Why are we so hungry to get close to artists?

Ah yes, the art should speak for itself—so why isn’t it enough? There’s a long cultural tradition of prying into artist’s lives, from exhibition talks to coffee table books like R. Ian Lloyd’s STUDIO and, more recently, Charlie Porter’s What Artists Wear. The New York artist Jenna Gribbon created an amazing series in 2020 called The Artist, Eroticized where she painted other “hot young artists” in revealing poses in their studios. Doron, 2020, posed the artist Doron Langberg like Manet’s Olympia—but in Blundstones. The series was both very funny and very cunning. I know you want to look, it said. So, look.

As an art writer, I’m part of whatever you want to call this. Fetishisation? Commodification? But perhaps it’s not so hard to understand what I’m looking for, both as a writer and when I’m hunting second-hand bookstores for Katherine Kuh’s The Artist’s Voice, or queuing more episodes of Pro Prac. The art critic Roberta Smith once called her years of interviewing artists her “DIY graduate school” and it’s a phrase I’ve always loved for its nod to simple curiosity and self-education. But appetites like mine—and the ones I write for—are growing more complicated.

When Caitlin Aloisio Shearer wrote for Art Guide about Agnes Martin’s long list of jobs, she pointed out that creative careers are often patchworks. The insidious thing about today’s hustle culture though is how it frames the difficulty of making a liveable income as a moral failing—as laziness or lack of vision. A 2022 Macquarie University study found Australian authors earn an average of $18,900 a year from their writing, but that figure includes a range of fringe income from teaching workshops to event appearances. I have no data on the visual arts but suspect similar dynamics—artists not only sell their work but their time and insights through talks and workshops.

There are other cultural shifts feeding into this too. Call it the Extraordinary Routines effect perhaps, after Madeline Dore’s popular interview series, but there is now a strong cultural interest in “creative thinking” and process. Social media has also altered expectations around access to public figures. The result is that audiences seem to want more from artists now, something more personal than just biography or details about technique.

“For me, if I were to go to a workshop, I would want to be able to enjoy my time, learn something and put myself in a new environment,” – Tamara Dean

There has undoubtedly been a slow rise in artist workshops, particularly in the public programming offered by galleries and museums. Unlike the lectures of old, these kinds of workshops are participatory, but also very different to the skills-based short courses offered by art schools too. Muse+Maker is one such endeavour, a creative retreat series that emphasises experience. Featuring esteemed artists like Tamara Dean, Atong Atem, Emma Saunders and Lisa Sammut, the seasonal weekend retreats are held in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales and the audience is wide—participants can be working artists or have no experience at all.

“For me, if I were to go to a workshop, I would want to be able to enjoy my time, learn something and put myself in a new environment,” says Dean about why she wanted to take part in teaching. She’s never enjoyed giving big impersonal lectures, but the small size of the retreat offers a chance for something different. “I’m not there as a ‘here’s how you work out your aperture’ teacher,” she says. “I’m really revealing a lot about my own process in what I’m offering up.”

Tamara Dean. Courtesy of the artist Tamara Dean and Michael Reid Gallery

Dean’s own photography practice has always turned on her relationship to nature. For her next solo exhibition, she’s working on a series that brings the imagery of rising sea levels into the city, but Muse+Maker sees her returning to High Jinks in the Hydrangeas, a recent body of work that’s among the most personal she’s ever made. Dean will talk about her own strategies for tapping into feelings of vulnerability and connection in nature, and guide participants through making their own work.

She also talks about wanting to demystify the art making process, but it’s clear her reasons for taking part in the workshops align with her reasons for making art in the first place. “The closer people are to the natural environment, the more they will care or have some frame of reference to value that environment,” she says.

It’s a reminder that whatever audiences might be asking, artists have always brought a wide range of motivations to teaching and talking about their working lives. Sharing knowledge can be about many things, from expressing values to connecting with like-minded people, or joining a collaborative or community engaged practice.

Emma Saunders, We Are Here. Courtesy of the artist Emma Saunders

Dance artist Emma Saunders says collaboration and teaching “provide the foundations for my work, give it a unifying logic, and often allow for risk, wildness and freedom that can’t be found anywhere else”. A co-founder of the dance company WE ARE HERE, Saunders is currently developing Band Practice for Sydney’s Riverside Theatres. Her varied career has also seen her direct Encounter, a site-specific “work of joy” for the 2020 Sydney Festival, alongside founding and performing with The Fondue Set, and her work as a choreographer, producer and educator. “It’s the connection that I’m after,” she says.

For Muse+Maker’s first retreat Saunders will lead a very slow-paced walk, hoping this simple form of abstracted movement will be a chance to let impressions come and to feel the world differently. “Movement is such a strong artform,” she says. “I’d like to use movement to shift the way we experience ourselves and how we experience time—to elasticate this a little.” It’s a powerful idea, and maybe that’s all any of us really want from artists in the end, to be reminded we can stretch.

The Robertson Hotel
(Robertson NSW)

Retreats are seasonal, with the following dates:
Summer 8-10 March
Autumn 24-26 May
Winter 9-11 August

Opinion Words by Jane O'Sullivan