August 15, 2019

FROM INSIDE: Sarah Rose Sharp

Notes from the Field: Finding a research process for SWAP in Cleveland

Here’s a closely-guarded secret of the art world, one of those things I believe no one is supposed to admit aloud: nobody knows what is supposed to happen during a studio visit.

The studio visit is regarded as one of those crucial times, where a visiting dignitary will alight upon an artist’s most intimate work space, and evaluate all that they see. There is a desire to present oneself as brightly as possible; there is an urge to tidy up, to set out materials and takeaways. There is a sense that this is the moment.

I have been on the visiting end and the receiving end of studio visits, and in the interest of piercing the veil here: no one knows what they are looking for on a studio visit, until they see it. I am attracted to spaces, as much as discrete objects; I am just as likely to have a sense of an artist from the way they arrange their space as from the thing they decide to present.

Here is a second disclosure, one that is perhaps less general in terms of the art world and all art criticism, but germane to my time here at SPACES, the mandate of which includes a suggestion of connecting with Cleveland artists and producing a written work that in some way reflects upon those findings: it is utterly impossible to develop a nuanced sense of place, scene, and art within a four-week span. Bless anyone willing to try it, but I am not. I feel prepared at this point to reflect upon the Detroit art scene only after being based there for nearly a decade, and having produced some 300+ pieces of art writing about individual events and artists; there is simply no way for me to wrap my hands around a new place in such a short span of time without being reductive. And I believe that a lack of nuance and desire for reductivity are malignant components to the social attention span these days.

So during my time here in Cleveland, I found myself presented with a twofold dilemma: first, how to find a vantage point on the landscape that enable me to speak authentically, but without claiming authority; second, how to iron out a process that evened the playing field for studio visits, to find a purpose in coming, to find a way of flattening the hierarchy of artists, to equalize a perceived power differential between artist as subject and arts writer as judge.

The overarching intention of my work was to devote my residency time to the thematic concept of abortion—a response to the recent wave of highly restrictive policies within certain state legislature. Following the bans on abortion in Alabama and Georgia, I had determined not to do any creative work in a place that could not afford procreative freedom, only to realize I was committed to a month in Ohio, which has extremely restrictive policies that predate the outright bans in AL and GA. [A complete state-by-state breakdown of abortion policy, and additional information and analysis on reproductive freedom is available here]. The avenue of procreative freedom advocacy that explores personal narrative around the medical process of abortion is already ground well-covered; while I find this work to be a true expression of the need for safe and legal abortion in a functioning society, it is not a place I feel comfortable doing research. Instead, I used this time to gather evidence and artifact within the scope of creative abortion, rather than procreative abortion.

In doing so, I hope to emphasize that abortion—far from a niche medical procedure that concerns uterus-bearing people and those who believe they should be free to govern their own bodies—is a fundamental, universal concern, employed daily in the lives of every person. We make choices that shape our lives and the lives around us on a daily basis. We make plans, and abort them. We undertake commitments, and abort them. We move to places, abort the move, return home. We contain, within each of us, dozens, hundreds, thousands of lives. In the shadow of the life we live are all the many that we abort.

Artists understand this well, being engaged in a process of constant creative abortion. My work on the ground here in Cleveland has manifested in the following protocol for studio visits, undertaken with roughly a dozen artists with a diverse range of professional, practical, material, and personal orientations:

I am going to ask a series of permissions:

  • I will ask permission to visit your studio, and have an even exchange with you about art, making, life, and your questions.

  • I ask permission to see your work, handle it, gain an understanding, materially and socially and conceptually.

  • I ask permission to look around your studio for discarded bits of material. Small, beneath notice usually. These are decisions you have made, about something to exclude from your art, your life, the work you present to the world.

  • I ask permission to sample three of these materials, and take them with me, as a reminder of what you make, and what you have left unmade.

  • I ask permission to call these materials “abortions.” I can also call them “darlings.”

If you grant these permissions, we will undertake, together, an examination of choice. Artistic choice. Creative decision-making that shapes the work each of us brings into the world.

I was blessed to be granted these permissions by: Marisa Williamson (SPACES Artist-in-Residence), Carmen Lane, Kelley O’Brien, Kat Burdine, Michael Lombardy, Jeffry Chiplis, Eli Gfell, Lauren Davies, Noelle Richard, and Sarah Kabot. I was additionally honored to have more informal conversations and visits with: Gillian Johns, R.A. Washington, Kate Sopko, Paul Catanese (SPACES Artist-in-Residence), Johnny Coleman (SPACES Artist-in-Residence), and others.

I anticipate the creation of a field report on the topic of creative abortion and the expression of artistic decision-making around discard, as a result of my interactions with these individuals and others during my time here at SPACES, for which I am deeply grateful. I look forward to continuing my work in this arena, and stand in reciprocal curiosity and allyship with Cleveland as I do so.


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