Written as a Special to The Documentary Life Blog. Interview with writer, sculptor, arts curator, friend, founder of Artists Resist and Art Passport PDX, Jennifer Rabin.
Now, we’ve known one another, what… 14 or 15 years now? When we first met, I knew you as a writer. And unlike so many other “writers” here in Portland, Oregon, you were unique in that you were actually published in more than your college newspaper. If memory serves correct, you were writing non-fiction for some online and paper publications. I’m not sure if you remember this, but you wrote on my first 48 Hour Film Fest excursion. A short film called ‘Road Kill’. Remember that badassness?!
Yeah, we met in 2003, I think. You were the first person I dated when I moved to Portland, which lasted about five minutes. Huge mistake. No…I’m kidding. It led to a very long-lived friendship and some wonderful collaborations.
When we met, I was writing for a couple of the local weeklies and had been published in a couple of national magazines. But I was very much just starting out in my writing life and career. And yes, I remember Road Kill. It haunts my nightmares.
Since then, you spent a number of years writing in a pretty expansive memoir, including stints at workshops and various artist residencies. Can you tell us about some of the residencies and how they benefitted your writing? What sort of people does one meet whilst at retreats and/or residencies? What’s best piece of advice you can give an artist who might be applying for an artist residency?
The residencies haven’t benefitted my writing as much as they’ve benefitted my identity as a creative person. I remember the first one I was accepted to—it’s this impossibly beautiful place in Wyoming—and there were six of us: four visual artists and two writers. They were all a lot farther along in their creative practices than I was, but I remember feeling recognized as an artist for the first time in my life. Not just someone who sat around her apartment writing in her pajamas, but an actual artist. That was monumental for me.
You meet all sorts of people at residencies, but I have always gravitated more to the visual artists because, as a species, their work is much more of a source of joy for them. My outlook on life and art has always been more in line with that of the visual artists, and I never really understood why until I learned, much more recently, that I’ve been a (closeted) visual artist all along.
So, again, I knew you for a long time as a writer. Then somewhere along the way – and I do believe it was during a time when we weren’t in much contact – your artistic interests began to expand. Substantially! Tell me how the expansion happened, and what forms your art took.
As I was working on the final draft of a memoir I’d spent 5 solid years writing, it occurred to me that I had no idea what I was going to do when it was finished. So I thought I would take a sculpture class, which was absolutely insane because I was 36-years-old at the time and I’d never done anything with my hands other than type words on a keyboard. But there was something deep inside me that wanted to do it. And because I had fulfilled the promise to myself of finishing the book, I felt I had earned the right to fail at something. If it was a terrible disaster, no one would be looking. So I signed up for two classes. And then another two. And I remember one day thinking, “Wow, I finally get myself.” Making visual art was the final puzzle piece that allowed everything about who I am to click into place.
I just read that Ava DuVernay didn’t pick up a camera until she was 33. Louise Bourgeois didn’t have her first show until she was 40. I’m not comparing myself to these artists, but the notion that life has to have a certain timeline is completely absurd. It’s funny to be considered an “emerging artist” at the age of 40, but it’s also wonderful. I hear from so many people that as they get older their life possibilities get narrower and narrower. As I’ve gotten older the plane of possibility has gotten more and more vast. I have no idea where my life and my creative practices will take me. It’s terrifying and marvelous.
Is writing still a part of your life? Dreams? If so, how is writing and some of these other art forms that you’ve embraced connected? (And who knows, maybe it’s not.)
Writing is a daily part of my life. I’m trying to get my second book finished, although it’s taking me longer than anticipated because I now have weekly deadlines as an arts writer, which consume most of my writing brain.
Within the last year or so you’ve become an arts writer (for Portland’s weekly newspaper the Willamette Week, Oregon Arts Watch, Visual Art Source, Hyperallergic). Tell us about how this has really seemed to integrate you with the artist community. What are your hopes/goals with this work?
The best thing about it is that I’m surrounded by creative people all the time— people who are either artists themselves or who work on behalf of artists—and all of them care so much about what they do. Creative people are my favorite kind of people and I sometimes have to pinch myself that I have so many of them in my life.
I do not consider myself a critic or a reporter or a journalist, which is a distinction I have to make frequently. I am a writer who writes about art with the very specific aim of getting more people to engage with it and feel welcomed by it, to have their perspectives blown open a bit. It’s one of the reasons I don’t write negative reviews. I dedicate my column inches to introducing readers to what I consider to be the most successful shows that will have the greatest chance of reaching, and possibly moving, them. I choose not to spend time on the shows that don’t work, because in a city where engagement in the arts is frighteningly low, I don’t think that is the best use of my platform. My only goal is to be a champion for the arts and for artists and to help people see how the arts pertain to all of our lives.
So, recently, you reached out to me to do a video for the Artists Resist project. Tell my listeners about the project… how/where/why it began. What your hopes are with it?
When it looked like Hillary Clinton was going to be the president I sent her a message about arts funding. The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is $148 million dollars, which is 46¢ per person. I wanted her to raise it to $1 per person, which seems like an absolute pittance but, still, it would more than double the national arts budget for what amounts to the cost of a pack of gum from each one of us. When the Trump administration came into power and announced their plans to completely defund the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), I was beside myself. The arts and humanities are a huge part of what defines us as a nation. I mean, can you imagine America without Maya Angelou, James Brown, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Twyla Tharp, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Maya Lin, Patti Smith, James Baldwin, Jackson Pollock, Félix González-Torres, Barbara Kruger?
I can’t imagine, nor do I want to live in, an America that doesn’t value art and humanities. So I decided I needed to do something.
There is so much to be up-in-arms about right now; I’m losing sleep about all of it. And I understand how the arts are getting lost in the shuffle when we’re dealing with issues like healthcare and civil rights and families being separated by deportation and black and brown people being shot in the street and young trans kids being denied access to bathrooms and swastikas being scrawled all over the place. I understand how the arts can seem less important compared to these other life-and-death issues. But for me the arts and humanities are life and death. On a personal note, art has quite literally saved my life. I don’t mean that in a cute or hyperbolic or philosophical way. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the artists whose work got me out of a very dark time. And broadening the circle, we know that any society without a thriving arts culture is doomed. Chris, while you were shooting Elvis of Cambodia, you were the one who educated me about the fact that Pol Pot began his genocide, very intentionally, by killing off all of the artists. Because once you lose art and culture, there is nothing worth saving. So I am devoting myself to fighting for them.
I decided to start a viral campaign called Artists Resist that would gather artists from every discipline—writers, dancers, filmmakers, sculptors, you name it—to talk about why the arts are essential to our culture. The reason people scoff at spending even 46¢ of their hard-earned money on art is because so many people in our country think of it as an inessential luxury, something hanging on the wall in a big white box somewhere. Even though that’s only the tiniest fraction of what art is, it has come to represent All Of Art in many people’s minds.
Art, at its best, acts as a mirror for our greatest achievements and our greatest failures. It records our history, tells our stories, reflects our experiences of being human. This is not a partisan issue. Art is an expression of who we are, no matter the color of our skin, our gender, our sexual identity, our religion, our age, size, shape, or who we voted for.
As a country, we used to value arts and culture. President Kennedy once said, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.” It is my mission to help bring an understanding of the value of art back into the American consciousness.
It’s fairly obvious to most of my listeners – many of them, of course, are documentary filmmakers – but please, why should it be important to them to support funding for organizations like National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)?
Together the NEA and NEH give grants to individual artists for the production of film, theater, literature, dance, visual art—you name it—but the funding also goes to support museums, libraries, archives, public radio and television, arts education, and community art projects. The scope of these agencies is very wide. Protecting them, though, isn’t just about protecting the money that will go off to all of these deserving artists and organizations; it’s also about protecting the value of the arts and humanities in our country.
As documentary filmmakers, artists themselves, how can my #doclifers get involved with the project? Should they be making videos? Should they be telling and sharing artists stories? How can they be motivating their audiences to help out?
In some ways, you are in the best position to make a difference, because film is one of the most powerful and accessible mediums. What you do reaches people in a way that sculpture or writing or dance never will. There are so many things you can do to get involved:
Make your own Artists Resist video about why the arts matter to you and then send it to us (Insert url page that tells how to do that). Spread the word.
Call your senators and your representatives. Tell them to protect the NEA and the NEH and to do everything in their power to reject plans to defund, privatize, or limit them in size or scope.
But perhaps the most important thing you can do is to use your abilities as documentary filmmakers to influence our culture. Make films about women, about black and brown and queer and underrepresented people who are doing extraordinary things. Use your talents to round out the human narrative by showing us stories that we wouldn’t otherwise get to see. That is the greatest gift you can possible give to the rest of us.
Any final thoughts? Do you see any reason/need for a sequel to ‘Road Kill’? What would it be called?
I can’t believe the viewing public has made it this long without a sequel, honestly. How about “Road Kill 2: This Time It’s Personal”?