Rosalux founder Terrence Payne has a chat with Areca Roe about her career, artistic choices, teaching, child labor and so much more in this latest segment of our Artist 2 Artist interviews:
Is being an artist something you thought about early on in your life or was it something you came upon later?
I always thought of myself as an artist—I was one of those kids who thought I could draw better than most, and assumed that made me an artist. I became obsessed with photography when I was pretty young, and then began getting into it more as a teenager as I learned how to use a real 35mm camera. It’s waxed and waned but I never entirely lost that fascination with photography. When I went to college I wanted to get a degree in something that could lead to a job (or so I thought). I just kind of danced around the edge of the art scene in college, earning a minor in fine art, doing photography for the newspaper, and ended up getting a degree in biology. I truly love the field of biology and it absolutely enriched my life knowing more about the topic, about the natural world, so I don’t regret it. But at the time I felt I couldn’t justify getting an art degree—I didn’t know the possibilities. Couldn’t escape art in the end though!
Was there art in your family growing up or did they look at you like an alien for taking such an interest in it?
My parents were always very supportive of me following whatever path I chose, but they aren’t artists so I don’t think they fully understood that path necessarily. I feel like many people think you get a degree and then you are credentialed, and then you get a job with those credentials. But it doesn't work that way in the art world, it’s usually a more circuitous path.
Do you find that your background in biology and science has affected the way you approach your art now?
Definitely. Early on my projects were all over the place, but as I went on I found that there's some value in narrowing your point of view into one specific topic or area, for a while at least. I do find myself drawn to work that's inspired by science, biology and ecology, but I also follow other paths that interest me at various times. You can't do the work unless you're passionate about it and intrigued by it. Luckily, the natural world and our relationship to it has been a source of inspiration for me consistently. I did do some work in the biological field after my undergraduate schooling, and I kept thinking about going back to school and trying to figure out what I was ultimately going to do. I ended up going back to school for my MFA because I couldn't escape wanting to make art, but I also came around to the idea that I can contribute something to the world, hopefully, by communicating via art and images. That’s part of how culture changes, how ideas spread, even though it’s sometimes painfully slow.
How does your career as a teacher affect how you view yourself as an artist? Is it something that you do just for financial support or do you think it informs what your fine art as well?
It pushes me in new directions. I know this is kind of a cliche, but I do learn a lot from my students. Teaching forces me to think about things in ways I wouldn't otherwise, to learn and do research on topics I wouldn’t otherwise, because I’m responsible for teaching it to my students. They bring their own perspectives and ideas to create a rich dialog, and it keeps me connected to all different kinds of people (not just artists—no offense). I wouldn't say teaching informs my topics or my style at all, maybe in a subconscious way, but it does make me work more and learn more than I would if it were just my lazy self.
I don't think you're lazy, we don’t talk to lazy. So, you went to undergrad and got a biology degree and said f*** it, and then went to graduate school for your MFA. I'm assuming that you were photographing that whole time, was there a moment when you were just like, “Oh! I get it now!” that defined your point of view, or did that evolve as you kept going and you started to notice things as they happened more organically?
My point of view definitely evolved over time. Before graduate school I was doing work that wasn't really related to the natural world. I did a project photographing my family, and also made a bunch of constructed portraits. I don't even remember how I hit upon it in graduate school, but I began to make work about human interactions with the natural world, and found I had a really rich vein to mine. For Natural History, a project I did in grad school, I got access to a new tool (a 4x5 camera) and then I just wanted to have fun and play with that new toy. Several of my projects have started this way, just needing a way to play with a new camera or technique—I guess I’m a geek that way. For that body of work it was a big 4 x 5 film camera, and I was like, now I need a project! So it started with the Natural History project and then that theme transitioned into the Habitat project photographing spaces in zoos, and then that theme led to Housebroken, which was almost the flipside of the zoo project, photographing the animals in homes. I feel like these 3 projects cascaded from one to the next pretty naturally, each being a new exploration of the human world trying to interact with the natural world.
It seems as though you prefer to group your photos into bodies of work and that you are working on more than one body at a time. How are you able to balance between the excitement of a new project and the discipline to finish a project you have already invested a lot of time into? Where do you find the discipline to do that?
I usually am working on at least two projects at a time and that's kind of how I like it. If I get sick of one I can work on the other for a bit. Often I have a project where I can work on it in my basement studio, like the Stock Photo project I’m working on right now. Then I'll have another project out in the world that requires traveling and shorter bursts of intense work to make it happen, so they balance out in that way. I do also start projects and never complete them or show them… if I'm not interested then it falls by the wayside. You just don’t know about those, they’ll never see the light of day!
Do you ever pick a project back up after you have set it aside for a time or do they tend to just end?
I often do, like the O Pioneer series I showed with you at Rosalux in 2018. I did a few of those and then left it for about a year and then became interested in it again. That project I did over several years, adding to it as I thought of new ideas to contribute to it, or read about a different aspect of the topic. Meanwhile I did have other projects going on to keep me busy.
Getting back to the beginning of your career, something that is always challenging for artists getting started is exhibiting their work. Was that something you were apprehensive about or were you just dying to get it out there?
It was a little bit of both because I didn't really show much before grad school, just coffee shops and things like that. I can't believe they let me into grad school honestly, I felt like I was a real newbie. When I am excited about the work then I do want to share it though, that’s part of the satisfaction of art, communicating with it. One thing that I was trepidatious about in the beginning was the fact I just had no skills as far as framing and presenting work professionally. I remember for an Untitled show at SOOVAC I framed some large photos and I felt like they looked terrible…
Really? Didn’t you sell those then?
I did, I hope those collectors don’t hate me.
You obviously figured out how to put together a great show since you began, was the drive to overcome that initial anxiety part of what led you to include sculpture and installation techniques in presenting your more recent exhibitions?
I was just getting kind of sick of photography and I wanted to keep it interesting for myself and viewers, and make exhibits that were more immersive. The issue with photographs is that they are now so ubiquitous, and you can view them online such that the quality is not degraded the way a painting or sculpture online is-- some art needs to be experienced in person. In a way, I just wanted to make something that would give the viewer more in person, reward that experience... otherwise why mount an exhibition in a gallery? Like the show I had planned for Rosalux in April, I made several 3D lenticular prints partly because this technique looks so magical in person, and I wanted it to be something that would reward you for going to view it in person. But then the pandemic came and of course all art viewing was forced online!
Are there artists that you have looked up to for inspiration in your work or guidance on your career path?
One of my favorite artists that I look up to is Nina Katchadourian. I was introduced to her work in grad school. She’s hilarious but grounded—I love her humor, but she also makes work about topics that are fascinating. She chooses whatever medium fits the work, using photography, video, installation, sound, and more. She had a project that went viral a couple of years ago—she would photograph herself in the airplane bathroom as a Dutch style painting using only materials she had at hand, like napkins and toilet seat liners. The portraits themselves are done with a cell phone and bathroom light, they are hilarious and totally beautiful. A lot of her work is like that, quick little interventions and seem to make sense somehow. That series went viral I think because it’s visually and conceptually gripping right away, but it has longevity because I’m still thinking about it years later. I love her irreverence, style and humor. She seems to avoid being pigeonholed or hemmed in by others’ expectations of her work.
Everybody has their preference for preferred media and the decisions you make early on in your career can define and even limit your creativity if you become known for one thing and have that expected of you over time. Have you found that association of your work with photography to be limiting for you?
Yes, in a way—I have been told by gallerists that if I want to land a New York gallery representation (which might be nice, but at this point I’m definitely not aiming for it) that you need to have a narrow focus or topic and follow that thread throughout your career. I just have no interest in doing that, it sounds quite boring to limit myself to one medium, topic, or style just to please an audience or please collectors. I think it's beneficial to have those threads you follow, but that just doesn't interest me as much as following whatever topic or technique I am excited about, not staying in one lane. I feel like my work tends to veer all over the place because of that.
It seems as though the people giving you that advice early on would define success as an artist in monetary terms. How do you define success for yourself as an artist? Money, fame, personal growth, limousines?!!?
Hummer limo for sure, with a hot tub! That's a good question, when do I feel good about my career? I love having opening receptions, having those personal interactions, and seeing people react to the work in person. I miss collaborations with other artists right now—collaborating on projects with artists I admire feels like a marker of success. Monetarily, I don't really sell a whole lot and that's ok, photography doesn't seem to sell as well as other mediums in the art world (or maybe I just don’t try hard enough to sell). I'm lucky to have a day job so I don't have to worry about selling art to feed and support my family. I would find it difficult and stifling to create work that’s primarily meant to be marketable… which kind of leads into the stock photo project I am working on now.
It seems you have had success with making books about your different bodies of work or I guess I should say you have made some really cool books rather, in light of the last question. They have gotten a lot of attention for your work and I wonder if that was part of the reason you produced them, why, for instance, did you make the Housebroken book?
I have been a photo book collector for a long time—it's a cheap way to have a piece of an artist's work so I spend probably a little too much money on them. I also learned about art photography from books. I grew up in a small town in South Dakota, and I used to go to our town University library and have my mind blown by the Cindy Sherman and Laurie Simmons books, among others. This was before the internet was widespread, so this was my introduction to the weird world of art photography, and I was fascinated by it. Photo books are a big deal in the photo/art world, and I feel like there’s an impulse to make them because the images usually translate well to the page. The Housebroken project felt like a book when I was making the work so I pursued it as such, and was lucky enough to get a grant to assist me in the making of the book. I love the idea that all the images go together to convey a story, to strengthen each other. The book contains them, holds them all together in one spot so you can see the whole gamut of those pets. It's a more accessible way to get the work out there too.
Yeah, it definitely makes it easier to get, I was really excited when you came out with this book at the time. I collect art books as well, mostly when artists group bodies of work together and it makes sense to have a record of the whole collection. The accessibility part of it is always something I think of in my own work, is that something you have in mind when working on different projects?
Definitely, that’s part of why I like our Rosalux shop. It has books and prints that are cheaper to buy, and they might have to be framed once they are bought but it definitely makes them easier to collect. $100 print is a lot more doable than a $1000 big thing on the wall, most of the people I know can’t really justify spending $1000 on art. But maybe we should invest more in art though?
Do you seek out feedback from audiences or have you had bad sharing experiences that have caused you to shy away from that? What’s your relationship with your audience, good & bad?
I haven’t had too many negative experiences with audiences, though a few times people have misunderstood my intentions and read inflammatory things into the work that I didn’t think were present. It’s all too easy to paste your own ideas onto the work as a viewer, I guess that’s part of the journey. Social media as an “audience” stresses me out but also excites me-- I do fear that I’ll say or do the wrong thing and will end up making something unintentionally off, and that can be paralyzing.
I know! I feel like my inner voice is enough to hold me back sometimes and I don’t need to be discouraged from outside influences as well. Do you have those feeling sometimes as well?
With every project I oscillate between thinking it’s awesome and totally insipid and basic. Every time... I’m just used to the doubt and forge ahead anyway!
I have several images that I have done for this stock photo project that I have completed and then I feel like I can’t put out in the world for various reasons… and of course I’ll have all the things people could say to criticize it running through my head.
The photos you have shared from that project so far have been awesome! Especially while we have all been forced to stay home during the pandemic. I noticed that you have been using your children as models in some of those photos, do they treat you differently when you are photographing them or are you still mom to them?
Let me show you the latest one I have done for the upcoming Rosalux group show because I used my children in that one. I was thinking about a stock photo prompt concerned with working from home and balancing childcare duties and other work, like office work. The brief suggested showing yourself working with your kids playing in the background, which seems like a fantasy, nothing like reality. The absurdity of the prompts you find in the stock photo websites is what I am interested in, and some of the images in stock photos themselves are so insipid. So as you can see I have been enlisting my kids, which is definitely difficult because I am still mom and they want to play around. But we’re pretty much always together, so it seems natural to enlist them. It is quite hard to corral them and give direction unless they are totally onboard. I usually end up paying them to get them interested, “I will pay you $2 if you will do this photo shoot with me!”, so they are paid models. They buy Lego sets with their earnings, which keeps them busy, so it’s a win-win.
This photo is a good example of something that I think carries through all of your work that you do really well is using the flatness of the medium along with pattern and form in your compositions that is such a strong part of your work, even going back to your Natural History project, where you were using patterned textiles with the shapes of animals cut out and then playing with the positive and negative forms. You always have a very thoughtful way of organizing the imagery in your work, is that something you intentionally set out to do with your projects or is it something that just naturally comes through that you can’t help yourself from doing?
I definitely can’t help myself but to try to make pretty things, plus I don't think the work would be as interesting if it was not presented in an aesthetically pleasing way. Not as exciting to me, at least. I am a visual thinker so that is my tendency I think.
This stock photo project really seems to epitomize all the aspects of your work from what I have seen so far and I am hoping that you might consider collecting these images into another book. Do you think that is something you might try to do?
I think it will, I have thought about it already, even though I haven’t completed that many images yet. It feels like a book.
Yes! I have been so intrigued by these new photos. The piece you had created for the Home online exhibition for Rosalux was such a great image, it had all of the color and pattern we had been discussing and put forth with such banality that it was such a strong comment on the stock photo industry while transcending those limitations and allowing the beauty of the work to be the contrast needed to highlight that criticism. It is such a pleasing image but at the same time it’s such a big “Fuck You!” that it is just hilarious….
Hmm, I like that take that it is just a big fuck you….
Yeah, it is so punk rock!
How are you thinking about creating projects in the future and how you will reach audiences given the current climate of chaos? Has it had any effect in how you are planning and setting goals?
Going forward, I don’t know, just taking it day by day. I hadn’t really focused much on instagramming my artwork up to now, I was just posting photos of my family or things I thought were interesting on the ap. The pandemic prompted me to put more effort into sharing artwork online. I have been finding it really engaging to have a project I make quickly and get out into the world immediately like with this Stock Photo project. Most of my projects I spend years working on, and they live on my computer or film until I'm ready to print them out and put them into a gallery. It has been really satisfying to get work out right after I make it and am still jazzed about it, and to get feedback right away. So that’s part of what propelled this current project.
Has that feedback had any affect on how you are moving through this body of work?
It propels me to work since I stated on social media that I intended to post at least one each week… now I have to! I’m trying not to consider feedback too heavily, other than I’ve gotten some positive feedback, people who are interested in the project, which makes me want to do it more. If everyone hated it I might not want to continue it. Having people comment on it that I respect and admire adds to the pressure to make something worthwhile, which is probably a positive but I was hoping to avoid that pressure!
The idea of creating work for commercial usage that is pleasing to the broadest audience really bums me out, it always turns out so beige. Middle management is ruining the world, has that been your attitude in approaching this project?
That is part of it, sort of poking fun at that commercial stock photo world, the advertising machine in general. I never really thought about doing stock photography, it just didn't seem like something that would appeal to me. Then a few years ago I got an email from Getty Images inviting me to become a contributor, so I decided to look into it. I posted a couple photos with Getty, but in order to make money at it you have to post hundreds of photos, and it takes a ton of work. I started reading briefs from Getty and Shutterstock in this research and I thought of my students possibly being able to make money doing this. But unfortunately it doesn’t seem worth it, it’s so low-paying. For example, on Shutterstock if you sell a photo you earn less than $2 on average, the payback is so miniscule for the amount of work and talent that goes into it. Getty is one of the higher-end stock companies and you might get $50 if you are lucky enough to sell a photo there. It made me think about how much money goes into advertising, and how little the role of the photographer is valued in these instances. The briefs they put out seemed so absurd but also telling, especially those dealing with the Coronavirus and stay-at-home orders. For example, one brief I’m working on right now states that customers will be looking for images of “people smiling behind the mask.” Another prompt I made work from was "Loading up on non-perishable food items has become essential. Images of non-labeled, non-perishable items like canned goods or pasta will resonate with customers." Underneath the cheery veneer, these are rather depressing prompts!
Areca Roe is an artist based in Mankato and Minneapolis, Minnesota. She works in many media; primarily photography as well as video, sculpture, and installation. A recurrent theme in her work is the interface between the natural and human domains. She currently teaches photography Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Areca received her MFA in Studio Arts, with an emphasis on photography, from University of Minnesota in 2011. She’s a member of Rosalux Gallery, an artist collective in Minneapolis. You can learn more about Areca and her work at: http://www.arecaroe.com/