Podcast Transcript: You Are an Artist by Sarah Urist Green

Sarah Urist Green

RL: Welcome to the everywomanBookClub. I'm Rebecca Lewis and I'll be your host for this series, introducing you to a fresh new bookshelf packed with inspirational, thought-provoking and challenging new titles. In each podcast I'll be unravelling the details with our authors, exploring their themes and how they relate to women in the workplace and the wider world. We'll also be giving you a chance to put your own questions to each of our authors. In live Q&As streamed regularly on the everywomanNetwork. So keep an eye on everywoman.com/bookclub, for invitations to this exclusive content.  


So my guest today is Sarah Urist Green author of "You Are An Artist." It's a gorgeous book filled with imagery both beautiful and curious, and stories of a very diverse group of artists. But it's more than just a coffee table art book. It's filled with assignments to spark creation in even the least artistic of us. Each artist profiled by Sarah inspires a series of exercises designed to unleash your own creativity. And we're not just talking about painting or sculpting here. These assignments asked you to take part in a stakeout, rename colours on a paint chart, organise random meetups with your friends in the middle of lakes, and arrange your bookshelves in a way that allows the words on their spines to tell a short story of their own. So Sarah welcome. 


SUG: Thank you so much for having me today. 


RL: Thank you. And so tell us a little bit about the inspiration for this book. Did you just wake up one day and think I'll just go on a bit of a tour around the states, and seeing all these artists? What was the light-bulb moment that sparked it all off? 


SUG: Well it was less of a light-bulb moment and more of a slow realisation. When I was working as a curator in an art museum, which was a job I had studied for, really wanted to do. And I worked in that role for a number of years. But I just kept feeling like there was something missing in terms of art education between when people were sort of living their lives and then arrived in an art gallery or Museum. When I talk to people inside of galleries and take them on tours, a lot of people are, I think ready to sort of be with art and talk about art and be open to that experience. But more people I felt weren't really open minded to the experience. And it was a bit frustrating for me because I kind of felt like I needed to step outside the museum, and really think about the way that art is introduced to people. And so I started to sort of cook up this idea to ask artists to come up with art assignments based on their own practise. That would challenge people to understand art that wasn't necessarily easy to understand from the outset. That would challenge people to sort of step into the shoes of an artist and see the way that they see the world. And through getting to know these different artists and doing assignments based on their practise, you would sort of step by step open up a little bit. So that when you did walk into a gallery or museum, and see what may have once appeared like a random collection of objects, you think you know what this is, I want to be open minded to this, I want to try to understand how this might relate to me. So that's really sort of where it came about.  


And during this process, I learned that the Public Broadcasting Service PBS here in the US was coming up with new online video series. And they were accepting proposals for ideas for this. So all of this kind of came together in this moment. And I thought, you know what I need to leave my museum job, I need to go out into the world. And I need to talk to artists and try this concept. And like most concepts, you have no idea when you're doing it, if it's actually going to work. It was kind of a theory. And so through creating this video series called "The Art Assignment" that I pitched to PBS here, I came up with this concept and went out into the world and started talking to artists, interviewing them and gathering these assignments and making videos about them. And all that while I knew that I also wanted to make a book out of this experience. Online video is great now and all but there are things that you can do on the printed page and sort of in a slower more contemplative way in a book, that doesn't really jive with YouTube. 


RL: What comes across really strongly, especially in your introduction Sarah, is that you are really, really passionate about getting, normal people in more in touch with their creative sites. What where does that passion come from? Why is that something you're so driven to do? 


SUG: Well I know that for me, interacting with art, making art, sort of being with art has been an extremely fulfilling and educational part of my life. It's how I relate to other people. It's how I sort of understand other people's experience, people with lives very far away from mine, either in terms of time or geography, or even somebody within my own city I have a vastly different experience of life than they do. And for me it's a way to broaden your world and to look at art, to understand art, to make art, and it's a great way to communicate with other people. So I just I want other people to have that too. And I think there's so much media output about sort of the luxury goods side of the art world and the art market. And that for me it's not why any of us make art when we're kids. It's not what makes artists wake up in the morning to create there's so much more to it. So I I'm passionate about it because it's been an important part of my life, and I think it could really help us as humankind relate to one another. 


RL: Yeah absolutely. It certainly inspired me, I've got a very long list of projects I want to take up now much to my husband's amusement, I must say. And while I was reading it I found myself thinking about would be it great almost like a date night, thing to do together. 


SUG: Yeah. 


RL: Or that would be a great thing to do with the kids. And I was quite, I thought this is quite inspired of me. And then I got to the end of the book, and I realised that you've actually listed all of the assignments by category, and one of them is with a friend and with the kids...so not that inspired actually! But you do invite people to share the results of their assignments on the #YouAreAnArtist. So what kind of things have you seen appearing there? Is there anything that particularly stands out for you? 


SUG: Yes I've seen some amazing responses to these assignments. And some of the most memorable ones for me are based off of the assignment that's titled OFF. That's offered by the artists Lauren Zoll. And the assignment is a strange one, but a really wonderful one. And when the artist first explained to me her idea for the assignment, I thought, this is nuts, this is never going to work. But the assignment is to take a picture of a screen that is off. So, of course, this involves two devices. But many of us have many more than two devices around us at any given moment. But it seems like a screen that is off contains no information. But what it actually is is a mirror. And it's reflecting the world around it, and in sometimes distorted ways with dust and scratches and fingerprints and distortions. And when you do this exercise, it's really remarkable because this thing that is so much around us and that we just tend to tune out. It's actually full of information. So when I first tried this assignment, and I got out my phone and I sort of went around and there were reflections in off screens that I thought would look interesting. But then when I actually looked through my phone it wasn't. So you really have to sort of understand the way camera lenses works or the difference between the way you see the world and the way the camera sees the world. And the images that we've received back from this assignment are just gorgeous. I mean they're abstract. They're sort of brilliant colours, even though they're all sort of based off a black screen. And one of my favourite responses is somebody who is a scientist was in a meeting, pre-coronavirus clearly. And everyone had their laptops out. And she looked across the room and saw a reflection in someone's laptop screen, of the window behind it with all of this beautiful foliage. And she said, "Oh it's an OFF." And she took a picture and it's this sort of drab, meeting room beige everywhere, but there's gorgeous reflection on the screen. And I've started seeing them everywhere now. 


RL: Wow, maybe there's an exhibition in the making here. 


SUG: Perhaps! 


RL: So you mentioned Coronavirus there. I wonder how your movement has been impacted by that. Have you seen an upsurge of creations during lockdown or has it gone the other way? 


SUG: I mean I think there are no parts of life that aren't affected by what's going on. And I've seen sort of two directions. And I've seen people who are able to use this time if they if they have extra time at home, to create things and to use online platforms as a forum for sharing their work, for talking about work, for trying new things. So I've definitely seen a lot of people who are looking to not only entertain and create fulfilling experiences for themselves, but also for their children. A way to connect with family members. I think that a number of the assignments in the book are designed to be done with other people. And that can often be virtual. And many of the assignments, one of them asks you to interview your family members about all the makes and models of cars they've ever owned. So it could be a lot of these are a good way to sort of connect with people, despite these challenging circumstances. But I've also seen a lot of people who are not feeling creative right now, who are feeling really overwhelmed and anxious and sort of not in a place to tap into their own creativity. And I completely get that and I understand that and one of my goals with the book, and with designing these assignments is that sometimes you just need to be sort of exposed to an idea. I know for myself when working with these artists to devise the assignments and present them, I don't necessarily have an idea for something right away. But like the OFF assignment you read about it, you learn about it, and maybe it's six months later that you're in a room and you say, "Oh my gosh that's an amazing reflection in that television that's off." And or there's an assignment that's to make a rug out of your old discarded T-shirts. And maybe you don't do that now, but maybe in a year when you have this box of old T- shirts that you're wondering what to do with maybe you're like, "Oh, I remember that assignment to make a rug, I'm going to pull out the book, I'm going to give it a try." 


RL: So how is lockdown impacted your creativity? Have you been up at dawn weaving rugs? Please tell me you haven’t! 


SUG: I have not! I'm a mother of two school age children and so I have definitely been in occupying the role of teacher and all else during this time. And so I have definitely worked with them on some art assignments. And often my creativity is impacted because my kids never want to take any art direction from me. They don't like it when I tell them what to do, which I get. And so I try to take their lead. So I'll sort of see what they want to do. And my 10 year old son wanted to create these little stick figure guys out of popsicle sticks and twine, and then burn them in the fireplace and I was like... 


RL: Why not?! 


SUG: Yeah I was like, "You know what? That seems like a great thing thing to do today. Let's make popsicle figures and burn them." But so on the one hand, I've been following the lead of my kids and on the other hand I have been finding that more repetitive action is really sort of soothing and anxiety relieving for me. So there's one assignment in the book offered by Michelle Grabner that's paper weaving. And it's a very sort of seemingly simple exercise where you make cuts into one piece of paper and then weave. Weave strips of another piece of... 


RL: They are very precise. Isn't it very? Very specific... 


SUG: Yes, but I like that. It's something that I can kind of set up and measure and I don't have to sort of think a lot about it. I if I make my measurements precise and I get everything ready, then it's a weaving exercise. And it's sort of something that can occupy my hands in a way and free my thoughts to do whatever I want to do. So that's been helpful for me. 


RL: I mentioned in the introduction that there is a huge amount of diversity in the book. We see a lot of different ethnic backgrounds. A lot of women being featured – age background, it's all there. And I just wonder to what extent was that deliberate on your part? Or did it just sort of play out that way? 


SUG: Oh, it was extremely deliberate. From the outset of this project, it was very very important to me to show a cross section of artists making things today. And that doesn't in my experience that almost never happens by accident, especially with my background in museums. We have such a history of solely inclusion of white males, often from privileged backgrounds, and the only way to get away from that is to be extremely strategic about programming. Because in the cases of a lot of museums, their collections are entirely white males so almost entirely. So it takes a very concerted effort to build beyond that and to build collections in different directions. So with this project I knew from the start that it had to be a diverse group of people. I wanted it to be a diverse group of people. It wasn't just sort of a politically correct action. I wanted to it selfishly I wanted to meet a huge range of artists. I mean the one of the coolest things about my job is that I get to ring up artists and say, "Hey, can I come visit your studio?" And I get to meet people who I wouldn't meet otherwise? So yeah I did a lot of research and made sure that there that I was reaching out to a broad cross section of artists. 


RL: And that seems like a good time to talk about the Guerrilla Girls. That is the anonymous group who use art to complain about injustice. And one of their famous pieces, which I absolutely love is the poster that says, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met museum?" And they use this statistic, less than 4% of the artists in the modern art section are women, but 76% of the nudes are female. That's really powerful. And I just wonder, in terms of the power of art as a device for change, were there any other sort of standout memories from your tour? 


SUG: Yeah I mean their work is extremely transformative for me. And there are many artists in this book who I met in compiling this project, who really sort of stood out to me, especially now in this moment of extreme social change. And one of them is actually Alison Smith, who came up with this assignment called The Muster. Where you're asked to contemplate what you're going to stand for. So not necessarily what you're against, but what are you fighting for is the question. And then you're supposed to write a manifesto, and construct a costume or uniform, that explains, and describes, and declares your cause. And I think that's a really wonderful way to think about it that I've actually been thinking about, a lot during this time when I think many of us are thinking about what we want to say, and how we want to say it. And to me sort of thinking about, what are you fighting for? And how are you going to proclaim it and share it in a memorable way. It's kind of a combination of what the Guerrilla Girls asked you to do, and this other assignment. But these are extremely important questions. And I think when many of us are like looking at our social media feeds, or thinking about what we want to say publicly, whether it's a sign in our in front of our home, or just what an avatar is, and a social media account, you know how do you want to express yourself? There are these platforms, these platforms are very powerful. And what is a way that you can voice what you believe in a way that other people are going to hear you? 


RL: Yeah, absolutely. And there were a few other moments actually were many moments in the book, that almost sort of really stopped me in my tracks for various different reasons. David Brooks who's the artist that sculpts the rhinos, even though he's never obviously never seen one. And then the assignment asks us to imagine something or visualise something that we know that we'll never see in our lifetime. And one person had responded with a portrait of a father that they drawn but the father that they'd never know. The only information they had of him, I suppose was someone else's memory of his appearance. I found that really sad, a bit sort of gut wrenching, I just wonder were there any particularly standout emotional moments for you, as you were meeting the artists? 


RL: You have actually pinpointed a very moving assignment for me, when I met that artist David Brooks. And he was describing how he was working on this project where he was coming up with a way to create a sculpture that in some way reflected an endangered species. Like it's something that we know exists we know is of critical importance to care about and protect at this moment, but it's so far away. And he was coming up with a way to make a sculpture of this, that sort of equated to the weight of the endangered species. And to make it real, to put it in the room with you, and not a photorealistic sculpture of an animal but like a sort of embodiment. So that you could sort of see how heavy it is. And so they're really wonderful. And the response that you mentioned, just floored me when it came through. It's this wonderfully sort of ethereal drawing. The lines are a little bit hesitant. I mean I couldn't imagine that process of not never having met your father, but knowing what you look like, knowing what your mother looks like, and then sort of deducing what your father must look like. It's incredibly moving and powerful. I mean several of them have been emotional for me in a more drawn out sense, or in sort of a quieter slower sense. I think the ones that have really affected me the most were my visit to the artists J. Morgan Puet, who offered the assignment Scramble Scramble Dinner. Where you come up with an unusual way to create a meal by playing a game with the letters of your name, and your meal shares names. But when I visited her home in rural Pennsylvania, her whole approach to life is about sort of reconsidering the domestic space and being very thoughtful about every part of it. So you can go, you can visit Mildred Swain during normal times of course. And you could take a course in how to curate and arrange your refrigerator.  


RL: Wow! 


SUG: You can take a course on how to properly clean a toilet, or do the dishes, or how to reimagine all of these household chores that are so much, for me personally, I consider them drudgery and just something I have to do. But she really sort of shifted my mindset so that, now I at least I try, I'm not always successful, but if I'm doing the dishes let's say, I think how would J. Morgan Puet do this? Let's do this in a mindful way. Let's do dishes the artfully. So or if I'm going to put, if I'm going to throw let's say some peaches into the refrigerator. Maybe I'm going to get out this lovely bowl that I never get out because I don't entertain anymore. And I'm going to put the peaches in that lovely bowl, and I'm going to set that inside the refrigerator instead of just like tossing them into a drawer. So those are little things that just improve my life in like little ways every day. 


RL: My bathroom needs cleaning. So I might just see if my husband can do it artfully later! There's a lot of imagination obviously in the book, but there was one that stood out to me and I just thought, wow, that's genius. Was Pablo Helguera. I don't know if I pronounced that properly. So he found this book in a secondhand store, and he liked the cover. And he bought it even though it's in Norwegian, which obviously he doesn't know any Norwegian. But despite that he sets about translating it based on how the words sound in Spanish in English. And it's just I think it turns out the book was about the history of archaeology in farming villages in the Middle Ages. Which obviously you would not know from his interpretation or his illustrations. But it's just that just struck me as that's a really imaginative mind. And I wondered who else might have stood out for you just in terms of pure imagination? 


SUG: The first artist I thought of when you said this was Lenka Clayton, who came up with the assignment Lost Childhood Object. And Lenka's work is outstanding, and I encourage everyone to look it up. But she has done a variety of projects, including a collection of objects that she took out of her toddler son's mouth. And it's called 63 Objects Taken From My Son's Mouth. And she presented them beautifully, like in a sort of a minimalist grid arrangement on a table and she made a little book out of it. But she has this remarkable capacity for looking at the very mundane world around her, and seeing it in a new way. I know she made a tiny sculpture. That's a perfect stack of confetti from a party. And she also the assignment in the book is a really wonderful one called Lost Childhood Object. And she asks you to interview someone about something they loved when they were a child, but no longer have or lost. And then you make it for them. And obviously you can't make it perfectly or exactly, but you're supposed to use whatever you have around you to remake it. And it's actually a wonderful exercise to do with someone else, whether you're together or afar, where you interview each other. And Lenka and I did this for each other. She described this little bear that she had when she was a child and she described it very well. And then I did my best to sort of hack together this little bear. I have no sewing skills, but I had a few scraps of fabric around and did my best. And I described this little Lego house that I remember making as a kid and she made that for me and then we exchanged it. Many different things can be art supplies, and artists like Lenka remind me of that all the time. 


RL: Yeah I guess for the average person there is a bit of fear around doing anything artistic, and they will naturally think about having to buy paint and canvases and they'll remember their art reports from school and just immediately think, we always hear this term, I don't have a creative bone in my body. If there's somebody reading this book and that they aren't professional artists, or they aren't a hobby artists and they don't even work in the creative industry, so they work in insurance or financial services or retail or something like that. How do you sell them on the benefits of creativity specifically for their careers? What is it about doing assignments like this that can actually benefit them in their professional lives? 


SUG: Well I think that maybe the best way is making art and learning about art and doing and I say an assignment can sort of improve your life is that when you allow yourself to be vulnerable, and maybe that's even just putting pen to paper. One of the assignments is to try to draw your home blindfolded. Let's take that as an example. Maybe you don't know how to draw or you think you don't know how to draw – everyone can draw in some way. But doing this exercise as a way of loosening yourself up a little bit, taking yourself a little bit less seriously. And exploring the concept that you can learn new tricks and that you can access parts of yourself that you're maybe not familiar with. And I think no matter what you do for a day job, the life of the mind is extremely important. And I think that giving yourself something to do like this can make life be fun, fulfilling or worthwhile, no matter how you collect a paycheck or pay the bills. So for me art is something that is not separate from life, it can happen sort of on a side table in your room that you kind of constantly have going. I like to pull images from newspapers or magazines that I find interesting. And I just kind of have a little stack of them. And I like to collage them and cut out images and sort of arrange them on a page because it doesn't have to be premeditated. I don't have to like have an idea and a completely blank sheet of paper I'm working from other things, and probably you're doing that sort of thing, I'm sort of on the side with my life and not like, Okay, I need an art studio I need supplies. Is a small way to create meaning. It's a small way to connect with others and to make yourself vulnerable, and that I feel can and should be done by anybody. 


RL: I guess one of the common reasons or excuses for why people don't maybe indulge their creative sides a little bit more is that just I have no time for it. I can't fit it into my life. So how do we ensure that we are fitting creativity into our daily lives? Do you have any particular systems that you use to make sure that you are always as creative as you can possibly be? 


SUG: As a person who until a few months ago was extremely busy. I mean I'm still busy but with vastly less travel and moving about and shuttling kids about. I think that a lesson that artists have taught me is that again art doesn't need to be a separate activity from your life. And if you think about an artist like Lenka Clayton, it's often about reframing things that you're already doing. She was already pulling objects from her toddler son's mouth. So it was about collecting them. And so I think it's more about being attentive to what's around you. And so maybe you take a walk on your daily commute, maybe you walk to work, maybe you bike to work, maybe it's only from your bedroom to another corner of your bedroom. Whatever that is I think it's important to sort of be awake to those decisions. Being awake in those moments where you think nothing is going on. And I also think, we're a lot of us are using social media a lot. And so we are looking at images constantly. We are creating images frequently, we are thinking about what is the message we want to put out into the world and craft it. And so I think that we're already doing creative and artistic things. And it's a matter of reframing our mindset to doing those things more mindfully, and in a way that you'll get more from them. They're not they don't need to be something that are just sort of done offhand. They can be something that's world expanding and fulfilling, and not just sort of the drudgery of everyday life. 


RL: Absolutely, thank you so much Sarah. That was fascinating and best of luck with the book. 


SUG: Thank you. 


RL: We hope you enjoyed this episode of everywomanBookClub. If you're not already a member of the everywomanNetwork, you can join today to accept your invitation to take part in our live online Q&As, where you can put your own questions to our authors from wherever you are in the world. Membership at the everywomanNetwork also gives you access to tonnes of content designed to help you advance your career. From webinars and podcasts with inspirational female role models, to workbooks, quizzes and lots more. Visit everywoman.com/network to begin your journey today. 


Listen to the everywoman Book Club podcast with Sarah Urist Green here.