The following is an article written by Jen Toledo, a lovely person and art student from Western North Carolina University. She asked to interview me for her Arts and Entertainment column in the student paper the Western Carolinian. I really enjoyed our visit; over a cup of tea in the middle of winter. She’s clearly sharp as a pin (her questions were well thought out and creative) and very curious about how artists do “it.” In this case, the definition of “it” was making a living with your art. We all know that a major in art rarely has marketing and bookkeeping built into the curriculum. It’s a daunting world out there for an freshly graduated art student. (or as Cat Steven’s says “its a wild, wild world”)
I’m a little shy about sharing it with all of you, but I was surprised at how well she captured some of my philosophies. I definitely could not have said it better myself.
The Beauty of Working with One’s Hands and the Challenges of Supporting Your Life as an Artist
Published for the Western Carolinian Vol. 75 Issue 1 February 2009.
By Jennifer C. Toledo
Asheville is a place that many of us know as being a cultural hub, a rare and unique city nestled in the Smokey Mountains where the arts tend to flourish, may it be because of the old Black Mountain College, which brought unfathomable amounts of talent to the area during its time of operation, from John Cage to Robert Rauschenberg to Albert Einstein, or because of the traditional craft culture of the area, or even because of the most basic inspiring energy and natural beauty of the mountains. Annie Fain Liden is a young artist working out of Asheville, who makes her living mostly by selling her hand-made journals and teaching the craft out of her own studio.
Liden is known in the area mostly for her book-making skills, but every skill that goes into making each book is drawn from another source, another set of experiences that allow her to transcend her craft and enter the realm of art. Liden grew up in a family that embraced old-time traditions, from making their own bread to raising their own sheep and knitting their own wool, to making the grandmother’s coffin and burying her themselves. Craft being a huge part of Liden’s family life, she grew up playing the banjo, sewing special dresses for fun and became an apprentice of a local production weaver. She attended the Penland School of Crafts to pursue what she had always felt would be a huge part of her life.
In December of 2008, I had the opportunity to meet with Liden in her studio, a place that is impressive in itself. Liden has been collecting materials and objects over the years, not always knowing why, and stowing them away into folders, boxes and shelves. Her studio is filled with colored papers, old book covers, image clippings and shelves filled with tiny objects such as flowers, shells and old bottles. She offered me tea, and when I took out the tea bag, she had a special box for me to put it in already brimming with the bags. She collects them and incorporates them into her work. She showed me a book with the appropriated tea bag worked into the delicate and intricate cover design. I would have never been able to guess its origin had I not been informed.
The materials that Liden chooses for her books are not merely being used because they are free, or given to her, or found objects or because they are being recycled. She uses them because these objects are part of what makes her feel connected to her environment. They are clues indicating something larger, a certain place in a certain time, evidence of her own personal experience in the world. She picks them up on walks, or uses old paper, or becomes inspired by the colors she saw outside one day and then goes home and puts them all to use. “I’m able to make something when it appears that I have nothing to work with,” she says, in regard to her use of these found objects, “and it influences the look of the book in a way that I don’t have control over. I could go to Wal-mart to the scrap-booking section and try my darndest to make it look like it had not come from there but it still would.”
After looking carefully at Liden’s work, an amazing collection of intricately and thoughtfully designed books, made for all different purposes, from her own personal very simple scrap-paper journal, to more ornate journals with heavy paper, designed to fit perfectly inside an antique lock-box, I asked her whether she considered her work to be an art or a craft. It seems that in today’s postmodern world, the lines are never clear between two definitions, and every day artists manage redefine the meaning of words that for years have had fixed meanings. The modernist debate between art and craft has indeed come to an end, as it is not unusual to see the product of great craft and technical skill magically transformed into art inhabiting the rooms of the Modern Museum of Art, or the Guggenheim, something with a message or a concept that transcends its functionality, or disfunctionality, alone.
Liden is a huge proponent of the craft world, taking pride in her own craftsmanship, and believes that, “these days there is a lot of craft that is also art. There is a lot of art that you wouldn’t call craft and there’s craft that you wouldn’t call art. So, I see it as more of a spectrum in a way. I consider myself to be somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.” She also stated that, “the whole thing with art and craft is that you’re trying to understand your materials so you can manipulate them and get them to do what you want, whether that’s wood or paint or whatever, it doesn’t really want to do what you want a most of the time. That’s why it’s physical, like it’s in your body, so the craft comes from inside your body. You have to know how to manipulate your materials.”
Amongst the many pressures that Liden and other artists face today are the marketing for their products, maintaining the demand for their product, the competition that arises from corporate forms of arts and entertainment and the discipline to stay active in the work they are trying to accomplish. It would be easy for someone to feel as if they are buying a special, personal journal from Barnes and Noble, or Books-a-Million, instead of spending the extra buck to support a local artist. What Liden offers people is the same kind of human comfort that she enjoys when she goes home and eats a slice of home-baked bread, or wears a hat hand-knitted by her mother. “With things that are hand-made, you can feel it. When somebody made something for you it’s by hand and you see a little bit of the impurity. Somebody cared enough to do that for you. It’s just so nourishing and I think it affects everyone in really subtle ways that they don’t even realize. You just feel better, you feel more taken care of by the world. You feel like things are going to be okay. You feel connected.” She hopes that her journals will offer her customers a healthy, enriching, ritualistic experience, a special time for one’s self to be alone and be lost in thought, whether they are recording their mood and what they had for breakfast or writing their most profound ideas on paper.
Liden also maintains that there is a place for mass-produced products in the world, of course, and for digital methods of art-making as well. Though she personally appreciates a more natural aesthetic over the technological aesthetic offered by digitally derived art, and sometimes feels like people are taking the easy way out with digital instead of honing their craft skills, she also says that “it’s perfect for people right in the middle, who aren’t going to be full-blown artists, who just want a fun project.”
When I asked her whether or not she believes it is generally a feasible goal for one to make a living as an artist, she hesitantly said yes, and then gave me some advice. “Is the product something people are going to want? Is the artist willing to deal with marketing and accounting and networking and totally stepping up to the plate?” She advised that every aspiring artist should master certain skills, such as learning how to photograph their own work, manipulate those images digitally for accuracy, maintain telephone skills and be able to think of creative ways of diversifying one’s income venues. Liden doesn’t put all her eggs in one basket. She has several different sources of income including classes offered in her own studio, she sells her journals on Etsy.com, makes books specifically for weddings, sells journals at Nest Organics in downtown Asheville, does personal commissions, has done artist-in-residence programs and also works with a woman who does book restoration. She suggests that the artist branch out from only selling paintings in galleries, or only selling work in shops, but not to stray too far from their talent.
Liden is one of the rare individuals in the world who truly enjoys her way of making a living, incorporating her own life philosophy into her work. She is constantly making her books, often making several at once, listening to books on tape as she tears the paper, cuts the covers and sews the bindings. Her design work requires a more thoughtful, inspired state of mind. If she has a custom order, she listens to the request and allows it to be mulled over subconsciously before getting to work. Then she pulls from her image library and collections a pile of images and materials related to the request and selects from it as she works, allowing her own creative process to take over. As I was looking at some of her books, I mentioned that because of the high quality of craft and the beauty of her product, I personally would feel intimidated to write in one. She replied that she believed it was a good practice to just dig in. “Don’t think that’s the only book you’ll ever have, and that you’ll ever write in. Say to yourself, “I’ll fill it, and then I’ll start another.’ It’s more about keeping that flow, and making, always making, and it doesn’t matter if you like or don’t like it, eventually you’ll just get to this place.”
Many questions are being asked about art in the world today. As technology advances and objects become more and more homogenized and disposable, will hand-made objects become more conceptually valuable and special in the eyes of the consumer, instead of a simple commodity to be bought and sold? Will technology allow the artist freedom to support his or herself independently? Will the role of the artist return from its hiding place of elitism, obscurity and upper-class bidding, to the general person open to appreciate its value? Will artists and craftsmen continue to remember the knowledge of craft and tradition and continue to incorporate it into their work in ways that relate to us today?