Friday, October 2, 2009

All Art Friday Special Edition: Artist Interview

  An All Art Friday Special Edition
Interview With Artist Jennifer Kassing-Bradley 
     You teach to pay the bills and you paint to feed your soul.

      Today marks the appearance of the first All Art Friday Artist Interview. In coming weeks, I'll be posting  my interviews with Thai silk painter Nuch Owen, muralist and acrylic artist Judith Olivia HeartSong, and writer and poet Glynn Young
      I met watercolorist and oil painter Jennifer Kassing-Bradley virtually, by e-mail, in mid-2007, when I was starting a new art licensing business, Transformational Threads, and spending a lot of  time looking at art to identify work that would best lend itself to reproduction in custom hand-embroidery. I found the Internet to be a wonderful tool as I searched.     
      One of the sites I visited was shopSCAD, the online purveyor of art by the many talented students and graduates of the internationally renowned Savannah College of Art and Design. That site was where I found Jennifer. 

      After a bit of research, I linked back to Jennifer's own Website, where I discovered a series of floral paintings and watercolors that I knew would look beautiful in thread. I sent Jennifer an e-mail, and, in a very short time, signed her as my first Transformational Threads artist. (Click here to view the lovely thread paintings based on selected licensed images of Jennifer's oils and watercolors.)
      Jennifer lives on St. Helena Island in South Carolina and last week took time from her busy schedule −  she was moving her art supply store, Coastal Art Supply, to a new location − to answer my questions. She offers perspective on both the artistic and business sides of making and selling art. 
      Maureen Doallas: When did you begin painting, Jennifer?

      Jennifer Kassing-Bradley: I began painting in earnest when I was 17 years old. I sold my first painting at 18, in a gallery on James Island near Charleston [S.C.]. My art teacher, at that point, encouraged me to go  to art school. 

      MD: Did you always imagine yourself a painter? What, if anything, influenced you to become a professional artist? 

      JKB: That's a very interesting question. I really participated in every other aspect of the arts, besides painting, while growing up. Dance and music were very important to me. My mother enrolled me in the Junior Docent Program at Columbia Museum of Art. I saw the works of the Old Masters, as well as traveling exhibitions of Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. That was the first time I remember thinking about being a painter. 

      MD: How would you characterize your style? 
      JKB: I am a representation artist that uses color to influence the mood of the work I create. 

      MD: What are your sources of reference and inspiration? 
      JKB: I am influenced by the macro and micro views of the landscape around me. [What I see] can take the form of the factories looming across the Savannah River, untouched and undeveloped vast expanses of marshland, or an intimate view of flora. 

      MD: You work in watercolor and oil. Do you find that you favor one medium over the other? Work in both equally as much? What can you achieve with one that you cannot with another? 

      JKB: I am asked that question more than any other. I don't prefer one over the other. For me, it is about the style or mood I hope to create: this is the deciding factor in my choice of medium.
      I find that switching from oil to watercolor helps me greatly improve as an artist. In watercolor, you work from light to dark, and in oil you work from dark to light.

      I feel that having to switch from watercolor to oil helps me find or see the mid-tone values a lot more easily. 
      When I start to become formulaic in either medium, I switch back to the other to break away from the issues that may be holding me back. When I turn back to a medium, my work becomes stronger. 

      I do tend to work evenly in both [mediums], with the exception of last year, when, because of my busy teaching schedule at the college and [activities associated with] opening the art store, I mainly worked in watercolor, because of the quickness of that medium. My oil paintings are labor-intensive, taking up to six weeks to complete, whereas my watercolors take about an hour or two each. 

      MD: You have a Master of Fine Arts in Painting from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), an institution with an esteemed international reputation. How did you come to choose SCAD for undergraduate and then graduate study? 

      JKB: I was accepted at the College of Charleston [S.C.] and planned on going there. When I moved to Charleston, I realized there were very few hours in the studio associated with the college's degree program, and I needed as many as I could get. I did not have a strong background in drawing or painting, so I knew I was going to need more than [College of Charleston] could offer me. I started taking private classes from a gallery on James Island. My teacher thought very highly of me, and she encouraged me to go to SCAD. After I sold my first painting, I knew I had to go to art school.

      I went down [to SCAD] for a weekend tour of the college, had my portfolio reviewed, and even met some instructors. I knew it was the place for me! I started at SCAD that fall and, by December of that year, I had my work in the Exhibit A Gallery (what now is shopSCAD) and was very successful there. After a wonderful experience as an undergrad and [after] being awarded the "Outstanding Achievement in Painting," I thought SCAD felt like my home. Also, having been awarded a graduate painting studio as an undergrad, I wasn't quite ready to give up my studio on the Savannah River.

      MD: What did you most like about attending SCAD?
      JKB: The college itself! It really is the whole package. Its program of study is phenomenal. SCAD, with its programs and professors, transforms you into an artist. It promoted my work and took it to places like Atlanta and even Lacoste, France. SCAD can offer students the world − and deliver. 

      MD: How has your higher education benefit you professionally as an artist? 

      JKB: In today's art world, you really need a higher degree to be competitive. There are tons of students graduating every year from liberal arts schools. So, to be competitive, you really do need the terminal degree in your field. In painting, that happens to be the M.F.A. I also was very realistic and knew that only the top 10% of artists gross more than $2,000 a year. With odds like that, you need a way of producing an income while working as an artist (not to mention, you just can't live off of that). So, I always wanted to teach at the college level and was going to need the M.F.A. credentials to do so. 

      I also believe it lends credibility and value to your work when a buyer knows the artist has an M.F.A. Traditionally speaking, the work should hold its value over the long term when it is associated with an artist who holds a higher degree. 
      MD: You also teach, as you've noted. What advice or encouraging words do you offer your students who aspire to be artists? 

      JKB: I encourage all of them to follow their dreams. I do tell them to be realistic and that with hard work, they can be successful. I really encourage them to attend art schools over liberal arts schools but, more important, to find the program that fits their needs. (For instance, graphic designers are in greater demand than, let's say, painters.) 

      My favorite part of teaching is finding out how [my students] do after they leave me! I love getting e-mails about what they are up to and what shows and galleries they are involved with. Knowing that I made a difference in their lives is the best part of being an instructor. 

      MD: Does your teaching allow you sufficient time to also paint as much as you wish? 

      JKB: As artists, we always have excuses for why we can't do our work. Either our studios are too small or non-existent, or we are too busy, broke, or have no time. These really are just excuses. I do wish I had more time to devote to painting right now. Once I cleaned my house top to bottom to stall from having to paint. I do have to "be in the mood" but it does mean I have to wait for the mood to strike. You just have to paint. It's a trade-off: You teach to pay the bills and you paint to feed your soul. 

      MD: I know you accept commissions. The pros of doing this obviously include keeping food on the table. What are some negatives? 

      JKB: In a tough economy, [taking commissions] is a great way to keep sales coming in. The drawbacks are huge. You do slightly have to compromise your own work to make the client(s) happy. For instance, I had a client who brought wash cloths and wallpaper samples for me to match the colors and include them in a piece of art. [Having to do something like] this can hinder some artists' artistic process. 
     Also, if you're not careful, you end up putting in way more hours on a commission than on a piece that is truly your own. One way I have found to help prevent this is to ask for all material costs up front and make those non-refundable. Then, I complete a plan or thumbnail sketch and get it approved by the client before I begin the real work. At that point, I ask for half the remaining balance, which is also non-refundable. I collect the remainder of the balance when I deliver the work to the client. This [approach] usually stops anyone who is not really interested or "difficult" clients, because they won't put money out up front, if they are going to flake out. It also ensures that I am paid for my time along the way; if a client decides to cancel the commission, I have been compensated for my time. 

      MD: I have met many artists who create extraordinary work but have no grasp of how to make a living from what they do. How do you personally market yourself as an artist? 

      JKB: This is the hardest part. You just have to keep putting yourself out there. You will hear "No" way more often than you will ever hear "Yes." I tend to rely on SCAD in terms of how I market myself. SCAD has a great reputation, and it helps to be associated with an institution of such high quality. You always want to find your niche and how your work relates to a certain area. As artists, our work is ever-changing. A wise professor once  told me, "Follow the thread from one body of work to the next." This holds true for marketing also. You don't have to completely change your work to fit into a market but you can always follow a thread and see what happens. 

      MD: How, if at all, does your presence on FaceBook facilitate the exhibition or sale of your art? 

      JKB: FaceBook and the online revolution [in social media] just give artists another way of being visible. The more you're out there, the better your chances are of being picked up or "discovered" by a gallery. ShopSCAD has started a Twitter page, and Amy Zurcher [director of shopSCAD] says she even gets sales off of her Twitter page. I think we are just starting to see what the Internet can do for artists and galleries alike.

      Having a Website is another great resource for an artist. You would be surprised how many e-mails one Website can generate. FaceBook also helps artists stay in touch with one another. I was  really missing the excellent critique sessions we had at SCAD. Other artists giving you feedback, when they know your work and know your ideas as an artist, can be an invaluable part of the evolution of your artwork. I enjoy posting my new work [on FaceBook] and hearing back from friends. [FaceBook] gives me responses to the artwork much faster than before. 

      MD: What would you describe as your "lucky break" as an artist? 
      JKB: I would say it really has to do with SCAD. My first year, I was in two juried exhibitions and I never slowed down. You have to work had to get noticed. I would say my "break" came when the Savannah Morning News used one of my paintings for the cover of its art section. It was a huge full-color image for the "RED on RED" exhibition at the Red Gallery at SCAD. The article said I had painted a massive, almost obscene, hibiscus. After that newspaper article, people seemed to know my work. So, getting press is a great way to get a "lucky break." 

      MD: Jennifer, thank you for taking the time for this interview. It has been a pleasure to learn more about you and to hear your thoughts on being an artist. 

      Jennifer's watercolors range from $80 unframed to up to $400 for large commissions. Her oils start at $400 for a 15.5" x 19.5" piece and go up to $2,400 to $3,600 for a 4' x 5' or 4' x 6' painting. 

      Each limited-edition hand-embroidered thread painting based on Jennifer's licensed images of orchids is $175. Jennifer receives a negotiated percentage of net sales per piece sold − a new stream of income. 
     Copyright 2009 Maureen E. Doallas. All Rights Reserved.


L.L. Barkat said...

I loved this bit of wisdom...

"Follow the thread from one body of work to the next."

In a way, I think that's what I do with my writing.

Anonymous said...

a fantastic thing to do! loved it.