A Matter of Softness, Juan M. Castro

My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

Science Is Not the Opposite of Art

Angela McQuillan is a mixed-media artist and curator based in Philadelphia. Her art practice as a whole is a study of various ways that art and science intersect and inform one another. Her ideas involve experiencing the living world with infinite curiosity and appreciation, while coming up with unique solutions to problems through artistic and scientific investigation. Angela is a former member of the Little Berlin collective and currently works as the Curator of the Esther Klein Gallery at The Science Center in University City.

-Jessie Hemmons, curator

BioArt is an avant garde art practice that is emerging and gaining popularity all over the world. By definition, BioArt is a practice where artists work with living organisms and life processes as a medium to create artwork. This work provides commentary and explores the cultural implications of biotechnological advancement, as well as presenting creative applications of technology to come up with unique solutions to problems.

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GFP Bunny, Eduardo Kac

You may be familiar with the work of the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac, a very famous pioneer of BioArt who is known for creating a transgenic fluorescent green rabbit named Alba back in the year 2000. Or maybe you’ve heard about the “Victimless Leather” project in 2008, where a group of Australian artists from SymbioticA, directed by Oron Catts, grew a tiny coat made out of immortalized cells that had a leather-like texture. While these are some extreme examples, the world of BioArt is thriving . . . just not in Philadelphia.

Why is this? We have a huge community of artists who are interested in scientific topics. My theory is that we are lacking an entry point. The laboratory is not traditionally considered a place designated for art making, and many artists don’t even realize it is an option. Additionally, the average person cannot just walk into a science lab and start playing around with the equipment, so how are artists supposed to get started when they don’t have any previous experience? Accessibility is a major obstacle, but we are not lacking the scientists or research facilities. Philadelphia has many universities with high quality curriculum in the biological sciences for both undergraduates and graduate students. Our city also has many internationally known research centers that house cutting edge equipment and innovative technologies.

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Victimless Leather, SymbioticA

What we need in Philadelphia is more collaboration between artists and scientists. We have all the tools, we just need to form more networks and pathways and learn how to share our resources. We need to make it clear that science is NOT the opposite of art, and in fact they very closely related on the creativity scale. We need to promote the idea that biomedia is an option. Universities need to offer BioArt courses and open up their labs to art students. Scientists who have specialized knowledge and equipment should take up an artist in residence.

We can look to other cities for inspiration. Genspace located in New York City, is a non-profit community lab space where people of all skill levels can learn their way around a science lab and work on their own projects without a science degree. The School of Visual Arts, also in NYC, has its very own BioArt Lab and degree program, along with a summer residency. SymbioticA is an artistic laboratory and research facility located at the University of Western Australia, dedicated to the intersection of art and biology. They offer a Master of Biological Arts degree program as well as artist residencies. The Finnish Society of Bioart located in Helsinki organizes the annual Ars Bioartica Residency Program where they promote the study of the Artic environment.

Bringing the conversation back to Philadelphia, there are plenty of issues in our city that can be addressed through a scientific approach to art. One example is trash pollution. While I love shopping at IKEA, I really hate particleboard. It doesn’t last long and it is also usually made with formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals. Vacant lots in Philly are full of discarded particle board furniture. A new technology is exists where particle board is created from mushrooms. More specifically, the toxic binding agent in particle board is replaced with mycelium fungus, and the board literally grows into itself to form a super strong surface. It is also biodegradable. Amsterdam-based designer Erik Klarenbeek creates some amazing furniture using this process. Artists in Philadelphia could embrace this new form of biotechnology to create some interesting sculpture that brings awareness to new ways of sourcing building materials.

A Matter of Softness, Juan M. Castro
A Matter of Softness, Juan M. Castro

We do have a few good assets for artists interested in the sciences. One important space is the Esther Klein Gallery in University City, which exhibits artwork focused on science and technology. As the curator of EKG, I am always on the look-out for artists using biomedia in their work. Most recently, we had a BioArt exhibition featuring work by Juan M. Castro who travelled from Japan to show his work exploring protocells and artificial life. While I love bringing international artist to our city, I would love even more to cultivate a community of artists doing BioArt locally. A message to Philadelphia: we have all the resources, we just need to make the right connections.

Image courtesy of Lauren Dombrowiak

Tip Jar

Keepin’ It Flossy: 5 Insider Carpentry Tips

Lauren Dombrowiak is a installation artist working mainly in ceramics and wood. She has an Masters in Fine Art from Tyler School of Art, Temple University. And has been featured at the Philadelphia International Airpot and most recently the Philadelphia Art Alliance. In the gallery she transforms functional objects into large sculptural objects that then creates an un-functional space. While in her career using mainly wood she creates visually dynamic spaces solely for the use of function in a retail environment. In either role the transformation of common objects to create interesting spaces is her passion.

Jessie Hemmons, curator

I make things out of wood for a living. It is a dusty job but I find it really rewarding to take a raw piece of lumber and transform it into something functional or cool to have in your home. This is a small sample of helpful hints mostly for the more novice woodworker, but hopefully anyone can find something useful in these basic tips.

Tools of the Trade

If you are a novice maker of things out of wood, there are a few tools that are a must.

  • A good drill is key. I personally like cordless drills. When it comes to purchasing drills, honestly, you get what you pay for. My favorite drill is 18V lithium ion cordless Makita impact driver, the reason I love this drill is the impact driver has a lot of torque which makes driving long screws a lot easier, it also has a hex chuck which makes changing the bit quick. A great thing to remember about drills is the trigger is like a gas pedal, the more pressure you put on it the faster it goes. So when drilling in screws it is best to start slow until the screw is started then ramp up to full speed.
  • A tape measure, I like the ones that don’t have metric measurements. For me, it is important that I don’t get confused as to what type of measurement I made.
  • If you are not interested in buying a lot of cutting tools to start your collection, a circular saw will make most cuts you want to make. You can cut with and against the grain of large sheet goods, as well as cut down 2×4’s and other long sticks, you can even make a miter cut. The brand is less significant when it comes to circular saws. I recommend one with a cord but definitely upgrade the blade—the more teeth on the blade the nicer the cut.
  • Lastly, I think owning two bar clamps with the trigger handle can be your best friend, and literally a second set of hands. There are a million more tools you can purchase often with a specialty purposes. A compound miter saw is great second saw to purchase for cross cuts, bevel and miter cuts. A plainer can even out a bumpy surface for tight joinery, routers are great for fancy edges, daddo’s and making rounded shapes, just to name a couple. For a basic start and a modest start up cost these few items can get you pretty far, after that I usually only splurge on a new tool once I really need it and find it worth the investment.

Plan your project

Planning your project can really cut the time it takes to make it. You can go as extreme as using a 3D modeling tool to draw it, or simply just use a paper and pencil. When planning, try and draw it to scale, it then becomes easy to make a cut list (literally a list of all the pieces you will cut to make your project.) Think of it like IKEA furniture with the addition of making the wood parts too. If you plan these out it can help determine your sheet yield,which can cut your cost. Another helpful tip is to plan the project from start to finish; do you need a special blade or tool? How are you going to assemble it? Do you need wood glue? What size screws should you use? Are you painting it? This way when you make a hardware store trip you only have to take one.

Don’t trust the factory edge

When it’s time to start cutting we all know the old adage measure twice, cut once, (this is true) but first cut off the factory edge when possible. Meaning if you are cutting a section of 2×4 first cut off a little bit from the end and then measure your length and make your second cut. This may seem silly but often the ends from the factory are cut crooked or have been beat up or become cracked in transit. So for tight joinery cutting off the factory edge of sheet goods or dimensional lumber makes for a cleaner joint. There is also an added bonus, because when they manufacture sheet goods they often spray paint the sides of the pallet, when you cut off the edge, there can be less sanding, and everyone loves less sanding!

Image courtesy of Lauren Dombrowiak

A cut guide or jig is your friend

Don’t be afraid to use a cut guide or make a jig. I don’t mean draw a straight line and try to follow it as close as you can with the saw. I mean, measure out the distance from your blade to the outside edge of the plate that surrounds your saw and add or subtract that amount to the cut you are making (often on a circular saw it is 1 ½” difference.) Then measure the piece including that measurement (ex: your making a 24″ cut 24′-1 ½’= 22 ½”) so measure 22 ½” from the edge, and clap a straight edge. Then run your saw along the cut guide pushing through the end of the board. You will get a much straighter line and avoid kickback if you are using a cut guide.

Make your project super flossy

“A buck of putty and a gallon of paint will make a carpenter what he ain’t” (this is true). Just add sanding in that phrase, because a lot of flaws can be saved with some wood putty and a fair amount of sanding (if you’re up for another tool, an orbital sander is a great buy). For the more advanced woodworker, a flush trim bit for your router can fix imperfect seams. It’s fine if you don’t know what that last sentence means; it is just a fancy bit for a specialty tool.

When applying putty to your project fill all the flaws, including the flaws in your lumber, with wood putty. Sanding the snot out of it, starting with coarse grit and moving to a finer grit sandpaper, can really polish any project. Finally, just remember that an expert at anything was once a beginner. Continuing to make things is the only way you get better. Happy Building!

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Start Thinking Like an Entrepreneur

Jessie Hemmons, otherwise known as ishknits, has been a “lifelong admirer of street art,” and is now one of Philadelphia’s most recognized street artists. Jessie’s crochet work has covered the city from her short-lived Rizzo bikini to her Payphones Philadelphia series. Jessie’s yardbombing challenges traditional notions of femininity and craft art, while providing a larger commentary about the creative-self. In this piece, Jessie provides a comprehensive guide to making money off of your work.

-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder

I love talking to artists about making money. I enjoy sharing my experiences and trying to give advice whenever I can. In reality, it’s extremely difficult to pop up on the art scene and start making money. The first and most critical step for artists to understand is that they are the sole proprietors of their own business. Therefore, it’s important to start thinking like an entrepreneur. In terms of ways to make money, I could go on for days, but here are just a few pieces of advice:

Do some market research.

Take some time to learn about your medium, process, and/or style. How have artists been successful in the past? What pieces seem to be the most successful? What elements of the work/pieces seem to elicit the most positive feedback? How can you incorporate these elements into your own work while maintaining the singularity of the work? On what platform are similar artists most successfully selling their work? How do successful artists market themselves? How are they involved with their audience? What are people really willing to pay for similar work.

Make sellable work.

This doesn’t mean you need to create pieces that people traditionally buy, like landscapes or quilts. It means that you have to incorporate elements that people enjoy (as discovered from your research) when creating a piece that fits into your conceptual framework. This could also mean making work you are willing to place at a more sellable price. If people aren’t buying your giant sculptures, you don’t have to lower the price—don’t ever lessen your value. Just make smaller sculptures, or simpler sculptures that are conceptually comparable.

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Angela McQuillan, Ruby Excrescences, 60”x72”
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Angela McQuillan, Specimen series #1, 36 petri dishes 10cm diameter, Commissioned

Engage your audience.

Integrate the consumer into your marketing strategy. Try having a contest, or a giveaway. Give the audience something to do, like a scavenger hunt (finding information online or out in the real world). Give them a reason to talk about you—to share your posts. Collaborate. Let people donate a small piece and incorporate it into your next project. Obviously, make public art or interactive projects. Donate a portion of your proceeds to a good cause. People like to feel involved, and they love supporting (and talking about) people or projects they feel good about. Give them a reason.

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Network online.

Learning how to utilize social media effectively is absolutely essential. First, get an Instagram account. This is the most widely used visual platform, and the easiest in terms of marketing for artists. Next, determine which hashtags are most commonly or successfully associated with your medium. People browse their favorite hashtags, and use hashtags when looking for something specific. Really famous artists don’t use hashtags because they don’t need to, so checking them out may not be helpful.

Finding substantial hashtags may take some serious work. They need to be more specific than “#art” and “#studio,” but they can’t be so specific that there’s only 4 posts associated with them. A quick trick to make these broad tags a bit more specific is to include your location (or the nearest metropolitan location). Turn them into “#phillyart” or “#phillyartstudio.” Instagram now shows you how many posts are associated with a hashtag, and this has been a huge help when trying to invent my hashtag game.

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Learning to network online also provides a good opportunity to find a niche for your work. “#Yarnbombing” is a niche hashtag, and yields good results. Photographers seem to be the #igers of everywhere. Finding a specific sector where you belong may just help you find a professional support group for life. Artists and supporters are dedicated to their niches. Find out where you belong.

After all of that, start commenting on other people’s photos. Back in the day, people used to view the Instagram accounts of those who liked their photos. But these days it usually requires a comment to draw someone to your profile. Even a simple emoji can do the trick. So get out there and start commenting. Give to receive.

Assess your business plan.

After you’ve been trying to sell work for a while, stop and take a look at how things are going. What pieces have people responded positively to? Are there any similarities or patterns among your successful (or sold) pieces? What work has been less successful? Use the stats that are available to you from your selling platforms or website. Have your efforts on social media yielded any results? What posts do people respond to most, i.e. get the most likes/comments (personal, art, works in progress, social)? What other social media platforms would be helpful for promoting your work? How connected are you with your local art community? It’s important to periodically assess your marketing strategies to see what steps you can take to make yourself more successful.