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  • Rebecca West

Interview with Michael Barnes

1. What advice would you give your college-aged self?

Work extremely hard and try to get your work out into the public eye as much as possible. Also network as much as you can. The contemporary world of social media makes this much more possible than when I was a student. The more you can identify and develop a community for your artist practice, the more successful you will be moving forward. First of all though, you need excellent work to succeed – find your own voice and do everything as well as you can possibly manage.

2. What professional development opportunities have been helpful for you?

With social media, it is a different world now. I relied on juried exhibitions when I was in school and early stages of career. Now, you can get your work out through numerous internet channels, and sell work without the representation of a gallery. Simply having your work visible on outlets such as Instagram or Facebook is a good start. A website does not hurt, but I have not found it does much other than give people a point to find further information about you and your work.

The world of the commercial galleries is of course still there, but it is not for everyone, especially for artists working in print media. I have enjoyed consistent representation for most of my career, but financially galleries take a big cut of your profit (typically 50%), they do however provide representation and market your work to audiences possibly outside of your network and it is a very professional presence to have, especially if you are fortunate to have a gallery that “truly” represents you and aggressively promotes your work.

My own personal path began with juried exhibitions, a few “small” local gallery shows, and then applying for grants and publication opportunities.These led to galleries, of which I have had a few different ones over the years (galleries do come and go).There are often books or projects published where you can have your work included – these can sometimes be beneficial.A few important juried exhibitions still exist, such as the International Print Center in New York.Some of these give you the opportunity for curators or important art people to see your work and can also offer monetary awards.In general though, I view them as a starting point, but you should move on from them at some stage.

Overall, what I have found the most important is to have a community that you can identify with and to even show together.I have found a larger community in the Printmaking field through the various workshops and conferences that exist.I highly recommend these activities for developing a network/community..I have met many people who have become good friends over the years and has led to a community of artists who often show together or create projects for mutual participation.

One last professional activity that I have found very beneficial are residencies. These can be for shorter or longer periods of time, but offer you an opportunity to make your work with focused time and often to work alongside a group of other artists who can provide influence and networking possibilities.For me, I find the concentrated time to create work at a studio away from the distractions of home to be the most valuable.I can create a tremendous amount of work in a short time and it has often led to larger projects that span over a number of years.There are tons of these residencies throughout the States and internationally (e.g. Penland, Vermont Studio Center, Haystack, etc.).

3. What kind of brainstorming or research do you do to come up with concepts?

For brainstorming, I sketch. My sketches are typically subconscious and spontaneous, often drawing in some sort of element of what is going on at the time around me. I tear the drawings I like out of the book and keep them in a box. Whenever I go for a residency or project, I take a pile along with me and use them as a starting point for larger pieces. I let them live together and talk to me – the ones that work together eventually find each other and I formulate the narrative from there. It is a strange practice, but it works for me! Other research comes from daily investigations and ingestion. - I read, watch/listen to the news, listen to audio books, read comics, listen to music (metal, punk, industrial, old country, or whatever catches my interest). Sometimes my best sketches come from faculty meetings at school (sad, but true!).

4. What influences your art?

I think I just covered most of my influences in my last answer. Additionally – the art I look at and love. I have been mostly influenced by old master Northern early Renaissance work, especially Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel. Some of my other early influences were heavy metal album covers (always wanted to design Iron Maiden covers!). Mainly though, I am also influenced by daily life. I love working outside in the woods and observing nature. While my work does not directly reflect nature, there are many themes I think about dealing with the environment and our existence in general.

5. Describe your typical week as an artist.

My work varies from day to day but going from start to finish project (as I would do most often at a residency): If I am working on a stone, I spend the first part of the first day graining and prepping stones. I then spend time with my sketches laid out to arrange compositions.I often scan the sketches so that I can move them around and rearrange them on the computer for scaling and composition.Once I have images prepared, I transfer them to the stone/s. I then spend the next few days drawing.In a residency environment (no distractions!), I can get a piece done in a week. Once the drawing is near complete, I will prep my printing paper and get the press set up for editioning (day 4 approximately). I like to leave my drawing for at least a day before processing to let it rest.I then process and print the stone and follow by collating and archiving the prints.

In my home studio it is much more erratic, as I get distracted easily, and I have to juggle my studio time with teaching and life. I typically get started in the studio after a morning routine of walking the dog through the nature preserve near our house, a workout at the gym, and whatever yard/house work that needs to be done (we live on an acre and a half wooded plot, so there are plenty of things to do). All of these things are good to clear my head for the studio.

Then in my studio, (the garage), I often work on drawings or prepare paper for registration and color overlays. I normally have my drawing area set up on a big table in the middle of the room and work on pieces when I have blocks of time. Most of my printing I do in the evening – I can focus better. I try to get a couple of plates prepared so that I can do it in a block of time. If I have an exhibition upcoming, I may have to clear my main work area to do framing and crating. I spend some of my art practice time moving work between a storage studio and my main studio, for crating and shipping – this will vary upon when I have shows scheduled. Other time is spent on clerical work – entering shows, submitting proposals, applying for grants/residencies, etc. If you can afford a business manager or agent – that’s the way to go, but requires $$$.

In all, I don’t have a lot of structure to my studio time. I kind of work on several projects at once and pick away at them until they are done. It really helps to have a show date, as it forces me to finish up a group of work and get it out of the studio so I can move on to the next project.

The biggest challenge in an artist’s life is to have time to make the work, while also making enough money to pay the bills, buy supplies and food, and dealing with the many things that life throws at you. I teach 9 months of the year full time, so summers and breaks are my most productive times. I have friends that live just on their work, and they have to really hustle to keep the practice moving so that they can survive. It is a challenge, but definitely possible.

As an artist, I think the best scenario for productivity is first to be independently wealthy (dream, dream), and then to live alone with few distractions or obligations, other than making your work (that’s why I like residencies). However, we all do like to have a life, and a life is good to influence the work – so, we juggle what we need to juggle and get the job done as best as you are able.

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