all photos: Jeff Martin, unless otherwise noted
How to live and sustain a creative life has always been one of those million dollar questions. And while the answer is that there truly is no ONE answer, this week, a book comes out that shares 40 individual artist essays, told in their own words about what that journey looked like for them. The book, edited by Sharon Louden, is called The Artist As A Culture Producer, and it is being released as we speak, just in time for Armory Week (check out events at Strand in NY, and Hirshhorn and Hillyer in DC to engage more).
One of the essays in the collection is by Jayme McLellan, founder of Civilian Art Projects (which is showing work by Jason Gubbiotti at the VOLTA NY, if you are stopping by the fairs this week, and if not the show will open in DC on March 11th) and her story is a two decade long journey that took her all over the world, but always kept her rooted in DC, the place she was born and raised around, and can serve as inspiration to us all about never stopping working on what you love, with people you believe in.
After college, and a brief stint in New Orleans where she pursued her photography, she made her way back to DC in 1996, and she has not left since. In her essay she describes that time:
My first paying jobs in DC were at bars, until I started working at the café at a Borders bookstore downtown. It was through one of these jobs that I met the director of DC Arts Center (DCAC), B. Stanley. He really took me under his wing as a mentor. Trained in theater and a disciple of Alfred Jarry and Antonin Artaud, he taught me much about avant garde theater And what it means to have a dedicated practice to one’s craft.
DCAC is both a theater and a gallery. While volunteering and, later, creating a fundraising position for myself there, I was exposed to multiple genres of art including contemporary visual art, theater, poetry, and more. I also witnessed rehearsals and exhibition installations. I learned about the challenges of working with artists, funding an arts organization, and the physical maintenance needed to keep an old building functioning. The first time I set foot in DCAC, I told B. that I wanted to raise money for the arts center. He said, “great,” and handed me a broom to sweep the floor. But I was persistent and consistent. I showed up when I said I would.
After eventually curating shows at DCAC, Jayme’s next stepping stone was The Tandem Project, was the a huge idea where I’d go to the countries of the former Yugoslavia to meet with artists and curators and bring some of them to DC for a residency and exhibition. It was through this that she met Victoria Reis, then an independent curator herself, and her future partner in co-founding Transformer in 2002. She shares about that time:
“…finding a partner who shared my desire to create a more permanent support system for artists led Victoria and I to create Transformer, a nonprofit arts organization that continues to thrive as an anchor of support for artists. I didn’t know at the time that starting this organization was basically going to put my art career on pause for ten years. I learned that the hard way, but when I look back now, it was worth it. I learned so much about leadership and discipline and navigating personalities.
The story of how we got the space goes something like this: Sarah called me one day, three times, until I picked up the phone. She urged me to call this guy, Mike Benson, who was starting a restaurant, called Café St. Ex, and was giving up his small studio space around the corner from Fusebox. I called him, and Victoria and I immediately met with him to talk about the cost of rent and the nature of the landlord. Rent was only $800 and, after some convincing, Victoria and I both felt comfortable with taking on the responsibility. Worst case scenario, we could wait tables to pay the rent.”
Transformer is still in that space. As time passed Jayme however, felt the need to do something a little different:
“… We worked together until May 2006, when I felt a pull to create my own gallery—one that would exhibit the same group of artists again and again and allow them to grow and experiment. I wanted to help artists create a more stable support base than our programming at Transformer, alone, could do. I felt that developing artists’ careers through solo exhibitions and the many other benefits of commercial gallery representation was the way to do that. And although I never stopped photographing, I was not actively working on growing my career as an artist at this time. I had a lot of energy for the curatorial work, and as long as I was still carrying my camera around, I felt okay about not pushing my own career. It felt right to push that of others. “
Without wasting any time, within six months of leaving Transformer ….
“…I opened Civilian Art Projects as a spaceless and roving gallery project representing ten artists, many of whom are still with the gallery. I had been making my own work, and showing it some, but for the next four years, I would primarily focus on building this nextt- level step for the community of artists around me. I launched the gallery with a small group of painters, photographers, a sculptor, and two very conceptual artists working in a variety of media. Some of the artists I knew well. The others I found by word of mouth or suggestion.
With a line of credit, a credit card, and no business plan, Civilian was born with a group show at the Warehouse Gallery run by the Ruppert Family in December 2006. The exhibition was a huge success, but no artwork sold. I began to see the importance of space to identity. No one knew this was an exhibition designed to encourage Washingtonians to buy the artwork of the artists living and working around them.”
Since then, Civilian Art Projects has occupied three different spaces, including the current location of Hill Country in Penn Quarter, and Jayme speaks candidly about the things one does to “make it work”:…
“The artists I have selected for representation, two of which were represented by Fusebox, each push his or her practice conceptually, or through innovation, or expertise in process. As a fine art photographer, I may have subconsciously selected photographers who are the best at their craft, so that I can learn from them.
Whether it is through painting, photography, experimental technologies, or ideas about activism and challenging power structures realized in a variety of media, the artists I gravitate toward all work incredibly hard. They are articulate and compassionate. I work with nice people, and that is by design. Life is too short to work with jerks.
Civilian has and will always be about doing things for the community. The gallery has supported emerging and established artists through group exhibitions and solo shows. We’ve hosted dozens of talks, poetry readings, dinners, dances, private parties, and more—so much, it’s a blur. I just counted, and I have organized 120 some exhibitions alone! (Plus scores of art happenings, parties, and band nights.) Once, I hosted a 1 am Red Bull and vodka party—bad idea. The gallery was graffiti-ed, and we finally had to throw everyone out at around 4 am.”
“…Despite all of the action, early on, I realized that I should not count on the gallery to sustain me financially. I focused on paying the artists, the bills, and the taxes. If there was anything left over, and there rarely was, that was my paycheck. I needed to take on other projects to make ends meet, including waiting tables at a local restaurant and hosting events in the space in between exhibitions. The events turned out to be decent money-makers and excellent tools to create community, because they brought together diverse audiences and made it look as if the gallery was super dynamic by doing all sorts of things all the time. But they were a lot of work and tore up the space, and I was working way too many hours. Yet, I said yes to all curatorial gigs and anything to do with supporting artists— partly because I wanted to do the work, and partly because I needed the cash.”
In 2007 though, a defining project happened:
“…I teamed up with Lucian Perkins, Lely Constantinople, and Alec MacKaye to put together an exhibition and, eventually, a book about the birth of the DC punk scene. The project, called HARD ART DC 1979, is a labor of love and does not result in high sales or big revenue. But it has allowed me to curate at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, at Good Children Gallery in New Orleans, and Agnes B in Paris.
HARD ART also allowed me to dust off my fundraising cap. We have raised money through a very successful Kickstarter campaign, where we met our goal in 48 hours. We asked and received support from an individual donor. I wrote and secured a Sister Cities grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for $12,000 to take the project to Paris. We sell some of the work sometimes. And we all receive royalties from our amazing publisher, Akashic Books. While we don’t get paid, the funds raised have been enough to keep the project going, and we have been able to travel to some great places. And we have a gorgeous, airtight book. HARD ART and the gallery itself have been my best teachers. Literally, art is hard. No one is going to step in your shoes and do the work for you. Intention and perseverance are key.”
That same year, Civilian Art Projects showed at its first art fairs. When we visited Jayme at the sunny new location in 14th street Heights that Civilian shares with G Fine Art, the preparations for VOLTA are in full swing. In her essay she admits to some lessons learned back then:
“… Super excited, yet way too green, I brought the work of too many artists, and they all wanted to come down and hang out in the booth. I also tried to rehang the booth every day, which was stupid. I didn’t account for the climate change of Florida, and our mounted photography started to bubble at the vernissage. I remember taking a nap in my rented car outside of the fair, wondering why I had punished myself in this way.”
Today, she is much more confident about making it work. More than anything, the confidence in Jason’s work shines through. “It is work that deserves to be seen”.
The past few years were tough on things McLellan loved. Aside from some personal losses and shifts, she was on the forefront of the Save Corcoran movement which despite the passion involved was a battle lost:
“We fought very hard but lost the battle to save the Corcoran. In August 2014, a judge voted to dissolve the institution into the sum of its parts, with the National Gallery taking the majority of the collection and George Washington University taking over the school. Losing that battle was another death. In the years since, I find myself still processing the implications of losing one of the oldest museums in the nation. And as I’m still working there, I feel the transition from an independent institution to a large, research university acutely.”
Simultaneously, the art journey never ended. She was “was aching for a show of her own work. For over ten years, I had been giving all I had to support the work of others, happily doing so most of the time, but I was ready to be as much of a full-time artist as possible. I put together a photographic series and video of primarily new work and called it Jealousy of Clouds. I pitched it to Margaret Heiner of Heiner Contemporary, and she agreed to exhibit the work at her gallery in Georgetown.
That exhibition was where I realized I had to make myself and my work more of a priority. I had been letting the gallery, students, and other artists drive everything.”
And while her essay drops off on a positive note, with her teaching at MICA, showing more work and finding renewed energy in the artists she works with in the gallery, we felt the need to ask some follow up questions that pick up where the book story left off.
BYT: 20+ years in, what keeps you going / keeps you inspired every day?
JM: I probably feel like most people right now. What is happening with the current administration is very alarming and at some points it really threatens my ability to enjoy my life. But we are all alive together, right here, and now. This is a gift. There’s much work to do but part of that work is taking care of yourself. I’m interested in how we take care of ourselves and how we are there for our neighbors. I’m also really interested in better understanding cycles and systems, including swaying of public opinion and the fomenting of fascist tendencies from elected leaders. It’s terrifying, yet very interesting. And artists have a key role to play in resisting the agenda.
Art is political. Supporting, showing artists, trying to sell their work – it is all a political act. And better still, asking others of diverse backgrounds to come together around art in an exhibition, it can get people to think outside of the box which I very much eventually leads to an expanded ability to think critically about the world. Thinking for oneself and not accepting anything handed to you as dogma, happens to most thinking/feeling humans, if properly encouraged.
If I can manage to not get too weighted down in the suffering of the world, the newness of every day keeps me inspired. And of course artwork, what artists are making and doing, folds into this. Although I’ve organized too many exhibitions to count, the next one is always new. It’s the “can’t stand in the same river twice thing.” The day is new, the work is new, the artist’s approach has evolved or I’m working with someone I’ve not yet worked with and that is new.
BYT: who/what are you excited about in the art world right now?
Sam Gilliam – I’m excited about what is happening for his career now – the Venice Biennale, etc. Well and richly deserved. He’s the life partner of my gallery partner, Annie Gawlak. It is both of their success.
Protesting – I’m excited that so many people are becoming active and speaking up against oppression and the weird state of the world right now. I encourage breaks, self-care, and a long-term game plan.
Hirshhorn – I’m excited about what is happening at the Hirshhorn. I adored the Ragnar Knartanson show and now Kusama. I can’t wait to see what they will do next.
Local scene – When I started to work in the DC art community, there were far fewer venues then now. Far fewer people. It was close knit and supportive then, but now it has a wider reach. It used to be you couldn’t have two great events on the same night. There were not enough people to go to both. Now that is not the case and it is great. I strongly encourage anyone reading this to find a few art spaces and artists that you love or connect with and start investing in them. We need you.
Civilian’s programming – I’m super excited about what is coming up: Gubbiotti’s show, our summer show, a fall solo show with Bridget Sue Lambert. And I’m working on two independent curatorial projects: 1) Living On The Land at Salisbury University – a group show featuring DC and NY artists; and 2) a retrospective of veteran photographer Frank DiPerna at the Katzen. And there’s more. There’s always more. That’s what I’m excited about. That one thing leads to another.
BYT: why do this in D.C. and not somewhere else?
DC is a great base. From here one can travel anywhere. There’s someone from every field working here so if you want to reach out in one direction, it’s easy. For example, if I wanted to put together a group exhibition about climate change I could reach out to ten NGOs doing work on the subject internationally.
And, I was born here. My family has been based in DC or the nearby suburbs since the turn of the 20th Century on one side. And on the McLellan side I believe they settled in Baltimore in the 17th Century. I’m from here. My roots are here. My family’s bones are here.
Sure I’ve thought of living elsewhere but even if I do I will still have strong attachments here. My fantasy life in 5-10 years includes my having a place in DC, and perhaps Paris, Venice. But of course I don’t need to own these places. I’m realizing that it is not that important to own physical things. Everything’s going to be undone. Strengthen, nurture, and perfect relationships with those who are mutually minded. That’s what is important.
I’m lucky to find myself in a strong, supportive community. I can reach out in any direction and find someone knowledgeable, helpful, supportive. This is the result of spending a long time in the same place, investing. It is truly like planting seeds because the fruits of labor bear more fruit. I didn’t believe this at first and in fact there’s been many times when I have thought of leaving, but the longer I stay the deeper the roots go. And the happier I am I stuck it out.
BYT: Where do you see Civilian and yourself 5 or 10 years from now?
Doing the same thing – exhibitions, exchanges, traveling, teaching, writing, learning, taking care of myself, helping others when and where I can, hopefully aging gracefully. I guess you could say that my career is a bunch of ideas, strung together, turned into a physical form. This is not an emergency room but I know what I do is important. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to think of something, an idea, a way to educate or perhaps change minds, and then make it a reality through art. That’s a gift.