FAREWELL TO IOWA: THOUGHTS ON SOLITUDE, THE INTERNET, AND LIFE AFTER GRAD SCHOOL

My new studio is housed in a building that was once an elementary school, built after the turn of the 20th century. It sits atop a Grant-Wood-like-hill, gently rolling. Despite the rest of the country’s assumption that the only thing in Iowa is corn, I find it a rather beautiful landscape.  Adjacent to the school is St. Peter’s church. It has a towering white steeple, which is my beacon of light when I can’t remember where to turn. 

This is the new school (built in 1913). The first school was located across the street, where the nuns, Sisters of Humility, first began teaching in Cosgrove. (Image: courtesy of the Cosgrove Institute)

new church at Cosgrove.jpg

I work in the basement. It smells of damp cement and has a surprisingly uniform pattern of mold running along the baseboards. The walls are lined with deep green chalkboards, which are useful for jotting down notes and shopping lists. The sink room could have been pulled out of a horror film and has a small rug that seems to be half way to disintegrating into the dusty floor. The looming fear of radon leaking through the walls is a constant concern, but the cheap rent makes it difficult to complain.

Door in the floor

Door in the floor

Studio-mate correspondence 

Studio-mate correspondence 

At first I found solace in the fact that my work would be produced in the middle of nowhere, seen by almost no one. Privacy would be a pathway to creative freedom. I was looking forward to the relief of not being as visible as I was in graduate school. I could finally make those ugly paintings without feeling bad about it. Yet, the thought of perpetual solitude was as terrifying an idea as working in a constant state of performance.

Marina Abramovic and Agnes Martin tell me that solitude is necessary and should be treasured. But even at Cosgrove, nestled safely in the rolling hills of corn, unleashed happy dogs, and farm stench, I am still in a state of performance. I am nowhere close to substantial isolation. I photograph and display my work online via my personal website and Facebook. Like most, I can’t help but feel the warm fuzzies when my work is “liked,” “pinned,” or commented on with kind words. There is always an audience at the tip of my fingers and it is my choice whether or not I want to use the stage. At the same time it is a safe performance, with the delete key only centimeters away and little to no brutal honesty that was so readily available as a student.

My work is seen more often than not as a JPEG, a pixelated fragment, collapsible on a screen. This digitized version of the work is vulnerable to the viewer behind the keyboard with the ability to disappear into vapor without leaving any tangible trace. On one hand it is a blessing for the artist who is not currently rooted in a metropolitan center of art making and patronage. I am able to communicate across regional and national borders with the click of a mouse. I can share my work with people I have never met and whose eyes are in places I have never been. It is a remarkable condition of the 21st century. On the other hand, my work is among the millions of digital images of paintings, floating in the cyberspace ether of artists, forgotten by most and remembered only as a peripheral blur of color. Perhaps this is what causes the dismal feeling I get in my gut when I think about being an artist.

The Internet has provided artists with a globalized community. On one hand it effortlessly connects us to each other. On the other, it reminds us of the reality of being minute. I imagine as time goes on, we will find better and more efficient ways to navigate the massive digital world or simply fall into pockets that feel as real as localized communities. The classical idea is that a city center is a natural magnet for artistic vibrancy. Perhaps the Internet is globalization’s way of emulating the concentrated razzle-dazzle of The City. The real danger is in allowing the virtual world to override real interaction that requires actual eyes and bodies sitting in front of, around, and engrossed in tangible objects.  My heart would break into pieces if I could no longer see or secretly touch the skin of a real painting.

The other day a student came to me in a fit of panic. Where can I go to sell my paintings? How do I find a gallery? How am I supposed to pay for food and be an artist? Her anxiety was beginning to affect my own blood pressure as I scrambled to find a way to articulate the fact that I had a dozen answers, none of which were likely to be the right one. Perhaps I will think differently when I am wiser and have outgrown the naïve worries of a newborn M.F.A. In the meantime I have been partially supporting myself as a bartender at the American Legion, enabling alcoholism among veterans (and myself) and then as a server at a grungy Thai food restaurant, scraping uneaten curries and pot stickers into the garbage.

I have learned that being a successful student does not lead to an obvious path outside of academia. As an 18-year-old idealist, I ran, with wide-open arms towards the notion of being an artist, and the romance of thinking about big ideas, painting day and night, and meeting people who led interesting lives. I was diving into a life-long sea of uncertainty and heartbreak. Perhaps this romantic vision is exactly what happened. Now, a decade later, the world is different. It changed in ways I wasn’t interested in trying to predict at the time, but now I find impossible to ignore.

I am preparing this year to leave Iowa. Reflecting on my time here, I feel nothing but gratitude for so many things, including lessons learned and the hard fought battles that I endured in the studio. I am convinced that in future years I will think of this place with fondness and longing. Although my paintings have little to do with the Iowa landscape, I can not imagine how I would be doing if it were not for that 25 mile drive to and from my Cosgrove studio, watching the seasons change and basking in much needed solitude.