By Colleen Dougher
● A giant stuffed polar bear wearing a tutu and blue cone-shaped hat serves as the studio mascot for California sculptor, filmmaker and performance artist Marnie Weber.
● When making marionettes, Miami puppeteer Pablo Cano uses many donated items, including cigarette pack foils collected by Myra “Yo Momma” Wexler, and contributions from an elderly neighbor, who tosses objects she think may interest Cano over the fence and into his yard.
● Los Angeles artist Adam Janes hangs upside down from a horizontal bar in his studio whenever he needs a break.
These are just a few of the informational gems that Brooklyn painter, writer and photographer Sarah Trigg unearthed during The Goldminer Project, billed as “an anthropological approach to observing the practices of visual artists.”
Over three years, the project took her into the studios of 200 artists across the United States, including 25 in Miami.
During these visits, Trigg took photographs and talked with the artists, keeping the focus on their significant objects and work-related rituals rather than the art. She then documented her findings through photographs and written accounts, half of which appear on the project’s website (Thegoldminerproject.com) and half of which are included in Studio Life: Rituals, Collections, Tools, and Observations on the Artistic Process, a book published last month by Princeton Architectural Press.
On Tuesday (Oct. 29), Trigg will participate in a panel discussion with some of the Miami artists featured in the book at Gallery Diet in Wynwood. Recently, she talked with Colleen Dougher about Studio Life, The Goldminer Project and her upcoming event.
Colleen Dougher: Tell me about the goldminer analogy. Did that develop as you got deeper into the project, where this process of photographing, recording and transcribing is, in a sense, like sifting for gems?
Sarah Trigg: Yeah, that was the basic idea. I really felt like I was digging around and trying to unearth something that was normally hidden to the public at large and once I found those gems or dug up those treasures, to polish them up and present them. So the whole analogy of mining came forth and, for the book, I and the publisher felt that title [The Goldminer Project] was too obscure for the cover. … So after much thought and many titles, we came upon Studio Life.
Dougher: Your approach is really unique in that you documented only example of mascots, collected objects, makeshift tools, rituals, residue and habitat — without photographing the artists or their works. Can you tell me how you arrived at that approach?
Trigg: Well, I realized that there’s a lot of books out there — a lot of documentation, magazines, books and what-not — about artists’ studios in general. They usually involve portraits and the artwork is always involved. … I’m an artist myself. When I meet with other artists in their studios we’re frequently not talking about the artwork — it’s usually these sort of tangential things. I felt strongly that by removing the portraits and the works, these things would become more significant or clear. …
Dougher: So before you began visiting studios in 2009, you spent most of your time painting in your own studio. Is that right?
Trigg: Yeah, I was primarily painting. I started out as a sculptor when I was in school and I had been painting and working in New York for over a decade. So yeah, I was exhibiting and kind of plodding along with my own practice.
I wasn’t looking to have some big idea. This just kind of came upon me (while) observing some things in my own practice that I would write down in my sketchbook, and it kind of hit me, like “I wonder what other artists do for their daily rituals?” and things like that.
Dougher: What were your daily rituals?
Trigg: Nothing too complex really compared to some of the things I covered. For example, I’ve always had day jobs so there was always a transition time after I would get out of whatever day job it was and get to my studio, get some take-out food and eat my food in front of my paintings … and wait for the tide to turn from working on someone else’s work during the day to coming back to where I left off the day before.
Dougher: Visiting 200 artists in their studios seems a far more social activity than painting in your own studio. Was this hard to get used to, or are you a very social person?
Trigg: That’s a really interesting question. It’s funny because around the time I had the idea for the project I definitely felt this weird urge to get out of my studio. I don’t know where that sort of X-factor came from but I definitely felt this urge … Being a painter, in particular, you’re kind of a hermit. You’re spending a ton of time alone in your studio and yeah, I wouldn’t describe myself as overly social, but I did feel a sense of missing this interaction with other artists.
I think we’ve gotten to this point — especially in New York City — where it’s getting harder and harder to live here, so a lot of people have to work multiple jobs to get by and it cuts down on the frequency that you’re able to interact with other artists.
Also a lot of the socialization that’s happening at art openings is great and that has to exist … but the kind of conversation at a gallery celebration or opening are very different than those that happen between artists when you are at one another’s respective studios. In school, you get that all the time — it’s right there. But as a professional working artist you are kind of shut off in your own world for the most part unless you are really making an active effort to keep up with studio visits … As an artist, you are saving most of those studio visits for collectors, curators, dealers and people who are going to directly affect your careers. It’s hard to find the time to nail down the studio visits between artist and artist and I feel it’s really important.
Dougher: I suppose your background as an artist would definitely make [artists] more comfortable and likely to open up about their rituals and objects and the stories behind them.
Trigg: Definitely, I felt like people naturally understood that I would present them in the right light. … I showed the text to each of the artists. It’s really important to me that they’re comfortable with what I’m showing so there weren’t any surprises there.
But to go back to your thing about the social aspect of it … Before each visit — because almost everyone I had never met before — there was always a moment right before the visit where I would get sort of anxious. It’s a really intense process, even though you are just sitting there talking. It’s really professionally intimate, and then getting in there and setting up lights and all of that stuff is also very physical. I was usually pretty tired after the visit. As soon as I would arrive I’d be fine but there was always a little bit of really having to step out of my shell sometimes. …
Dougher: It occurred to me after reading about some of the studio visits that the studio must become invisible to an artist. I mean you work there every day and after a while maybe you don’t see the residue or notice the trends in your collection of objects, or think about a tool you devised to do something more efficiently … How do artists respond?
Trigg: Yeah, it was really funny because one thing I noticed a lot very early on — I would say almost 40 percent of the artists when I would arrive, would be like “I really love your project. I’m nervous, though, that I don’t have anything to show you.” … Almost inevitably those ones had the strangest, most bizarre [things] … That’s where I would find a total gem.
One thing I knew, before even shooting one studio, was that the studio is sort of this built environment of your own internal world that’s going on. So it becomes your everyday environment and you become oblivious to these things that to you are so commonplace but to someone else are really unusual.
On the flip side, there were artists who knew they had this unusual thing, and there was a finally a moment to be able to share it with the world or give it its proper place, so it was usually one or the other.
Dougher: What were some of those gems from artists who thought they didn’t have anything, but really did?
Trigg: One of them was Nicolas Lobo, one of the artists who will be in the panel discussion. … He actually has since moved studios but had converted his garage to a studio space and was in between bodies of work so it was kind of not really in full force. …
We got to talking — and we probably were talking for an hour or so — and finally came upon the story of how he had heard this urban myth that in China they were selling counterfeit soy sauce that had been made from human hair, where they’d taken human hair and broken it down with acids …
A large part of [Lobo’s] exploration and work is investigating the culturally obscure and in researching one of his projects, he tried this with his own hair and it worked and he’s like “I think I probably still have some in the refrigerator if you are interested.”
Dougher: That’s the vial you photographed?
Trigg: Yeah, and lo and behold he had carried this refrigerator from his last studio and luckily some vials were surviving in there. We ended up shooting that. That is residue of his practice. That’s just a different way of looking at it. That remains one of my favorites. …
Dougher: What were some other highlights from the Miami studios you visited?
Trigg: Let’s see, Pablo Cano has an insane archive of objects from which he builds his marionettes and puppets.
Dougher: There’s also a picture from Cristina Lei Rodriguez’s studio, showing what looks like a fishing lure box filled with her watches, rings, necklaces, etc.
Trigg: Yes, she uses a lot of decorative type stuff in her work … As artists there are always objects floating around your studio that you want to work into your work but you try and it doesn’t work, or it’s too precious, or it somehow ruins it to have it become something else. That box of stuff was that. They’re more meaningful to her … To someone else it wouldn’t be as special so that box remained in her studio sort of for inspiration only.
Dougher: Some [images] seem to be collection of things that you just know there are stories behind. I’m looking at a photo from Christy Gast’s studio. There’s a suitcase that contains a vintage-looking package of something called Repulse Rape Deterrent, along with religious objects, a tiny accordion, harmonicas, a Christmas stocking with a mermaid on it. …
Trigg: She had some really great stuff. She had a lot of Virgin Marys, and for her the Virgin Mary was kind of … like in Christianity, it’s as important as Jesus in a sense. So that was an interesting way of looking at it, I thought. I’m not sure everyone holds that view, or they might see it in a different light. But the way she was saying it was really interesting, I thought.
Also the shells … you can barely see them in that photo but there’s a close-up of the shells that are in that group of stuff which were sort of a prop from some research she was doing on a Victorian cult who thought the world was like a shell and had sort of an outside to it and was more like a womb-like structure, so she had an interesting collection of props and stuff that were informing her work.
Dougher: Did you do all the Miami visits during your residency at Cannonball?
Trigg: Yeah, it was Legal Art at the time.
Dougher: When was that?
Trigg: It was September 2011.
Dougher: You also did a residency at Threewalls?
Trigg: Yeah, Threewalls in Chicago … I actually did two residencies with them. The first was a week and the second was a month long. Both of those residencies were really crucial because I have family in San Francisco and L.A. and obviously I live in New York, so those residencies were the way I was able to shoot in Miami and Chicago.
Dougher: What effect did this three-year project have on your own big picture? Between traveling, studio visits, writing and photography, I can’t imagine you had much time left to paint. Is this project a shift in direction for you?
Trigg: About a year and a half into it, things really started to pick up and it really seemed like it was gaining momentum. When I started this project, I thought I would only spend a year on it and it just became clear that this was becoming the work — that it was front and center for me creatively. I think that the biggest impact the project has had on my practice is that I really kind of loosened up my ideas of what my creative work is. If it means writing, it’s writing and if it’s photography, it’s photography. It’s OK to take a break. … I sublet my studio and was like “OK. I’m setting down the paintbrush now, it’s that time.” As soon as I did that, it’s like “You can always go back to it. It’s always going to be there.” I’m also fine with it if it never comes back. That’s OK, too.
It just felt like this needed my attention. I have moved back into my art studio but I haven’t had much chance still to paint again. I mean, I’ve been gearing up towards my own studio practice again but I’m still doing a fair amount of work for the book.
Dougher: Since moving back into your studio, are you editing your photographs and writing in the same space where you paint?
Trigg: I have a computer and desk space there and there are times when I do that work there. There’s definitely a lot less separation from those activities. …
I wasn’t a photographer before starting this project. I just had a good camera that I was documenting my own paintings with. Through the project I have become a photographer. I shoot sometimes for Modern Painters Magazine and I’ve shot for a couple of other magazines … All my shooting has been outside of the studio context but I want to set up [my studio] so that I’m able to flip back and forth between painting and photography. I don’t know exactly what’s going to come out of this, but there’s going to be more of a merging between the two.
Dougher: That’s interesting. As a writer and photographer, do you feel the categories you created for documenting studio visits apply to your new areas as well? Do you have new rituals, collected objects and residue based on writing and photography?
Trigg: Definitely, especially with the writing … Suddenly I was writing full time from the crack of dawn — well not the crack of dawn but whenever I woke up — to the end of the day. … I had a deadline to reach, so all of a sudden I found myself being a writer not just full-time but overtime and I had to identify what my rituals are going to be for that, which is knowing, for example, that you kind of have to take breaks and that you write better in the morning typically.
I sort of developed this formula for being able to rough out each entry to get myself started, but yeah it definitely helps in quickly developing a way of working in a medium I had never really worked in extensively before.
Dougher: Now that your book is out, have you been doing signings and appearances?
Trigg: Yeah, there has been thankfully a fair amount of press-related things and interviews. We had a launch in New York and I’m going to L.A. for a wedding — my cousin is getting married — and it’s like “Well, I’m paying for the flight so I should have a launch out there as well.” Then Nina [Johnson-Milewski] from Gallery Diet invited me to come there and do a launch, and it looks like I will do a book signing in Boston with a gallery, and in Chicago at Threewalls at some point. It’s nice to reconnect with the artists. …
Dougher: You’re leading the panel discussion that takes place the night of the [Gallery Diet] book signing?
Trigg: Yes, there will be four artists — Cristina Lei Rodriguez, Nicolas Lobo, Bhakti Baxter and Christy Gast.
Dougher: They’ll talk about their rituals, objects, studios and that sort of thing?
Trigg: Yeah, I haven’t had a real moment yet to retrospectively ask the artists, “Well, how was the visit for you, and has it influenced you in any way or affected how you see your practice?”
Dougher: This project must have given you a ton of ideas. Are you considering another book down the road based on some of the ideas?
Trigg: It would be fun, but right now I have to admit that doing a book is a lot of work. Starting one again right away seems pretty ambitious but I always have hope …
In my lifetime, it would be great to do a European version or a Central or South American version. My sister lives in Buenos Aires, so I have shot artists down there already and it would be so much fun to take this project into other countries and see the difference between the U.S. and other places, but it comes down to funding, basically …. because [for] this project, the business model wasn’t really figured out that welI. I just kind of jumped in headfirst and it became a much larger thing and I kind of figured it out but I sort of tapped my resources in terms of that, so I’d have to figure out a different method if I were to do another book.
But yeah, that would be great and I definitely have some other ideas for different types of books that wouldn’t require nearly as much research, maybe just photo-based books.
Dougher: I bet in the same way that you wanted to get out of your studio initially, that after doing this for a long time you want to get back in your studio for a while.
Trigg: Yeah, I definitely have a feeling of “I want to hibernate and just collect myself.” I mean, I know the work is going to change but I still have not really been able to get back into the studio full-fledged, so I’m really looking forward to that.
Sarah Trigg will participate in a panel discussion with some of the Miami artists featured in Studio Life, at 7 p.m. Tuesday (Oct. 29) at Gallery Diet, 174 N.W. 23rd St., Miami. Afterwards she’ll sign copies of the book. For more information, call 305-571-2288, e-mail Info@gallerydiet.com or visit Gallerydiet.com.
Colleen Dougher is a South Florida-based arts journalist and founder of Arterpillar.