3 Questions with Samuel Rowlett
Artist and alum Samuel Rowlett on collaboration, paying the bills, and not letting your art define you.
3 QUESTIONS is a series of brief, three-question interviews with PNCA’s visiting artists and lecturers. Each year, PNCA attracts innovative, thoughtful, and creative makers and thinkers who share our belief in the transformative power of creativity. In three short answers to three short questions, these artists offer perspectives on career, motivation, and transformation. When available, we include links to audio recordings, transcripts, slideshows, or video.
“There’s no such thing as Plan-A or Plan-B, only what you do.”
What advice would you offer current students about to embark on a career in the arts?
First, figure out how to pay the bills, you’ll be less stressed and it will free up valuable mental space to make art. Live lean. There’s no such thing as Plan-A or Plan-B, only what you do. If you want art in your life, you are going to have to work damn hard for it no matter what. Don’t do it alone either. Be nice to everyone, build relationships, never burn bridges. Collaborate at all costs! Put yourself out there, apply for everything, leave no stone unturned. Tell everyone about your “thing,” toot your own horn, and be sure to toot the horn of your peers. A lot of curators find artists through recommendations from other artists. Embrace rejection as you would constructive criticism. Never whinge about how unfair the art world is (you’ll just sound crusty and bitter). Be always humble and try harder. Never compare your own achievements to those of others. That said, if there’s an artist that you like, study their CV like a guidebook. Keep in mind, you are not your work, so don’t let your work define you. Style is the death of innovation. Operate on the edges of your skills and your conceptual threshold. Go big. Teach, share, and volunteer at a non-profit arts organization. Learn how to write about art. Stay plastic.
How do you maintain your creative practice? What keeps you motivated and engaged?
My studio practice is a multi-headed beast! I like to work on several projects in the studio at a time, I draw a lot and I write. The life/work/art balance is always a challenge. Most artists have several job titles. I’m in my second year as a fulltime Assistant Professor of Art at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont, so I feel fortunate for both the stability and freedom of an academic position and that it allows me (encourages me) to pursue my work. Teaching and scholarship also provide me an opportunity to engage in (and question) the ongoing dialogue of art. My students are awesome. In terms of art theory and practice they keep me honest and on my toes! I go to as many exhibitions as I can. I am a contributing writer for the art blogs, Hyperallergic in NYC and Big Red & Shiny in Boston. It is a great way to maintain a critical eye and voice. On top of all that I have an amazing (and patient!) spouse, who understands that the career of an artist is at times unconventional. My kids also provide me with endless inspiration. I’m constantly working on my dad-jokes.
Could you describe a moment or experience that profoundly changed the nature of your work?
When I was in my thesis year of grad school my wife and I had a baby, so we made a bet: the first person to land a job with benefits wins! I didn’t end up winning that bet, and I became a stay-at-home dad. It totally changed the nature and scope of my work (to say nothing of my life)! I had these dreams of being a trophy husband/super dad, painting with a napping baby on my arm… Needless to say that was not the reality I encountered. More like frantically scrawling in my sketchbook during naptimes, and falling asleep myself when I did get time in my studio.
However, this new position did several things for my studio practice that I consider vitally important: I didn’t have time to labor on a drawing. Additionally, I didn’t have time to doubt myself, so my work had a kind of immediacy I probably would’ve fretted away and ironed out of my work previously. I also learned to get as much done in as little time as possible; I became more efficient. I didn’t have time or space to work large-scale in the small studio I had set up in my basement, so my work became more sketchbook based.
I didn’t show my work for a while, then one day I got into a show at an alternative space. The curator showed me some blank walls and I thought my sketchbook drawings might translate well large scale. Before I knew it, four small drawings in a book turned into a four-story wall drawing thread throughout a building. Having kids has totally transformed my studio practice into one of installation and performance. It is more site-relative and I’m increasingly peripatetic these days. I will note that another upshot of raising small kids is that a constant state of sleep deprivation is great for making conceptual leaps, the trick is to jot my ideas down before I fall asleep and forget them.
SAMUEL ROWLETT ’02 holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Pacific Northwest College of Art and a Master of Fine Arts from Cranbrook Academy of Art. He has received fellowships from Yale University School of Art and the Vermont Studio Center, and recently was artist in residency at MASS MoCA’s Kidspace. Rowlett has exhibited widely with solo exhibitions at The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, New York and Real Art Ways in Hartford, Connecticut. His work has been reviewed in The Boston Globe, spotlighted on WNPR—Connecticut Public Radio, and included in The New York Times. His work draws parallels between explorer and artist, building objects that articulate the physicality of the body and using the concepts of studio practice as a means to engage the outside world. Through a multidisciplinary approach, he often filters sculpture, performance, video, and photography through the lens of painting and drawing. Rowlett currently has work on view at Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs in NYC.