Interdisciplinary. Community. Advocacy. Humor.
Aaron McIntosh is an fiber artist and professor at Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA). He received a BFA from the Appalachian Center for Craft an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. Aaron was one of first ten recipients of the Windgate Undergraduate Fellowship in 2006. His extensive experience as a professor and artist and has exhibited both nationally and internationally.
Please give a short bio of the path you have taken to your current state in life through education, employment, residencies, and other artistic ventures.
I have known that I wanted to be an artist since I was a preschooler. I was obsessed with drawing as a young kid, and then later became obsessed with sewing, making small quilts and clothing. I do not come from a family of artists or even creative entrepreneurs, but I do come from a family of makers, craftsman, tinkerers and hobbyists. My father is a woodworker and amateur architect, and all of my grandmothers were skilled quiltmakers. I am convinced that my artistic and creative path began as I was surrounded by so much making and an air of family eccentricity in my early years.
When I left home for college, I already knew I wanted to do something engaging textiles, but at that point, I thought I was headed for fashion. My freshman year of college at Virginia Commonwealth University was a heady year, but an incredibly informative one—I learned to hone my conceptual ideas, and gained a lifelong love of experimental drawing. I also fell in with a group of anarchists at the outbreak of the Iraq War, and decided to leave all institutions for the time being, and dropped out of school. After moving back to Tennessee and working on a CSA farm for some time, and visiting various intentional communities (communes) around the Southeast, I decided the communal life was for me. I wanted then to learn a traditional textile skill, such as weaving, dyeing or printing, that I could utilize in a small cottage industry setting. This prompted me to attend the Appalachian Center for Craft, in Smithville, TN, in 2003, arriving with all these lofty ideals of a small craft educational community, and a neo-hippy vision of a traditional enterprise for myself. I quickly realized that my outlook on life was too contemporary, too critical and too unconventional to ever fit into this traditional craft and back-to-the-land lifestyle—that year in Richmond had critically shaped my social and artist outlooks in life. I finished school at the Craft Center in three short years, eventually coming out as a queer guy, and trying hard to fit my weird sculptural studies in soft materials and quilt-like objects into a craft context… somehow I survived.
I moved to Knoxville, TN, with my then partner, and set-up shop. I had received a Windgate Undergraduate Fellowship to research intersections of quiltmaking and gender identity through a body of work. The fellowship was generous, and I was able to not immediately look for work, but rather, could focus on building my first studio, making my work and taking workshops to learn new techniques. I met a group of people renting studios in the same space, and we banded together to form an artist collective and community arts space called Birdhouse Laboratories. It was a fun and informative venture in running an art space and interacting with the public. I also had three solo exhibitions at local, artist-run galleries in Knoxville, and those were particularly important growth activities for my emerging art career.
I applied to several top schools with Fiber programs, deciding that I wanted to stay within a textile context for graduate studies, but looked for programs that I knew would push my own limits in that field. I ended up choosing VCU because I liked the interdisciplinary feel of their Craft/Material Studies program and the urban nature of their campus. I gave VCU a second try, and this time it definitely stuck! I had an incredible two years of pushing and being pushed to redefine my sensibilities, aesthetics, materiality and process. The faculty were fabulous and I reached out to a number of other departments on campus to seek the knowledge or skills I was after. I finished with a thesis exhibition that I was incredibly proud of, that had taken stock of so many themes in my work and condensed them into a cohesive body of installation works.
During the final semester of grad school, I applied for teaching jobs, not even knowing if that was expressly what I wanted to do after school, but I put a lot of energy into the applications anyway. I got an interview with another Virginia school, James Madison University, and eventually got the position of tenure-track Assistant Professor of Fiber. I was elated! Teaching jobs in this field are limited, and landing one right out of school seemed like a golden unicorn had stepped across my path. So while many of my peers from grad school went on to do residencies and pursue gallerist representation, I began a teaching career. The transition from full-time student to full-time professor was swift and tough, but I found ways to manage everything. In my first (and only) year at JMU, I was tasked with rebuilding a Fiber program that had sat vacant of a faculty member for two years, redesign and equip current studios, teach all levels from freshman to graduate students, draft curriculum changes for accreditation reviews, and work with architects to design Fiber facilities for a new building in 2014. What a year…I look back and wonder when I ever slept. On top of all the teaching duties, I had three successful solo exhibitions of new works, and was included in a host of group shows.
I applied to the Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) listing for a Fiber faculty position, thinking I would probably never get an interview. As it turns out, I fit the bill for what they were looking for to diversify their department, and now I am here at MICA, working with some of the most inspiring colleagues a college art professor could ever hope for. I teach a variety of technical courses, from hand-knitting to digital textile printing. Being at MICA and in the city of Baltimore provides so many opportunities to engage my students (and myself) in a larger, funkier art community. In many ways, the plethora of traditional textile skills I teach has begun to influence and inspire my studio practice. I am growing as a teacher and beginning to see myself in this role for a long time. All around, I feel like I have landed in a near-perfect spot to set-up my art career, make connections along the Northeast corridor and build a strong art community here.
The Embrace, 2011.
How were you financially able to make things work during your journey to where you are now? (teaching, unrelated jobs, selling of your work, financial support from a partner or family, loans…. please be as general or specific as you are comfortable with)
This is such an American question! With such overwhelmingly little support at the public or private level in regards to arts funding in this country, of course there is curiosity as to how artists “get by” or “make a living while supporting their practice.” Things have only gotten worse for us. According to a recent report on NPR’s Studio 360 program, the creative class has taken the hardest hit of all during the past few years’ economic recession, with mutual despise for its cohort from both liberal and conservative leaders, who view the work of artists, writers, musicians and performers as “self-indulgent” and “unnecessary” during society-wide financial hardships. Consistent data on unemployment in creative fields is hard to nail down though, because the creative class so often dips into other working classes to supplement income or for total financial support.
Figuring out how to make your work and make money to support yourself has never been easy, and it continues to be a struggle for me. Somehow, I have been fortunate for three reasons: I received grants and fellowships at crucial times in my young career, I landed jobs that unknowingly would come in very handy later on, and I have entered the teaching field.
I was one of the first ten recipients of the Windgate Undergraduate Fellowship in 2006, and it helped me in the specific ways it was designed for: to bridge the gap between students leaving undergraduate craft programs and starting their first studio practice. The $15,000 fellowship made it possible to continue work began in undergrad, and not immediately begin working to “make ends meet.” I did take the odd restaurant job to be able to afford rent and other bills, but everything for the studio came out of that grant. With my craft school know-how, I also began a small business making screen-printed t-shirts, totebags, cards and prints, as well as patchwork scarves and other fiber one-of-a-kind pieces. I would mostly sell these items at DIY Craft shows in Knoxville, but I also tried selling a few on Etsy, without much success. The Oddmarks business helped supplement my income, but I when the grant funding cycle was coming to a close, I was faced with finding gainful employment in a city with no real arts jobs. I applied to an administrative assistant job listing at the local community-owned food cooperative, Three Rivers Market. The co-op was an incredibly supportive environment, allowing me to take time off work to complete exhibitions and attend workshops. I eventually became the Bookkeeper for the store, and that provided a wealth of knowledge in fiscal management, business organization and taxes. I never imagined that this job would have such a big pay-off (other than the ability to file my own business taxes!) but the skills I learned as a bookkeeper helped me manage the budget of the Fiber program I would run at James Madison, and knowledge of departmental budgeting helped get me my job at MICA, where we have a rotating Chair position.
When I decided that graduate school was the next step from my experiences in Knoxville, I was again incredibly fortunate to receive two merit-based fellowships to attend grad school at VCU. I did have to borrow a significant amount of money to cover one semester’s tuition, living expenses and studio supplies, and those are student loans that I will continue to pay off for a number of years.
I am incredibly fortunate to have held two full-time teaching positions since leaving graduate school. I actually get a little teary-eyed when I think about it too much—how privileged I am to have been offered such prestigious teaching positions in the midst of our country’s recession. It is a privilege that is hard to wear sometimes, especially when I see the sacrifices that so many other working artists have to make. At the end of the day, though, I believe that the work I do as a teacher is valuable: I am teaching young people hand skills in the age of computerization, training them to look very critically at their visual worlds, and encouraging them to be the cultural workers of their own time. Academic teaching is not the dreamy kind of work I once naively imagined it to be—there are very long hours spent behind the scenes—but it does provide a good steady income that supports my lifestyle and studio practice, and frees me from the constraints of making commercially-driven work. Of course, working for universities or colleges has many added benefits other than your paycheck. There is access to facilities and equipment, research funding and professional development support. But more importantly, there is a larger community of like-minded individuals—colleagues, students, support staff—who believe in the power of art education to transform lives, communities and critical inquiry.
I have worked only minimally with commercial galleries, mainly because full-time teaching commitments keep me from a studio practice that lends itself to production. I worked with a gallerist for one year, straight out of grad school, in Richmond, and that experience was fraught with disorganization, false hope and sour relations. However, I recognize the many benefits to having gallery representation: consistent solo shows every couple of years, a storage place for works and the opportunity to work with collectors. Despite efforts to establish relationships across the country, I have found it hard to enter the gallery world if you don’t have very close connections. Thankfully, this is not too much of a worry for me and I can keep producing the kind of work in my studio that doesn’t pander to its marketability.
Please estimate the break down of the percentage of your time (in a week or month) spent in your studio, at related jobs, unrelated jobs, marketing, working with galleries, craft fairs, time with family and friends, or other relevant categories.
Percentage of time spent, broken down over a month’s time
Teaching prep: 10%
Service-related to school/community: 5%
Personal time with family/friends: 15%
Viewing art/museums/art community: 5%
Looking back at the opportunities you have had which do you feel have directed or benefited your current path the most? Are there things you would have done differently, opportunities you would not have taken, bigger risks you would have made, etc?
The Windgate Undergraduate Fellowship is definitely my first big opportunity that directed my current path as an artist. With this grant I basically stocked my first studio, buying all this equipment that had only previously existed as a dream: sewing machines, a serger, a frame quilting machine, print tables, silkscreens, a digital SLR camera, and countless small supplies. I took workshops on techniques that I hadn’t learned in school to supplement my studio activities. These workshops also unknowingly provided my first professional contacts out in the larger field of both textiles, craft and fine arts. Many of the people I would meet at places like Haystack and Arrowmont have become part of my professional and social network (extending far beyond the limits of Facebook).
In Knoxville, my three solo exhibitions provided me with my first professional opportunities, and the challenge of creating new work, pushing boundaries in response to the feedback I received from the art community. Those three years provided an amazing spring-board for the next steps of grad school and professorship.
The opportunities that graduate school provided are too numerous to list here, but mainly concentrate on the expansion of my critical inquiry into my own practice, and abundant networking opportunities via professors in other departments, visiting artists and critics.
I keep thinking about what bigger risks I would have taken… Truthfully, I feel like I have always taken big risks. I have always made the kind of work I wanted to make, unrestrained from convention. I’ve unabashedly engaged the spaces between art and craft, and kept a foot in both doors. I’ve picked-up and moved my life from place to place, following the path I thought I needed to be on. The only thing I would have done differently is expanding my international scope at an earlier stage. I just recently traveled abroad, and am only now learning how important it is to be outside of your own context—to look at your culture from another perspective.
Big Little Man, 2010.
Where do you hope your career will be in five years? (Especially in relationship to the breakdown of your time spent in the studio, at related jobs, unrelated jobs, teaching, with family. Are there galleries you hope to be in? Have a solo exhibition? Have studio employees, bookkeeper, etc?)
I actually think about my “five year plan” quite a bit! I don’t think my goals are unusual for someone in my career; they are actually rather simple.
I want to devote more time to my studio, with the hope that as I become more settled in my teaching position I will have more time for that. I want to be a more effective yet efficient teacher towards this goal. I want to cultivate more specific time and energy to my relationships and my personal health. I want to save more money and work towards buying a house/studio combination in Baltimore.
I want to have at least one solo exhibition every two years, and create specific bodies of work for these shows. Installation and site have become increasingly important support systems for my work, and I want to focus on finding galleries, non-profit spaces or other locations to show work that best meet the needs of the works (i.e. raw walls or intimate viewing space).
I also want to finish two separate bodies of work within the next two years. Throughout 2011, I made a daily cutting of an attractive guy from either a romance novel or erotica source, accumulating a hefty collection of 365 guys. This project is called the Chronicles of Cruising and I am working on creating both a book (romance novel) and web-based work. The other project began with a series of intuitively placed figures on personal items of clothing. Blowing up some of the small cuttings of men taken from romance novels in another work, NSA Boyfriends, and printing them on cloth, I mounted these to the insides of a few shirts. This work became the Wearing Him series, and I want to figure out ways to engineer prints of the men on printed garment pieces, so they are actually embedded in the garment patterns. This project will be a mountain of work, and require me to learn more garment pattern design, but I’m so looking forward to it! I want to make around 100 garments in the series and display them in something akin to a retail thrift shop, and actually sell the works off the racks, with the notion of dispensing desire.
It would be great to have gallery representation in the next five years. I have scouted out a few galleries on the East Coast that I feel would be appropriate venues for my work, but I also wouldn’t mind working with a gallery in Berlin if the opportunity arose. The art scene there provides much more access for non-traditional, counter-genre work. Otherwise, I am not too worried about it.
I would like to start writing articles, reviews and research pieces for art publications, and field publications like Surface Design Journal or the Journal of Material Culture. I have always enjoyed writing and critical analysis, and want to contribute my knowledge of textiles, craft, queer subjectivity and identity politics to the output of these publications.
I want to find venues to exhibit a queer textile-themed exhibit that my Fiber colleague Jesse Harrod and I curated for a gallery proposal. I have curated a couple of other small shows in the Richmond area, and would like to continue these activities, but geared more towards my specific research interests.
I want to teach more workshops like the one I offered at Arrowmont this past summer: “Finding/Losing Yourself in Quilted Pattern.” In the workshop, I covered basic DIY cloth printing methods using your home computer and printer, and how to embed these cloth images into traditional quilted patterns. It was so much fun! Workshops are a nice condensed amount of time to both teach and learn a small set of skills. You get to meet so many new people and reconnect with craft friends from past experiences.
I want to attend a romance novel writing workshop! They actually offer these at a small school in Texas.
Feel free to ask questions in the comment section. Also, be sure to view more of Aaron's work on his website at http://www.aaronmcintosh.com.