Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Jason Franz of Manifest Creative Research Gallery & Drawing Center

Jason Franz is the founding executive director and chief curator of Manifest, a creative research gallery & drawing center located in Cincinnati, Ohio

Can you share with us a memory or two of first having recognized your passion for the arts?
I remember when I was five or six years old people would ask me what I was going to be when I grew up. My answer was always ‘an artist’. I don’t know why that was my answer. Neither my parents, nor any of my family, were artists, although many of my ancestors had been German craftsmen of one sort or another (cabinet maker, woodcarver, machinist, and the like). I remember loving to draw, and often created worlds on paper within which my imagination could run free.

At some point I was asked the question again, and my answer was the same, but with a twist—that I wanted to be an artist, but I couldn’t be. This was because, as I understood it in that very early formative stage, artists in schools had to take turns modeling nude for each other, and there was no way this modest little boy was going to have anyone seeing him naked, let alone drawing pictures of him. So that was it, the conundrum that somehow turned about and shaped my life.

In looking back I savor the irony in this story. Not only did I study life-drawing in college, I also went on to teach it, co-founded and now lead an organization with a studio program centered on the practice, and my own exhibited work is now primarily life drawing. I’m happy to report that in college I held firm to the red line I would not cross, (thankfully co-modeling is not part of a student’s course participation credit).

In high school I was an introvert. I guess I was some form of art-nerd-computer-geek—a relatively normal shy kid of the early 80’s. By this I mean I excelled in college-prep classes and could relate to the kids I knew were so much smarter and more confident than I, but also felt most at home in the art rooms or dabbling with computer programming. I was not a very sociable teenager. In the end, I did well enough to graduate ranked 10th in my class and earned a few academic awards and recognitions, in addition to those for my art. As a very unworldly naïve boy I was still determined, and encouraged by my father, to go to college (and be the first in my family to do so). I wrestled with choices as a junior and senior in high school for what to study in college. Art was my passion, but I performed well in math and English too. Some teachers wanted me to consider a discipline that would take advantage of my skills in these areas, something like Architecture or Engineering. And there was the usual consideration of the perception (or reality?) that one can’t make a living being an artist, so why spend money, going in debt for college trying to become one? I credit my dad, as conservative and old-school as he was, for urging me to follow my heart. In the end, I entered the Art Academy of Cincinnati at 17 with the intention of majoring in Graphic Design (a creative yet practical compromise, I thought). I will never forget my trigonometry teacher’s disappointment in my decision, and took this as a validation of both my path and the respect of someone I in-turn respected.

It was probably near the end of my freshman year that I determined I could not be happy working for someone else’s ideas, on demand. I craved pure drawing and making images too much. It was my ideas I wanted to explore, not someone else’s. So I changed my intended major to Illustration (still a compromise as a bridge between the two extremes). By sometime in my sophomore year—whenever it was that we needed to declare a final major—I was all in for Painting (and Drawing, and Printmaking, and Sculpture).

Yet another irony is that now, as the director of an 18 year old nonprofit arts organization I co-founded, not only do I use and practice my skills and understanding of visual art every day, (I’m saturated by it!) I also use my skills in math and writing, logic and discipline, and graphic design and illustration.

Circa 1972- "Arriving home from school with the drawing I wanted to show my parents and grandparents."

What was the catalyst for founding Manifest Gallery?
This could really be a book-length answer, so I’ll cut to the point. If I had to put my finger on just one ‘catalyst’ it was the stage of my career and the state of my academic appointment in the particular environment I was in at the time that did the catalyzing. But it was only by virtue of many many other factors aligning that this energy was able to be realized. These other factors included my own past experiences (as a young artist, college student, museum exhibit designer, practicing artist, professor, and participant in society), along with the students in my courses, my co-founders’ zeal for the ideas we shared, the state of the community we were in, and the combined ‘YES!’ the three of us and many others contributed to the decision to launch.

Another way to look at answering this question is from the outside, and to say the growing recognition of a confusion in society about visual arts (as echoed by a similar confusion in academia) caused Manifest. Put simply, in my teaching of any form of art I usually start with a key point or premise: that having a sense of taste is different than having a sense of quality, and that all too often people confuse the two, or assume they are one in the same. This may be a goal, but is rarely the case. This leads to confusion, misplaced values, a skewing of the role of visual arts in society, an emphasis on marketed narcissism, and ultimately to the decay of the profession of ‘artist’—often exacerbated by the very people who claim to hold that title. This is at least the germ of the reason Manifest’s mission is centered on championing ‘quality’ in visual art. And it is admittedly as much a question as it is a declaration.

Manifest Gallery not only holds exhibitions, but also serves as an outlet for various other programs and projects. How do you find the time to oversee such an extensive organization?
There is never enough time.

(To be clear, Manifest’s full name has always been Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center—two halves made up of four quadrants.) Our four programs (exhibits, studio programs, artist residency, and book press) have evolved organically over nearly two decades making Manifest much like a Museum, Library, School, Church, and Gymnasium, all for the visual arts. We’ve been patient, steadfast, and resilient. Slow growth and change is generally wise. It allows for adjustments without breaking anything (too much). It builds trust and reliance with the public. Achievements and ‘quality’ add up, and value increases exponentially. Rather than getting bored and changing in order to remain entertained, we focus on the structure of our organization, its mission, and our interactions with the people who participate.

It is not without a truly heroic staff, supportive board, and many volunteers and supporters, that Manifest came about and continues towards the start of its third decade. But our appearance as an ‘extensive organization’ is a flattering illusion generated by our rigor, structure, and commitment. In truth, Manifest is small by design, with only six paid staff (not including contracted teachers and volunteers), and only two of the staff are full time. I say again, they are heroic. They believe in Manifest’s mission. That’s how we do it.

Which kinds of responses do you wish to evoke in both the public and the artist, through the diverse works that you showcase?
Regarding Manifest’s exhibits we like to say our job is not to sell art, but to sell an experience—for free. So the last thing we want is for the public to think of art as a commodity, or of the gallery as a store for art. We don’t want most of them thinking about ‘cost’. Instead we want them thinking about value—of their experience, the work’s content, the artists’ efforts, and so on. This is not to say we aren’t thrilled if a patron or museum chooses to buy an available work from one of our exhibits—it’s a win-win-win. But this is not our mission.

Referring to earlier answers, we design our exhibits with overall quality in mind (quality of arrangement, relationships, thematic pertinence, craftsmanship, etc.). By this I mean that a jury-approved pool of high quality works is then assembled into a high quality exhibition. If we’ve done our jobs, not only are the works individually appreciated, the whole is too. And in successful art and design the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In this way, a person may feel the intention and ‘wholeness’ within a gallery experience as a positive force, even while the work included may not be to their taste.

In the end an exhibit designer and installer’s job is to hide their own efforts so that the viewer and the art can have their moment, an encounter in the wild if you will. Maybe the best response comes from someone who says, “I can’t put my finger on it, but I just love these exhibits. Something made me stay and look longer at work I would not have thought I’d want to spend time with, and I kept coming back for more…”

The artists we meet who visit the gallery for their receptions, often from as far away as the west coast, consistently say that in their circles the name Manifest means a lot, and that being in a Manifest show is seen as an achievement they’re proud of and their peers applaud. This has happened enough times over the years that we are starting to believe it, that Manifest’s reputation is solid, and our efforts are valued nationally. A deeper response is when we hear that an artist’s participation in a Manifest show or publication has led directly to further success, perhaps because a curator, commercial gallery, or a museum follows us in search of new talent, or patrons collect our books in hopes of finding new art to acquire and ultimately develop a relationship with an artist we’ve exposed. Whether it's exhibitors, resident artists, or regional participants in our studio program, knowing we’re making a difference in our fellow artists’ lives, now and in the future, is central to confirming we’re on target in fulfilling our mission. So I suppose evoking sincere validation from our peers for whom we work so hard is a goal. We want them to approve of our effort.

What do you love most about running this organization?
For me it has become my life-work, my ‘masterpiece’ not in the sense of a high achievement in history, but in the sense of the work of my life personally, both as an artist and as a citizen. (I also say this with full acknowledgement that it is really our masterpiece, because it is the product of many passionate people giving much towards making it happen. I just happen to be one of the least common denominators throughout Manifest’s history, and have the awesome privilege of steering the ship).

Collaboration. In the way we jury blind, and anonymously, letting a system of input steer the outcomes rather than curatorial or juror ego and ‘identity branding’ shaping the product of our mission.

Connecting. I’ve worked with SO MANY artists from all around the world, I feel like I’ve made small but permanent connections in any major city and so many smaller places. (We’re at 3,636 and counting). This is despite the fact that I work fairly hands-off, and remotely from the artists, communicating mostly through email. Likewise, I see artists connecting with each other because of their shared path-crossings in a Manifest exhibit, and this warms my heart and tells me what we’re doing is good on so many levels.

Proof. Hearing from artists far away from here how much Manifest means to them, and others in their circles. We started this, and do what we do, with a gut sense that it’s important and right. But as with any art endeavor, one always has a shadow of doubt. Getting unsolicited validation from the people who would know best is so energizing, and fulfilling especially when the work feels hard.

Celebrating excellence. On a selfish level, or perhaps because of my nature as a teacher, I always want to see better art in the world. Manifest is designed to fulfill this indulgence to an exquisite extreme. The books we’ve produced, over 30 major publications and 74 full-color exhibit catalogs, capture this in a small but very meaningful way. Taking a step back and paging through them after all this time recently made me realize how tangible all that work (mine, my staff’s, and the artists’) has been. (Not enough people see the books.

Sharing this with my family. Brigid, my wife, is co-founder. While I’ve been immersed in it as Director for half of my adult life, Brigid has remained involved both on the Board of Directors and as my partner in life. In both capacities she’s played a critical role in the evolution, progress, and success of Manifest and this often goes unseen because it is, as often as not, at the DNA level. But without her there’d be no Manifest.

And that brings me to one of the last things I love the most… Alexandra, our daughter. She was conceived when Manifest was conceived, at around the same time we signed the lease on the space that would become Manifest Gallery (mid-2004). She was born three weeks after our public debut of our first exhibits which was on January 7, 2005. She has attended almost every opening reception at the gallery (149 and counting) and has seen every exhibit both as it has formed in the curatorial/design phase, and in person in the gallery. She first drew from the live nude model when she was three, alongside professional and student artists in our Open Figure Life Drawing program. Alexandra has taken a college degree’s worth of professionally instructed studio classes at Manifest’s Drawing Center with some of the best artists in the country (and some from outside the country), and soaked up every bit of it. She has been teaching her own private studio lessons for youth and early teens for Manifest for the past three years. And her work is exceptional, revealing the power and influence being surrounded by quality-vetted art (and dialog about it) can have on a young person developing as an artist. As Manifest moves towards its gallery’s 17th anniversary of opening to the public and Alexandra moves towards her 17th birthday, I realize the organization is the child-becoming-adult, and the organization and the child are as twins. The processes a parent must go through as their child transitions into adulthood are, I suspect, paralleled by those a founder of a nonprofit arts organization must go through as the organization matures. It’s scary. Exciting. Inspiring. Uncertain. Motivating. And life-framing.

What are some of the challenges that you face?
The answers are mostly boring… the same as any nonprofit: funding, space, time, staffing support, atrophy in society… COVID…

A major challenge is caused by our longevity. If you last long enough, you inevitably encounter one problem-challenge or another. A good example is the lease-term existence (operating in facilities that are leased rather than owned). Even with an unprecedented and generously arranged long-term lease, we are now faced with having contributed to the successful turnaround of our neighborhood—and face the threats that come with that financial reality. I suspect that in most cases a vibrant small nonprofit can cause far more ‘positive growth’ in a community than it gets back in reciprocal support. Therefore it is unsustainable as an institution, even if the community deserves and needs such a valuable resource in its midst. At the same time, funders often focus on ‘impact’ (using art as a blunt instrument and a means to an end), or a point-A to point-B short-term solution to some perceived need—all too often at some expense to the arts and artists if not society at large. They forget about point-C, and what happens to the impactor once they’ve successfully made the impact and now are buffeted by the reverberation. Usually there is no support allowance for picking up those pieces. We’re left to do it ourselves. But we believe that art should be valued as so much more than fertilizer.

Bias. As a small artist-founded and artist-run nonprofit organization we do what we do at great personal sacrifice, significant efforts to give back so much more than is given, and to make the whole a valuable part of the larger arts ecosystem—one that benefits even the artists who don’t have work selected for exhibition or who don’t participate directly. Yet some artists apply a bias to Manifest (and our fellow organizations), assuming we are the same as the disreputable venues or programs they may have had bad experiences with out in the world—including those which are not nonprofit, governed by a board, run by artists, etc. It saddens me to see such closed mindedness in fellow artists, as few as they may be. It reveals a pattern of thought that probably pervades other aspects of life, decision making, and their careers, and is harmful on both a small and large scale. Part of this is life as it is. Part of it is our challenge to do the work and cut through the misunderstanding by doing a better job communicating our values, rationale, and mission. It’s an ever changing landscape we continue to move through.

Do you have plans for Manifest Gallery and Drawing Center beyond what it is today?
The real question is does it have plans for me!

But yes, Manifest is always becoming.

We, staff and board of directors, are routinely in dialog about thinking ahead five or ten years. Our goal is to cement Manifest’s legacy as a valued and important Cincinnati-based visual arts nonprofit institution and secure it in a permanent home that will continue to bring the vibrancy of learning, experiencing, practicing, and sharing visual art from near and far, magnified tenfold over what we’re able to do now in what must be considered our two one-mile apart ‘temporary’ facilities.

So, survival and progress. That’s the plan.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Dominique Clayton of Dominique Gallery

Dominique Clayton is the owner of Dominique Gallery, a contemporary gallery based in Los Angeles, CA, focusing on works by underrepresented artists

When did you first begin your journey in the arts?
My journey in the arts first started in high school in LA. I took a studio arts class and wasn't that great at drawing and painting, but realized how much I loved the environment and world of art. I was much more interested in talking about art and learning about it. Later on as a college student in New York at Columbia University, I found myself making frequent trips to galleries and museums like the nearby Studio Museum of Harlem and really furthered my interest there.

Were there any specific events that led to your decision to support artists by opening Dominique Gallery?
Yes - love brought me to it. I had been working in film and tv and live performing arts for several years. Then I met my husband who is an artist. When we got married and started our family, we thought about ways to sort of live independently and raise our daughters. I saw his struggles as an artist and realized the main things artists need - time, money, space, and support. I tried to provide that for him and that became the seeds of the business, enabling me to provide that for others.

You focus on the underrepresented – specifically BIPOC, female and queer artists. What has the public’s response to your roster been like so far?
I try not to pay attention to the response. Rather I focus on my responsibility. I’m a Black person first and foremost. I’m a Woman. And I’m a mother. Those three things make life very challenging for me in some ways but also have opened doors for me in other ways. So its an honor and a gift for me to intentionally shed some light on those who aren’t the first to be seen or acknowledged or chosen. I know what it feels like to have all the credentials, do all the work, and still be missed. So I make sure to say yes to as many as I can who are deserving.

How do you foresee the diversity of the art world, as well as our overall creative outlook, changing over the years to come?
It’s going to be a roller coaster. It’s a trend as are most things in the art world. The only way it can be sustainable and true is if people accept the honesty of the racism and elitism that is the foundation of the art world. No one really wants to do that. That takes all the fun away. And diverse people can be elitist too. So yes it will go up and down and diversity will take on new meanings and voices.

What kinds of qualities, aesthetic or otherwise, do you look for when choosing
the artists that you will showcase?

I truly appreciate the fluctuation between vulnerability, simplicity and depth. I look for artists who are clear in what they want to say and express.

Can you recall any specific experiences you’ve had with an exhibit and/or artist
that were especially fulfilling to you?

My recent presentation with Future Fairs was truly fulfilling on so many levels. It was a beautiful intersection of all the things that are so important to me in the art world. The fair itself was founded by two women and its model is collaborative and intimate. Each step in the process was so pleasant and supportive and I was able to include my friends from Black Women in Visual Art as program collaborators. Most importantly I was able to bring in an artist, Khidr Joseph, who I’ve been working with for a little while now to do some really powerful work that not only sparked really important conversations, but also affirmed his own practice which reminded me of why I loved doing what I do.

What do you find most rewarding about the curation process?
Seeing visions and dreams come to life and playing with perceptions of reality.

What are some of the challenges that you face?
Having to answer questions about culture. I also face challenges protecting my artists from dismissive and reductive categorization. Their art isn’t always about Blackness. But then again cultural identity is something that is hard to be removed from.

Are there any areas of improvement artists should be aware of in terms of the
submission and exhibition process?

Don’t make me have to hunt for information about you or your work. Plain and simple. Treat your arts practice like any other business. When you go to a restaurant, you’d expect the place to either list the items with clear pictures and descriptions or be able to verbally articulate the specials in an effective and enticing way. If that’s not the case, why would you dine there? Art is the same way.

Do you have future plans for Dominique Gallery beyond what it is today?
I don’t really like to plan in the traditional sense, although as a business owner I need to. I tried to make business plans in the past and they didn’t turn out as I hoped. Everything that happened with the gallery in the last year was the result of luck or as I see it, preparation meeting opportunity, so I’m gonna stick with that. That may include more art fairs, more pop-up shows, more collaborations, publications, or maybe a long pause for some reflection and studio time with my artists. Whatever the case may be, Dominique Gallery is my baby and will always be nurtured.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Gita Joshi of The Curator's Salon

Gita Joshi is a curator, artist coach and founder of The Curator's Salon, a platform hosting The Curator's Salon Podcast, Art Seen Magazine, exhibitions and more.
 As someone whose life revolves around helping artists (as curator, former gallery owner, artist coach and much more), were there any pivotal moments in which you first recognized your passion towards the arts?
I always knew I wanted my career to be in the arts. My early interest was art history – it was the only subject that really resonated with me. I enjoyed that it included both the visual and analytical. I’m happy to have arrived at coaching and curating. It’s been a great way to connect with contemporary artists.

In earlier years, you studied art history as well as curating. During such training, did you always envision your profession to become what it is today?
In the early days, I was led to believe that jobs in the arts were only found at museums and institutions. One of my first jobs was with the Royal Fine Art Commission. I was always interested in curating, but never pursued it. I had no idea my career would someday include it, nor did I have any idea I’d be supporting artists in the diverse way that I do today – through the website, coaching, my podcast, magazine, and social media.

How do you strive to make an impact on the art world with your platform The Curators Salon?
The Curator’s Salon originally started as a blog, and a podcast soon followed. It was a place for me to share conversations I was having with artists in the studio. I never had big ambitions for it – it was just my corner of the art world. And it continues as such.

I’m creating opportunities that are not typically available to early career artists, whether through online exhibitions, my Art Seen magazine publication, or artist Q&As. The platform provides opportunities for emerging artists to be featured and gives them a stepping stone to build their confidence and gain exposure as they build their careers.

Considering that creative expression often reflects our zeitgeist, how do you feel about some of the recurring themes showing up in contemporary art?
Artists have always explored their own place in the world and commented on it through their visual language and creative expression. Social media makes this more accessible to artists and everyone – following the news on any platform allows artists to respond almost in real time. It further exposes this commonality across generations of artists.

What kinds of qualities do you specifically look for in the artists that you showcase?
I look for consistency and commitment to their practice. I also look at how well an artist is able to communicate their ideas and intentions through both the visual form of the artwork, and the supporting text whether that be a website or a submission form.
But sometimes a work of art can just speak to me on an intuitive level and that can be enough!

What do you find most rewarding about the curation process?
For our open exhibitions, it’s always interesting to see where we can place pieces in conversation with each another, and how they work together. I am not an artist and curation is my creative practice. It’s the place I get to be both expressive and in alliance with artists.

What do you find most challenging?
Time! Curating shows always takes more time than I initially plan. I really have to look at every submission and fine tune to feel right about the exhibition or piece I’m presenting.

In terms of the submission and/or exhibition process, are there any areas of improvement that artists should be aware of?
My two tips for artists submitting are to tailor their bio and statement to the platform, i.e., a bio and statement for Art Seen should probably look different to one for a gallery show – it shows the artist cares about who they’re presenting to.

Additionally, when submitting a few pieces, a cohesive body of work is always best. Presenting a range of different styles to me, makes me think this artist hasn’t yet found their unique voice or style. It can feel like they are hedging, or at an experimental stage of their development.

Do you have future plans for The Curators Salon, or other projects, beyond what you are doing today?
In May 2021, we launched Art Seen – The Curator’s Salon magazine – to a global audience. It’s available now in print and digital format. At the time, museums were closed and we used Amazon as our distributor. It hit bestseller position in a number of categories. Future plans are to be consistent – our next edition comes out in November and builds on the success of the first, which allows artists to be seen and recognized. We also have two more online exhibitions scheduled for 2021 and perhaps once we’re fully clear of lockdown and COVID restrictions, we might consider a real life, physical exhibition or event – stay tuned!

Friday, August 27, 2021

Erika B Hess of I Like Your Work

Erika B Hess is the founder and host of I Like Your Work, an arts podcast and online gallery platform

 What are some of your first memories of feeling passionately towards the arts and when did you decide to pursue a career in art?
Like many artists, I always felt a pull towards creating through drawing. I remember sitting at my Great Aunt’s house as a kid drawing with my cousin from California who is also an artist. We would have “drawing contests” and I would always look forward to them because he was the only other person in my family who would draw with me.

My decision to truly pursue the arts came to me two-fold. The first was during my time in college when I realized I was spending all my time in the studio rather than in my “major” classes. The second was when I was fortunate enough to travel to Italy to paint with my BFA program. I fell in love with painting. Looking, responding, carrying my easel around on my back, it felt like home. I even wrote in a sketchbook, “Remember this feeling.”

I Like Your Work is quite the platform- You conduct podcast interviews, feature Studio Visit Artists and group exhibitions, as well as offer artist resources. How did the idea for this platform initially come about?
In 2015, I was a co-founder of an artist collective, Musa Collective, in Boston and it was a powerful experience. Putting together shows, artist talks, openings...everyone was so passionate! As we all know, there are tremendous artists in the world who don’t get the air time they deserve. I wanted to create a platform to share the work and ideas of artists who I wanted others to see.

At the time I had been listening to a lot of podcasts and noticed there weren't many art podcasts by women, which, thankfully there are now tons. I told my friend, the artist Nina Bellucci, about my idea and she looked at me and said, “Well why not just start it?” I had been making excuses for why I didn’t have the time to do it and that hit home for me. Just start it. So I did.

You are the founder and podcast host for I Like Your Work - what is it like sharing your creation with a team of other professionals?
It is such a positive experience. I have been able to connect with incredible artists who are not only talented but compassionate, kind and fun to engage with. In the beginning it was really nerve racking to know people were listening to me. That feeling is still somewhat there but I’ve learned to lean into it. I realize it is more a feeling of excitement than a negative thing.

Since its inception, has ILYW turned out to be how you originally envisioned it?
Not at all! Originally I thought it would be a podcast and that was it. Over the three seasons it has expanded to include exhibitions, featured Studio Visit Artist interviews on the site, Exhibition Catalogs and now we have expanded to have select Interview Catalogs which include the interview and images of work.

Each season we have grown to give listeners more resources and opportunities. I love that and I guess, in that way, we have stayed true to our roots. We are a voice and space for artists.

You are also a painter. Has running a business impacted your studio time at all?
Yes it has but all the work I’ve done outside of painting has impacted my studio time. For a few years I worked at University of Michigan at a full-time job. I loved it but it was hard to be in the studio. I love that now I record in the studio so I am surrounded by my paintings and look at them as I have amazing conversations with artists who are creating incredible work. So while it does take away from time in the studio it also adds depth.

What do you find most rewarding about the curation process?
Definitely connecting with artists and finding new work that is exciting. For some exhibitions I conduct studio visits in person or via zoom to learn more about their practice. In a lot of ways it is like a mini podcast interview. It is developing that relationship that I find the most rewarding. I love the art world. It is relatively small and we are all doing this thing that makes a lot of sense and no sense at all. Talking to someone who understands that and knowing I will continue to see their work expand is amazing to me.

What are some of the challenges that you face?
The main challenge is time, which I feel most artists face. As we’ve expanded into new projects we need more time to create them. I hit a point where I couldn’t continue to do it all so I’ve brought on some wonderful people to help with the show.

In terms of the submission process, are there any areas for improvement artists should be aware of?
Overall a lot of the submissions we received are really wonderful. I always say that I’m humbled by how many talented artists are in the world. I think the main thing artists should be aware of is you can have the “perfect” submission and not get into a show. Making sure you are applying to something that fits your work is really important.

Do you have future plans for I Like Your Work beyond what it is today?
Over the next year we are creating more tangible content such as catalogs and other physical objects. We are also launching a subscription where artists can get catalogs and other awesome stuff sent straight to their door! I feel like the pandemic has made me crave physical objects and the catalogs are such a great way to see work when you can’t make it out. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Gabriel Shaffer of Mortal Machine Gallery

Gabriel Shaffer is the co-owner and curator of  Mortal Machine Gallery, focusing on Contemporary Folk and Outsider, Low Brow, New Contemporary, Pop Surrealism, Erotica and Street Art in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans.

When did you first fall in love with the arts?

There have been several moments throughout my life where my love for art has deepened. However, the first time I probably fell in love with it, I was an infant in a sling watching my mom paint a large rural folk landscape. I was raised around Folk/Outsider artist studios and spaces in the south and Appalachia most of my childhood.

Running a gallery takes a lot of commitment, what led you to the decision to open one?
The power to have creative control for my work and the work of artists I believe in.

Are there any specific ways in which you feel you are influencing the New Orleans art scene?
Definitely. We feel like we are the venue folks come to, when they want to see what’s fresh with the artists in our genres and the emerging voices in our city. We feel confident we are putting on some of the most vital visual art shows in New Orleans and the Deep South. We’ve been able to create a dialogue with the larger underground movements nationally and internationally by providing a venue for artists to connect with thousands of new fans and collectors every year. We also have provided a platform for local creatives to gain exposure with that larger scene in turn.

You focus on Contemporary Folk and Outsider, Low Brow, New Contemporary, Pop Surrealism, Erotica and Street Art. Beyond these styles, are there certain qualities, aesthetic or otherwise, that you look for in the artists that you showcase?
At this point it’s really a tricky question to answer. We absolutely play to our strengths. We have been working especially hard to define our aesthetic identity to stand out on its own. We want Mortal Machine to have its own voice. Our current stable represents ideals we hold for sure. I’d say at this point we are looking for the artists who are defining the curve in the lineage of those genres. However our tastes continue to be fluid as times change and Art changes with it.

Do you predict any major shifts to occur in the art world over the next 5 years?
Yes. That we will adapt and thrive with each of them every step of the way.

Can you tell us what the name “Mortal Machine” means to you?
We kicked a lot of names around when we were forming the gallery. The one thing we all felt was that the name needed to have life and an unspoken quality. Like a great band name. Mortal Machine felt right. We just knew.

What do you find most rewarding about gallery directing and curating?
If we succeed or if we fail, it’s on us. It’s our responsibility. I’ve experienced working with dozens of gallerists in my years as an artist and I’ve experienced running a gallery for problematic ownership. I can never imagine any other circumstance other than this current one ever again. This freedom has given us the opportunity to develop a very special stable and will continue to allow us the ability to promote creative projects we truly believe in. We also love curating shows in New Orleans. The audience’s are diverse, interactive and our shows are never boring. We can get away with anything creatively here. The city has got our backs.

What are some of the challenges that you face?
COVID is the only thing challenging our gallery.

In terms of the submission process, are there any areas of improvement that artists should be aware of?
We don’t accept submissions.

Do you have any plans for Mortal Machine Gallery beyond what it is today?
Absolutely. There is a much larger creative vision for this brand beyond the gallery. If you would like to watch them unfold give us a follow at @mortalmachinegallery or join our mailing list by contacting us at

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Artist Spotlight: L.I. Henley


Paper Empire: The Works of L.I. Henley

Protozoa limbs affixed by pearl joints, golden antlers framing a sea-green face. The eyes have opened, and the body radiates history: Frankenstein at its finest.

Dissecting, rearranging, amalgamating -the results are intricate beings made from what would otherwise be forgotten scraps. Paper is the primary medium, in which heaps of vintage articles and photographs become the genesis of Joshua tree artist L.I. Henley’s stunning contemporary collage work.

With an esteemed background in literature and poetry, Henley has naturally always had an affinity for words and paper. Recognizing that the written word could be manipulated into viewable works of art, she allowed her fascinations to lead her deep into the visual realm. She began cutting up paper. And adding to it. She experimented with collage techniques such as poetry erasure, blacking-out, scraping, layering mixed media, and even custom paper making. These experiments with paper eventually evolved into a cohesive series of movable, stark female figures known as her Weirdling, Dreamling, and Deer Goddess paper dolls.

Capra Eating the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Sex  

She begins with the face, hand painted on thick quality paper, followed by outlines of the limbs and torso. Once these are cut out, she gets to building up the bones and meat with layers of micro details. These details are painstakingly cut from old photographs of flora, fauna, insects, and anatomical references (to name a few), and applied ever so delicately.  Once the body parts are intact, she adds her final magic marks - dashes of shimmering gold leaf, tints of smooth oil pastel- to create the distinctive personality of the doll.

We may call them “dolls”, yet they do not seem like toys to be messed with. As with the Deer Goddess series, their penetrating eyes are fierce, warning the onlooker to gaze but not touch. It seems they are warriors guarding more than just their feminine territory, but also their fragility – they are made of paper, after all. With these peaceful army dolls, Henley aims to “capture the paradox of fierceness and vulnerability”.

Her Weirdling and Dreamling series inspire a more dream-like atmosphere, as if naïve to the perils of the material world. With their eyes closed they float blissfully through a timeless abyss.

Dreamling (detail)

To further bring these beings to life, Henley has recently embraced stop motion to create a moving collage in the seven minute short film “Break”, which includes a soundtrack by sound artist Jonathan Maule. The film opens with a dancing Deer Goddess, who attracts a flurry of flying insects that begin to mimic her movements. Caught in the frenzy of the dance, the goddess’ limbs chaotically detach and then reassemble (much like Henley's creation process), allowing a graceful entrance for the insects to fly within and become one with her, as if to impart the peaceful message that there is no separation between us and nature.  

“Break” is just one other medium which Henley has utilized to expand her ever growing paper empire; being the experimental, multi-disciplinary artist that she is, we can expect to be met with many more surprises awaiting us at the tip of her scissors and sumptuous stacks.

Follow Henley’s vision and stay tuned for her feature show at Art Queen Gallery this December, which will include dolls of larger scale, original collage, quality limited edition prints and more.



Sunday, July 18, 2021

Alicia Puig of PxP contemporary

Alicia Puig is the curator and co-founder of PxP Contemporary,an online platform that connects collectors with high-quality, affordable artworks.

You have been working in the arts industry for over 10 years. Can you share with us some pivotal moments in life that got you started on this career path?
Yes, of course! I was certainly very artistically inclined growing up. For every birthday and Christmas I’d receive the big box sets of crayons or combined kits of watercolors, pastels, and colored pencils - and I loved it! Perhaps the first turning point, though, was when I entered high school and I used my one free elective to study art for all four years. I had an incredible teacher whose guidance made a major impact on my life at that time. For example, when I decided I was going to apply to college for fine art, he helped me photograph all of my work and prepare my portfolio.

At the same time at home, I was being raised by a single mother, and I have to give her a lot of credit too. She was always very supportive of my decision to pursue a career in the arts.

Then in college, I became a bit obsessed with doing internships - I believe I completed around eight in total, but one of the most formative in terms of my future career was with a Delaware gallery owned by two women dealers. I’m forever grateful that they took a chance on me and introduced me to what it was like to work in the art world.

How did the idea to launch PxP Contemporary come about?
After my many internships and completing graduate school for a Master’s in Art History, I got my first full-time job working in a gallery. I learned as much as I could about sales and marketing, doing a lot of additional research and workshops on my own. Eventually people started asking me if I was considering opening my own gallery someday. Initially, I said no for various reasons but then fast forward a few years when I was living in Amsterdam and I ended up working for two different galleries that were the inspiration that I needed to realize that I could own my own company and run it exactly how I wanted to. This, coupled with my business partner (Ekaterina Popova) finally convincing me that I was ready, was the final push that led to the launch of PxP in May of 2019.

From working in the arts for ten years, I saw firsthand that it was hard for emerging artists to ‘get a foot in the door.’ I also noticed that the lack of transparency around pricing and how to buy art made it confusing and intimidating for those new to collecting. PxP Contemporary is a platform meant to cater specifically to these two audiences and to connect them. We focus on showing emerging artists to help them gain visibility and build their audience, and make the process of buying art an easy, digital-friendly experience so that new collectors feel comfortable making their first purchase.

Your career covers a wide range of activities, from being the curator and co-founder of PxP Contemporary, director of business operations for Create! Magazine, an arts writer, co-author of the book The Complete Smartist Guide, and a regular guest host of The Create! Podcast. How do you find the time for all of this?
First and foremost, I have a rolling to-do list that I update and look at every day of the week. That helps quite a bit with keeping my tasks and deadlines on track. I also schedule all meetings, calls, etc (with time zone!!!) on my Google calendar. Not to mention, I find I’m most productive when I have more to do. I guess it’s because I know I have no time to waste. I’m not a procrastinator either - my husband makes fun of me but I even love to pack for a trip a week in advance.

But more generally speaking, there’s definitely a lot of balance with rest and recharging to avoid burnout. I take regular vacations with my family or friends and at least one full day off each weekend. The past few years of working for myself has given me a lot more flexibility in my daily schedule too. Sometimes I don’t start working until later in the day so I can get errands done in the morning, for example. Ultimately, I make it work because I really enjoy what I do.

Are there certain challenges involved with pursuing traditional gallery representation that you feel differ from what artists might experience with your online gallery platform, and vice versa?
As I mentioned before, I really wanted a space that was both welcoming to and supportive of emerging artists, which is not always the case in most traditional galleries. That said, I simply don’t have the capacity to represent everyone. It would be a disservice to the artists I already do work with if I took on each new artist that approached me. I try to work with as many new artists that I think I can handle as the gallery grows and so far, it’s been going smoothly. Perhaps a bigger gallery would have the resources to exhibit more artists than I do, but there are always trade offs. Either way, I always recommend artists do as much research as possible before applying to any gallery - or decide if they really need one at all. Representation necessitates building a relationship with someone based on trust. You should always know who you’re getting into business with.

How do you foresee the rise of online arts platforms affecting our relationship with arts and culture at large?
I’m biased, of course, but I’m a fan of the move toward more online platforms and programming. Now being based internationally, it’s helped me stay connected with other artists, curators, galleries, writers, and more around the world. Creating community in this way is one of the truly exciting things about working in this industry and I hope it continues to seep into our culture beyond the art world as well. I don’t think virtual will ever replace in-person experiences with art, but when done right they can work together to enhance each other.

What do you find most rewarding about the curation process?
Seeing the final exhibition come together is satisfying after all of the work that goes into it, but making connections between an artist and a collector who falls in love with their work or an artist who becomes inspired by seeing another artist's work is something I love to hear happening as a result of one of my shows.

What is your method for determining the artists that you showcase? Are there specific kinds of qualities that you look for in artists?
At this point, I’ve really learned to trust my ‘voice’ as a curator and to pay attention to what catches my eye or stays in my mind long after I initially saw it. I look for craftsmanship and a cohesive body of work that I think would fit well with the other artists in my gallery or in a show, but I’d say I care more about professionalism overall and if the artist seems like they would be a great person to work with.

Are there any areas of improvement artists should be aware of in terms of the submission process?
Yes, I see the same issues again and again. Many of the submissions don’t quite follow the directions properly, don’t include quality images of the artist’s work, share too few artworks (it’s very hard to get a complete picture of the kind of work you do from just one piece), or try to showcase two different series in the same application (which is often confusing for jurors).

Do you have future plans for PxP Contemporary beyond what it is today?
Absolutely, so follow along to find out what they are ;)