Hand Embroidery on cottonSHAWNEE BARTON is a Texas-born interdisciplinary artist who uses satire and storytelling to explore “sociological concerns such as dislocation, relationship and group dynamics, class issues, and the ways in which we make connections and communicate with each other.” She works in drawing, sculpture, performance, photography, video, embroidery, and new media. In 2006 she received her MFA in Printmedia from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago and finished second in the World Series of Poker No Limit Hold'em Ladies event. Barton currently lives in San Diego, CA.OtherPeoplesPixels: You are an interdisciplinary artist in the extreme. But the strategy that is common throughout all your work is storytelling. Individual pieces, such as To Celebrate My Favorite Day, use text to tell a story, while video installations like Kachina involve oral storytelling. You also have an ongoing project called The Roaming Blog, in which you write posts on various topics as a guest blogger on other people's blogs. First off, do you see yourself as a storyteller? How is storytelling in these various forms the same? How is it different? Shawnee Barton: I am firmly committed to an art-making model in which the concept behind a piece precedes and dictates the medium. It was, for example, a natural fit for my satirically titled Occupation: Housewife series to be mostly hand embroidered pieces, since needlecraft is a stereotypically female, housewife-y hobby.In terms of content, I am definitely a storyteller. I don’t approach storytelling differently based on the medium I am working in though. No matter what form it takes, a story is successful when it is profoundly relatable, when it makes you think something you’ve never thought before, or when it transports you. The things I love about This American Life pieces are the same kinds of things that resonate with me when I read a Zadie Smith novel or see a William Kentridge animation.
Hand Embroidery on cotton, folder
17" x 11"OPP: Of all the media you work in, do you enjoy any parts of your practice more than others? SB: I don’t feel the ghosts of art professors past looking over my shoulder when I write. I especially value that freedom to purge and play since I have a tendency to over-think even the smallest of decisions when I’m making visual work. I also enjoy when a project requires me to mindlessly do something over and over, like filling in a solid area of color in embroidery or making tedious audio edits in Protools. Repetition in art making takes me to a quiet, zenful place that I don’t feel elsewhere in my life.I’m curious, and I love learning new artistic disciplines, but the least favorite part of my practice is the technical “jack of all trades/master of none” aspect of it. A lot of art programs still hire people that are technical experts--master lithographers, bronze casters, and the like. People like me with strengths in idea cultivation, storytelling and problem solving tend to be less appealing to hiring committees. I’ve always wanted to teach college art, and sometimes it feels like I am sabotaging a dream by making art the best way I know how.
Edition of 10, 30" x 40"OPP: A recent piece, I Kindly Reject Your Rejection, led to an experience with internet censorship. Can you describe the piece and what happened?SB: The web-based piece is a response letter to a rejection letter I received from a film program I never applied to. It originally ran on the well-known art blog, fecalface, but after Ann Berchtold, the director of the art fair I wrote about in my letter, complained about the negative attention, fecalface removed the piece from their website without first asking me to respond to Berchtold’s claims. Being censored was not fun or funny, but since this particular piece was about rejection, it did seem appropriately ironic that the art fair people unwittingly reiterated the concept behind the piece one more time. Everything in my letter is defendable, and I was shocked and disappointed at how casually fecalface, an art- and artist-focused online publication that I’ve admired for years, would censor me. It was also depressing that the director of a contemporary art fair would be so quick to make such a passionate effort to get a work of art censored—these are the type of people that should know better. Being censored made me think about some larger issues, like whether online publications have a responsibility to defend the writers and artists they publish in the same way print publications do. This kind of support may be another important thing (along with quality investigative reporting, fair salaries, and benefits for content creators) that we're losing as news, information dissemination, images, and writing increasingly go viral.On the flip side, this experience taught me that the internet makes absolute censoring, as in keeping someone from ever accessing certain information, much more difficult (at least in our country), since there is an endless number of places to repost content online. In my case, the fabulous Kathryn Born kindly republished my web-based piece in The Chicago Art Magazine where it received more hits than all the other stories on their site combined during the week it ran. It also inspired them to create a regular column of artist horror stories.
Installation ViewOPP: Your work is unapologetically personal, and you make no bones about the therapeutic aspects of making art. This is an impressive and admirable admission in my opinion, because this is a contentious idea. I've often witnessed compelling work being dismissed outright with the phrases: "it's too personal; it's just art therapy." Why do you think this prejudice exists?SB: I can empathize with the haters. Introspective art can be angsty, heavy-handed and obliviously cliché. And since this type of art is the instinctual place a lot of young artists go for material before they find deeper wells to draw from, there’s a lot of bad art of this nature. Sometimes, I compare this type of art to the “rom-com” genre of film—for every one honest, relatable, and smart When Harry Met Sally, there are 100 cliché, time-sucking Failure to Launches. I think finding and making good introspective art is so difficult, because there are many places to go wrong. First, we all like to think we are more special and unique than we actually are. That’s why I love David Sedaris, Raymond Carver, and David Shrigley. There’s no inflated sense of grandeur with them. They all have an incredible ability to find magic or humor in the banal moments of life. Editorially, it’s difficult to objectively make art in which your life is the material. You have to be completely vulnerable in the beginning in order to flush out raw material. Then, once you’ve got something to work with, you have to turn the emotional part of your brain off in order to neutrally make edits and design decisions that will strengthen and serve a larger, more important concept, which always includes murdering your darlings. In many ways, I feel like this type of art chose me more than I chose it. What I make is honest, and I think even if people don’t like the genre, they can at least connect with or respect that intention.
Photo from Slideshow
2011OPP: Let's talk specifically about your recent piece How to Make a Baby the IVF Way. First published on Slate.com in November 2011, this photo essay with text documents the grueling emotional and physical experience of trying to have a baby despite infertility. How is disseminating work this way different from showing work in a gallery? SB: The internet can be a more appealing artistic venue than a traditional gallery for many reasons. First, it’s obviously less insular. There are fewer people to pander to, more viewers see your work (at the level I’m at anyway), and there’s no one trying to take a 50% cut (even if it’s 50% of $0, which is the case most of the time). I’m not saying I wouldn’t want to have gallery success. That would be amazing. It’s just that that road never really felt like a viable option for me, since I’m not very good at selling myself. I also always knew that I wanted to feel free to make weird stuff that doesn’t hang nicely on a wall. Maybe this excuse is a cop-out, but it’s kept me focused on finding creative venues to disseminate my work rather than feeling helpless and depressed after sending out hundreds of packets that just wind up in a pile that no one looks at. OPP: It was the most read piece on the site the week it was up and there are 313 comments, ranging from thankful to abusive. What's it like to have this kind of sudden visibility and to read these comments?SB: The comments about my Slate IVF piece were pretty fascinating. Nothing about choosing to do IVF feels controversial to me. In making the piece, I was interested in documenting the process of IVF, not debating or defending its validity. I frankly thought our society was past that, but, clearly, the volume of responses to my piece suggests otherwise. Realizing that your sense of reality may be distorted is always disconcerting.The negative comments also reminded me of something I learned in Psych 101: people are more willing to be cruel to a stranger than to someone they know. I see their vitriol as a good reminder that we all need to step away from the computer and television every once in awhile in order to make actual connections with people in the non-virtual world.
Color C- Print
30" x 40"OPP: Are you working on anything in the studio right now? What's next for you?SB: I’m currently collecting stories from people who have moved back in with their parents because of the bad economy. The project’s website is movedbackinwithmom.com and stories or photos can be submitted to Imovedback@gmail.com
I also currently have a piece in an exhibition at The Athenaeum in La Jolla, and I will be in a group exhibition in June at Susan Street Fine Art Gallery in Solana Beach, CA. I am also always on the look out for blogs that would welcome me into their little nook of cyberspace. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org