First, a little about me - my name is Brena Smith and I'm a librarian at CalArts, bookbinder, seamstress, and general maker of things. In addition to an MLIS I have a B.A. in History and have a deep love for art, research and sharing information. This project is allowing me to do all of that at once.
A little on the origins of this project:
I worked as an assistant to three different artists over the course of 8 years before and during college. So I know firsthand that keeping a studio running at full capacity is first a labor of love and devotion but it also comes with much frustration and exhaustion. I never worked as physically hard at a job as I did for Sandi Dihl in her ceramics studio. I hauled around 50 lb bags of clay, 10 gallon buckets of glaze, massive plaster molds, kiln shelves, and boxes and bins of pottery for shipping and for shows; clay demands the use of your whole body. It was hard work. I think it was my favorite job I ever had.
There were many memorable days of the nearly 8 years I worked with Sandi. One the most memorable was back in probably 1996 while we were preparing for Santa Cruz Open Studios, which takes place every year in October. We were experiencing a heat wave and Sandi and I were melting as we slogged through our work. We had been up late the night before preparing a firing and were both grumpy. I had also just started college and was still figuring out how to manage my time, so I was doubly-grumpy. We snapped at each other and huffed around the studio, sweat pouring from each of us. Eventually we went to our separate corners and tried to ignore our misery, and each other. After a bit she called me outside, (which knowing Sandi probably something like, “Brena, get your ass out here!”)
I was a bit baffled while watching her try to take of the lid to her hot tub (her studio was in her backyard). “Help me get this off.”
“Why?” I probably sneered indicating I thought it was the stupidest idea in the whole world.
“Because it hasn’t been heated up in over a week so the water is cold.” I immediately knew what she had in mind.
So, we took off the lid and with much giddiness jumped in with all of our clothes on. That sweet relief I experienced is still resonant almost 20 years later. I don’t remember how long we stayed in, but it was long enough to cool us down and shift our moods. We went back to work in wet clothes and continued to laugh about it the rest of that long, hot day. We may have even jumped in a second time. It was also a story we reminisced about many times over the years whenever we were feeling a little stressed and overworked or just needed a good laugh.
I share this memory because to me it exemplifies life in a working studio. It’s often hard work and it’s sometimes easy to forget why you’re there. But it is also just downright fun - and it is often both at the same time. As an artist’s assistant, I felt like I had a special job. Not only did I enjoy participating in the creative process, but I really did, and still do, believe the role that art plays in our lives and culture as a whole, is important. But I don’t think one day went by that I wasn’t reminded that it’s hard work and requires a kind of resilience by both artist and assistant alike.
Make no mistake though; the life of a working artist is not for the faint of heart.
My sister is an artist who makes her living solely from creating beautiful ceramics (check out her website to see [and buy!] her work). She keeps a blog that documents the daily life of being a working artist. If you have any romantic notions about the lives of working artists, believe they live in their studios creating beautiful things all day, or imagine they get to rise in the morning whenever they please and lounge all morning drinking coffee, then I suggest you read her blog. Additionally, if you have aspirations of becoming a working artist and believe that once you quit your job and start working on what you love that the money will just roll in (and I don’t care how many times you’ve read The Secret), you may find her blog useful. It may also make you appreciate the paycheck that is directly deposited into your account every other week from your day job.
I should qualify the above statements a bit. Yes, my sister does have days when she wakes late, lounges in the garden drinking her coffee and chasing butterflies (I’m not joking here, she really does chase butterflies). Yes, she has days when she tells everyone to beat it and closes the door to her studio because she’s on a roll baby and can think of nothing else other than her current obsession - whether it’s paper cutting or a new design for gorgeous vases - and enjoys her work so much she feels indulgent. She is also financially successful. But to get to herself to a point where you can enjoy the benefits of being a self-employed artist, she has worked her ass off. She has gotten to where she is with buckets of blood, sweat, and tears.
It is with Whitney and Sandi in mind that I want to carry out this oral history project, so that the stories of working artists like them are captured and preserved. While some artists may have profiles written up about them in newspapers and/or magazines, and may even get a fair amount of regional, national or even international recognition, many of them don’t. Despite their talent, most working artists won’t be studied by art school or art history students of the future. Nor are many working artists documented within museum exhibition catalogs or archives. Some are, but many are not. The artists that I intend to interview are the “rank and file” workers of the art world. These artists are significant because we incorporate their working into our daily lives. Their work is not behind glass or protected by a museum guard. Their pottery is in our cupboards, chipped, stained and used everyday. Their photographs and paintings are on our walls and greet us every day. Their clothing is worn down to its threads. Their jewelry is on our hands, wrists and draped on our necks everyday.
This project was in large part inspired by my sister, Whitney Smith, because it’s my job as a little sister to shamelessly promote her work, and is also dedicated to the memory of Sandi Dihl, who passed away in 2010. My sister also worked for her and wrote a very nice post about Sandi on her blog.
It is my hope that the listeners of these interviews will enjoy the life stories they hear, understand the importance of the work of these artists to our lives and culture, and find a new appreciation for artists working today.