Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Interview with Teresa Brazen

Teresa Brazen is an artist who lives in the East Bay. I meet her through work. As most people do when they find out that the person who sits next to them at a computer and goes to business meetings 5 days a week is an artist, I was so impressed. The content of videos deals with inner strength challenges and provides questions and commentary on our society. Her work opens conversations about reflection, which is often overlooked.

And so our conversation begins...

You have a variety of work in your portfolio. Where did it all begin? Where has it been going recently?

I’ve always been into some kind of creative expression or another. I began as a dancer, got into theater for a while, then photography. About 10 years ago I started painting. Video entered my world about five years ago. I find that my tools morph and change; it depends on what I’m exploring and where I am in my life.

A pretty pivotal point in my art making occurred about eight years ago when someone close to me committed suicide. As you can imagine, that experience forced me to do a lot of soul searching, and as a result, I decided to get serious about my work and began to exhibit publicly.

I am especially attracted to your video/film pieces. Do you have a favorite? Were any done as projects for school? Where have you shown them?

Video is my newest love, and that fire just keeps growing. I got into the medium by happenstance; a photographer friend asked me to apply for a public art grant with her.

We proposed a short narrative video called “Gadget Addict”, that explored society’s growing addiction to electronic communication devices. We didn’t think we’d actually get the grant and applied simply for the practice of putting together that kind of documentation.

To our surprise, we got it and suddenly had to figure out how to put together a full-blown video production, complete with actors, script, editors and a crew (which we had to convince to work for free because our budget was so small).

For three months I was completely consumed by that project and the result was a 12 minute piece that was projected onto the side of a 3 story building in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Through that project, I stumbled upon my love for creating moving imagery.

That piece was pretty complex for a first video art project, so thereafter I decided to simplify my process and production, using myself as the subject matter and very simple sets. I liked having that kind of intimacy in my work, and it’s an approach I have stuck to over the last few years as the subject matter of my work has also become more intimate.

More recently, I have been playing with video installation and projection. I’m really interested in creating whole environments that consume. I love walking into a performance or interactive exhibition and losing myself completely in the world the artists are creating; I’d love to be able to create that for others, too.

Focusing on your works around the human body and perceptions of the human body, what in you connects to the subject of personal beauty? I grew up in a community where it was common among females to turn to eating disorders. After seeing watching your piece "Un/Becoming Beautiful," I wanted to send it around to everyone there.

You know, it’s hard to figure out where my fascination with people and our forms began. I suppose it began somewhere within my dancing career.

As a dancer, I spent years learning how to mold my own form into shapes that tell stories. There has certainly been an element of that use of the body in my paintings. For a while, I shot nude photographs of friends and then turned them into paintings. I worked in close collaboration with the models to come up with positions and facial expressions that related very specific, intimate human emotions.

I have always been really fascinated by people, in general. I like them, you know? I know that probably sounds silly, but not everyone genuinely enjoys other human beings. I think a lot of my interest in people has to do with early exposure to different classes, races and cultures.

I was raised in Venezuela in a small village in the jungle; that fact definitely influenced my love of other cultures. I later lived in a lower income black neighborhood while attending a wealthy, primarily white school.

So, I have seen the differences between class and race close-up. I’ve also spent spans of time in Puerto Rico, France and Spain. The lesson that was compounded through each of those experiences is that we are not really so different from one another.

We tend to think we are quite unique, when, in reality, lots of other people share very similar emotions - people, even, who we’d consider nothing like us at all. I’m really interested in talking about those similarities through my work – especially things we feel uncomfortable talking about.

I think if we talk about them, we’ll be surprised to see how many other people feel, think, and do those very same things. I don’t know why our nature seems to be to create division, but I do believe that instinct falls apart when we start talking to each other. I guess my work is my way of having that conversation.

Do you ever feel a pull towards following current trends in the art world? What trends do you see happening right now? How do you keep up with art in the community, country, and world?

Oh, I absolutely feel the pull of the art world. And I’ve also felt the pull of the business of selling art. Partially for that very reason, I made the decision recently not to put pressure on myself to make art sales produce my core income.

For me, it’s important to be nourished and sustained to produce good work. Stressing about the number of pieces I have to sell to pay my rent doesn’t work for me, especially since I’m interested in making more video art, which has almost no market at all. For me, this setup is giving me room to breathe and create.

I know you have spent a/large portion(s) of your life working purely as a professional artist. Can you talk about what you learned, while being committed solely to your artwork. Any advice for others embarking on that route?

Wow...where to begin? You know, the first thing I’d say is that there is no one path. There are so many ways you can do the whole, “I am an artist” thing.

Maybe that means you make work and give it to friends, maybe that means you perform, maybe you go the commercial art route, maybe you sell directly to people at festivals, maybe you pursue the traditional gallery route, maybe you start an arts nonprofit. It’s not like being a doctor where there is a defined path.

I think the most important thing I have learned is that I can’t do it all by myself. If I were to start over, I would find a way to hire someone to handle marketing, sales, and administration at the onset. My success was hampered significantly because I spent too much energy trying to do everything.

I’d also say that if you want to be a “professional” artist, it’s important to understand that it is a business. Anyone considering becoming a working artist needs to be real about that. You have to talk about your work. You also have to let go of your work when it is sold.

It’s so much more than sloshing around paint. For me, that was actually okay because I wouldn’t be happy just sitting in a room painting 7 days a week. I like interacting with people and the diversity of the life of a working artist.

It’s such a squishy, moldable career path...we all have to figure out for ourselves what that will look like.

You write poetry as well. Do you read poetry often? Who do you enjoy?

Words are very special to me. I love language; I love communicating. Sometimes words do that better, sometimes an image says more. I went to school for journalism, so I definitely am deeply rooted in language.

As for favorite writers, my favorite poet would definitely be Nikki Giovanni. I love the simplicity and directness of her words, and I’d say it has certainly influenced my own style. I think her poems come across as stark and real, and for me, they get right inside. She seems so brave and exposed in her writing. I’ve always been drawn to that kind of bravery.

What is something that is forever in your memory? That makes you smile when you think of it.

That’s easy: the first time I swam in the Phosphorescent Bay in Puerto Rico.

I don’t know how much you know about this phenomenon, but apparently there are these little tiny organisms in the water that glow neon yellow wherever there is motion in the water. So, the waves of the boat, the trail of a fish swimming by, or the water stirred around you when you swim is lit up as if you put a giant florescent light bulb under water. Someone told me that those little organisms are dying when they glow, which is sadly beautiful to me. I’m not sure if that is true or not, though.

When I went to the bay, it was nighttime. A group of friends and I took a guided boat into the middle of the bay. There were no city lights, just stars. We jumped out into the dark water, and the water surrounding our group lit up. I could see my toes as I swam because the dark water was so brightly lit . I laid on my back in the warm water, looked up to the sky and thought, I have to remember this. It’s still a very vivid memory, so I did a good job of burning the details in my mind.

Currently, her videos are nominated to be shown at the J Paul Getty museum in LA.
You can vote on them at these sites:
One Tiny Little Secret, 2 min 52 seconds
Un/Becoming Beautiful, 6 minutes

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