Part 1 of 2 (link to Part 2)
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One of the things I enjoy most about doing interviews is of course the opportunity to learn so many new aspects about the world of art and really, about the world itself. And my congenial conversation with long-time artist and Arts Administrator David Edgar was certainly no exception.
The first thing I learned was a new word, one that for the life of me I have yet to find in any dictionary (David did later indicate that it was his invention, although I was free to use it). When I was asking how he had for so many years managed to not only maintain a successful career in Arts Administration but also carry out the almost impossible task of keeping his private ‘studio’ work from falling into obscurity, he commented that it helped to be ‘ambi-hemispheric’!
Now at first I laughed because this reminded me too much of an incident (sadly) that had occurred at my alma mater, where a star basketball player had been somewhat pretentiously bragging about his skills to the press. It seems that this young man was quite sure of his own abilities, in large part because he could indeed shoot the ball with both hands... which he stated meant that he was, amazingly, amphibious. But in the case of ambi-hemispheric, David went on to explain that no, the word indeed meant something very important to him and his career, namely being able to operate in such a way that his right-brain and left-brain functions were well-balanced. This is apparently a key aspect of being a good Arts Administrator, with two capital ‘A’s’ no less!
And finally, I was able to learn quite a lot about a growing art form that David is essentially helping lead into the public consciousness. Since our discussion about how he turns plastic bottles and other recyclables into colorful sculptures of marine life and more, I have found myself examining our own family-sized portion of post-consumable goods in a new light. There really are so many attractive and attracting colors and shapes out there, and one’s imagination can really run wild! As such, it is our pleasure to bring you more from David Edgar and especially from his fantastic world of the ‘Plastiquarium’.
David, welcome! First of all, let’s start more on the left side of your brain: what got you started on the road of your long journey in Arts Administration?
Well, Ziggy, as with anyone coming out of college or moving on from one assignment to the next, I basically needed a job. And really, it was not an ‘aim’ of mine per se, but instead I came into this through a networking contact.
As fate would have it, and in large part because I was originally from Gainesville, I had contacts with the University of Florida. And at the time, the Dean of the College of Fine Arts was evaluating a possible donation of an arts center – the Crealde School of Art – which was in Winter Park right outside of Orlando.
The issue was that the gentleman that owned art center – which he had in fact founded for altruistic reasons – eventually found that the situation was in whatever way not working for him. So he wanted to donate it as a sort of community arts research lab. Still, the University wanted to do a feasibility study about the offer as there were going to be some strings attached to the whole deal. So this is where I took a first shot at Arts Administration, namely an 8-month contract consulting job where I was charged to make a recommendation to the University whether to proceed or not.
Interestingly, I actually recommended against the project – for complicated reasons – and the University eventually declined to proceed with the hand-over. Still, I must have made a good impression as I was then hired to be General Manager for Crealde for the next few years. And that’s really how my life in Arts Administration started!
Has it been difficult for you to find a balance over the years between your day job and your on-going pursuits with your private art?
Well, clearly, if you want to remain an artist, you have to keep a studio going. In fact, I taught a course several times called ‘Senior Seminar’ at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) on this very topic. We used an aptly titled book called ‘Art and Fear’ which was an excellent source because it covered not only some very basic and introductory issues about starting out in a career in art but also points that were essential to ensure future success.
Think of it like this: if 95% of medical school graduates were not practicing medicine 5 years after school, there’d be a massive Congressional investigation into why our nation’s Universities were failing the medical community and the nation as a whole. But those are very common statistics for people that graduate with degrees in the world of art! It’s simply a fact that this proportion of graduates drift away from art after they leave school. It just seems that all too often they’re simply not prepared for going into the outside world – away from the nurturing environment of their friends and fellow students and so forth.
Of course, everyone has to make ends meet and getting started out in the arts is in no way an easy task. One thing leads to another and soon they have to find other jobs to get by... where suddenly they find they don’t work on their art for a year or so. Then boom, the next thing they know they’re raising kids, trying to pay mortgages and so on... and then there’s no time to go and start things up again. Too often they’ll look back and say, ‘oh I should have done that’ but by this stage in their lives, it’s just not feasible.
The same is true for those of us in Arts Administration. I’ve known a lot of people in this field that I’ve asked about their art. And they’ll say “Oh well, I did a lot of that stuff when I was back in school but I haven’t made in any art in years.” Fortunately, I learned very early on that you have to literally force yourself to keep doing it, at some level at least. I like to say, “You have to keep the pilot light lit.” If you quit, you may never get back to it.
I also saw, through my work in Arts Administration, that I could take a sense of reward and accomplishment by making it possible for other people to be involved in the world of the visual arts. Basically just helping creative people create. A lot of people don’t get that chance and I really think that too few institutions provide those opportunities for the general public. And so I have found that doing things like running an arts center including the Crealde and with other similar posts I’ve had have provided me with a very rewarding way to make it possible for others to have that opportunity.
And that’s one way that these ‘other’ worlds work so well together with Arts Administration for me. Sure, when you have a day job, your day job takes priority. Well, that is, if you want to keep that job. But it does allow you a lot of networking opportunities that are valuable for your career as an artist as well.
Isn’t there though something inherently contradictory about working in Administration (says the man who has worked years in Data Management) and trying to keep a creative career moving forwards?
Again, the older you get, the more difficult it is to balance both. When you’re full of that youthful energy – and maybe even still single (laughs) – then there’s a lot more opportunity to burn the candle at both ends so to speak. Then like what I said before: life takes off, there come all kinds of family obligations, you start thinking even about your longevity and how you’re going to make it financially after a certain age. So it becomes much more difficult to handle both at the same time.
That’s what I talk about when I mention the importance of maintaining ‘consistent activity’. You can see, for example, in my exhibitions history that there are some years where only one or two activities are listed. Therein lies a truth about the inherent difficulty of keeping everything consistently balanced and consistently running. Somehow I’ve managed to keep doing it, but it takes an enormous amount of effort and you have to stick at it. And it takes both so-called left- and right-brained efforts.
Clearly, if you want to thrive at being an artist, you have to do more than just make art – which in most cases you do because you enjoy it and it’s self-satisfying. But if you’re going to succeed at an artistic career, you’ve got to work at it using a lot of left brain activities, too. You’ve got to keep up your ‘administrative work’ including applying for grants or other opportunities, taking care of the photography of your portfolio. You’ve got to keep your résumé up-to-date, you have to constantly write proposals, you name it. I mean, there’s a lot of work involved that doesn’t necessarily feel like ‘art-making’ that is needed and that is essential in order to succeed.
How did you get interested specifically in sculpture as an art form?
I think it started for me when I was child, probably some time between when I was 9 – 11 years old. My father worked back then with a mining company in Florida. Since he quite often couldn’t focus on his own tasks during the week, he’d go in on weekends where he’d have the whole office to himself. You know, he could get a lot done without distractions and all. But my mother would always insist: “Take... this ... kid... with... you!” But as you can imagine, for a 10-year old boy just hanging around the mining offices was not interesting at all.
What was cool though is that typical of a mining operation, there was a kind of graveyard with old and broken machines and parts, you know a big field filled with metal stuff. It was called the ‘bone yard’ where all the worn out equipment got put. Plus, there were lots of great ‘characters’ that worked in the shop with the different equipment, repairing it and salvaging it for use one day. And within all that, I saw all these great sculptural shapes everywhere I looked. I think this sort of set me initially on the course of being a welder. It was just always so fascinating to me.
Did you have any particular main influences in terms of artists or art movements?
You’ve mentioned Alberto Giacometti. Certainly, Giacometti had a stylized work that in particular with my ‘Witness’ series of sculptures does resonate with many people as being like his work. Still, my own personal heroes in terms of ‘constructivist’ sculpture were more along the lines of David Smith or Marc di Suvero.
Still, I was fortunate to have exposure to a very broad range of artistic disciplines, including even ‘folk art’. For example, the sculptor in residence at Cranbrook when I was there – Michael Hall – he and his wife, Julie, had a huge collection of American folk art, which now belongs to the Milwaukee Museum. In addition, I’ve always been interested in pop culture and certainly artists including Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and particularly Joseph Cornell were all inspirations to me. Even after working on the ‘Plastiquarium’ series for some time now, I can still very much sense these influences in the forms I am making.
How did your journeys take you from Sunny Florida to Minneapolis, Michigan and eventually North Carolina (not that these other places are not sunny, too! Well, sometimes...)?
One can never anticipate what networking is going to do for you. A lot of this ‘travel’ had to do then with networking.
In the first case, this happened when my folks went up to visit some friends in Minneapolis. And as you’d expect, the guys did ‘guy things’ and the gals went and did ‘gal things’. Well, my mother was commiserating with one of her friends about me, you know: “Oh, he’s dropped out of school and he’s flopping around a bit. He wants to be an artist but...” And her friend said “Well, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design is just down the road and they’ve just done some major renovations. And they’re looking for students to help grow enrollment!”
Either that or I was pre-destined to study in places that begin with an ‘M’. I mean, I went to prep school in Massachusetts as well. (laughs)
Well, I guess that having lived in ‘N’ for North Carolina so long is a bit out of the trend?
It’s good here for my wife and me. The environment is very nurturing and professionally, there is definitely a very healthy appreciation for craft in North Carolina. Living here gives us a good balance of all the seasons and it’s close enough to where family members are that we can be there relatively quickly, you know, in a day’s drive or so. My wife and I enjoy it here a great deal.
You’ve mentioned ‘craft’ a number of times. Is there a big difference in your eyes between what is referred to as ‘craft’ versus ‘art’, or perhaps better said, ‘fine art’?
You’re touching on what I’ve called my ‘mid-life catharsis’: moving from metal sculpture to working on ‘Plastiquarium’.
When I did my master degree in sculpture, I steeped myself in the academic world. Then I went on to coordinate a graduate program in the visual arts and so forth and so on. But I’ve always been sort of baffled by aspects of the fine art movement that are not intellectually accessible to the general public. I don’t know if that makes sense or not.
What I mean is that if you get a masters degree in art, you understand fine arts: where it’s coming from and what the artists are trying to express. But if you don’t have that experience, you can look at an awful lot of post-modernist fine art and have no clue what’s going on. There’s frequently very little aesthetic, some of the work is even based on a type of anti-engineering, and it can appear to be (or it is) not well crafted at all. And for quite a number of years, I really wrestled with this problem, simply because my own work was very formalist and very much about it’s content and it’s message.
But as a result of this, it became increasingly clear to me that if I wanted to make art for a larger audience, I had to make work that didn’t switch them off at first impression. Still, this wasn’t some conscience choice; I never thought, “Oh, I’m going to cut detergent bottles to achieve this end.” But you know, when you’re an artist, you’re always sort of scanning the horizon and listening to what the muses are saying to you. It’s like networking: you can’t predict what that message is going to be or how it’s going to come to you. But hopefully, you can recognize it when it does.
I think it was Tom Wolfe who said something to the effect that “Post-modernist art is post-audience art.” That’s kind of saying it’s simply art for other artists. And I guess, if you can make it in that world and survive just in that arena, well, hey, that’s great! But I think that in general there’s a lot of opportunity in the art world for involving the larger public. Therefore, as I see it, the world of ‘craft’ is a point of access for the general public. They can appreciate and relate to good ceramic work, they can appreciate intricate fiber work and quality metal working and so on. And so I embrace craft as being the kind of art that does have this level of accessibility.
Continued in Part 2
All pictures used by exclusive written permission by David Edgar. All images and the use of titles, including references to ‘Plastiquarium’ are strictly for use in this article and may not be copied or otherwise utilized without express permission by the artist or the respective agencies depicted.
Picture descriptions Part 1
1. ‘Birthday Fish’, 24" x 44" x 6"
2. David Edgar
3. ‘Rainbow Snuggeel’, 8" x 84" x 9"
4. ‘Plastiquarium’ - Overall View of exhibit at Hickory Museum of Art, Jan - July 2007
5. ‘Big Lobster’, 10" x 18" x 33"
6. ‘Goggle-Eyed Swallowtail’, 19" x 29" x 2"
7. ‘Witness Waiting in the Wings’, 20" x 11" x 12"
8. ‘Witness Considering A Quest’, 19" x 23" x 14"
9. ‘Royal Clockhead’, 15" x 14" x 4"
10. ‘Snub-Nosed Green Feeder’, 21" x 36" x 4"
11. ‘Raggedtailed Dragon Fish’, 30" x 64" x 9"