Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Interview: Andrew Simonet

Andrew Simonet is a choreographer, a writer, and an advocate for artists based in Philadelphia. In 2006 he founded Artists U, a grassroots, artist-run platform for changing the working conditions of artists. We at CR were introduced to his work through the Artists Raising Kids project he recently initiated through Artists U, but Andrew is perhaps best known for his work from 1993 to 2013 as a founding co-director and choreographer of the award-winning Headlong Dance Theater with collaborators Amy Smith and David Brick. His projects include CELL, a performance journey for one audience member at a time guided by your cell phone, and This Town is a Mystery, performances by four Philadelphia households in their homes, followed by a potluck dinner. With Headlong, Andrew also helped found Dance Theater Camp, annual festival of workshops and collaboration for professional artists that is entirely artist-run and free for all participants, and the Headlong Performance Institute, a school for experimental performance with full college credit. As someone whose own work is so grounded in helping fellow artists identify and achieve their goals, he's got plenty to say on the topic of raising kids while sustaining a creative practice.

CR: Briefly describe your kids: ages, names, general temperaments…

Andrew: Jesse Tiger, 8, collector of unusual facts, inventor of trading card games, devoted reader. Nico Wolf, 6, keeper of our family traditions, sword fighter, tree climber.

Andrew + the boys (photo: Pierce Backes)
CR: You’ve just put together the crowd-sourced Artists Raising Kids Compendium through Artists U… so of course I have to ask one of the questions from that project: What are three things about raising kids you’d go back and tell yourself?

Andrew: “Slow down at the beginning, Andrew!” I did too much following the birth of our first (including starting Artists U). Having two little ones beautifully and ruthlessly made me simplify.

Be adventurous. Having an intensely colicky infant made us careful early on, maybe too careful. We were a bit more adventurous with the second, but overall too cautious, I think.

It’s ridiculously interesting and beautiful.

CR: Your wife is involved in the performing arts too. How do you two negotiate the demands of family versus rehearsal and performance schedules, and how has that changed as your kids have gotten older? 

Andrew: That was hardest in the early years. We used a ton of childcare. At first, it was
babysitters, and we have been blessed to have some remarkable, beautiful people as babysitters, which really helped. They were a big part of raising our kids, and their love and spiritual depth really affected us all.

performing in Headlong's You Are So Beautiful
(photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)
There was a lot of trading off: one person gets home and the other can go work. My wife had started teaching at a college, so between us, we had a fair amount of flexibility (work that could be done at whatever time was available, time off, the ability to determine a large part of our schedules). And we would try to stagger the intensive production periods: I get busy opening a show and she steps more with the kids, then we switch. It takes a lot of
mercy and forgiveness and advocating for what you need. I leaned on things I learned from my collaboration:

- Constantly choose not to resent.
- If everyone feels they are doing more than their share, the work gets done.
- No project or opportunity is worth the well being of the people involved.
  
CR: Thinking as big or small as you like, what changes or alternative structures would make the performing arts more accessible to artists with families?

Andrew:
I’m gonna quote myself in the “Artists raising Kids Compendium” here:
For me, this is part of my broader advocacy around sustainability. Artists who raise kids challenge a lot of the unsustainable assumptions in our field about money, time, and how to live as an artist. Those assumptions are bad for all artists, not just the ones with kids. I don’t advocate for the special needs of artist parents over the needs of others. I advocate for artistic lives that are balanced, sustainable, and professional, and supporting artist parents is part of that.

I think we as artists need to keep pushing to change the working culture of our sector. It’s dysfunctional for everybody: it’s workaholic, under-resourced (with most of the resources going to administrators, not artists), under-planned, needlessly competitive. We use as our model the 23-year-old, single, childless, healthy, frenetic artist living in a cheap warehouse. We need to include the whole arc of our lives, and parenting is part of that.

On a smaller, practical level, I think every organization should have a decent budget line for childcare. It immediately changes the conversation to one of possibility: what could we do to make this event/residency/festival/touring gig parent- and kid-friendly? I’ve seen a lot of growth over the past two decades in art institutions including kids in their programming, so they understand that this important to their mission and their future. When organizations have a roster of childcare providers on call and a budget to pay them (often true in activist and religious organizations), all kinds of things become easier. 

CR:  How has parenthood impacted your own creative work … as a writer, as a choreographer, as an advocate for other artists?

Andrew: My mission got bigger. Or maybe: simpler. When I started off as a choreographer, I really wanted to put my work out in the world (or rather our work since I worked in collaboration). Very early in my career, that broadened to include my community of like-minded performing artists. But when I had a kid, it got much bigger: I want more strong art in the world. So I can make my own work, and push to be rigorous and reckless, but really that’s how many dances? 50 in a lifetime? 70? I can have a lot of impact by helping other artists to survive and thrive.
Artist U's 5-year reunion, 2011 (photo: Jeffrey Fehder)

So, I started Artists U when we had our first child. (Again, not a great balanced parent choice, but definitely one inspired by becoming a father and seeing the world differently.) I’ve really been digging in to this curious question: exactly why is it so hard for artists in America? Artists are so ridiculously skilled and hard-working, why are we so often exhausted, overwhelmed, and broke? And why do so many of us lose touch with our deeper mission and still end up in unsustainable lives? There are lots of practical tools and strategies I’ve picked up, but the big thoughts are clarity and community. When artists are clear about what they are doing and when they don’t do it alone, they can make it work.

Artistically, I made a so-so dance about kids early on: the dancers, both moms, had to do the piece with their kids in tow, and whatever happened (nursing breaks, diaper changes, temper tantrums) was part of the piece. But I also found my artistic interests simplifying and getting deeper. I started to make a lot of intimate, immersive pieces, focused more on the bodies of the viewers than the bodies of the performers. CELL was a performance journey for one audience member at a time guided by your cell phone, You move through the city encountering performers (and non-performers), and you end up inside a dance, dancing as part of an immersive quartet. That really worked for me. I wanted everyone to have the embodied experience that dancers have: you are part of connected group, moving as one, responding and inventing, singing with your body.
This Town is a Mystery (photo: Kevin Monko)
Eventually I got rid of the professional dancers completely. This Town is a Mystery brought audiences to four Philadelphia households (very different neighborhoods, economics, cultural backgrounds). The members of the households perform a piece right their in the home, a dance theater show built from the stories and bodies and music of their world. And then everybody shares a potluck dinner. That was my last project with Headlong Dance Theater, the company I helped found 20 years ago, and it was incredible and overwhelming. I couldn’t imagine going back into the studio after that, working with the trained and fit bodies of dancers to make a piece for the stage. My artistic world had gotten so much bigger and stranger and more dangerous. And kids were a big part of that project. Two of the households had children in them who performed. And the traditions and bonds and ruptures of families were huge forces in that project.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Residency Report: Can Serrat, Spain

Residency Report is an ongoing series of posts from artists undertaking creative residencies with their families. Find out about programs that support artists with kids, and see how other artist-parents balance the residency experience.
Christa Donner shares the experience of a dual residency with her husband, accompanied by their young daughter, at Can Serrat in Spain.

This fall my husband Andrew and I undertook a dual artist residency with our two-year-old daughter along at Can Serrat, one of a handful of international programs that supports artists with families. Unlike the residencies I'd participated in before, Can Serrat is not free: there is a modest residency fee for each person - half off for children - and travel is not covered,  so we had to seek outside funding. Our work there was supported by Faculty Enrichment Grants awarded through the college where we both teach, as well as a Support Stipend through Can Serrat itself.
Can Serrat is located in El Bruc, a tiny Catalonian village that’s about an hour’s bus ride from Barcelona, which we visited several times. The living areas, studio space, piano/performance space, and a basic printshop are all situated in a former sixteenth-century farmhouse. So it's an old building, and previous Can Serrat artists we knew described the place to us as "rustic." To parents with small children, it's important to note that this term encompasses many things, some of which are wonderful (stone arches, decorative frescos, hanging grapevines), and some of which mean keeping a close eye on the kids (crumbling masonry, stinky and loosely-covered sewer holes, clouds of mosquitoes). That said, the staff made every effort to make our time there comfortable, setting us up in the largest bedroom and even a good crib with plenty of bedding.

communal meals served outdoors in warmer weather
a shared studio space overlooking the courtyard
Residency at Can Serrat includes breakfast and a big home-cooked dinner shared with all the residents six nights a week. Lunches and Sunday dinners offered time to try out local foods on our own. It can be a relief for any focused artist not to have to think about what to make for dinner every night. For us it was even more so, as we arrived during the height of our allergy-prone two year old’s picky toddler phase, and Karine managed to work with that challenge, along with everyone else's culinary needs, amazingly well. 

Since both of us needed studio time, we took turns watching our daughter during the day, getting in four-hour shifts on either side of her midday nap and then coming together for dinner and conversation with our fellow residents. This wound up being more complicated than we'd anticipated: even after jet lag the time difference really changed the usual sleep schedule, but after about a week we finally sorted out a system that worked for us. The large shared studio space is divided up between residents, and everyone meets to stake out table/wall space during the first few days. The studio walls are all plaster, so bring a good staple gun or plenty of removable sticky stuff if you want to hang anything on the walls.

The unique geography around Can Serrat is part of what makes it so attractive to artists: the residency is halfway up the Montserrat mountains, which are fascinatingly lumpy and tubular and magical to explore. You can get dramatic views of them from anywhere in town, or make a day trip to visit the monastery and a really great little art museum at the very top. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of hiking involved in El Bruc, even if you just need to get something at the grocery store. We hadn’t thought to bring along a baby carrier for our active two-year-old, but later wished we had: the lightweight stroller we brought wasn’t so useful on steep gravel roads. Our daughter loved the excuse to explore and climb the hills on foot, even if it was sometimes verrrry slow.
Christa Donner, 'Colony', gouache, ink and cut paper in two locations

The end of the residency felt like a beginning more than a conclusion: without the pressure to exhibit finished work, I was able to treat my time in Spain as an exploratory research mission. I left Can Serrat with stacks of small drawings, and a suitcase packed with field recordings,  video footage, reference images, fresh ideas and new information. This rich archive of material is now feeding much larger multimedia projects in my Chicago studio.

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Christa Donner reimagines the human / animal body through a range of media including large-scale drawing, printmaking, digital animation, and small-press publication. Her process often incorporates public projects and collaborations around narratives of bodily experience. Donner's work is exhibited internationally, including projects for the Museum Bellerive (Zurich, Switzerland); Horst-Janssen Museum (Oldenberg, Germany); Kravets-Wehby Gallery (New York, USA); BankART NYK (Yokohama, Japan); Chiaki Kamikawa Contemporary Art (Paphos, Cyprus); the ANTI Festival of Contemporary Art (Kuopio, Finland); and the Centro Columbo Americano (Medellin, Colombia).

Sharing a Family Residency Between Two Artist-Parents

a shared studio table at a previous residency
Residency Report is an ongoing series of posts from artists who've undertaken creative residencies with their families. Find out about programs that support artists with kids, and see how other artist-parents balance the residency experience.

Christa Donner shares the experience of a dual residency with her husband, accompanied by their young daughter, at Can Serrat in Spain.

My husband Andrew and I are both working artists. Participating in residency programs is something that has been important in each of our practices, and though our processes are quite different, we gain a lot from the focused conversation and occasional collaboration that happens when we think and make together. Needless to day that situation got more complicated once we became parents. We set about researching international programs that would allow the three of us to live and work together at the same time, and finally found one that seemed a good fit for our needs. It's not easy to find a residency where you're both invited at the same time, which may mean opting for a fee-based program and seeking outside funding. For a range of residencies that support artists raising kids, visit the CR Resources page.

The special challenge of a two-parent residency, as in everyday life, is how to productively divide up family time versus studio time... and while you’re at it remember to connect as a functioning couple. Having recently returned from just such an endeavor, I humbly share the following thoughts and some useful tips:

Jet Lag? Arrive Early if You Can.

Since we were spending a month abroad, the last thing we wanted was to spend our first week of residency time adjusting to the seven-hour time change with a toddler... especially since we’d be in close quarters with other artists. Instead we flew across the ocean several days early to acclimate to the new situation.

jet lag is easier with someone else's toys
If you happen to have a friend with extra space where you're going, consider a relaxed visit before the residency starts. We didn't know anyone there, but rented a lovely and inexpensive apartment from a family who happened to have a similarly-aged child (bonus: cool toys) and adjusted to the dazed afternoons and midnight wakeup calls that way. Having a kitchen takes a lot of the stress out of mealtimes in a new place, and is so much cheaper than living out of hotels and restaurants. If you’ll be traveling near any major city, there are plenty of apartment rental sites out there: try Air BnB and filter your search for “kid friendly” options, or Children-Friendly Vacation Rentals. This experience also prompted us to consider possibilities for home + studio swapping with artist families in other cities, in lieu of a formal residency structure.

Expect to Reconfigure

Needless to say, if you can find and afford local childcare or an age-appropriate program for your kids during a residency, absolutely do. That wasn't an option for us this time around, but we still found ways to make it work.

Before leaving for the residency, we planned to divide up our day as we often do at home: one of us would get up early with our daughter in the morning and watch her til noon, then the other would take over after her post-lunch nap. Two four-hour blocks seemed pretty straightforward. Done.

Of course that’s not how it worked out: our early-riser daughter miraculously started waking up two hours later in the day and taking much longer naps, which meant some serious reconfiguring to keep things fair. And though I often take the morning shift at home, I worked much better in the afternoons overseas. We wound up taking turns on alternate days, which worked out fine most of the time. Whatever your plan, sit down again to discuss it after the first week there and adjust as needed.

All Together Now
a Barcelona playground surrounded by cafes
For the first week of the residency, as soon as our daughter went to bed my partner and I grabbed our laptops to catch up on email and news. After that our only interaction was the occasional grunt of annoyance at something on the screen. Of course this happens at home, but the urgency to squeeze in productive studio time can make a shared residency tough on relationships. Since we rarely overlapped except for mealtimes, it wasn’t long before we felt completely disconnected and totally irritated with each other.

One of the tradeoffs of doing a residency with your family along is that, well, you need to make some time to be a family. In our particular situation, we decided to adjust our schedules and computer time: we fit in what we could during the day, and in the evening, office hours were over. Just turning off our separate screens of distraction worked wonders. Weekends, which we’d been treating as just more work days, we re-designated for family time. This helped all of us connect beyond stressful meals or bedtime battles, and the break was important for our creative work, too.

Leave the Toys at Home (…most of them anyway)

Packing for any long trip with a small child gets heavy really fast.  For the sake of our backs and our baggage, we brought very few books and toys. This might seem obvious, but bringing less stuff was great for all of us, and made for some natural extensions from family time into creative practice:

  • Playground = studio: Every town we were in, no matter how tiny or large, offered
    homemade toys inspire new forms in the studio
    interesting public playspaces that made me rethink our relationships to playgrounds. Sometimes they feature adult exercise equipment, too. These proved to be a great place to consider the body, geology and biology, language and motion.

  • Investigate:  Like parenting, exploring a new place always reminds me to see, smell, taste, touch and listen with curiosity and attention. Our daughter initiated collections of pebbles and other small found things, and enthusiastically contributed to field recordings of local sounds. Whether you’re in the city or the countryside, you'll spend a lot of time just getting to know the new environment. This tends to feed your practice even while you're caring for your child, in fact especially so: they'll always notice things you won't on your own.

  • Make It Up: With less toys, residencies get more creative for kids too. When the weather kept us indoors we followed the example of some fellow artist-friends and made our own awesome little toys out of boxes and food packaging.  A bunch of little blue tiles lying around turned out to be perfect for toddler stacking and building. We  used our imaginations more. Great fun and less waste. These forms have resurfaced at home and in the studio.

Reach Out


If you’re part of a program with other artists it can be all too easy to retreat into a comfortable family island within the larger community… but then you’ll miss out on the
impromptu concert with artists in the residency kitchen
studio dialogue, cultural insights, networking opportunities and friendships that make multi-artist residencies worth doing. Getting to know your colleagues also helps lower the stress level when your kid throws a tantrum at dinner, or when you need to ask for some quiet at bedtime. If you share meals and/or studios in a common space, some of this may happen organically. We sometimes took turns going on field trips with other residents, giving each of us the chance to make friends, hike, and explore the area on a level we just couldn’t pull off with the whole family along.

Working together in the same residency program isn't for everyone, but was worthwhile for us. Some parents opt to take turns doing residencies instead, while others wait it out until the kids are much older. Have you ever done a residency with your family? What other strategies or tips would you recommend? Share your comments below ... and get in touch with Cultural ReProducers if you'd like to contribute a Residency Report of your own.

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Christa Donner reimagines the human / animal body through a range of media including large-scale drawing, printmaking, digital animation, and small-press publication. Her process often incorporates public projects and collaborations around narratives of bodily experience. Donner's work is exhibited internationally, including projects for the Museum Bellerive (Zurich, Switzerland); Horst-Janssen Museum (Oldenberg, Germany); Kravets-Wehby Gallery (New York, USA); BankART NYK (Yokohama, Japan); Chiaki Kamikawa Contemporary Art (Paphos, Cyprus); the ANTI Festival of Contemporary Art (Kuopio, Finland); and the Centro Columbo Americano (Medellin, Colombia).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

CR Event Series Report: In Conversation with Ghost Nature

Cultural ReProducers + Gallery 400 = gallery conversation + kid parade!
On March first, Cultural ReProducers officially kicked off our new Event Series, teaming up with Gallery 400 to present a lively dialogue between biologist + artist Andrew Yang and selected artists featured in the exhibition Ghost Nature: Jeremy Bolen, Robert Burnier, Assaf Evron and Heidi Norton.

Despite the freezing weather outside the event drew around 30 participants for a dynamic conversation about growth and decay, creative experimentation, the natural world and the complexities of art-science collaboration, with audience members (and the occasional infant) jumping into the fray to offer their own perspectives and pose questions.

In a nearby room, a great bunch of childcare workers helped kids put together noisemakers and costumes in response to the natural phenomena in the show, and at the end of the hour led them into the gallery for a little parade of imaginary animals, signalling the start of an all-ages reception and more great conversations.

Cultural ReProducers artists Christa Donner and Selina Trepp are currently meeting with arts institutions throughout the city to plan the next events, which has been a creative adventure in itself! Stay tuned for more events very soon, and if there's a particular artist, institution or event you'd like to see us program in the future, please be in touch!
Jeremy Bolen (far left) and Robert Burnier

The Cultural ReProducers Event Series is a roaming series of lectures, performances, and other events designed to allow parents with small children participate more actively in the art community. These curated weekend morning events include free on-site childcare and intergenerational receptions.

Our goal is twofold: to give parents and their kids the chance to participate as critical members of the arts community, and to inspire cultural institutions to better serve artists and audiences, providing positive models for future programming. This project is made possible through support from the Propeller Fund.

Cultural ReProducers + Gallery 400, photos by Dan Bitney


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Artists Board Books at the Graham Foundation

This weekend the Graham Foundation hosts a book launch for a series of Artists' Board Books with a bookmaking party for adults and children, with a project led by artist Jessie Mott. The book launch will take place right in the midst of their current show, a gorgeous, color-saturated installation by artist (+ mother) Judy Ledgerwood that's only up until April 5th.

Judy Ledgerwood's site-specific installation
For those who don't know 'em, Soberscove Press publishes art-related materials that fill a gap in the literature, are difficult to access, or are created in collaboration with artists. This series includes work by Jessie Mott, Brad Tucker, Carrie Solomon, David Brainard, Zehra Khan and Timm Winn.

The event starts at 2pm this Saturday, March 15th. If you're interested, be sure to RSVP right HERE.

Founded in 1956, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts makes project-based grants to individuals and organizations and produces public programs to foster the development and exchange of diverse and challenging ideas about architecture and its role in the arts, culture, and society.  They're located at 4 West Burton Place in Chicago.



Thursday, February 27, 2014

Artists Raising Kids: Conversation and Compendium



What are three things about raising kids you would go back and tell yourself? A few months ago artist-parents were invited to respond to this question in a short online survey that was part of Artists Raising Kids, a skill-sharing project for artists working to sustain their creative careers while raising children. The survey was initially created to develop the structure of a workshop and public conversation organized by choreographer, writer, and father Andrew Simonet as part of Artists U. If you’re based in Philadelphia, Baltimore, or South Carolina, you should know that Artists U is a pretty amazing artist-run platform for changing the working conditions of artists. “We do workshops and one-on-one meetings focusing on specific topics of interest to our community, and people had been asking for this” he says.

As survey responses started coming in, Andrew realized that he was amassing a small goldmine of generous, realistic, supportive, and really useful advice for parents in the arts, and decided “to collect all this smart, insightful thinking” to use as a resource beyond the event itself. The scope of the project grew, and eventually responses from around 130 parents were combined with in-depth interviews and ideas collected through the workshop to make the crowd-sourced Artists Raising Kids Compendium.  “To be honest,” he writes in the introduction, “this is the booklet that, as an artist parent with two kids and an artist spouse, I wanted to read.”

http://artistsu.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/ARK-booklet-1-14.pdf
download a copy right here.
The Artists Raising Kids workshop in Philadelphia drew 50 artists working in the performing arts, visual arts, writing and film into active conversation (along with their kids, who enjoyed free childcare and pizza in a nearby room), and sparked conversation on a number of topics you’ll find addressed in the compendium, including Time, Money, Partner, Identity, and In the Studio. It’s amazing to see such a profusion of shared wisdom here, and the sometimes-contradictory statements just go to show that every family works a little differently, but that we’re all in it together.  The result of all this is a pretty wonderful little book, which you can now download just by clicking on the cover image at left.


Another Artists with Kids conversation is currently in the works through Artists U in Baltimore, so if you’re in the area be sure to connect with them there!

Friday, February 21, 2014

In Conversation with Ghost Nature: Cultural ReProducers + Gallery 400

Childcare-supported programming is here! Cultural ReProducers and Gallery 400 are pleased to co-host a conversation between biologist and artist Andrew Yang and Chicago-based artists featured in the exhibition Ghost Nature: Jeremy Bolen, Robert Burnier, Assaf Evron and Heidi Norton, exploring intersections between contemporary art and the natural world.

Saturday morning, March 1st, is your last chance to catch the exhibition Ghost Nature, curated by Caroline Picard for Gallery 400, and also the very first in a series of events organized by Cultural ReProducers at institutions throughout Chicago, offering free on-site childcare.This event will be followed by a closing reception featuring light refreshments and charming kids.

The Cultural ReProducers Event Series is a roaming series of lectures, performances, and other events designed to allow parents with small children participate more actively in the art community. Events take place on weekend mornings and feature free on-site childcare and all-ages receptions.

Our goal is twofold: to give parents and their kids the chance to participate as critical members of the arts community, and to inspire cultural institutions to better serve artists and audiences, providing positive models for future programming. This project is made possible through support from the Propeller Fund.


Where can I find more information about the speakers for this event? Thanks for asking. You can find artist bios, links and more information HERE.

I’m not a parent. Can I come? Absolutely, and bring your friends. We hope these events will be something of interest to anyone engaged in the arts - not just families. One of our goals is to include parents in the context of the broader art community, which means it’s vital to have non-parents there as part of the conversation too.

I am a parent. Does my kid have to be in child care, or can I keep them with me? Parents who'd rather keep their kids with them are welcome to do so. We're just offering the option to participate without the distraction of wrangling small children.

Why do I need to pre-register for child care? If you plan to use our on-site childcare, please sign up as soon as you can so that we know what age groups to plan for! For safety and legal reasons, space is limited to 18 children per event. Registration is first-come, first-served.

What time should I arrive if I'm using the free childcare? Sign-in starts at 10:30 am. The event itself starts at 11am and will last about an hour, with refreshments and conversation to follow. Of course, timing with kids is often a bit unpredictable. You’re welcome to sign in and quietly join us at any time during the event.

Who will be watching my kids? We’ve hand-picked a great selection of experienced babysitters and playgroup facilitators who will lead hands-on activities linked to the events that parents will be attending. These are people we know and trust with our own kids regularly. Keep in mind that this is a grassroots, artist-run childcare project, not a licensed daycare facility. You will be asked to read and sign a waiver before registering your child.