel at the College Art Association Conference a few years ago, on “How to Make a Living with or without a Dealer,” my now publisher came up to me afterwards and asked if I wanted to write a book. I never ever considered writing a book – I’m not an “expert” on anything. But I thought I could ask a few friends to start a conversation, through their essays, as to how they sustain a creative life.
Another reason why I did this book was that I was getting tired of students coming out of school asking how to get a gallery as the sole way to sustain a creative life as an artist. I believe that galleries are a part of the ecosystem of the art world, but not to be depended on solely. There are many ways to make a living as an artist. I truly believe it’s the best time to be an artist as there are so many opportunities right now and less judgement.
BW: What do you think needs to change in the art world at this moment in time?
SL: It needs to be much more transparent. I want the market to be transparent. I think it would benefit a lot of artists and the public to know more information, allowing the art world to be more accessible.
BW: How do you reboot, unwind and recharge?
SL: One reason I moved to Minnesota is so that I could have a back yard, to live in quiet. Sometimes I take ten minutes to look at the birds. I never took that kind of time to do such a thing in the many years I lived in New York.
BW: MFA or NYC or both?
SL: I moved to NYC in 1991. In 1991 it was very different city than it is today. Today, New York City is much more expensive. I think if you are a young person you should get New York out of your system as far as experiencing the heights of discourse and culture. The thing about New York is that it embraces culture, but it never supports it. When I lived there, over the course of 23 years I was kicked out of studios eight times and I got tired of it. But if you’re asking me “MFA or NYC or both,” I would say in regard to New York, I think you should try it, absolutely.
In regard to the MFA: people have argued with me about this, but I believe in education for education’s sake, learning to contribute to growth as a person. For an artist, I believe the MFA allows more growth for one’s own visual vocabulary. The cost of education has been a popular discussion of late. But I believe that you get what you pay for. Yes, the cost of education is high and that is problematic, but there are many MFA programs that are inexpensive or free, so if someone wanted to engage in a further examination and discourse for their work and extend one’s knowledge, it’s definitely possible. I highly recommend it.
If it is important for you to move to New York, keep in mind what many artists said in my first book: one of the ways in which an artist can live freely is to have a low-overhead and small number of expenses, including real estate.
BW: What’s the best advice you have ever received?
SL: When I was a child, I grew up Catholic, enrolled in a CCD class. My teacher at the time instructed me not to draw outside of the lines in a coloring book, which was, of course, what I resisted against then and continue to do so in many ways.
BW: What is the one question you are always asked?
SL: People want to know if there is a silver bullet, a formula to achieve financial success as an artist, and they are always disappointed when I tell them that I believe there isn’t one and they have to create their own method of living as an artist. People want to know some kind of shortcut. I believe there is no short cut, and thank goodness for that: I would hope people would want to enjoy the journey, no matter the ups and downs of it. I always learn from the swings. No matter how bad it gets, we still have our creativity and our work – even living in the cracks of life. It’s a gift.
BW: What question do you wish got more often?
SL: That’s a great question. So for everybody reading this (and I brought this up when I first met you (Brett)): my husband shared with me an article that was written by the chief of staff at the time to Reid Hoffman from LinkedIn, Ben Casnocha, and in that article he stated that he was surprised that everyone wanted Reid Hoffman’s time but nobody asked him what they could do for him.
It is amazing how some people are surprised by that question as they never get asked this, especially from an artist. But I love that question because it opens the door to exchange, opportunities, conversation, to an opportunity to give which I love to do. I believe not only artists, but everyone should ask that question. What else can we do and how may we help you?
Thank you very much for having me here with you today, Brett. I am very grateful to talk with you, from one artist to another! It has been a lot of fun and so nice to be in your company. Thank you!