Artists’ Voices in My Head

By: Catie Anderson, curator of education on April 10th, 2013

Woodson Art Museum staff is feeling the heat as we gear up for Friday’s opening of three exciting new exhibitions: Torqued & Twisted: Bentwood Today, Functional & Abstract: New Work by Jason Ramey, and Beguiled by the Wild: The Art of Charley Harper. While the galleries are busy being transformed from one exhibition to the next, the offices upstairs are high energy as well. Everyone has preparations to make before the galleries open and the new programming begins.

One of my duties is the development of the audio tour for the new exhibitions. Sometimes this means scripting an audio tour – selecting artworks and attempting to write engaging but succinct nuggets of interpretative copy. Other times, ideally, it means inviting artists to narrate their own artwork on view. Through email exchanges, phone calls, and many trips to Dropbox artists provide me with audio files of self-conducted interviews, created with the guidance of prompts like:

  • Speak clearly and not too quickly
  • It’s fine to ramble a bit – I will edit your audio files down to one or two minutes
  • Please begin with “Hello, my name is _____ and I’m from . . .
  • Act as though you are in the gallery, standing next to your work and you are introducing it to someone who has just approached it.
  • Share tidbits of information: insights, anecdotes about creating the work, process, etc…

For many artists, recording themselves for an audio tour interview, which typically would be conducted in person by me or other Museum staff, is a new experience. Other artists are experienced with technology and giving audiences a behind-the-scenes look into their studios, tools, and techniques. No matter the experience level, the results are always worth the effort.

Writing about someone else’s artwork is “the norm” and can yield incredibly insightful and informative catalogue essays, articles, or in this case, sound bytes. Hearing directly from the creator, though, is my preference. Hearing the voice, personality, and story-telling abilities of an artist colors the viewing of their artwork. I love receiving the audio files and giving them a first listen. After reading about an artist and his or her work, especially works that I am drawn to most, I have some idea of what the artist will sound like or what their personality may be. It’s like meeting someone you’ve been emailing with for a long time or like picking up an artist-in-residence up at the airport after months of phone calls and exchanges.

Torqued & Twisted: Bentwood Today features the work of nine contemporary artists who use the process of bending wood to create a range of artwork – from abstract sculptures to stylish furniture pieces and everything in between. Five of the nine artists (so far) will share their stories and voices with visitors in the galleries via the audio tour. One of the exhibition’s curators, artist and UW-Madison Art Department Chair, Tom Loeser, will be filmed by curator of exhibitions Andy McGivern and me on Friday afternoon, just hours before the exhibition opening, for a “virtual gallery walk.” One of the many benefits to having an audio tour app available to visitors through iPod touches is video capabilities. Loeser’s popularity as an artist and prowess as a curator make him an ideal video addition to the audio tour.

Jason Ramey demos his steam box for Museum staff
Jason Ramey explores his Functional & Abstract gallery

Artist Jason Ramey also will lend his voice for an audio tour complementing his exhibition, Functional & Abstract. In addition to his assistance with in-gallery interpretation through the Museum’s audio tour, Ramey is offering opening weekend programs for the public, including a gallery walk through the bentwood exhibitions followed by a wood-bending demonstration with his steam box.

I can’t imagine my work at the Woodson Art Museum without “relying on the kindness of strangers” – a.k.a. artists – who graciously provide insights that welcome us into their worlds.

What would you like to learn from bentwood artists?

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