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“The Art of Work, the Work of Art”

Most of those who make art—painters, sculptors, designers, photographers, printmakers—know that the emphasis in the term “artwork” is on the “work.” We speak of “artworks” more often than “art objects,” and refer to an artist’s cumulative production as a “life’s work.” The distinctive nature of artists’ occupations and the various guises in which labor appears outside the art world are among the issues investigated in the exhibition “The Art of Work, the Work of Art” at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library. The show presents the creations of 15 pairs of artists and “non-arts professionals” who spent the past few months getting to know each other and the nature of each other’s work.

Organized and curated by artists Susan Goldman and Richard Dana and lawyer Lewis Segall, the project is described as an attempt to bridge the boundaries between art and other professions, and to explore the nature of creativity. It includes artists working as photographers, sculptors, painters, and printmakers, as well as non-arts professionals from many fields, among them academia, radio, real estate, public relations, science, and accounting. There’s also a policewoman, a chef, and a computer expert from NASA.

Each artist/non-artist pair met at least three times: once at the artist’s studio, once at the non-artist’s place of work, and once at a neutral site. According to testimony by the participants, not only were mental horizons expanded, but friendships were made. Non-artists speak of a new appreciation for the complexity and challenge of the artist’s life, artists of the creative dimension they discovered in “non-artistic” work. Both groups identified similarities in artist and non-artist concerns.

In addition to enlarging understanding, the project produced objects. Each participant created a “portrait” of their partner, with the non-arts professionals using the characteristic tools of their work. This is probably the biggest conceptual leap in the undertaking—shifting the thinking of workers whose tasks involve process, interpersonal relations, and such intangibles as teaching and policing to the production of objects. For the artists, the portrait is merely a variant of their customary work. For non-artists, object-creation often involved a considerable adjustment in conceptualizing their own work.

At first glance—or even second or third glance—the show is not that interesting to look at. It’s an occasion for thinking rather than sensing. There are certainly strong works by artists Tom Ashcraft, Jason Horowitz, Mara Adamitz Scrupe, David Kohan, Sherman Fleming, and Lynn Flanagan Bowers, but their strength derives not so much from portraiture as from the integrity of the artists’ style. There’s a whimsical charm to Ashcraft’s untitled portrait of accountant J. Michael Eberman (a chair whose two front legs touch the ground and whose two back legs terminate in a rocker), and the balancing act it evokes has enough general relevance to make the portrait universal as well as particular. Scrupe’s sculpture of Joanne “Rocky” Delaplaine uses fluorescent lights as a metaphor for Delaplaine’s dual passions as labor specialist and yoga instructor—it also resonates with broader implications. Kohan’s visual report on NOAA publicist Angela Calos uses layers of lines, image, and words to produce a portrait that is both intimate and forceful.

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What’s most striking about the exhibit, however, is the prevalence of documents as the portrait offerings of the non-arts professionals. They included a credit report, a lab report, a meeting schedule, an all-points bulletin, a psychological interview report, a flow chart, a food pyramid, and a memo. In each case, the document provided a distinctive slant on one aspect of a professional artist’s life. But taken together, they construct a systematically authenticated profile of the contemporary artist, defined in terms more accessible to an increasingly professionalized and compartmentalized society than the intuitive, expressionistic definitions offered by artists themselves.

Accountant Eberman’s credit report on sculptor Ashcraft sets out in flat, analytical language the economic realities of most contemporary artists’ lives. It chronicles the disparities between the costs of materials and the income from objects made from those materials, the unpredictability of an artworkers’ income, the nonliquidity of assets, and the need for large (and expensive) space. The imaginary loan is approved because of the artist’s income from a non-art source (teaching), not because the artist is a good credit risk.

The show’s other documents are more hopeful. Lawyer Adam Kolker’s meeting schedule portrait of artist/activist Joyce Wellman sets out a typical busy day, listing times, objectives, and the background for each scheduled encounter. Delaplaine’s Memorandum, her reflection of sculptor Scrupe, includes excerpts from conversations with the artist that resemble the oral histories available at the Labor Heritage Foundation where Delaplaine works. In it, Scrupe discusses her own life and work with enthusiasm and commitment, incorporating the struggles as part of the appeal of the life. Psychologist Ruby Takushi Chinen’s Interview Report on photographer Grace Taylor gives both biographical data and “behavioral observations,” concluding that “the recurring pattern of difficulty followed by mastery…has taught her to respect and rely on the cyclic nature of her own creative experience.” In each case, the documents concretize the intangibles of the artist’s life in verbal forms that are both apt and unexpected.

The artist’s elusive reality is humorously evoked in D.C. master patrol officer Catherine Taggart-Wilson’s All Points Bulletin, which identifies Kathy Keler as “Most Wanted Artist.” A masterpiece of double entendre, the bulletin includes front and profile portraits of a handcuffed Keler and the warning that “she is known to crush curators with a stroke of a brush, leaving them victims with feelings of guilt” and “her three-dimensional artwork can take you into inner voice commands.”

A combination of text and symbol, the Food Guide Pyramid, Feeding Patricia designed by chef Susan McCreight Lindeborg as a “portrait of creativity” was developed during her collaboration with sculptor Patricia Satterlee. Its base, labeled “raison d’être,” includes clear vision, control, discipline, courage, toughness, high energy, total commitment, and patience. Six to 11 servings are recommended. Intermediate layers include technical skills, support, work permits, and renewal. The pyramid’s apex reads “focus and work—use daily.” In a way, Lindeborg’s pyramid diagrams the implications of Satterlee’s reciprocal portrait—an assemblage of plates on a seatless chair.

Most provocative of all is the three-page flow chart created by Smithsonian anthropologist Vince Wilcox as a portrait of painter Judy Jashinsky. Beginning with background and influences, Wilcox identifies artistic themes, their transformation into products, and their ultimate consequences—labeled “goals,” “audience,” and “reaction.” Jashinsky’s primary audience is the artist herself, her intimate associates, and the general public. The secondary audience is labelled “clients” and the tertiary one the “art world.” Other artists might rank audience—as well as goals and themes—in a different order, but the flow chart provides a clarifying order for the general mushiness of many artists’ own analyses.

Artists have long struggled to integrate themselves into societies whose members have grown increasingly alienated from the distinctive rewards as well as the particular difficulties that accompany an artist’s life. Chief among them is commitment to self-examination and self-expression through the various formal languages of art. The clichés that have grown up around the notion of “artist” are well known to readers of novels and consumers of film and television. The portrait of the artist that emerges in “The Art of Work, the Work of Art” is a salutary corrective to popular stereotypes, demonstrating aspects of artists’ lives both ordinary and unique. These artworks by non-arts professionals function as does the best conceptual art, rearranging the shape of the viewer’s conceptual models with the purportedly neutral tools of systems analysis. They are the most nontraditional—but by no means the least artistic—of the show’s offerings. As a consequence, they are inadvertently the most avant-garde.

The artist’s portraits, by contrast, are more conventional. They employ the techniques and materials of the artists’ respective crafts in typically symbolic ways, moving from the particular to the universal and lifting the non-artists out of a specific professional identity and into an idealized, aesthetic space. After all, that’s what art does. In both cases, artists and non-art professionals gain a larger vision of their identities and potential and offer all viewers a richer understanding of everyone’s “work” as “art.”