Rachel Sanders visited by Jenna Wilson

Rachel Sanders is a visual artist living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She graduated from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) with a BFA in Drawing in 2012. She is an instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and the Milwaukee Art Museum. She has an energetic and playful spirit that shines through her work and illuminates her role as an avid local arts supporter. Unpretentious and unrelenting, Rachel’s adventurous nature is the catalyst to the creation of a bevy of evolving drawings and paintings.

Rachel shares a studio space with her father in an industrial district of Milwaukee’s Walkers Point neighborhood. Situated across from the Kinnickinnic River, the large unassuming-looking warehouse affords views of the boat marinas and Horny Goat Brewery. It’s a cavernous labyrinth of huge doors and wide hallways housing everything from glassblowers to recording studios, web start-ups to small batch food and beverage, and just about every other creative venture you can think of. After sliding across the black ice of the parking lot I was greeted by Rachel, and we promptly ascended to her 3rd floor studio.

Jenna Wilson: Is there a standout piece in here that you are proud of right now? And if there is one could you explain how it exemplifies you as an artist?

Rachel Sanders: Yes. Actually, I know what I will show you. I biked to Madison in the fall. I’ve done it before but this time I did it alone and I remembered seeing these cows along the way - you are going through farmland the whole time. I wanted to make so many drawings on this trip and I only made two or three, but this was one of them. 

I had been riding all day. I was picturing a certain place in my mind, but I couldn’t remember where along it was. Then I saw all of [the cows]. They were back at the barn and there was just one standing right there. I said to myself all right, this is it, this is it! I got out my shit - I think maybe this guy was the first one and then all of them started coming by. It was wonderful. It felt good and I got a little teary eyed. [Gesturing at cows] …What was the question? [Laughing]

JW: Getting out and doing [drawings] in an outdoor space, is that something you would say that you do?

RS: I’m always drawing. I was thinking about that. I always have to be [drawing], and I love to be outside. Adventures like that feel good and I like the challenge. 

JW: Do you work in a series? Along with the adventures - do you just work as ideas come to you? Is it random?

RS: That’s a good question. If you keep making things you end up with a pile, and if you keep going you get into a good rhythm. That’s how a series can happen. With these drawings, if I felt stuck I’d say - if I just keep drawing something good is going to come out of it. 

JW: What intrigues you about interior spaces? The skewed perspective you have in those drawings is visually interesting. 

RS: For me, it is nice to draw what is in front of you. I’m surrounded by this shit all the time and the possibilities are kind of endless. I enjoy seeing that if I make a squiggle it ends up being that bottle there. Observation – that’s my biggest thing, observational drawings. I  think I have a bad imagination sometimes. If you said draw a dinosaur it would be terrible unless there’s a dinosaur in front of me. [Laughing] Does that make sense? Which is funny, too, because these [drawings] aren’t photo-realistic. 

in progress

in progress

JW: How do you know when a piece is finished?

RS: It just kind of feels right. It may not be. Some of these paintings I didn’t work on for about a year and then I went back to them. I just get in a rhythm and then when that stops, it’s done. 

JW: The interior spaces paintings with the faces imposed on top, it seems like they are extensions of the drawings you were doing. How did that come about? What is the progression that happened there?

RS: They were really playful. Those have a lot of variations of marks. The faces were an interesting addition because each of them is so different. I used a bunch of different colors and different materials and eventually it kind of happened. 

JW: Do you do sculptures? I saw the chess sets that you had made. That’s a cool project. 

RS: Thanks. Well, I have all this clay over here that I need to recycle if you know somebody that is into that. I do. I like clay but I don’t have the means right now to do it. I did in college, with figure sculptures, which was fun. But right now it’s Sculpey and the oven. [Laughing]

JW: Did the idea for chess pieces come from figural work you had done in college? They are little torsos, little people. 

RS: I wish I had it here but I made this little guy out of clay that looks like the pawns, just bigger. After that I started to make these types of little things. I was making weird jewelry stuff and then they kind of developed into – I don’t know if you saw the pins or necklaces I made but they look like that, that’s a painting of all of them.

JW: The falling, chaotic people.

RS: Yes and now I make chess sets. 

JW: Nice. In my research of your work and other projects I discovered a fundraising event called “The Fastest Painter in Milwaukee”. What was that all about?

RS: Yeah. [Laughing] Do you know Waldek Dynerman? He was one of my teachers at MIAD [Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design], and he posted something on Facebook - he was being a little shit, being cocky but on purpose. He posted a picture of all these paintings he made and he’s like, “I must be the fastest painter in the world, I just made all these in like a half an hour” or something.  I was like, “Oh yeah? Let’s bet on that”. Then somehow that turned into us actually having a battle and dueling to be the fastest painter in Milwaukee. The space [for the event] was next to his studio in Bay View, and the girl running it at the time, Jenie Gao, she let us use her space, which doubled as a gallery – a gallery and living spot. Then we raised money for the Pancreatic Cancer [Action Network], and we made five hundred or six hundred dollars. It was cool because at the end we just auctioned off the pieces starting at two dollars. It was totally fun. [Laughing]

JW: On top of volunteering you are an instructor at several art institutions - Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design [MIAD], Milwaukee Art Museum, and also the Charles Allis Museum. 

RS: Yes and the Villa Terrace, they’re connected. 

JW: Can you describe your roles at those jobs?

RS: CAVT – Charles Allis Villa Terrace, there I’m visitor service staff so I open and close the museum and it’s pretty boring - but I get to be around art, so that’s good. At the Art Museum I do the Kohl’s Color Wheels. We go around Wisconsin to different schools and events and make art with kids, and teach them about the museum. Then at MIAD I teach continuing education classes. 

JW: How does being an instructor to what I assume is a wide range of ages and kinds of students inform your work?

RS: It is fun; I love it. I keep saying that’s the best job, at MIAD, because it’s what I’m most excited about – to work with people and get them excited about working, too. It feels good. 

JW: What courses do you teach?

RS: Drawing. Observational drawing. The one right now is called Improvisational Drawing.

JW: Is that music-influenced?

RS: That’s where it stems from, yes. Actually, I always tell my class that the way a read artwork is kind of how you would read sheet music. But I guess that’s because I play music.

JW: What do you play?

RS: I play the saxophone. That’s the main thing.

JW: Do you play with any bands or ensembles?

RS: Sometimes. [Laughing] Sat. Night Duets had me play with them. 

JW: With all this stuff going on how do you make time to paint?

RS: I’m not that busy. It sounds like it but I’m here [in the studio] everyday, or I try to be. And you have to make time. It feels good, and I like to do it so I just do. 

JW: Are there any particular experiences that you’ve done that stand out as motivating or energizing to you? 

RS: School was helpful. I was thinking of [when I] started college. I thought I was bad at drawing and I would always get embarrassed to show my stuff because it didn’t look like anybody else’s. I cried a lot. [Laughing]

JW: I did too sometimes. [Laughing]

RS: Oh God, I always think about this time we had to draw a self-portrait. I don’t know – mine was like Mr. Potato Head meets… it was really fucking ugly. I don’t know where I’m going with this. But school was helpful. [Laughing]

JW: You got past the crying. 

RS: Yes. Because I was like, well, I want to be good at this. I came here to learn so I have to learn as much as I can - and be good at drawing and like what I make. Now, teaching is fun and it’s nice to see what people are capable of doing and making. It’s amazing actually. 

JW: Throwing around ideas and doing projects with the students probably generates a lot of energy. 

RS: I look at a lot of different artists, a lot of different stuff. I think it’s helpful to see tricks other people are using. That happens when teaching too.  I just went to that space Art is for Lovers. That was refreshing, it wasn’t stuffy, sometimes you go somewhere and it feels awkward. But it was cool in there. Everyone should get over there and check it out! It was great. People were excited about it, and that’s important. You’ve got to be like “Yeah, I made this!” If you aren’t excited about it, I don’t know how the hell you’re going to get somebody else to be. 

JW: You mentioned bike riding to Madison earlier. Traveling outside of the city, that’s refreshing to you, or traveling to other places.

RS: Even just exploring weird little pockets in Milwaukee is fun, places that my pals and I would go on weird hikes all the time. Kind of on the outskirts where the hobos have their camps. People are fishing. [Laughing] 

JW: [Laughing] Since you mentioned fishing let’s talk about the boat paintings. 

RS: That came about when I got [into this studio]. We were trying to pick, because we could have been on the other side [of the building], but that view is of the interstate. Maybe I would have made better paintings. [Laughing] It’s good because it’s right there for me. That’s what I’m going to do, I love to make and you can just make something – make a drawing right now, you know?

JW: How long does it typically take you to work a progression of the boat paintings?

RS: Usually I will have about three at a time; for me I have to take a step back. I don’t like to be working on one piece. Sometimes it happens fast, like the one in the window – that was just a day. That was fast. That was with acrylic and these [others] have been with oil mostly, so these are taking a little bit longer, and they are not done yet. 

I work with whatever I can find. That’s the improvisational part, and it’s gratifying. That’s where the challenge is. You have this bag of tricks and you have to throw them out there, and make little ditties with them. I work with house paint a lot. It’s great – I get the “oops” paint, the colors that some dummies don’t want anymore. 

in progress

in progress

JW: What other hobbies do you have? I know you like to DJ parties sometimes. 

RS: Yeah, Anna Deisinger and myself are the hottest DJs in town. [Laughing] No. I like music a lot. We both, all of a sudden, had a lot of vinyl and we thought, “Hey, let’s play this for our pals, we can make money and drink for free!” I also like to go camping and ride my bike. A couple weeks ago my pals and I went down past Sheridan Park and snuck into the woods and set up some tents above Lake Michigan. Stuff like that. We made a fire and it was freezing. Oh, and I just got into football! All my life I hated football. I just ugh - I don’t like it. One day I was in New Orleans and my pals are like, “We have to watch the Packers play, we can’t miss it”, and I said, “Fine, I’ll just drink some whiskey and watch the game”. We ended up at a Packers bar in New Orleans and the Packers won in the last 3 seconds of the game. It was so good. The whole bar went crazy and we were hugging strangers and it felt like we were lifted up into the air. Seriously, and that moment I was like whoa. [Laughing] My friends think it’s so funny because two months ago I’m like, “I’m not watching football with you”. I do love sports – I love basketball so much. That’s a good hobby.

JW: To play?

RS: Yeah it’s fun. And going to Bucks games. It’s cheap too, nobody’s going to those games. 


Rachel Sanders is an enthusiastic maker that strives to let creativity run into the full structure of her life.  Her jokey buoyancy when speaking perfectly mirrors the demeanor of her work. Her drawings laugh at the sky while her paintings are spin a record at the bar.  It’s evident from the presence of a basketball in her studio that one must periodically remember  - underneath all the passion is a person who is “always wanting to shoot hoops but her pals never want to play”. Perhaps they are too busy enjoying her paintings. 

Additional Images:

Kristin Walsh visited by Kelly McCafferty

I met Kristin Walsh in October of 2013 when we both attended a month long residency at Wassaic Artist Residency in upstate New York.  We were both assigned to live in a house affectionately called the Lodge.  We bonded over the disastrous state of the communal kitchen, and a mutual love for Canal Plastics, the Pittsburgh band, Black Moth Super Rainbow, dogs (particularly our own), Sirius Radio and vegetarian cuisine.  I dragged her to yoga class and forced her to drink Harney & Sons tea and she liked it.

When we met, she was making mirrored objects that were shown in installations with digital images projected onto their surfaces and the walls surrounding them.  She was also making sculptures that were then photographed and only shown as photographs.  I liked her and her work immediately.

Kristin Walsh moved to NYC in June from Charlotte, North Carolina.  She lives in Chinatown and her studio is in Red Hook, Brooklyn.  She was born in Emerald Isle, North Carolina.  She attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte at graduated with her BFA in 2013.  She has attended residencies at The Wassaic Artist Residency, the Vermont Studio Center and Grin City.  She has exhibited solo exhibitions of her work in the past at Visual Art Space in Raleigh, NC and has two upcoming shows in 2015 at 50/50 in Kansas City and Salisbury University in Maryland.   She is in the process of applying for grad school and we talked about how her work has changed since receiving her BFA, the process of moving to NYC, her recent residency at Vermont Studio Center, her upcoming shows and the struggle to make a perfect object.

Kelly McCafferty:  Your studio is really organized. It looks great.

Kristin Walsh:  It was a good cleaning deadline for me because it was not looking good in here.

Everything was really dusty and you feel dirty when you walk in here.

KM: How many pieces are you working on right now? Four?

KW: Mainly.  This black trophy sculpture is the only one that is finished.  All the rest aren’t finished.  These two taller ones— I think I am going to change the way they look.  I want to utilize the plastic’s ability to bend in a way that I am not right now. 

KM: Working on multiple pieces at once is different for you.

KW: I know.  Really different, normally I work intensely on one thing and finish it, then super intense on another.  I am trying to change the way I work.  Speed is a huge issue for me. 

When I first started making these new forms I was frustrated with how I would have this idea that seemed simple but it would take me so long to make it.  And it would be frustrating.  I have to get it out and move on.  Now I have been trying to get it to the point where it is almost finished and the rest is just maintenance or logistics.  I can utilize a new idea without wasting my time, even though I’m going to have to go back later and fix all the issues.  So I’m trying to rotate and that is why there are five or six trophies here that I am currently working on.

I’ve probably thrown away like 15.  I’ll just start them and be like, “No.”  Just get rid of it.  In the past I would see it to the end and then say, “No.”  It is better that I am deciding how I feel about the form early, because I can’t change that.  I can change the surface but the form is there to stay.  I’ll do that and then and leave it for a while and then see if I feel like it is worth pursuing further.

KM: Yeah, since you moved in to this studio in July how many pieces have you completed?

KW: I brought nothing.

KM: Ok. You started from scratch?

KW: I started from scratch.   Before I left, I had a show and when I applied for the show I applied with my previous work.  I had 13 pieces, and I proposed to make it 30 pieces because it was a big space.  I applied for it and months went by.  I got the show and it was in Raleigh.  I went to Vermont Studio Center and I decided I would make everything for the show at Vermont.  That was all I was going to do.

You know, I’m making that stuff and I’m just dying.  I’m just so sick of it. 

KM:  Well that is a very different residency experience too than the one we had where you went in there not knowing.  You just wanted to make stuff but you didn’t have an agenda.  But when you go to a residency and you know you have to make something for a show I feel like it changes your experience of it because you can’t do what you want.

KW:I loved Vermont Studio center, definitely my favorite residency.  I had a great time and I met so many like awesome people but the work I was making there was not fulfilling to me.  I had a tight schedule.  There is no exploration left in those.  I’m good at that technique and I can do it fast. Now.

KM: That might be something that happens to you a lot though because your brain moves quicker than the work does.

KW: Yeah, it takes so long to make objects sometimes.  That happens all the time.  I’m just like, “God, kill me if I have to sand this thing for one more day.”  I’m so sick of it.  But in the end that work actually reached the potential that I wanted it to reach and it would have been a mistake to not bring it there.  It would have been a waste if I didn’t push it that far.  But it still was not fun for me to do.  I’m glad I did it and I think it was good.  I changed the way I thought that month.  It changed me that when I went there my life was one way and I came back and I was like I’m moving to New York.  I think it was with me doing this stuff that I wasn’t into actually made me want to change a lot of stuff about my work.  I think it was a fruitful month for me.

KM: What is your schedule like? Do you work in the studio 7 days a week?

KW: Yes.  Well, I have a couple of deadlines.  I have two solo shows that open in January and February.  Applications for grad school are due January 15th. 

KM: Let’s talk about this new work a little bit.  When did you make the first one in this series?

KW: Umm, September?  I had all these ideas about it at first that I ended up abandoning one by one and the first of those ideas was that I wasn’t going to use any color that wasn’t of the material I was using.

KM: What is the material?

KW: Bondo.  I was selecting materials based on their color.  Also there is epoxy paste mixed with sand in it and concrete. It has a little bit of plaster too.

KM: And how heavy is that?

KW: That part is light because it is mostly epoxy.  You can feel.  This stuff is cool.  I like it.  It is low toxin.  Low odor.  Basically I use this like I would use fiberglass before—I switched over from that.  Which is good, because that is terrible for you.  It doesn’t really smell—it has a light hair dye smell.  It is epoxy dough.  It is like clay kind of.  But it hardens with heat.  I use wood to make barricades around them, put a heater in the box and it will dry in 30 minutes.  But it is lightweight.  It can float on water. 

KM: Is it hard to get a flat smooth edge with it?

KW: it is pretty hard yeah.  It is like this one is all like just fingery texture.  I just left it how I applied it.

KM: I think that works, it is interesting.  It is referencing clay and the mark of your hand. It almost looks like licorice or taffy or something.  The original idea was the colors of the material would determine the colors of the final thing?

KW: Yeah, I abandoned that pretty quickly.  I abandoned that with this black one because originally the black one was white and one thing that happens when you sand is that it dulls out the color because the texture is rough.

KM: The color is now made with paint?

KW: Originally the black one was white and I exposed the edges as yellow.  It was low contrast and I was disappointed.  I wanted it to be bright.  And when you are mixing the dough it looks bright but when you sand it dulls out.  The color is mixed in with powdered pigment.  I thought it would be super bright.  I have no control after I apply the layers.  How it looks, that’s how it looks.  I didn’t work on it again for three weeks and then I thought, I’m going to throw it away but then I decided, no, I’m going to paint on it and see if it is better, and it was.  At that point I decided to abandon the rule that I set for myself that I wasn’t going to apply color.  Which was sort of stupid and who cares about that.  I stopped doing that. 

KM: How did you arrive at these structures?  Where did the idea come from and what do they mean to you?

KW: Well, I was thinking a lot about any object’s ability to hold sentimental value—to change the memory of an event just by its’ association and I settled on this as a literal symbol of that—trophies referencing an event as a positive thing.  I wanted to formally represent the same generic event over and over.  All of the trophies are going to have these generic emblems.

I don’t want them to represent any specific event.  It is not like a sports trophy or something.  But just the notion of the trophy as a placeholder for an event and the form of the trophy becomes irregular and different with each one, like bent or kind of uneven or eroding.  Me grinding away exposing their layers act as an artifact to the event, the forms functioning as a point of resistance for perception.

KM: How your memory of it changes over time?

KW: It’s ability to, yes.  Even though I’m making literal trophies, I’m thinking of any object as a trophy.  Not everyday is your birthday, have you ever heard that expression?  Like to say that when you think about your life, you aren’t thinking about the 90% of the time.  The trophies are formally all different but they are all representing the same situation.  I am trying to make them irregular in different ways.  Like this one is uneven.  And this one is, you know, bent.  Another material that I really like is green edged plexiglass.  It doesn’t look like it there, because of the paper.  It looks like glass.  I am forefronting that tension between visibility and invisibility.  But it is definitely something that I have worked with before and it does closely tie with my other work in a weird way.  I’m still picking a symbol and applying content on that symbol.

KM: You are also neutralizing that symbol in a way.  With the mirrored objects you made in the past, it becomes about what they reflect, not what they really are.  With this new work, it is a symbol of an event, but you have taken away the event. 

KW:  Yeah, I guess I want them all to be vessels for some sort of content that is not implied in the form of the object itself.  This is one of the first things I’ve made where I don’t know how it is going to be at the end.  I just don’t know how it is going to look.

KM: Did you ever win any trophies or do you have any personal connections to the idea of a trophy?

KW: No, I am not a sports person.  My little brother was the sports person.  I think I do have some trophies.  I played rec basketball when I was younger.  I was actually going to try to get them when I go home for Thanksgiving.  In the beginning I wanted to make a mold of a really big trophy and cast it in rubber so that it was a puddle.  But I don’t even know if I want to do that anymore.  Beyond that, I don’t feel like I need the actual trophies to make the work.  They aren’t important. 

I went to visit my grandparents and I was walking around and I saw this trophy store and I was like, “Hey, do you guys have any trophy parts that you don’t want?”  And they gave me this little basketball trophy.  That is my only trophy here.

This is arbitrary but I watched this movie called Brooklyn Castle. Have you ever seen it?  It’s a documentary—it’s good, I definitely recommend it.  It is on Netflix.  But it is about these kids who go to a middle school in Williamsburg and they are poor and predominantly black and they have this awesome chess team and the teachers put forth the effort.  They all put in so much time after school and they do all this fundraising to travel and sustain the chess team and it is a big thing for them.  It is cool to be on the chess team and they are good and they win all these nationals.   Kids leave better schools to come play chess for that school.  Anyways, they just talk about the trophy like it is this Holy Grail.  When I watched that is when I first realized that the trophy is a great symbol for projected emotion. It is one of the only objects that doesn’t have a function.  Even when you have a sentimental object like your movie ticket stub—it still has a function.  It is for you to get into the movie.  You bought it because you had to.  A trophy has no function at all.  It is a thing that you look at and you feel emotion and the way the kids thought about it, I just started thinking about it. 

KM: What strikes me about that, for regular people that aren’t artists or art collectors it is one of the only pieces of art they might have in their home.

KW: Yeah, by it is kind of amazing that a normal person would even want that.

It has no value, art objects.  I thought that was an interesting symbol for generating memory.  I settled on it.  I didn’t know what I was trying to do, but I was trying to work around those themes.  Then I made this little trophy that I ended up throwing away.  I started the trophies and I just settled on it.  A lot of potential.  I still feel like I can make like 10 more.  A lot of times I’m struggling for ideas because I’ll have an idea and I’ll feel like I demonstrated that entire idea really well in one work.  And past that, I just need quantity.  I find an image, it is striking, and I need more.  It is not about saying something different.  It is about the power of multiples.  I’ll try to think of ideas that are reinforcing the one that is the main thing and that is where I have trouble.  But this is not like that at all.  I feel like each one that I have the idea to make is working towards what I want.  And I’m not really running out because the form is so endless. 

KM: It is weird how monument forms, like these, and grave markers as objects don’t change over time, but other everyday objects have designs that change.

KW: I had this very distressing thought, maybe a week ago—and I’m trying hard to get away from arbitrary aesthetics.  I want to ask myself is this doing something other than making me happy.  I feel like I can say yes.  With the mirrored stuff, I was asking myself that and I said yes, it is not arbitrary and so I can keep it.  But I had this thought last week that maybe they should look exactly like trophies.  Maybe they should be foil and plastic or whatever.  I got some of that stuff and I made this one like that.  Just a column and I hated it so much.  Even a choice to not make an aesthetic choice is an aesthetic choice because the way the trophies normally look is aestheticized.  That is kind of a trend in art and in sculpture now too.  That kind of material—sparkly.  It felt wrong.  Yeah, I know I’m making an aesthetic choice by aesthetics adhering to the guidelines that trophies adhere to.  But it still felt like I was making someone’s student contemporary sculpture.

KM:   There is something weird and cool about you are making these trophies out of non-trophy materials. 

KW: I think that while I was applying it, I wanted it to be lumpy.  That was the generator of content for this trophy.  I wanted it to be lumpy and I wanted it to be not symmetrical.  I wouldn’t call that arbitrary.  

KM: I think that is a good impulse to go with something that feels opposing to the form itself.

KW: I think that is what these are kind of about.  They are opposing all the normal formalities of a trophy—that they are commemorating a specific event that happened on this day and you are remembering it.  You won.  But these are not anything.  They are just there.

KM: How do you feel about the pressure on young artists to work in multiple mediums?

KW: It pisses me off, honestly.  And it sucks that sculpture is lumped in with video and performance.  On what planet does me being able to fabricate an object make me a performer?  Why is it like that?   The object is not going anywhere.  No one is going to stop making objects.  It is frustrating for me because I like video work.  I think video work is great.  I like painting too, but I’m not going to go paint a painting.  I have ideas for videos but at the end of day, I’m sanding for nine hours a day.  That is what I do.  I can’t.  It’s not the way my brain works.

KM:  I think another big difference about this work and your other work is…I think before you wanted to make these perfect objects that almost looked like you hadn’t made them.  Someone had come upon them.  A machine had made them.  Or a factory had made them.  They were perfect.  The edges were perfect.  Everything was about seamlessness.  That is the way it had to be if they were combining with those other mediums.  Photography makes you scrutinize things more.  Projecting video makes you aware of the edges.  And now you are embracing this idea of putting yourself into it.  It’s not made by a machine.  It’s made by you. 

KW: It makes me happy that you say that because that is something that I wanted to get away from.  It is just stressful.  I don’t have the tools to make perfect objects.  I am just doing it with my hands.  That is one of the things that made me spend so much time on things.  I had to make it perfect.  It wasn’t a fruitful way to spend my time.  I read this short story while I was moving.  I was already thinking about these things, but it really summed it up.  Do you know the Whitechapel gallery series of books?  The one on objects is a great book if you ever decide to explore that.  The short story is by Terry Eagleton, it’s like a paragraph and it is talking about this guy who had the opportunity to make the perfect world and made it really smooth but kept slipping and falling.  It sounds corny but it was good. I’m making it sound bad.  Then he finds out that actual perfection is in the friction.

For a while it was hard for me to make the conscious choice to let flaws stay.  That bothered me.  It is not better for me to just leave stuff crappy.  That is not the answer, to just not fix the things.  But it is to change my notion of perfection to something different.  And that is what I am trying to do.  Not to expect less of myself, just to change a little bit. 

KM:  That is really good. 

KW: I think the past year has been big for me.  This is my second year out of school.  My first year out of school, I felt like it was beneficial for me to stay in the school mind set in order to produce the same amount of work I made at school.  I didn’t want to lose momentum.  I even adhered to the semester schedule.  Just to make artificial deadlines because I do operate well under time pressure.  To create deadlines, obviously I didn’t need to clean and put down linoleum floor for you to come but it was good.  I wanted to do it.  Why not?  I was adhering to that school schedule.  I was still spending time with people who were in school and talking to my professors all the time.  I still talk to them, but they are not here.  And I felt like it was not a bad thing for me to try to keep my momentum.  No one makes the same work as they did in undergrad forever.  That is not good.  That is one of the reasons I felt I didn’t want to go straight to grad school because I felt like I hadn’t gotten far enough away from that work.  I was working in acrylic in undergrad at the end.  I hadn’t even made any major change after school.  It wasn’t like I had changed my practice over to a life practice.  I feel when I moved here, it finally happened.

Nick Naber visits Colby Keller

I spoke with Colby in late May. We discussed a few of his projects that were ending on May 31. Colby is a graduate from MICA with his MFA, and is currently driving around the country.

To find out more information about Everything but Lenin, and Pieces of Eight check out his blog ( warning NSFW).

Can you tell me a little bit about your experience at MICA?

I went to a program called the Mount Royal School of Art. It’s an interdisciplinary studio-based program.  When I was there I did a lot of sculpture. We were encouraged to work in a lot of different mediums – video, sculpture, and painting.

Now my practice has shifted. I’m still trying to engage with sculpture and painting to a larger extent, but most of my work is more social and performance focused.

Looking at the Big Shoe Diaries, the crossover between your artistic practice and your job in porn is interesting to me; how do you find the confluence between the two?  How do you engage with an audience that is a mixed group, art focused and general public?

Oh most definitely. It’s interesting that we, in the art world, see there as being two different audiences.  I’d like to not see that division exist which is, of course, a weird utopian idea that doesn’t make sense because there is an art audience and an audience that is outside of that.  There is this weird hierarchy that we [the art world] are trying to set. The art world tries to protect the artist from having to engage with that larger audience.  In my work I want to think about engaging people who read my blog, fans that I have and people that access my porn work in a specific way. Often times it might just be masturbatory.  I am thinking about how to use the viewer as a participant in my practice.

In the work Pieces of Eight, you are inviting people to engage with you and tell stories and share with you, correct? [Note: check out his blog to view the]

Yes, Pieces of Eight came about because I had two big problems with my practice. One was that I wanted to make work as Colby Keller, by that I mean embracing what it means to be a sex worker, not being just an artist, but also having this job in porn. It’s a job that creates a certain social medium that I am working with that engages a certain level of celebrity. James Franco does that in a different way and he tries to think of his role as a celebrity as an artistic medium in some sense. How do I do that? What is an effective way to do that?

The other problem was I was experimenting with is a process that I was jokingly calling totalitarian because I have an interest in the history and trajectory of leftist politics and their relationship to totalitarianism and the philosophical and moral implications. What I am trying to do is to take an object and break-away meaning from it by using a totality of means.  Of course that is impossible; there are many ways to integrate a thing. I could sing a song to it, I could make a sculpture of it, and I could make a painting of it.  That would be a way of pulling meaning off the thing, and once you do that what’s left of the thing, is there any meaning? I wanted to experiment with that process and I didn’t know how to start it, and how do I start it as Colby Keller? Does that mean I need to pick something that is obvious and sexual, is that object a dildo, am I the porn star that sings songs to dildos; do I want to be that guy? 

In the middle of all of this, I was going through an emotionally traumatic break up with a close friend of mine. We were lovers; we were boyfriends at one point in time, and he kind of abruptly stopped talking to me. There was no rationale given and I was hurt by it, and I tried to reach out and he completely rejected me. It was difficult for me to process this; we had kind of broken up as boyfriends a year before that and that wasn’t as difficult as him stopping talking to me as a friend. It was awful and hurtful and it destroyed me and I was going through old love letters he had sent me that he would include little drawings and cartoons.  In one of the letters he sent some drawings that he had done when he was a teenager that he eventually had tattooed on his body, all these tattoos related to a video game that was meaningful to him. Each of them relates to a certain moral value, obviously those things are problematic; I’m interested in that, because it is a unified conceptual project on his body. It felt like one big artwork. I was always curious about it. I found these [drawings] and it was something I need to address because not only did we have a close sexual relationship but we also worked together in porn. This is the object that helps me to identify with the subject as Colby Keller and I can address a drawing a month and interrogate it and its ethically challenged because I obviously asked him to participate but he is refusing to speak to me. I don’t have permission from him to deal with this thing that is about his body but technically it’s not the tattoos I am dealing with I’m addressing the drawings that he gave me that I do have ownership of.

It’s cathartic in a way?

It’s very cathartic but it is also very problematic and that’s why I wanted to address it.  I wanted to think about what a totality meant and I realized that I needed to ask every person I knew in my life to participate. Part of it for me was when people rip these holes out of us we often ask other people in our lives to fill them. You’re filling it with something else that’s never quite a match and that wound is still there. This is how I tried to heal myself from it, and I am trying to replicate this healing in the piece. This meant asking strangers, family members, my 99-year-old grandmother, I needed everyone because I don’t have the answers, I don’t have the solution, I am sincere in my Marxism that we do need other human beings. As an artist I don’t have all the answers. I want as many people to help contribute to the work as possible. That will only enrich it.

I think it is compelling that you have your art side and your porn side. Is your art practice a combination of the two and in some ways is it one big performance? Is your identity as Colby Keller the porn star and your artistic identity rolled into one and does it becomes one giant performance?

Saying it is one giant performance gives me too much credit as an artist, almost like I had thought the whole thing out years ago.  I started working in porn because I couldn’t find work, the economy was shit and I didn’t have money. I applied everywhere; even McDonalds wouldn’t take me.  Porn was an option I was curious about it. Don’t get me wrong, it was something that had a certain erotic appeal to me. My main motivation was financial.  I depended on porn for utilitarian purposes. It was a challenge as an artist to try and deal with that part of myself.

Honestly, there is a problem in the art world itself where we want to separate what it means to be an artist from the daily lives of the people making art. There is a fantasy especially in the art market where people think that these big art stars make art all day and actually they hire assistants like they are big companies and it seems that is the trend. Anyone can be an artist, including people with real jobs, like porn stars; the power of art can belong to anyone and only if we give it power and only if we give ourselves the power to engage. That’s what I want to accomplish. That’s my goal, to think about my role in this specific economy and how that can inform an art practice.

There is a big shift for artists to use the Internet as a medium. Do you make physical work?  Obviously, Pieces of Eight is physical, but does your work only live on the Internet?

That piece will live in different interesting ways that I cannot control.  Part of asking people to participate in the project relinquishes my control as a maker of work. Some of the work I have made, like paintings and sculpture, all that is being placed somewhere where it will never be seen. That’s necessary for me for moral reasons; I also realize that there is a lot of work that people have made, including an email that I can’t delete, those people own that email. There will always be remnants of the work in the collaborations I have made with other people. I am interested in things like email and Instagram and their dual function. One that is practical and easy to understand, and the other is them being thought of in an art context with layers of meaning attached to them.  I love making things, but I also don’t like making physical things. We live in this capitalist economy and they become these commercial objects and that doesn’t give them the power that I want them to have.  It is less valuable as art for me when they exist.

Can you tell me a little bit about your Instagram collages?

Those are works that are part of Everything But Lenin. I found out last month that I am getting kicked out of the apartment I have lived in for 10 years in Baltimore where I have a terrible slumlord. I realized I couldn’t carry out all of my stuff and I had this great opportunity to let go of things and to make art with regular people.  It’s not really an art audience, but I can say to people,“ You want something for free? You can take it, let’s just agree to call it art.”  There will be a moment at the end of the month where I will be stripped bare and I won’t own a single thing. I will have to have a friend take me to Wal-Mart and buy me some shoes.

Going through all of my things I found crates of porn, some of which I bought when I was a teenager, and some I bought because I was using it for another project. I found some old photos that I had taken and found while I was here in Baltimore. I was going to make simple stupid collages and explore composition and see what funny things could happen when you look through magazines that you cut up. It’s a way of playing with Instagram as a medium.  I’m interested in Instagram because of the people who use it and the types of images that are made.  I want to replicate some of the process to see what they do; this collage project is one of those things.  There is no real collage, they only exist on Instagram, all the magazines and photographs are being thrown away. At the end of the month there will be nothing. It’s an exercise, a sketch, it’s not about the collages it’s about Instagram.

So its completely manipulated with your phone, its not physically made?

I might put a photo on top of another one but that’s all that it is. It only exists as the photograph on Instagram.

[Note: Colby’s Instagram was given to his friend Dena as part of Everything but Lenin, and then shut down, the collages no longer exist]

With this project, you are allowing everything to go except for this plaque of Lenins head?

That’s the only thing. That’s the interesting thing about art and thinking about art in this way. What I realized is I set up projects where there are rules, and how much do I want to break a rule, how do I bend the rule, is there a loophole? One loophole that I am exercising is the name “Lenin,” I bought another hard drive and I’ve renamed it Lenin and copying my old hard drive and putting everything on it so I will have all my digital stuff.

I have years of iTunes, which has given me an idea for a project where I would have a cam site, in a plain room, and people could prepay for an allotted amount of time, where I dance everyday 8-5.  I would only do it though if the time were bought ahead of time. It would go song by song through my hard drive until my hard drive is done, it might go on indefinitely. The piece would be about how we hoard this media and how we never process it. This would be a way to slow it down and listen to all the music.  This Lenin is a loophole and a bridge to another project.

What is your process in creating these projects? What is your studio time like?

It’s interesting that you talk about studio, actually I think a lot about that.  I didn’t care what the cost of grad school was. I wanted to experience two years of uninterrupted studio time, that was the only reason I went. Then I got out of grad school and said, “well shit I just spent two years learning how to have a studio practice and now I don’t have a studio.” At the time I was making work that could only be made in a studio.  I took a hiatus for a year and a half to figure out how is it possible to make work in my apartment, or garage, what kind of space do I need to make the work I want to make? At the same time I realized that I rarely had enough time because I was constantly traveling and always in hotels. I thought about how could I make a hotel a studio space? Can I continue to make work while I am on the road making money as a porn performer?  How can I think of those as generative creative studio spaces? I think a lot about physical space and how it informs the ability of artists to work.  Certain work can be made in certain space. For me with the collage project only an empty apartment can facilitate this work right now. With Pieces of Eight at the end of every month I go to a hotel in Baltimore and purposefully think of that space as a studio and try to think of the type of work and type of projects that can happen in that space. I want to think of lots of spaces as studio spaces. It’s a conceptual trick, it’s a way of telling myself it’s a special place to make art. It actually does change your relationship to that space.

What have you been reading? What is currently on your book list?

I don’t have any books right now because people have taken them from Everything but Lenin.   This is a good example of loop holing, I had thousands of books beautiful art books that fans have given me over the years. That was the hardest thing for me to get rid of. I had this big party anyone could come to the apartment and take whatever they wanted and a lot of people took books, people would walk away with armfuls of books. Then I’d look at the bookshelves and say “Jesus Christ I’m never going to get rid of all these books.”  I put one crate of theory books to the side and I thought I could put a lid on this box, I could hide it and then I could give it to a friend who could give it back, because I’m going to have to rebuy these books.  I told myself no that’s wrong, I’m going to be faithful to the project, if people take books they take them. At the end of the day these three beautiful people walked in all dressed in black from New York and they work with the Contemporary in Baltimore, and they went straight for the theory books and declared it theirs. They said, “We’re going to get a van and take everything,” it was beautiful. They said they really wanted an art book library.  I couldn’t have asked for a better home for all those books. They’ll all be together as a library.

What is it like being an artist in Baltimore? What is the scene there? Do you have a lot of other artists that you hang out with?

Honestly, I am very shy. When I came to grad school I was especially shy. I didn’t talk to anybody. I didn’t engage in discussion.  I wasn’t prepared for grad school at that time in my life. I didn’t do enough work to nurture those relationships.  When the program ended I didn’t have those relationships. I felt alienated from my practice and stopped making work and concentrated on getting porn work. I didn’t take advantage of the art community that Baltimore offered.

I chose Baltimore for utilitarian reasons, it is close to New York and all that New York has to offer, but I am able to live in a cheap apartment and the cost of living is relatively low. Those were all pluses. I have opened myself up recently with my projects and made these great friends. A lot of them go to MICA and we have collaborated on these projects and started making these friends and now it’s right before I leave.

You’re planning to road trip, are you going to buy a car or are you hitching?

I don’t have a ton of money; I have enough to buy an old junker. I’ve considered doing a fundraising campaign to get a van. My fantasy is to get a black cargo van, put a mattress in the back and get a cheap camera and drive around the country fucking hot boys and making my own porn. Making a low-fi porn site in relation to this road trip. That would require a lot of funding.

It might be that I just buy a junker and find a place on a map and go there and make a go of it.

I won’t be hitching. I love being by myself and going on road trips!

You have no specific place in mind?

It’s a weird joke, but I have Albuquerque in mind because I like the name of the city. It’s like the Western version of Baltimore.

Youre going to be Agnes Martin.

I love Agnes Martin; I could never be as good as her. The desert is spiritually energizing, and I think I need that for now. To refocus my attention to the good. I feel like this relationship and this project (Pieces of Eight) have brought up a lot of awful things, and require time to refocus in a different direction when it ends.