Visual artists, take heed! The latest podcast features international artist and longtime educator, Jenifer Wofford! If you’re local to San Francisco, you may have recognized her work gracing the Market Street kiosk posters, or you may know her also as a member of the renowned Mail Order Brides art collective. Of the many gems that she offers in this episode, Jenifer shines light on:
- The importance of artist adaptability; Curating your income streams
- The secret advantages of the privileged in the art world
- The concrete benefit of pursuing professional development (PD) and mentorship
- Enjoying art outside of your own genre to keep your eyes fresh
- And being “googleable”
“The ongoing crisis that happens in art departments, in our art programs, in art schools is that while they still do an excellent job of training young people how to make strong work, they do an absolutely appalling job of training them in how to get that work shared with other people and how to feel unconflicted about it.”
-Jenifer K. Wofford
- Creative Capital
- Center for Cultural Innovation
- The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape the 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich (book) by Tim Ferris
- Johanna Poethig
Jenifer Wofford’s websites:
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Anthem: Today we have a new guest that is Jenifer K. Wofford. She is a Filipina-American artist/educator based in the San Francisco Bay area. She was born in San Francisco and raised Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia. She received her BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and her MFA from UC Berkeley. She has work that has exhibited in the Bay area at the Berkley Art Museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Southern Exposure, Richmond Arts Center, and Kearny Street Workshop. Nationally at New Image Art in Los Angeles, Nora Eccles Harrison Museum in Salt Lake City; thirtynine hotel in Honolulu; and internationally at Future Prospects in the Philippines, Galerie Blanche, France and Osage Gallery Kwun Tong in Hong Kong.
She is also 1/3 of artists trio Mail Order Brides a.k.a., MOB. They have collaborated on a variety of works for venues including the De Young Museum, Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Southern Exposure, The National Asian American Film Festival, the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and the McColl Center for Visual Art.
Wofford has worked in arts education for over a decade with schools and organizations including the University of San Francisco, UC Berkley, California College of the Arts, Diablo Valley College, SFMoMA, Casa De Los Jovenes, Leadership High School, First Graduate, City Arts and Tech High School, and Out Of Site.
Her awards include the Eureka Fellowship, the Murphy Fellowship, and grants from the Art Matters Foundation, UCIRA, and the Pacific Rim Research Program. She has also undertaken artist residencies at The Living Room, Philippines, Solyst Artist in Residence Center, Denmark, and Chateau de la Napoule in France. Wofford was also honored with a 2007 “Goldie” Award from the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
Jenifer, thank you so much for being here.
Jenifer Wofford: Hi Anthem.
Anthem: Awesome. So we have a lot to talk about and maybe we should begin with that given your very extensive biography, there’s no way that you sat at home waiting for the phone to ring to have these opportunities thrown at you. So what can you say about your hustle and how you caught up this type of velocity in your career?
the benefits of being part of a community
Jenifer Wofford: Oh boy. Well I think it’s a couple things. Partly it’s that I’m a long-term member of the Bay Area Art Community. And sometimes hustle just happens when you stick around long enough to see the benefits of being part of a community. I think that is one thing that a lot of young people or just artists who are new to town kind of don’t quite gauge right off the bat which is that you don’t get something from a community unless you’re participating in it. And so some of this just honestly has happened by default because I’ve been around for so long. People are like, “Lets get Wofford to do that. She’s been around, she’ll do anything.” So there’s part of it which honestly is a slightly more passive version of hustle. But it’s still there because I’ve been around and I’ve been doing stuff.
Anthem: But they got to do something because they knew your work. It wasn’t that you were hiding out in your studio and then they called you.
Jenifer Wofford: No, no, no. But I would say in the past ten years, I definitely started making much more concerted efforts to sort of hustle, yeah, as you put it. And more proactively apply for things. Well actually, just learn how to apply for things first of all whether that’s residency programs, I’ve done a lot of those, maybe more than other artists, you know for grants, for exhibitions, and it’s just been sort of a slow process of accumulation with those as well.
Anthem: Right. And I appreciate you calling it a slow process because everything has to be learned at some point. What are some, I don’t know, maybe resources or opportunities that you were able to capitalize on to learn these skills?
Jenifer Wofford: Well some of it was just fumbling and figuring out the hard way which is just simply going ahead and mildly, cluelessly going ahead and applying for the thing I didn’t know how to apply for just to apply for it. And that is accumulative as well. If I go back and look at some of some of the first applications I put out for residency programs and I’m like, oh my god, I’m just going to hang my head in shame. But that’s okay because you know what, you look at that, you revise the text you wrote for that first application, it appears in some other form in the next application, it gets better, it gets more concise. And so part of it was just like slow sort of learning the hard way on my own. But I think a significant turning point for me was doing a professional development weekend workshop through the Creative Capital organization back in 2007, no 2006 where it just felt like this massive, massive information download was given to a small group of artists, and visual and performing artists. We just basically learned. The process of applying for grants was demystified. The idea of actually managing our money, and actually being proactive in our careers was sort of demystified as well. The sense of shame about self-promotion was removed, the veils were lifted from our eyes. And I think for me that was an incredibly pivotal moment.
Anthem: What was the name of that class, do you remember?
Jenifer Wofford: It was just, it was the Creative Capital Professional Development Program. It’s, unfortunately it’s not very accessible in the sense that you do have to be nominated for that. And so only a handful of people get to do it every year and I was one of the lucky chosen few. But even that and like I said earlier one aspect about being around the Bay Area for a while you sort of get put in the mix for things.
Anthem: Right. And then how does one get nominated?
Jenifer Wofford: Apparently you just stand around long enough for people to notice. I’m not sure. I think there must be some aspect of the organizations that do the nominations must see that you could benefit from, you know you seem like you’d actually respond to professional development. Because a lot of creatives are not ready for professional development. They still are contending with other things in their practice. So I guess I must have seemed like I was at a point where it would be good to nominate me for that. I will say though while the Creative Capital Program is you know sadly not that available to everyone, I think they’re trying to make versions of it that might be more accessible. And obviously what you’re doing is part of that as well. The Center for Cultural Innovation which I think is, are they based in LA?
Anthem: They are based in LA. They have an office up here as well. And —
Jenifer Wofford: Okay. But they’ve been running for visual artists I think primarily. I think they’ve been running Professional Development Workshops. I went to one of theirs a couple years ago. So I feel like they’re doing what they can to make sort of access affordable in terms of access to professional development available.
Anthem: Yes, truly. So while we’re talking about sort of career and professional things, are there common mistakes or misconceptions that you see newer, younger artists making today that you could help them avoid knowing what you know now?
just look at self promotion as an absolutely integral part of the deal
Jenifer Wofford: Oh geez, I think we all have to fumble through some of that, I just think that’s part of the game that you figuring out how to like you know color inside the lines or whatever it is that you’re supposed to be doing as an artist. But I do feel like the ongoing crisis that happens in art departments and our art programs in art schools is that while I think they still do an excellent job of training young people how to make strong work, they do an absolutely appalling job of training them in like how to get that work shared with other people, and how to feel unconflicted about that. Because I mean, lets face it especially for visual artists who I can speak to a little better than other creative forms. Visual artists are just so fundamentally conflicted about this idea of hustling and self-promotion and they’re afraid of looking like big old narcissistic jerks. There’s this incredible stigma about this idea that it’s okay, and you don’t have to be a jerk in when you promote yourself. Like there’s just this notion that if you are proud of yourself, you must clearly be an asshole. And it’s not that. There are ways to do it that are in fact incredibly graceful, and inspiring, and you just have to remind yourself of that before going to the negative place. And just look at self promotion as an absolutely integral part of the deal and figure out your truth to that, figure out how to do it as kindly, and compassionately, and as true to yourself as you can. Like I — you and I both know people who do it most the most disgusting way possible. We are not talking about those folks. They’re annoying and they do need to stop. We’re talking about is I think a more forgiving sense of yourself, and like being — you’re truly making work because you care about this thing. So if you care about this thing, you know why go into the self-hating place. Just go ahead and like communicate your enthusiasm about what you make with other people.
Anthem: Right. I always like to say that if you make what you promote more than what you are, which is if you prioritize the work and the benefit it could have for other people, then that’s probably the more genuine place, then you’re not really promoting you, you’re promoting how it can help people or why other people should interact with it.
Jenifer Wofford: One of the things that I’ve coached various friends over the years on, whether I’ve helped them with either grad school application letters, or other kinds of residency, or other grants, is they always sort of cringe when it comes to writing sort of the mission statement or sort of the bio part of it because they just don’t want to come across seeming like arrogant. And I said, “Well why don’t you try writing this thing like you’re writing it about your best friend.” Which I know sounds so therapy. But in fact it really kind of helps because the idea that it just feels so icky to do it about yourself but you know you would be the most generous person imaginable if you were writing it about a person that was really close to you. You would have no qualms what so ever about how awesome this thing was that your friend did. So I mean, it is kind of a really primitive trick but it does help. If you could just continue to try to reframe this idea of like you’re not writing about yourself, you’re writing about your best friend, it can actually help.
Anthem: That’s a great tip. That’s a great tip. And I feel like that’s going to really be beneficial for a lot of folks out there who feel like they don’t have a mastery of language or who are really nervous about writing. So no, that’s awesome.
Jenifer Wofford: And/or by extension, maybe ask you best friend what are some of your strongest characteristics as an artist and as you know in your practice. Get somebody who you know values what you do, and have them sort of walk you through some of nice, juicy statements about your practice.
What do you feel like we need to demystify about artists and their relationship with money?
Anthem: Right. Sometimes we’re too close to ourselves in that respect to see — that’s awesome, that’s an awesome tip. There’s another misconception that comes up a lot and you mentioned it briefly in what you learned in the Creative Capital Workshop and that has something to do with money. What do you feel like we need to demystify about artists and their relationship with money?
Jenifer Wofford: Well, again within the visual arts, it’s — well lets see if I can find a uncomplicated way to talk about this. I think there’s still this weird, vague notion that it just kind of happens by magic and that somebody comes along with the fairy dust and sort of sprinkles it over you, and sort of the next thing you know you’ve got a gallerist, and everybody loves you, and your work is selling you know in the multiple figures. And I think there maybe is one person who did that one thing, you know that one guy. But I think there’s also a way in which people get so corrupted by that idea of the market and that’s not just like the one aspect of money with art. I mean, there’s so many participate in this world in so many ways. Like I’m working with this master muralist Johanna Poethig right now. So she’s sort of like largely been disinterested in like the commercial world. Well she’s still been successful in commercial galleries. But you know what, she’s making a living making art everyday, and she’s getting grants, and she’s getting all kind of other kinds of like support for what she does. So I think it’s reframing what kind of money you’re looking at or thinking about. But as far as talking about visual arts and specifically and the market, and art history, and a lot of other things, what I think a lot of people don’t realize is the art world is full of a lot of rich kids and trust funders who were born into money to begin with and they were rubbing shoulders with a lot of really, really privileged folks from minute one. And so when I think people I think were coming from into the arts from a more working class background or you know a number of different kind of like they just aren’t born into that world. Like and they wonder why they’re failing at this thing and why they’re not making the right connections. And I don’t want to turn this into some weird victimized conversation. But I do feel like there’s a way in which like the assumption of money and where it comes from, and access to it, I think there’s a way in which I think there’s this mythology in the visual arts at like well it just happens. Well it doesn’t, people had it to begin with. So you do need to hustle if you’re not part of that work.
Anthem: Right. Extra hustle.
Jenifer Wofford: We went through the list of like a number of different successful artists. I can tell you, you know boom, boom, boom, boom, boom which ones of them just had it to begin with; rubbing shoulders with the right folks or they had they money, they were sleeping with a gallerist, whatever that thing is that you know I don’t think it should make a person feel bitter or jaded but I just feel like you do have to hustle folks. You do. You can’t just be like, “Oh, it’s just going to happen by magic.”
Anthem: Right. So there’s the, there’s the marketing aspect, there’s the language aspect for applying to grants, and residencies. There’s also this image related to money of folks thinking well I’ll just paint, like you said, that it would happen by magic, that you would just paint in your studio full time and some gallery would pick you up or some really wealthy benefactor would just throw money at you and your electricity bill, and your cellphone bill, and your groceries will all just be paid for. Lets talk about actual, real income streams for visual artists. Like what is a day or a week in the year of a life of a “full-time visual artist” look like?
you definitely have to be adaptable
Jenifer Wofford: I mean, I can give you a day but a everyday is going to be different right. And that’s the lesson right there. I mean, this is you know — if you need a lot of stability and you really want to know like what’s laid out at you, like you might want to loosen up on that notion. I mean, I’m not saying that the life of an artists needs to be fundamentally unstable, but you definitely have to be adaptable. That’s how a lot of opportunities come your way in my opinion. And yeah — like I mean, for example so far this year I spent the first half of this year teaching at several universities but jumping around, having to be okay, and in fact should be really grateful for the opportunity to get to teach art at like for great Bay area institutions. But you know the semesters over now and so now I’m assisting on a mural project. And that’s still great because it’s I think the most awesome summer job ever. But you know if I was hung up on this idea that I have to be like a full-time professor and that that’s where it’s going to come from, you know I probably would be really unhappy a lot. You have to be okay cobbling it together a little bit, and kind of seeing far enough down the line that you can figure out how to keep cobbling it together. Like I’m already hustling for, I was already hustling for my fall jobs, which I then decided not to do because I into an artist program back in Europe so I’m going to go away for a little bit. So now I, even as of last month — what is this now, this is June. I don’t know when the podcast is going to air. But you know as of even April or May —
Anthem: Soon hopefully.
Jenifer Wofford: — I was already hustling for adjunct teaching jobs for next January. Like just putting in the feelers, emailing like friends and associates. Being like, “Hey I’m going to be back in town, I’m going to need some work.” And just making sure people know that I’m around.
How critical do you think it is for artists to have an MFA these days?
Anthem: Right. Which just goes back to that marketing thing. And I also have to bring this up now because you’re talking about adjunct professorship. How critical do you think it is for artists to have an MFA these days, which is a prerequisite to you being able to teach at all these schools. Do you think it’s necessary? And I hate to throw money back into the question but it is expensive, it can get expensive. Is it “worth it”? Like how would you measure that for yourself and possibly for other folks that who are thinking about getting into an MFA?
Jenifer Wofford: I’m so torn about that because I personally put of my MFA for many years. I took ten years off between my bachelors and my Masters degree and felt like I was never going to go back, it seemed like a waste of time. But for me, because I’ve always been a teacher of one form or another, it was the one thing, the piece of paper that was standing in my way at teaching at the university level. So I begrudgingly got around to it and had both an amazing experience and also an incredibly difficult experience in grad school. But either way, I’m enormously grateful for that. That said, I got to go to school for free which most people don’t get to do.
Anthem: And how did you do that?
Jenifer Wofford: I got into the UC Berkley program, which you know, actually pays you to go which is really nice. But when I think about the phenomenal — but even still I took out loans and even still I’m in, you know I still have school debt. And when I think about just how absolutely, colossally terrifying some of the amounts of grad school debt you accumulate can be, you think, I think that’s a reality check. It shouldn’t scare you away from going to school but it should be something you are ready to deal with.
Anthem: And then what does that preparation look like? How does one get ready to deal with that level of commitment, how does one begin to create a blueprint for their future and you know knowing that someone is going to have to cobble sort of perpetual freelance relationship with their income, what kind of preparation?
Jenifer Wofford: I think it kind of ultimately comes down to what you want your degree to do for you. Like for me, it was very clear, like I didn’t really care about it as far as art world connections. I’ve been around the Bay Area long enough to handle the art world connections I needed. And I think that’s true for many people you may not really need to get your MFA and go into that debt, folks. But you still need professional development. I’m not getting kickbacks from Anthem for saying that. I just mean it like it’s real. You know people end up sort of fumbling around feeling like they should know even though nobody ever told them and they never really bother to try to figure out how to do it.
Anthem: Right. And so in that respect, not all MFA’s are equal because it depends on who you are and what you do with it.
Jenifer Wofford: Yeah, and I think it also, not all MFA can — or MFA students are equal. Like some are incredibly assertive about hustling and making the program work for them, and taking the PD classes that are in fact offered. And some students are just not there at yet, and they kind of just need to be in their studio figuring out how to make things. But yeah, unless you are that magical person who gets sprinkled by pixie dust, you kind of have to like deal with the PD thing.
Anthem: Yeah, certainly. And speaking of that, how do you continue to, after having been out of school, how do you continue to stay engaged and relevant, and up to date as far as that type of professional development skill building goes? Do you continue to take classes, are there books that you’re reading up on that you feel like help you stay current in that respect?
I actually read some of those cheesy marketing books
Jenifer Wofford: I feel like it’s, I get more out of sort of weird cross pollination moments and looking at other disciplines, not necessarily the visual arts. Like I actually read some of those cheesy marketing books.
Anthem: Which ones would you —
Jenifer Wofford: Like the self, I guess I shouldn’t say self help but what’s the dorky one that came out a couple years, The Four Hour Workweek. There’s a lot of actually really great, I mean, it’s kind of like you know a little bit roided out in some ways. The book is definitely written for like the, sort of like the single straight male who like really likes snowboarding. But there’s a way in which a lot of the points that Tim Ferris makes in the book are great. And I think especially for somebody who’s trying to pursue sort of a creative and independent lifestyle, he does a lot of really interesting things in terms of engaging in conversations that are about crafting like you know exact thing.
Anthem: I haven’t read it, but I imagine it’s about a lot of it is productivity, and organization, and things like this.
Jenifer Wofford: Yeah. But in a really kind of like nutso way. So that’s what I really appreciate it as coming at it as an artist and sort of right brain type like he’s kind of nuts. And you know he’ll be writing about some ridiculous sort of, “Here’s how you make a million dollars at your business while still learning to ballroom dance on the side.” And so if you can get by some of that silliness, there’s actually some really useful things in a book like that. I also feel like the other thing that I’ve been doing the past you know I think four to six months I guess, longer than that, on and off the past year, is just going to other forms of art other than the one that I am already immersed in. So I, it’s very easy for me to go to visual things and get a little jaded or, you know it’s already demystified for me. Whereas when I go to a poetry reading or if I go to a performance of some sort and even though that’s not to say a marketing piece directly, there’s still a way in which work is presented, engaged and negotiates audience in a very, very different way and I just feel like it always sort of stimulates my brain to think of other ways in which I’m sharing or making, and I really find that really useful.
Anthem: Yeah. Awesome. Let me ask you while we’re talking about Tim Ferris and things like this also. I know, again, I haven’t read the book but I understand that he talks a lot about technology tools. Are there technology tools that you feel like have been beneficial to you or ones that you feel like everyone should definitely have a website or everyone should definitely have a whatever, Facebook page. Are there must haves in the technology world? Is it like our iPhone really helps you organize your life or anything like this that you feel like has been really beneficial to you and might benefit other folks?
Jenifer Wofford: I think Facebook just helps all of us fool around a lot so — and I really think every time I get a promotional page sent to me by a friend on Facebook, I’m honestly a little bit like “Ehh”. But then I’m one of those people who really treats Facebook as a totally, totally social space. Like I don’t look at it as you know a professional networking space at all, other people really do. For me, I don’t think of Facebook as that useful in that regard.
Anthem: But you do have a website.
make yourself Google-able and not just for that drunk photo of yourself
Jenifer Wofford: Yeah, but I have a website and I’ve been building websites for other friends. And I do feel like at least the most simple, basic webpage. Like make yourself Google-able and not just for that drunk photo of yourself. You know like you know because I will tell you this for having sat on various committees and review boards for applicants, like yes we look at the packet of materials, but we do Google you as well if we’re a little curious, if you know. And if you don’t got anything out there for us to go on, like honestly don’t pretend like the internet doesn’t exist, you know it does.
Anthem: Yeah, and utilize it. Exactly, not just for like a drunk photo.
Jenifer Wofford: So yeah, just this idea of like what — you know, how Google-able are you. So —
Anthem: No, that’s awesome advice. It’s true. If I meet somebody and they tell me about their work and I Google them and nothing comes up, I have nothing to go on.
Jenifer Wofford: Yeah, I mean, and this is also — we, in the Bay area we’re particularly, we live on the web a lot more than other societies do, we really do, and we assume that everybody does. And I’ll go and I’ll hang out with friends at other countries, and then they’ll just be like, they wouldn’t even think to bother Googling stuff. So I just feel like there’s a very Americanized way and a very Bay Area way in which we assume the primacy of technology. And you know, you still ultimately just have to be out there in the world and making good work, and all of those things. But technology wise, at least have a very simple webpage with a couple of teasers about yourself. There’s no excuse, folks. You can get a free blog, and set up a couple of webpages, either Blogger or WordPress in like 15 minutes seriously. It’s not that hard.
What do you have to say about artists diversifying their skill set?
Anthem: Lets talk about this for a second. Because you are — I don’t want to pigeonhole you but I would consider you a conceptual artist, and you also just told us that you designed your own website, and you’ve designed websites for a bunch of other people. I guess what my question is has something to do with the fact that a lot of fine artists often times just focus in on the one thing they’re hyper excited about and they never bother to learn other skills that can translate into promotions or income like graphic design skills are super awesome in these days and times. What do you have to say about artists diversifying their skill set?
Jenifer Wofford: Yeah, again, if you’re going to get sprinkled by the magic pixie dust, you just focus on that one little thing and you keep doing it folks, that’s totally cool. But I do feel like you do need to sort of have a number of tricks in your bag. Like for me, I just got back got back to the US after living in the Czech Republic for about a year and a half. And I could not teach there, at least I didn’t want to be yet another American teaching English in Prague, I’m trying to save the Czech’s from that. So I made a choice not to teach in Prague. But of course that left me without any kind of income, without a work visa in a foreign country. So I basically decided that since I’d been kind of illustration gigs and design gigs on the side here and there, I would just kind of try to professionalize and make that my primary income stream. And happily in a Czech economy, I could survive doing that to degrees. But yeah, I guess what I didn’t know how to use Illustrator, I’ve done everything in Photoshop for example. So I had to figure out to get a hold of some tutorials to learn how to use a Adobe Illustrator. Didn’t really know how to build websites but I basically just decided to flail and figure out a whole new way.
Anthem: You taught yourself.
Jenifer Wofford: Yeah, well it’s pretty damn easy now these days. So also just I — I don’t know how my friends feel about this but I have no qualms about calling them up and asking them for advice. Which actually come to think of it is one of those things, you just got to figure out, kids. Kids, you just got to figure out how to ask nicely for things and also reciprocate because you can’t just try to figure out everything on your own. You do need your friends, and your friends need you. So when I was scratching my head totally frustrated with the website I was building, I called my friend Max and Max would be, “Okay, here’s how you do it.” But that’s how it works. That’s you know —
reciprocation and generosity
Anthem: That’s actually been coming up a lot in conversation on my own blog and also on Barbara Jane Reyes’ blog, this concept of reciprocation and generosity, and I feel like we’re living in a new era that really values that. And how beneficial do you feel like it has been for you and it might be for younger folks who are mis-define hustle as me, me, me, me.
Jenifer Wofford: Ohh, I know who you are by the way. And you immediately get written off my list. No, I mean, I will say this, if you don’t something to offer, I mean okay, let me see a nice way to put this. I guess I just feel really clear on over the years the various artists and folks I’ve known who are, it seems like they are perpetually asking for favors and asking for things but they’re not ever offering or contributing. I know who they are and I don’t help them. You know and I just feel like, yeah, it’s just another version of what I said at the beginning of this interview which is around community which is like you don’t get something out of a community you don’t participate in or contribute to. So I think you just figure out how to barter with friends, and other kinds of allies. You have incredibly valuable skills and they do, and nobody wants to pay for anything anymore so you may as well as figure it out what to trade.
Anthem: Very true. Very, very true. So for the folks then who are like asking you for I imagine because of your success streak, some, from time to time someone might come up to you, maybe a student or a younger emerging artist, or just a friend asks you for some kind of hookup or mentorship. What do you feel like would be the qualities you’d look for that would allow that person to have access to you and your experience, and your expertise?
Jenifer Wofford: Yeah. You know when I was in grad school, I took a class on mentoring which was so bittersweet because it was, I just did it for kicks, it had nothing to do with the art department. It was through some other grad program all together and I was the wacko artist in the room. But it was so bittersweet in the sense that as I was learning how the mentoring sort of experience works and other disciplines like say within the sciences where it’s actually much more structured in terms of like research, practices, and things like that. I just realized how unbelievably sloppy and unavailable it is for artists. It was so, and it was just kind of very like, oh man, couldn’t somebody have done this earlier? But the takeaway that I had from really I think on a more clear-cut, clearly defined level, the mentoring experience, it’s not just about this one person with more experience just giving, and giving, and giving to somebody with less experience. It is also reciprocal. Like it is almost like a contractual understanding that I am going to teach you these skills and, you know, give you access to this world that you don’t yet have access to. In exchange, you are going to achieve this, you are going to do a number of different things. Like hopefully it’s nothing horrible like scrubbing the floors or just you know perpetually like going on coffee runs; because that’s kind of lame. But there’s a way in which there has to be a sort of mutual understanding between the mentor and the mentee about like who is getting what out of this. And that doesn’t have to be nasty, that can just be incredibly friendly thing. Like you know — but if it’s just somebody who’s kind of fooling around just picking their nose and they’re really not going to do anything with the knowledge, then it’s kind of a waste of my time. If it’s somebody who’s really trying to sort of move on sort of in terms of how they operate within the art community, not the art world because that’s kind of vague, but the art community and they have something they genuinely want to contribute, then I’m totally solid with hanging out with that person and offering whatever I can.
Anthem: And what does that look like? So for instance to try to be more specific like if this was a resume and you had the summary of qualifications, the bullet points would be like, “must have” —
Jenifer Wofford: For a mentee?
Anthem: Yeah, for a mentee. Not necessarily skills. I mean, maybe skills but what would those qualities be. Would it be like — what type of discipline, what type of work ethic?
Jenifer Wofford: Well I think I’m thinking of my friend Dorothy who was my mentee but I think of her very much more like a friend, and a peer at this point. And Dorothy is somebody who found my website and she found my blog and just started reading my blog and just, you know she was a total stranger. But she emailed me out of the blue. Just said, “Hey, I’m a fan, I just appreciate your voice and the way you write. And I’m wondering if I can take you out for coffee, and we can just talk about some stuff because I’m trying to figure out how to be an art writer.” And over the past — and I was like, “All right, sure why not.” And she immediately sort of was incredibly proactive about offering assistance with a show I was installing. And I still, I didn’t really know her from Adam or Eve. But there was a way in which she was immediately sort of just I think offering what skills she had in exchange for you know being around my magnificence. Poor Dorothy. Dorothy, I’m sorry. So I guess what I mean more specifically by that is in exchange for the, her offerings of assistance in projects, I basically gave her access to, I’m trying to think of how specifically to describe this. I think just a more clear concrete sense of you know how an artist like works, and the communities and networks within which I operate, and the you know allies that I have, and you know I mean, everything gets kind of paid forward in the art world in the Bay Area particularly. It’s a small community, and once you’re, you know and it’s a close-knit community, and once you’re in, you’re kind of in. But you know sometimes it feels a little daunting to figure out how to get in. And it’s not an elite club, but it definitely is, you don’t just become family overnight basically.
Anthem: Right. You kind of have to pay dues.
Jenifer Wofford: And so I feel like in that situation with Dorothy, it was really less that I want to say had any specific skills that she needed because she was incredibly forthright, incredibly skilled person to begin with. But I think she just had a very vague sense of how to become a participating member of the art community in the Bay Area. And I think somehow I helped allow her a little bit more access to that. I was also just thinking about my friend Julio who has been having, who has had artist assistance for years. And I think sometimes I think they’re paid and sometimes they’re unpaid. So perhaps it looks a little bit more like an internship. But I think it’s, it also, it seems very clear cut that it’s reciprocal in the sense that he pay them a little bit of money or maybe not pay them at all. And they end up fabricating some of his work for him or putting together packets for applications for things. But in exchange, they have access to his enormous wealth of knowledge, and experience, and connections, and contacts. And I think that it’s work out pretty well for all parties involved in that situation.
Anthem: So a lot of it has to do with the willingness to put some time in to definitely help, and like you said, to reciprocate whenever possible?
Jenifer Wofford: Ask not what your mentor can do for you, ask what you can do for your mentor.
Anthem: Well put. Well put, definitely. So having talked about all these different things, there’s probably somebody out there who is feeling super inspired but at the same time maybe feeling now extra nervous because they realize that they have a lot of work to do. What one or two things can this person do today that you feel like will really benefit their career in the future?
You really cannot live without these documents, folks
Jenifer Wofford: I think make a folder on your desktop that is labeled “packet” or whatever word is funnier to you than packet. And then maybe make some documents that go inside that folder. One of them is your resume, one of them is your biography, one of them is your statement as an artist, and then 15 to 20 of them are your portfolio pieces. Again, this is one thing. So I’m kind of stretching one. But get that folder started if you don’t have it, at the very least. You really cannot live without these documents, folks. Again if you get sprinkled by the magic pixie dust, yeah, you’re fine that’s great, somebody else will babysit your career for you. But for the rest of us, you can’t not have that thing. And the sooner you get it over with, the more painless it is.
Anthem: Yeah, because you’ll need it for everything. I mean, when you apply for a residency or for a grant or submit your work to any kind of gallery show, those are the exact materials that they’ll be requesting of you anyway.
Jenifer Wofford: Yes. And these documents are works in progress. You’re going to continue to craft, and adapt, and change them. So even if you’re a little embarrassed because your resume feels a little thin at first or whatever, you know you’re going to keep fleshing it out. But you’re not going to get to flesh it out if it doesn’t exist to begin with. And I think also one of the things that I guess I forgot to mention earlier just around the information packets, and applying for things. You’re going to have to apply for a lot of stuff before you get a gig, and that’s just normal. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s been a very, very successful artist. And I was asking her for all the things she applies for in a given year. And she’s like top, kind of top of the litter. And I was asking of all the things she applies for each year, how many, what was her percentage of success on that. And she said, “Maybe 10 or 20%.” So guess what, for every five to ten applications you send out for something, you maybe get one of them. And that’s not discouraging, that’s just normal. In the marketing world, that’s considered successful. So you just look at this as a document you’re going to use multiple times and you’re going to keep crafting and adapting it. So it’s all the more important to have at least some base skeleton to begin with.
Anthem: Right. And grow some thicker skin as well. Now, how would you go about defining success given the fact that you know there are folks who get sprinkled with the fairy dust and there are some folks who just have to grind. How would you go about defining it for yourself as an artist or maybe for art in general?
moments of rest
Jenifer Wofford: Well, we talked about this a little earlier. I guess for me, I mean, the word that came up was being true, and I think for me, that’s meant different things at different moments. For where I’m at right now, I’ve sort of been in an interesting space where I’m making paintings which I have not done in a while, and I’m really loving it. But I’m making them around things that I haven’t made about work in a while. In fact, sometimes I’m not even sure what the theme is. Which for somebody who’s a compulsive teacher is really strange to be making these things that’s just kind murky and ambiguous. But it’s thrilling and I feel like I’m in love with making again in a way that for a while there when I was fried and over-hustling, and you know just drained, that the sheer joy of being an artist was kind of lost for a minute. And so I think that’s there’s something about that sense of truth that’s really important. But that, you know what true looks like varies at different moments. You know at other moments when I’ve making work where the themes were a little bit more political in my work and I very regularly and will continue to address themes that are sort of related to feminism or Filipino, Filipino subject matter. And you know what, guess what folks, the rest of the art world doesn’t always find that so interesting. But I ain’t bitter about it and I’m certainly not, not successfully because of it. I do consider it successful because I’ve been true to those ideas and they matter to me.
Anthem: And you’ve been able to find a niche like someplace where it does work for you. So it’s not about selling it just to any audience. You’ve been able to find an audience that does resonate with your work.
Jenifer Wofford: Yeah, but I think it’s also about educating the audience too in the sense that one person niche can be somebody else’s feared pigeonhole. And I think for me since when were women’s issues minority issues folks? Come on, you know seriously. Or since when is something of say or Filipino or specific sort of cultural groups issues somehow suddenly marginalized? Like who’s like framing this discussion? So I think there’s a way in which just honoring what you do in the truth of it, and the fact that it isn’t marginal, it is your truth, is its own success.
Jenifer Wofford: If you want to make a lot of money at it, then you’re going to have to work on hustling your audience. But guess what, that’s what the hustles’ about.
Anthem: Yeah, absolutely. And then you’ve talk also about there is something especially in the non profit world and in arts about burnout, so there is a kind of balance that a person has to have between hustling in the right capacity in the right time in the right place, and then also learning to include within that schedule a place for downtime to explore as you were saying with your paintings to explore things that might not necessarily go to any kind of gallery project immediately but now you get to just to really enjoy the ride of being an artists.
Jenifer Wofford: Absolutely. And the thing that came to mind when you were saying that was I was thinking about when I’m teaching the beginning students about sort of art composition like we’ll look at paintings. And one of the things that people don’t realize is what makes a good painting sort of come alive is the moments of tension and the moments of rest. And there’s moments that are just kind of, you know they have more flow, and they’re a little softer, and more relaxed. And then there’s this moment where there’s something incredibly dynamic and like really, really sharp happening in a work of art. And I mean, that’s your career too. You’re going to have moments where you’re just sort of its pedal to the metal and there’s going to be other moments where you may just need to sit on the sofa, pick your nose for a while, just relax and let the ideas regenerate. Stay off Facebook.
Anthem: Absolutely. Yes, stay —
Jenifer Wofford: Yeah, that doesn’t help.
Anthem: Yeah, yeah, no, that’s not down time. That is just no. But speaking of the internet, where can folks find you and learn about your future works?
Jenifer Wofford: My primary website for my art and education work is www.wofflehouse.com. And for my graphic design and illustration work, it’s www.stroopwoffle.com. Yeah, I am at those places.
Anthem: Awesome. Well we will send folks your way especially because you are, you mentioned you were helping someone out with a mural project. And I think by the time this airs that will be up. So it would be awesome to have folks see your art in real time as well.
Jenifer Wofford: Yes.
Anthem: Very cool. Thank you so much Jenifer.
Jenifer Wofford: It was fun.
Anthem: I appreciate it.
[…] PODCAST EPISODE 003: VISUAL ARTIST, JENIFER WOFFORD! […]