The Value of Community at TRAC – by Lori Escalera
We all have musings about what artists look like, originating from our deepest heartfelt desires and thoughts. In our imaginations, we conjure, formulate, compute and eventually reduce a distilled idea of what an artist “is.” This does not mean that we possess the real truth of what an artist actually is. Some may hold delusions, imagining themselves as fine artists when they are not; others may defy the hegemony with unorthodox, iconoclastic or outsider qualities – looking like no other artist (Banksy and Rousseau come to mind).
We choose to limit art history to a few celebrity characters pulled out of a milieu and subjectively imagine that they meet an acceptable definition of a “fine artist.” This point is made clear when we are reminded that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” If people cannot agree on what art is, then they surely will not agree on who is worthy of being called a fine artist.
When we imagine a typical artist from our history books, we may conjure up a male Western European Caucasian, a maladjusted, misogynistic, tormented genius figure of a man – with his most magnificent masterpieces housed in the most honored museum repositories.
Yet many of us are distanced from this description of a fine artist. Our external realities alienate us from our own internal identities as an “artist.” We denigrate our own abilities and belittle our own accomplishments because we don’t mirror what we imagine to be true about art and artists. How could a woman of my generation be a real artist when there was only one woman artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, in my 1980 university art history book?
I was not a privileged man, a celebrity of the court, or a protégé of a painter. I did not frequent Bohemian cafes, Tahitian islands, or work for a guild. I was not paired with an artist spouse nor was I commissioned by patrons to decorate parlors.
I kept imagining that being a fine artist was the goal… but the image was foggy.
Is this recognizable as an artist’s life? Over 45 years, I attended two universities: a community college and a commercial art school. I interned and acquired enough art experience to start a graphic design and advertising firm. I did any diverse art thing that came along in the service of creating art and advertising. On an old six-foot drafting table, I was taught hand lettering, typography, signage, silk screening, printing, decorating, marketing, architectural design, color theory, and illustrating. By mid-career I adapted to a digital platform, and at the end of my career I started doing representational art in the street with chalk! In 2006, when I finally committed to following my painting heart, my husband, who was in the United States Marine Corps, unexpectedly walked out on me. So the stable income I had hoped would buoy my painting life disappeared. I had weathered many storms and decided not to turn back. By 2010, I was caring for an aging senile father. By 2012, I was having hip replacement surgeries. By 2016, I was having cataract surgeries and dealing with my son who has mental illness. But through it all, I squeaked out pavement art, traveled and worked, painted, led workshops, did some murals, had my first solo painting show, sold a little work and met my obligations.
The idea of community was something I had to search out.
I met F. Scott Hess and a few other amazing fine artists on the Open Museum Online (OMO). These artists posted process photos of their work and shared their artist selves with everyone. I reached out to John Brosio and Scott Hess, and when they wrote back, I had to pinch myself. My need for community was critical at that point. I was thrilled when Scott said he would help me learn his tempera technique. I attended his retrospectives and his Paternal Suit exhibition in Long Beach, California. I attended the faculty show at LCAD and began meeting the artists I was connected to on Facebook. I met another amazing person, John Seed, who invited me to share my beginnings as a working artist with his college class over Skype. Was I an artist role model in the imaginations of others?
In 2015, I came across the Representational Art Conference (TRAC). I knew I had to be there, and I went to it looking for an arts community. I wanted to say something, so I submitted an abstract, but it was rejected. I felt like it was all wrong and I wasn’t a scholar. However, I realized that I am a thinker. If I am not doing art, I am thinking, ruminating, analyzing and scheming. Six months later I complained about sexism at TRAC, and Michael Pearce suggested I write a paper on gender. I spent a year writing another abstract, which was accepted. At TRAC, I was put in the smallest room. I remember Scott came in and I felt proud. Upon finishing, I walked out of the room and a woman came up to me and said my paper validated her deepest feelings about being a woman artist. I suspected I had found a possible community!
I met my hero Pamela Wilson, who is a fine artist, at TRAC2015. I used to go to Distinction Art Gallery in Escondido to see her work and explain to people what was so phenomenal about it and why it was so important. When I wrote to her on Facebook, heard her speak at TRAC, and saw a room filled with her work, my imaginative understanding of “fine artist” was stirred. She was different from the male artists who drew a larger crowd. I related more to Pam in what is the same – and what is different – about imagining myself as an artist. As I was driving Pam home, I shared my thoughts with her about gender bias. Pam said there is no gender bias. At first, I thought that when her work sells for the same price as her male counterparts, then I will believe that there is no gender bias. But when I began to reflect on what she said, I realized that she has not experienced gender bias. What an inspiration – working around the bias and in spite of it.
It was also exhilarating meeting Joseph Bravo, who sat next to me on the bus at TRAC. He was full of amazing ideas and thoughts. He was willing to talk to me about anything – with no pretense about anything. He offered an unusual capacity of brilliance and had no thought of hoarding his knowledge for some erudite scholar. I was worthy of his conversation because we shared a mutual curiosity in art ideas and he had a generous spirit.
At the end of 2017, I drove to Los Angeles for John Seed’s Poets/Artists exhibit at Arcadia West Gallery. I had such a great time. There was no place on earth I would have rather been. Conor Walton, Serena Potter, and Cynthia Sitton were there for a festive holiday show, along with many others. I questioned why I felt compelled to attend. I was imagining that I was a fake artist and not like these artists, even when the camaraderie and energetic quality was undeniable. I met others who were artists and bared their souls without thought to their vulnerability. A seat at the table in a community of fine artists was being realized – even though I imagined myself unworthy.
I returned to TRAC in Leeuwarden in 2018. I was grateful for the conversations I had with Max Ginsberg, Odd Nerdrum, his son Ode, Peter Trippi, and philosopher Stephen Hicks. I met women artists like Elina Cerla from Spain, Jennifer Sendall and Wendy Childs from England, Esther Leuvenink from the Netherlands, Jantien de Boer, Joke Frima, Gezien Van de Riet, the TRAC conference manager Annelies Meester, and Patty Chehade, a gallery director from Australia. It was very obvious that these women also wanted to discuss their right to a seat at the art table. I established bonds with them very quickly.
I sat down with Virgil Elliott, a man I imagined with a deep artistic depth of knowledge, and asked him about his background. He said, “Oh, you wouldn’t be interested.” He didn’t realize that I wanted to listen to his inspiring challenges and his unusual and brutal experiences. He didn’t realize his personal story was more inspiring than what he could tell me about art history in a lecture. I wondered what he imagines epitomizes an artist?
My sense of a representational art community was now a global emergent inspirational experience. The exposure to amazing people with whom I wanted to share the week and with whom I wanted to discuss deep thoughts was being realized. These artists, historians, and academicians from all over the world were all rolling up their sleeves to offer up their vulnerabilities, their interests, backgrounds, and experiences.
I imagined that somehow they all knew what they were doing was right. I imagined that they knew they were guaranteed success when in reality they knew nothing of the sort. They were just giving it a whirl, taking a chance, filling a void in their lives.
Artists have unique paths, disparate vocations, and different styles, ethos, and experiences. We originate from different backgrounds, educations, environments, and conditions. We have different ideas on what art may be and what art looks like. We have different capabilities and processes. But at the core, we are witnessing the congealing of a collective gestalt rising like a proverbial phoenix from the charcoal ashes. We can come together to exchange ideas, beliefs, thoughts, knowledge, techniques, personalities and politics. We can see ourselves better when we are with those who share an artful existence. We can be inspired to know ourselves better through our identity with the Representational Art Community whose values we share and imagine.
The bottom line is that we can co-exist in this emergent ecosystem soup with TRAC. We mirror ourselves through others, expose our true selves and are challenged in a supportive environment. We reduce our fears as we share our insecurities, pain, loneliness, and suffering which may drive art making. As individuals, we are as unique and unusual as the universe divines, yet a synergy of constructive power is forged when we come together as an emergent art and intellectual community at TRAC.