Traveling Far to Focus on the Local

Becca Balmes
November 18, 2016
Brooklyn, NY

The term “local artist” is a spectrum. On one end, you can be from a place since you were born and your parents were born and so far back your family is part of everybody’s stories. On the other end, you can be “from” one place and living comfortably far away from there for the rest of your life. You can be new to a place and be a local artist there, at the same time as everywhere else you’ve ever lived – simultaneously. With all these meanings, it would seem that the title “local artist” becomes meaningless… but far from it.

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Local is vital, is identity, is about the way artists contextualize their work and their fans pull that work into their own mental tapestry of experience. Local artists are why I’m passionate about my work building up and promoting the Ampersand Guild. Supporting the artists who are my neighbors (current, future, or past) and helping them find each other is my contribution to my community and the broader art world.

That’s not a selfless contribution, however. It’s what I have to do in order to have the supportive community of artists that I must be a part of for my own art to succeed. I’m lucky enough to own a gallery and studio, and I use them to promote my own art. I could send my art out into the world beyond Macon, and eventually I will. But for now, for me, Macon and Ampersand in particular are where I’m rooting myself.

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That’s what an artist-run space does – it serves as a patch of fertile ground for individual artists to root, branch, allow their work to cross-pollenate and sprout larger flowers. I’m personally growing fantastic fruit thanks to this patch of ground, and it’s big enough for a great many other artists. We run this space, together. We experiment and try and strive and fail productively and discover successes like Easter eggs hidden in the grass around us, then polish them up and share them with each other. This place is for us.

Macon is for us, and so is Georgia and the South and the US and North America and the whole world, zooming outwards in a way that sometimes makes us dizzy.

Dizzy like the view from the roof of the building I'm staying in this weekend, in Brooklyn. But there's a little yellow-awning down there, a coffee shop I've visited several times already that serves delicious food and hangs interesting art from artists local to right here. And I'm staying in the apartment of an artist who is local to middle GA and also trying to be local right here. Those tamp down the dizziness somewhat, long enough for a visit anyway.

Dizzy like the view from the roof of the building I'm staying in this weekend, in Brooklyn. But there's a little yellow-awning down there, a coffee shop I've visited several times already that serves delicious food and hangs interesting art from artists local to right here. And I'm staying in the apartment of an artist who is local to middle GA and also trying to be local right here. Those tamp down the dizziness somewhat, long enough for a visit anyway.

So we focus on the scope of local that makes us the least nauseated when we think about its bigness, or the one that welcomes us with genuine appreciation.

Others have written about artist-run spaces, locality, community, the needs of artists. There is a fantastic booklet that I recommend everyone read, called “The Artist-Run Space of the Future”, published by the Institute of Applied Aesthetics. Quoting the first section,

Historically marginalized and oftentimes ephemeral, the artist-run space is dependent on discernibly difficult to measure and fluctuating variables such as time, commitment and collective participation. As such, the commonplace depiction is often one of disorder and fringe culture, yet the roots of the artist run space are noble: a response to the absence of space for alternative modes of cultural production. A movement that is best characterized as patternless, while at the same time supporting the idea that the artist-run space is part of a larger culture of collectivity and collaboration – a way of making art that is built upon the idea of working together.

This is why I’m in Brooklyn right now, in order to observe and participate in the first Alternative Art Schools Fair. The fair/conference is bringing together over 50 artist-run arts education programs, spaces, independent libraries, small presses, and other projects that all have in common their orientation towards the development & nurturing of individual artists. Most of these organizations are like ours – small, focused on local artists and the day-to-day of how to keep good art getting made. A huge part of that how is cooperative education – the pedagogy of practice.

But an explanation of what that poetic concept really means for Ampersand artists will have to wait for tomorrow’s blog post. Tonight, I’ll go to sleep knowing that I’m doing work that matters for myself and my community of local artists – watering our entwined roots and watching hungrily for new fruit.