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Jennifer Davis and Tricia Khutoretsky: After artists get the grant

Pollen asked Jennifer and Tricia to describe their relationship to travel, grant funding, and Minnesota’s art.

During the next two weeks, you can walk through the doors at Public Functionary and find yourself surrounded by a carousel of Jennifer Davis paintings. The exhibition is filled with glittering lights, swings, and fantastical depictions of neon creatures galloping to greet you. Public Functionary’s Tricia Khutoretsky has created a perfect setting for Jennifer Davis’ work. Davis’ playful paintings are complemented by Khutoretsky’s dark walls, which hint at greater depths bubbling under the paintings’ deceivingly sugary first impressions. Jennifer is a genuinely kind and nurturing person with a very, very, very rich imagination. When Jennifer retreats into the attic of her mind, she emerges with a trove of artwork exploring the inner lives of long-fingered, sullen girls alongside hulking, grinning beasts. If her color palette is candy flavored, the content is steeped in a fine whiskey.

Jennifer calls herself a hustler. She has a very active etsy account, and calls painting pet portraits her “day job.” The artist has come to be something of a local celebrity for her talent and charm. Budding artists fawn over the fact she has been supporting herself off of her art for over a decade. But with this exhibition, Jennifer wanted to achieve more. In 2012, Jennifer was awarded a Next Step Grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and the McKnight Foundation. She received significant funding to “research, create, and document a body of large-scale paintings based on vintage carousel animals and traditional carousel vignette paintings.”

In the summer of 2013, Jennifer set out to deliver on the challenge. Jennifer stepped outside her imagination and into a car with her partner, to travel the east coast, along the Atlantic Ocean, to visit eight states in eight days and dozens of carousels. She planned for bigger work and for deeper research. Jennifer’s roadtrip guided her discovery of new characters, subjects, and inspiration for her work. Along the way, she found she was passionate about sharing her experience of travel and art research to change the way Minnesotans currently think about funding the arts.

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The travel and research were life changing. When she returned home, the subject matter required a larger surface area, which required both larger paint brushes and power tools to blow up the aesthetic she is known for. She filled her home studio with very large panels and dreamed of filling Public Functionary with a new direction for her work. The stories lurking behind the imagery are still very much the same. The work is beautiful and haunting, the Jennifer Davis touch is unmistakable.

Pollen asked Jennifer and Tricia to describe their relationship to travel, grant funding, and Minnesota’s art. One thing is certain, both are deeply dedicated to their work and the work of others. These two women will be important to a healthy future of the Twin Cities art ecosystem.

Photo by Micheal Johnson for Public Functionary

Pollen: Tricia, can you speak to your commitment to feature local and international artists in the same exhibition space?

Tricia: I think that my curatorial approach to the artists we are featuring is built on what I naturally gravitate to. I grew up overseas and have spent considerable time in my life traveling. I truly believe that understanding the world around you leads to tolerance and compassion. I also consider Minneapolis very much my home. So for me, it feels right to explore what is here as well as what is happening elsewhere. Specifically, I think a mix of perspectives provides global context for contemporary art. Artists are influenced by their environments, communities and cultures, and through them we can learn more. Featuring only one perspective (that of a Minnesota artist), is not the mission of Public Functionary. The space aims to help people explore contemporary art and understand artists better, in order to do that, I think it’s important to look at a broader picture of the art world.

Pollen: How did you pick Jennifer Davis as your first local artist?

Tricia: I chose Jennifer Davis as our first local artist because she is not only defined as a Minnesota-based artist, but her subject matter for this show allowed her to explore and travel to find inspiration. Besides the fact that her concept for the show was fascinating and exciting, I also appreciate her approach to being an artist. She’s an interesting individual; in how she shares her work online, makes a living as a creative, and supports other artists and the vitality of the art community as well.

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Pollen: Jennifer, how important is grant funding to the work you are doing currently?

Jennifer: For my current exhibition, I took a road trip up and down the U.S. East Coast to research vintage carousels from the early 1900s. I visited eight states in eight days and I lost track of how many carousels stops I made. I would not have been able to take that kind of travel/research trip without the grant support. With so many carousels sprinkled all over the East coast I felt that only sensible way to visit them was via a road trip. As a full-time, self-employed artist I just don’t have the funds to take off on that kind of trip and stop working for that length of time. The chance to see my subject matter up close, in person, and to really immerse myself in the full, crazy sensory experience of carousel culture was infinitely more rewarding than looking at pictures in books or Google Image Searches. I was able to create my own source materials in the form of photos, videos, sketches, etc. As a result, I think the final paintings are more personal and reflective of my true vision. Not to mention the fact that from the time I received the grant to the completion of my solo exhibition at Public Functionary two full years will have passed. The funding was a great motivator to keep going and keep pushing myself to do my best work. The entire time I was conscious of the fact that I needed to honor the financial support of my work by taking it to the next level.

Photo by Micheal Johnson for Public Functionary

Pollen: You have both mentioned that you wanted a piece of the conversation around this show to focus on grants and travel as they pertain to Minnesotan artists. Why?

Jennifer: Right around the time I was hitting the road there was a dust up in the local press about artists supposedly using travel grant money to fund lavish “vacations.” I hate to even bring it up again because it was a really backhanded attack by a small but vocal few. However, those ridiculous tactics worked and in the end the Minnesota Legislature was basically forced to create new rules limiting MSAB grantees to travel within state lines. Although, the grant I received, A “Next Step Grant” from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council / McKnight Foundation, is privately funded and so not affected by the new rules, I was still heartsick about the shortsightedness of limiting artists to travel/research within our state. It is such an insular way of thinking—to believe that there is nothing to be gained by researching things outside our own borders and coming home to make art to share within our communities. I was also really paranoid that I too would be attacked in the press. I felt afraid that I would not be able to defend my project as eloquently as some of my peers were forced to do. Now that the dust is settled, I feel that there is more room for civil discussion about this issue and it is my hope that there will be a reexamination of the rules. I can assure you; while visiting carousels was fun it was not a vacation. A lot of my time was spent in the car getting from one carousel to the next—cursing Siri’s navigating skills (and wondering how people ever did road trips without her). Road trips aren’t as glamorous as they look on TV. I worked harder on this project than anything else I have ever done in my entire life.

Tricia: I thought it was important to highlight the impact and outcome of Jennifer’s travel grant. Especially given the specific issue Jennifer goes into detail about. We have generous and amazing arts support in the Twin Cities, and we can’t take it for granted. As we have seen, grant guidelines can change in an instant (regardless of the legitimacy of the claims that lead to that change). Grant money is public money and we (artists and arts managers) need to be pro-active about sharing examples and evidence of the benefits to the community based on the funding, otherwise it can be easily be misunderstood.

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Pollen: Do you have favorite examples of other local artists making work inspired by traveling?

Jennifer: One of my favorite local artists is Melissa Loop. Her biggest projects have included International travel/research to make surreal, gorgeous, eerie landscape paintings that “confront the fantasy and reality of the exotic and the ways in which tourism and cultural stereotypes are shaping cultural preservation and identity.” One look at her travel journal and you can see how hard she works. Just because the destination is beautiful should we exclude it from being the source of thoughtful and meaningful work? Does it make sense to think that work/research must be ugly and horrible? Should Minnesota artists limit their ideas to Minnesota subjects in order to receive grants? She is a treasure and we are lucky to have her in Minnesota. I hope she continues to get the funding support she deserves.

Pollen: What do you each personally think Minnesota gains from local artists traveling outside the state to do research for their work?

Tricia: I think Minnesota gains a more vibrant art community and more opportunity for experiences that inspire, educate, and teach. If we are going to continue funneling money into artists as an investment in our local culture, we should be enabling them to explore and research. Because if not, the downside is funding artists to create the same art over and over. Our experiences with art will become predictable and expected. Instead, artists have the potential to be our cultural ambassadors. I will likely never have an opportunity to go travel to eight cities and tour vintage carousels (an American folk tradition). However Jennifer was able to do so based on her grant, and she produced an entire exhibit that shares her experience, learning, and joy with whoever is interested in coming to see it. The gallery hours for Jennifer’s show have been busy since the opening night. Viewers of all ages have spent time taking in the art for long periods of time, talking to each other about what they are observing, reading the narrative and swinging in the gallery! Certainly kids and teenagers have enjoyed this show, but something about the pure joy of discovering carousel animals resonates with all ages. Everyone leaves happy and inspired. These types of art experiences are absolutely worthwhile.

Jennifer: When we talk about what makes our state great “Arts & Culture” are right up near the top of the list. Minnesota is lucky to have so many talented artists living and working in every corner of our communities. Supporting their artistic visions and creative outputs lifts up our local cultures. If we attempt to stifle this or negate their contributions to our communities, artists will leave. Traveling outside the state and bringing home new knowledge, ideas, and inspiration can elevate new perspectives for everyone that accepts the invitation to engage.

Photo by Micheal Johnson for Public Functionary

Pollen: What is one thing you want the public to understand about the way grants work to fuel artwork made in Minnesota?

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Tricia: Particularly, I want the public to understand the potential of investing in artists. In today’s world it is becoming more important to understand each other and the world around us. Artists have the incredible ability to express and highlight the things that we often overlook. They provide an escape and a place to dream about what’s possible. And Minnesota has actually already agreed on this idea, enough to allocate a portion of tax dollars to the Land and Legacy Fund, because we value as a collective whole the impact of arts and culture on our society. I’d like for there to be more trust in the organizations (the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and the State Arts Board) that the funds are being allocated in a regulated and competitive system. As well, if the public has questions and concerns about how the funds are being spent, I would encourage them to actually visit the galleries, ask questions, and give artists the chance to share what they are producing before jumping to conclusions that lead to detrimental limitations on artists.

Jennifer: The decision to grant an artist funding is not made lightly. Artists must go through an involved submission process where their proposal is reviewed by esteemed local arts leaders, peers, etc. Artists are required to prove a certain level of merit and seriousness in their work, their goals, and their proposed ideas. I urge folks to keep in mind that many artists make works that are not tangible/saleable (such as dance, performance, large scale sculpture…) so grant funding is essential to sustaining their practices. Many apply and few are rewarded. It is an honor that is not taken lightly. Once funding is awarded the money is spent in a pre-approved manner. There is not a lavish vacation to be found! Artwork is work. I believe that the state of Minnesota strongly supports its artists—as proven by the commitment of funding to the Legacy Amendment / Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund. Minnesota artists are proving their worth everyday. Look around!

You can find Jennifer’s work at Public Functionary through April 25th. You can follow Jennifer all over the internet, where she admits to “oversharing everyday.” But don’t miss her blog chronicling her road trip journey, Merry-Go-Round-About.

Photo by Micheal Johnson for Public Functionary

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