SEEK ATL: Connecting Community Through Studio Visits

Ben Steele makes a point during Caldas’ SEEK visit. Photograph by Joshua Gwyn.

Each month, SEEK ATL visits an artist’s studio for an informal critique, drinks, and comraderie.  The founders of SEEK are Shara Hughes and Ben Steele, both widely exhibited artists who are based in Atlanta.  They have curated and guided the program over the last two years.  It’s the first group of it’s kind in Atlanta, and was inspired in part by POST, the Philadelphia Open Studio Tour.   On a balmy Spring day I sat down with them for a mellow chat over margaritas.  Jessica Caldas joins us, who most recently hosted the March 2013 SEEK group to her studio in the Goat Farm Art Center.

Karley Sullivan: So, what’s up with SEEK?  Do you have any new initiatives or directions for the group?

Shara Hughes: A brewery (laughs).

KS:  (laughing) I can actually see ya’ll doing that.

SH:  It’s not out of the question (serious).

Ben Steele:  Since the last time we talked to anyone about it, it’s really taken off; we have a good 80-100 people on the mailing list, and many of those people regularly exhibit and get press. That means we’re not going to run out of artists to visit.  Now, we want to focus on finding artists who are doing excellent work, but aren’t necessarily in the spotlight.

SH:  It’s been great so far, but we want more people to come to the visits, and its actually people who aren’t the art world people that we want to join us. That’s our goal, to bring out the people. We want people to come out and experience something they wouldn’t have gotten a chance to see otherwise.  We’re hoping that the community gathers enough strength to realize that it’s not an opportunity to get into a famous artist’s “cool” studio, but that it’s a discussion and an exploration.

BS: We also have more events in the works like theArtDrive that we put together with BURNAWAY and WonderRoot last November.  We all know that Atlanta is fragmented, and we talk a lot about how everyone drives around in separate cars to the galleries.  That’s how we came up with the idea of renting a bus so that our group could visit BeepBeep, Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, Poem 88, and Souls Grown Deep all together, without having to take 20 different vehicles.  We also visited Sarah Hobbs Peck in December when she worked with Solomon Projects to do a three-room installation at the W Hotel.  So, we’re working on a gallery visit group to compliment the studio visits.

SH: Seriously, it’s like, “Hey, we all do this, why don’t we do it together!”  It’s not like I have a group that always comes with me to openings.  Often, I go to a gallery, and it’s awkward to be there alone, surrounded with people you barely know, and no one to comfortably discuss the art with because most people are there to drink and socialize.  I think most people who go to galleries can identify with that feeling.  We want to bring the group to galleries to talk about the work, and have a good time.

BS: Another great thing is that artists who are new to Atlanta can come to SEEK and instantly gain a serious, thoughtful creative community.  I can identify with that because that was me a few years ago.  Now we’re trying to be the medium where artists can connect with each other instantly.

Seek ATL visits Carl Rainey’s warehouse studio. Photographs courtesy of Ben Steele.

SH:  Yeah, there are solid crit groups, where it’s like five people, and that’s their CRIT GROUP, and it feels cliquey and exclusive.  We want to be inclusive, to encourage an informal environment, and we need a certain critical mass to make that happen.  That’s why even though we already  have a large mailing list, we want it to keep expanding.

KS: So if you guys are interested in artists who aren’t well-known or who operate on the periphery, how do you plan to garner interest in the visit? 

SH:  We keep in touch with our mailing list, keep a facebook page, and include links to the artist’s websites so people can take a look before they come.  Also, Ben and I choose artists who are doing interesting work.  An artist doesn’t have to be getting a bunch of public attention to be making work that matters.  That’s why we are so into this idea.  Atlanta has more going on than we know about, and we want to seek it out.

KS: And how will you maintain a certain level of discourse so that an artist, at any phase of their practice, can take something valuable away?

BS: Even when we’re visiting someone who isn’t in the spotlight, there are always highly informed artists attending.  Also, we curate our host artists, so even if you haven’t heard of them, they will be making work that’s worth talking about.  Artists at every level recognize the value of a community dialogue about their practice, and that’s what‘s really at the heart of it.  We want to sustain that, so it’s a community that stays together and shares these experiences. I’ve been to each and every visit, and they’ve all been valuable.  It’s an opportunity for conversations, and a chance to talk to an artist about their work outside of the gallery setting.  It’s a chance to really dig into the method and the meaning of it.  The host artist gets something out of it, and so does everyone else.

KS:  Yes, and that’s the great thing about critique, when you realize that it’s not just for the artist, but also for all the people contributing.

Jessica Caldas gets a visit from SEEK ATL as she prepares for a solo show at BeepBeep Gallery. Photograph by Joshua Gwyn.

SH: Right, and it’s not about having an exhibition up in your studio for us to see; it’s a chance to see the process.  Plus, there are fun things that happen, like when you see some strange doodle on the floor and you can say to the artist, “Hey, what’s that?  It’s interesting and it works with the things that you’re doing,” and they hadn’t thought of that before.  It’s a chance for an artist to get fresh input for their practice.

BS:  It’s also about artists not presenting themselves as bulletproof.  It’s a chance to talk about the process of art-making.  It’s about what they’re doing, and to so some degree that’s so much more powerful than a finished product.

SH:  And it takes guts for an artist to open up like that, but if you’re going to be doing this, you have to be able to do just that.  Not getting defensive means that the artist can open themselves to suggestions that they may or may not have considered on their own.  Also, you have to be able to take the criticism that’s valuable to you, and let go of what doesn’t help your process.

KS: Yes, not getting defensive is key, also acknowledging that critique isn’t just for the host artist, but also allows the group to focus and talk about art in a constructive and critical way.  It can be as much about listening as speaking.

Do you give the host artist any suggestions before they have the group to their studios?

BS: Well, we don’t have any set guidelines—

SH: Except that we start at 2:30 (laughing).

BS:  We have consistently encouraged our host artists to not give an entire artist statement at first.  That means that, to some extent, they get to decide how much they want to say, and the conversation emerges because of what people see and what they want to know.  Usually we get to hit all the points that someone would have said in a statement.

SH:  Yeah, I think sometimes we envision critique almost like a performance, but it really should be a conversation.  We want interactions where the artists trust the group to honestly talk to them about their works in progress as well as their practice.

KS:  Let’s switch gears a little and find out what it feels like to get a visit from SEEK.  Jessica, only an hour ago you hosted us in your studio. How do you feel? What did you think of the visit?

Diptych of Jessica Caldas during her SEEK critique. Photographs by Joshua Gwyn.

Jessica Caldas: I was nervous, but excited, and it was all beneficial. I didn’t get much “crit culture” in undergrad, and I haven’t been to graduate school so I haven’t had many experiences where other artists really give you directed feedback.  I was worried that I didn’t have the right education or vocabulary, but it was a close group, and felt comfortable.  

I definitely got a lot out of the visit, even with feeling shy and not knowing if I’m going to say the “right thing” or not.  People were hitting on things that I was already thinking about, and that was reinforcement that the group saw and responded to what I’m doing.  It made me want to keep pushing further.  It was really exciting to have so many artists come to talk about my work.

SH:  Do you get a different experience from having artist friends visit your studio than something like today?  (Now, I’m the interviewer!)

JC:  The funny thing is, I don’t feel like I have many super-close artist friends.  I do know a lot of artists, like we all do, but we don’t often talk specifically about the work.  Now, I DO have a lot of people who aren’t artists who come to my studio to hang out or study while I work, and I really respect their input because they have an audience’s perspective.  It’s different to have a bunch of artists come in to talk about my work.

BS:  I thought that the group was looking at your work in a really intense way; it was still informal, but people were really mining and trying to investigate it.  I would say that’s rare for almost any experience.  In your studio, there was a collection of people there that have a lot of insight into many different areas.  So one comment would elicit a question from another person that they wouldn’t have thought of on his or her own.  It’s a cross-pollination that wouldn’t have happened without the various individuals present.

JC:  Yeah, through the Leap Year program, we have people come to our studios for one-on-one crits. Debbie Michaud, the editor at Creative Loafing, visited me recently, and her questions were more about my entire practice rather than specifics.  I’ve got Cinque Hicks coming next, and I wonder what he’ll be asking about.

KS:  So, was there anything that struck you as immediately valuable for preparing your solo show at BeepBeep Gallery?

The floor in Jessica Caldas’s studio. Photograph by Karley Sullivan.

JC:  Ben mentioned repetition, which I have thought a lot about.  It’s funny—although I am a print-maker, I often feel like I work more as a painter, with mono-type single-runs and messiness all around.  I always imagine printmakers as very neat, without fingerprints on the borders (laughing), but printing doesn’t have to be like that at all.  If I choose to repeat an image, they don’t have to be exact reproductions.  Also, I’m thinking about ways to bring the stories of the domestic violence victims that I advocate for into the work while still respecting their privacy.

KS: So, you have been to previous SEEK visits, how was it being a group member?

JS: When I go to someone else’s SEEK, I like to just listen. I think that even if you do feel shy, there’s value in just listening to the conversations in the room even before and after the actual crit.

The next SEEK gathering is tomorrow, Saturday, April 6th, with a visit to Nathan Sharratt’s studio.  Email to join the mailing list or check out the SEEK ATL facebook page.


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