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