Cincinnati Against the World

On a Wednesday evening, in a room above the raucous crowd assembled for Mayday Bar in Northside’s Bingo night, five artists of various ilk (visual artists Britni Bicknaver & Paul Coors, photographer-designer-street artist Floyd Johnson, designer-entrepreneur Rosie Kovacs, and poet Dana Ward) gathered to discuss an issue that has effected them each, directly or indirectly: the issue of “creative drain” in Cincinnati. For several years now Coors and I—both fervent Cincinnati loyalists—have discussed the mythology/stereotype/self-fulfilling prophesy of young creative types (for lack of a better descriptor) leaving their hometown for cities on either coast. By bringing together a tight yet diverse group of local doers and thinkers to talk about their personal decisions to stay in Cincinnati, I hope that it might highlight the converse of that trope.

MSR: Please describe your artistic background, chosen discipline, & current profession.

BB: Since seventh, eighth grade, I knew I wanted to be an artist; went to the Art Academy, graduated in 2005. I primarily studied drawing. My chosen discipline right now is nothing—I don’t even know what that word “profession” means. I’m a barmaid and I am an artist—instinctually; it’s something that happens without me trying.

DW: I went to high school, I didn’t go to college. Since early adolescence, I was always a practicing artist and just extended that practice outward. I consider myself a poet and I am definitely invested in making works out of language but I’m not hyper invested in the boundaries between genres… I’m not sure that I’m invested in the categorical imperatives that inform the idea of having a profession, which to me seem grounded in the idea of making money. The difference between having my life and being an artist is entirely collapsed—it’s just the same thing. I produce these artworks (sometimes by myself and sometimes explicitly with others) nonetheless… that’s just what life is for me, is to make these things.

PC: I would echo what Dana said about the idea of a profession. Art is a philosophical approach to the day to day; it’s a constant in life. I’ve been thinking about this lately on a secular, spiritual level; it’s just how you operate in the day to day. I went to the Art Academy, graduated 2004. I had a great art teacher in high school who was an early influence. I bartend for money, I occasionally show at galleries, and I used to run an art gallery called Publico.

FJ: I went to high school in Mt. Healthy. Then I went to Diamond Oaks for two years and studied Electronics Information Technology. After I graduated high school I found myself in this weird purgatory. I was working at this insurance company for 7 years and I completely hated it; I knew it was not what I really wanted to do. My passion was driven by what I had seen. I learned about photography through artists like William Eggleston and Nan Goldin, so I developed from my own (primarily online) research. I quit my job, moved to Chicago and worked for a gallery there. Now I just work in the kitchen at the Comet. It allows me to be more creative in what I do, as far as traveling and just taking in different peoples’ perspectives & learning from other people. I’m just a doer. Whatever I’m inspired by, I just do it; I don’t want to concentrate on just one specific category, I want to put my hand in every artistic aspect.

RK: I took art in high school, went to DAAP for Design. I learned a lot and am still really affiliated with school. I see myself venturing toward the teacher path, which I didn’t expect. I’m a lot of things right now, I guess you could say designer-entrepreneur, I’d like to be a manufacturer of some sort and do both.

MSR: What does being Cincinnati-based mean in terms of your art praxis?

RW: It’s really easy to do work here because it’s really cheap but there isn’t really the market like what you would expect in a bigger city. So it’s easy to live here and do what you want, but it’s not as easy to make money. At the Brush Factory [Kovac’s high-end clothing/jewelry boutique] you buy products and we just happen to make it. We’re trying to bring back the vertical integration; we just happen to source and make things locally and it all makes sense because we have these available resources around us. Being local is almost like a commodity these days, but that’s the way it always used to be done.

BB: I think being an artist here means the same thing as being an artist in LA or New York or in Europe or Asia. I don’t think it really matters now where you make artwork. I’ve experienced those shows [in New York] where you already think that it should be something fabulous so you do think that… and there isn’t any substance to that; there’s a lot less smoke and mirrors here as opposed to the there.

DW: Geography is just a subset of a sociopolitical ideology, which is market capitalism. I stayed here for the same reason some people go to New York: love and money. I stayed in rejection of the latter and the embracing of the former. The issue of glamour is an interesting one. I think there’s a relationship between administered glamour which you go to a coastal city to receive; it’s put upon you. But here we produce glamour together—it doesn’t have to be this top-down release. Any place is particular; you can’t collapse the specificities of any place into a broader generic scheme but the things that we might assume we’re being deprived of by not living in a coastal city are things I actually think that we’re both cognizant-ly (and not) producing together anyway.

PC: I don’t think I can escape the practicality of living here and being an artist here. I don’t know how I’d be an artist elsewhere because it’s so integrated in my life. With the low rent and low hours —bartending, for example—that allows me to concentrate on the artwork more than I concentrate on the job that affords me the ability to make the art, and then consequently affords me the ability to not rely totally on [local collectors] to buy the work. I’d rather have something in my friend’s apartment because we have a shared dialogue versus a pine box in someone’s warehouse.

FJ: Cincinnati is definitely a gritty city. I get burnt out on seeing the same thing, which makes me want to travel. When I started doing photography about four years ago I started documenting things that I did daily. After I got that film developed, I could see what Cincinnati is from a different perspective. Using Networks like FB & Twitter, it got people thinking about what it was like in Cincinnati. This was a way to shed light on my hometown. Also, I went from working at a Fortune 500 company where you have only 2 weeks of vacation/travel time. Whereas working at the Comet, I can switch shifts and make it happen just like that. I have ample opportunities to leave but there’s just something about Cincinnati that captivates me and makes me think my work here isn’t done.

MSR: Do you find that technology and other forms of communication allow you to be Cincinnati-based, more than previous generations of Cincinnati artists?

DW: Absolutely, unquestionable. The relationship of the internet as a leveling technology and how that relates to anyone’s sense of place; not just in Cincinnati, but anywhere. I don’t think I would make it without technology. I do think that my desperation would have driven me to either coast. While I have this core group of people that are interested in these aesthetic practices, I don’t think without the broader relational context that I have, I don’t think I would’ve been able to maintain that collapse of distance; the ability to be in contact daily with such rapidity and such ease from people all over the country, has allowed me to stay here.

PC: Yeah, not only what you can learn about through the internet but also what you can put out there. I think it’s THE inherent quality of being an artist of any kind, is that you have to have people see your work. The only reason to make art is to relate to other human beings. Facebook and Twitter make that absolutely possible. Our childhoods were all devoid of the internet which I think is interesting too…The reason that I make artwork is that it’s a form of communication. If I’m not talking about how I live to other people then I can’t figure out how to get through the next minute.

BB: In the past, I felt like I had to eventually move to [New York] city because 1) people here expected me to, and 2) I had to almost prove myself to that art world in another city. It was always about these other people above me, who I had to impress and by whom eventually I had to be accepted. As I’ve gotten older & really critically analyze the art world, the less I wanted to be a part of it. I felt like there wasn’t a reason to meet these people anymore.

FJ: I’ve learned a lot through the internet. When I was studying William Eggleston (who was one of the first photographers I learned about) it was by just doing online research. I didn’t take any art classes or photography, 1) because I couldn’t afford it, and 2) because I never thought college was really necessary to learn about your passion. I just wanted to produce my perspective.

MSR: Who are some local people, organizations, or businesses that are doing good things to empower Cincinnati artists?

DW: The virtue of ArtWorks can’t be denied within the framework you’ve defined…

PC: …or Visionaries + Voices but those are pretty specific groups they’re advocating. I like U-turn and Brighton in general. Semantics, Clay Street Press, Aisle Gallery… I always tell people from out of town that we have the same cultural outlets that people have in coastal cities; it’s just proportionally smaller.

DW: I love going to Country Club or the CAC but it’s complicated. There are tons of places here that are putting on culture that I love—even if my relationship to that culture is complicated. Advocacy for arts inside of a capitalized system already looks positive because you’re giving artists resources to produce their work inside of a system which you’re validating by giving them capital. Financial advocacy is admirable but you might ask the larger question in relation to critique, and say who is doing the most to degenerate the relationship between the artist and market capitalism.

BK: Bunk Spot at the Mockbee, CS13, Museum Gallery / Gallery Museum… UC too because I get interns and the interns create a mini collection and they get school credit for cooping. Red Tree Gallery is a thriving center for the Oakley community and area businesses. Brazee is right around the corner, and there’s also a new ‘sewing lounge’ business nearby called Sown.

FJ: OTR & YES galleries down on Main street helped open some doors for me and they definitely help me push my product out to a broader market. Christian Strike opens up a way for different artists to get recognition and I think that’s a beautiful thing.

BB: I think there are lots of great places to look at art in the city. I think that the Art Museum, Taft, and the CAC, are all great. I think high school art teachers might have the most significant impact on artists in terms of the hope that they can impart in their students. And they don’t necessarily give you any reasons why NOT to be an artist, even though there are TONS of real life reasons not to be an artist.

We talked more about business practices versus purely aesthetic pursuits, and how socio-cultural circumstances enabled each to make life/work decisions that ultimately also effected their artistic praxis. True to poet Ward’s words, validation seems to come in the form of either/or “love and money” for each, but the compulsion to create something in Cincinnati was universal. They did not choose to work in Cincinnati because other options were unavailable, but because living in Cincinnati is essential to their artistic production.

The critical rejection of traditional art centers (both geographical and philosophical) requires a degree of strong-headedness but also engenders an innate humility that comes from being consistently underestimated. Throughout the nearly three-hour dialogue with the area artists gathered, I was reminded of something artist Matt Morris (Cincinnati-based but originally from Louisiana) said to me in a recent interview, “I’ve been surprised at how generous Cincinnati can be out of its own neediness. There is so much accessible as long as you’re willing to care and put in as well.”

At the time, Morris’ choice of the word “neediness” caught me off guard. But I began to realize that to the unfamiliar observer, the collective critique of the artists assembled might come off as self-denigrating. It is realistic to acknowledge the old-fashioned notion that artists must congregate in one city for the purposes of “becoming an Artist”; however, when that trope becomes irrelevant, a post-structuralist negation of what that entails, is a natural consequent. Bicknaver put it best perhaps when she said, “once I cut out the validation that I wanted as a young artist, Cincinnati became a perfect place to be an artist—a utopia almost for making art.”

– Maria Seda-Reeder



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