Adrian Arleo

Adrian Arleo is a ceramic sculptor living outside Missoula, Montana. She studied Art and Anthropology at Pitzer College (B.A. 1983) and received her M.F.A. in ceramics from Rhode Island School of Design in 1986. Arleo was an Artist in Residence at Oregon College of Art and Craft in 1986-87, and at Sitka Center For Art and Ecology in 1987-88. For nearly thirty years, Arleo has focused her work on the human figure, often combining it with animal imagery, and other elements of the natural world. Some works allude to a relationship of understanding or connection between the human and animal realms. In others, human figures possess animal features in a way that reveals something hidden about the character or primal nature of the human.

What was the most difficult for you when you finished school?

When I was finishing grad school, I applied for both teaching jobs and residencies. I was kind of at the mercy of whatever would open up for me. Teaching jobs were tough to get– as they continue to be. I had done a couple of interviews at a CAA conference and was a finalist for a small school in the Midwest; that wasn’t really something I had my heart invested in, and I wasn’t offered the position anyway. Instead, I received a residency at the Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland. That turned out to be a really great opportunity; it was a lively place with a lot of things going on. I had space to do my work, and I was able to do a little teaching and odd jobs around the studio. It was a nice transition from being in a supportive school environment to doing my own thing. To land in a place with facilities and people around doing interesting work, well, it really helped to keep momentum going. That was a great stepping stone. When I drove from Rhode Island all the way to Oregon, I didn’t know if it would be a place I’d connect with. I ended up loving it there, and met my husband, so I stayed. I felt really lucky with how that transition went- from school to “life”. I started working with some galleries, which at that time were thriving. This was the mid to late 80s. It was a really supportive gallery scene around Portland. From there I expanded where I was showing and had pretty good success with sales, so that became my trajectory. Since I was marrying my husband and he was very much rooted in Portland and the Northwest, the option of applying for teaching jobs elsewhere was not in the making. I really focused on doing my studio work, with a little bit of teaching and workshops here and there.

Humm, I guess I didn’t really answer the question directly about what was the hardest thing after school. In backing up a bit, I’d have to pin that “most difficult thing” on when I was graduating from college, and applied to grad schools in ceramics. I wasn’t accepted into my first choice program, which was University of WA, Seattle. That was pretty devastating, and felt like a derailment for the plan I’d laid out. But after a clunker of a year at another school back east, I transferred to RISD, and felt like life got back on track.

What were your professional goals out of school and have you achieved them? You’ve touch on that a little but could you expand on how goals can change?

When I was getting out of grad school, it wasn’t like I had my heart set on teaching, or that I thought that was my greatest strength. It was more a question of how do I make a go of this? Teaching seemed like a path that could generate a steady income while I pursued making my art. Showing and selling work is not necessarily going to create a dependable livelihood, but I found that I did alright and my galleries branched out. Because things opened for me in that way, I was able to focus primarily on making work, rather than teaching. I’d say that was definitely my ideal professional goal- to spend my life making art. I also have children (now in their early 20s), so it’s been quite fulfilling.

You’ve started talking about galleries. When you exhibit your work how do you know what venues are right for you and how do you find them? How has that changed since you started?

It’s been a pretty interesting journey. In the beginning, my first experience working with a gallery was with Maveety Gallery in downtown Portland. That was in 1987. They had a fantastic exhibit of figurative ceramic sculpture soon after I moved there.
Because of that show, it seemed like an appropriate gallery to approach. The space was good and I respected the artists they represented. So, I invited the gallery director to come up to OCAC to see my work. They were very interested, took some work and had a featured exhibition. Some of the pieces sold, which prompted the gallery to be interested in continuing to work with me.

From there another gallery in California saw my work– Susan Cummins– that was a really nice gallery but closed many years ago. I was lucky to have Susan see my work and approach me. In the beginning I didn’t do a whole lot of approaching.(still don’t) It was like a catalyst that lead to more connections. I must admit, I haven’t been super strategic about finding the “perfect” gallery and the “perfect” place. I’ve been content to work with galleries that have nice exhibition spaces, a stable of artists that I mostly respect, and directors/owners who are solid to work with. Some galleries I’ve liked more than others. I’ve worked with some galleries where it seemed like an appropriate place but then the owners or directors wanted to operate in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with. I don’t want to go into detail about that, but it’s important to trust the person who is representing your work. I’ve left a few galleries because of that and sometimes it’s like biting the hand that feeds you. It’s a tough call. One that doesn’t always work out financially.

Right now I’m in a “funny” position because the Seattle gallery that I’ve worked with for 8 years closed earlier this year and the Santa Fe gallery that I’ve worked with for quite a long time was bought by new owners who are taking it in a different direction. So now I’m in a position where I need to start looking around again after working with galleries for almost 30 years. I think this time I’ll try to be more strategic (!) and really consider where the best market might be for what I do.

Since 2008 it’s been a pretty tough go. A lot of brick and mortar, physical galleries have closed, with virtual galleries becoming a more viable way to do business, at least for the owners. Plus, the kind of work I do– figurative sculpture– seems to go in and out of style. I just keep doing my thing and eventually it comes back around.

It’s an interesting period in my life right now. My kids are grown and out of the house; that’s a big tumultuous and emotional transition. The whole energy of our place is different, and I’m in a new phase of my life,–even biologically. That may sound silly, but I know it influences how I experience things, which in turn impacts my work. I’m mentioning all this because things are shifting, and where they’re shifting to, I don’t know. Last year I took a fair amount of time off from making work. My husband’s mother was in hospice and died, and there were other things going on. After three decades of making and showing, I needed to take time out, to not feel like I had to make things. It was a necessary breather. Other than when my kids were born, I hadn’t really taken a break. It felt critical to give it a rest and regroup and make my way back in. Not having the pressure of a solo show was helpful; it takes a solid year for me to get a body of work together, and even then I feel pressure to have more. It’s hard to give each piece it’s time with that hanging over head. My best work doesn’t come out of that situation.

You’ve been talking about the best way for you to work. I was wondering what do you feel exerts a stronger influence on your work success or failure?

I’ve learned way more from failure, definitely. Through struggle you can come to new perspectives and get pushed in ways that aren’t comfortable, but really help you grow and stretch. Success is like cruising along, there is no kind of jolt or shift. I’ve always learned something when things don’t go as planned. Still, in light of that, I try not to get caught up in reviews too much. When I’m making work, I don’t want someone else’s opinion of what I should do or how my work should change, in my head. Failure it terms of someone else’s judgment, I don’t want to rely on that. I go by my own sense of what is a failure, either visually not pulling it off, or technically having a struggle. Those are always the most critical moments, in a good way. I always ask myself ‘What can I learn from this?’ Every time I’ve had something seriously go wrong, after feeling sick for a while I ask ‘what can I take from this?’

Did you have the same problem in school with too much criticism?

Grad school was really interesting in that way because initially when I got there I was an open book. I was there to learn and eager for feedback and suggestions. I was hungry to be there, take things seriously– consume and digest. I had some intense critiques in the beginning, I remember one that was quite crushing, but very helpful. I stayed open, and that lead to some positive growth. During the second semester, one of my professors, Jacquie Rice, felt my work was getting too figurative and literal. She was very opposed to that direction and said ‘don’t get representational, keep it ambiguous and abstracted’. The pieces of mine that she was more drawn to had interesting things going on, but I didn’t have a sense of what they were about. Something was lacking. I didn’t feel a connection at an emotional level. Working more directly with the figure gave me a sense of clearer content, something to grab a hold of. I understood that this was the point where our personal aesthetics and reason for making work parted, and at that point in the road I was going to have to go down my own path. The figure was speaking to me in a way that’s more like storytelling. Maybe not so easy-to-read or understand, but it feels rich in content. There were other faculty who were more akin to that direction, so there was some support. Initially in school it’s important to be really open. But at some point later on, you have to gain a sense of your own independent voice/vision, and work at carefully editing the advice and pressure coming from other people.

How do you balance your time between life in the studio life at home and maybe how has that changed now that your girls have moved out?

When we lived in Portland we shared a nanny with some neighbors, trading off between our house and theirs. I liked having the kids nearby so I could pop in during lunch or breaks to see them, still be a part of their day. When we moved here (Montana) we had child care at home. I look back on those years, in my 30s and 40s, and I was really productive. I made a lot of work. Life felt really rich, and having someone at home that I trusted watching out for them gave me peace of mind. Later when they went to school I would get up early, get them off and get to work. In the afternoons when they’d come home I would either be done for the day and hang with them, or if I wanted to keep working, I was right there if they needed me. That was a really rich time with a healthy balance between work and family. We also have horses, and that was/is a big part of our life. In high school kids start to get more independent, and the task is to keep track of them. Then, as the cliche goes, they’re off to college before you know it. The first couple of years my daughters were gone was hard– it felt like a bit of a vacuum. It can be pretty darn quiet here, I can go for days without seeing anyone but my husband. David is a writer so he’s here working at the house, too. We both understand each others’ ways of working and need for a fair amount of time alone. But sometimes in the evenings we look at each other and say ‘we’ve got to get out of here and go do something!’. Life here is different without having the kids but I’m thankful we still have each other– that’s an accomplishment after 27 years! We both really love what we do and feel incredibly fortunate to have this kind of life where we live in a beautiful place and can just do our work. The paychecks aren’t always abundant but between the two of us we make a go of it.

As I mentioned, horses are a big part of my life, too. It’s definitely my other passion.

You chose a rural setting because it was less expensive I am assuming.

Yes. Especially compared to Portland, it’s a lot less expensive. When we started looking around at places, David wanted to be farther out of town so this was our compromise. Portland was really expensive– the property taxes kept going up and we had an old house that needed a lot of maintenance.

How important is your location here in Montana to your success as an artist?

That’s a tricky question because being here is what often influences some of my work. Not all my work at this point, but in the past a lot of work fed off this place, taking note of the details of the seasons, animals, etc In terms success, I wouldn’t recommend living in a place like this if you want to have a really active art life, being in the hustle and bustle of it all. I send everything out and it’s very expensive to ship work. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a market for what I do here. It’s not a smart “business choice”, it’s more about quality of life. Now being in this transition time where I need to find a new gallery or two to work with, I feel a bit out of the loop, definitely far from the “action”. New York isn’t a super supportive place for ceramic sculpture- love to visit, but wouldn’t want to live there anyway. I’ve been thinking about some galleries in CA around the Bay Area. Seems like an appropriate place but I have to look around. Basically, it’s totally inconvenient to live here, gallery-wise! Some gallery owners want to do studio visits and see what we’re working on. That’s not going to happen unless they take a trip out this way. I haven’t had that be a problem in the past but maybe I’ve been lucky, I don’t know. When we were in Portland I had gallery owners come to my studio, it was easy. Choosing to live here is more about having really great quality of life. That’s success to me.

What about the community that’s here in terms of ceramics. Has that been beneficial living here?

It’s a lively place, with the Bray, and the University, and all the other places like The Clay Studio and Redlodge. I’m not super involved with the art community, but I really like everybody! (I’m just a bit of a hermit). It’s a great bunch of people. Beth Lo was one of the first people I got to know when I moved here– we were showing in the same gallery in Seattle. The Archie Bray foundation is a wonderful place, it’s amazing how it’s evolved and grown over the past 21 years that I’ve lived in MT. I like to try to get over there once a year and see what’s going on. I taught a workshop there a couple summers ago and that was fun. Even though this is a pretty isolated place, it’s very much alive with ceramics and art in general.

How do you stay connected with your peers in the larger community of ceramics since you are so isolated? Are those connections limited to the ceramics field?

We have quite a broad array of friends. I have close friends in the Portland area, one really dear friend who is like a sister to me, Dana Louis. She started as a ceramic artist but now does mixed media work and big public commissions. We talk in depth about our work and our struggles, everything. I have a friend here who’s a painter who I get together with and talk about work from time to time. We have lots of friends that are writers, poets, musicians, horse people.

I did a printmaking residency the fall before last, out on the Oregon coast at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. Two weeks with a master print maker, Julia D’Amario. It was a fantastic experience– to be a beginner. I had never collaborated with anyone before, well, this was kind of a lopsided collaboration in that she had all the know-how and taught me all about intaglio. She’d hand me prepared plates and I would do my thing, then she’d do everything else. That was a very intensive experience, not terribly comfortable since I’m use to working alone and three dimensionally. To work that closely with another artist was very interesting and I’d like to continue that in some way. At this point in life, I do feel a hunger for a little more connection and need to make an effort to get out, go to other places, check in with people. I’ve been doing more visiting artist gigs and workshops lately to feed that and the bank account a bit more.

There are some artists that like to keep tabs on what’s the happening thing and have that influence what they’re doing. I don’t like to do that. I like to stay in my own bubble, for better or for worse.

Do you stay connected in any digital way? Many of people I have talked to spoke of the advantages of the Internet.

I think it’s been huge, especially living here. It really helps to keep in touch w/ family, friends, galleries, and work in general.

If I get an exhibition announcement I can look online and see the show, I don’t have to be in Chicago, or wherever. There was a wonderful series I subscribed to, called 82nd & Fifth, that the Metropolitan Museum of Art did last year. Every week they had a different curator choose one piece out of the museum and spoke about it for three minutes. They explained what made the piece particularly compelling, why it was meaningful to them, or significant in it’s historical context. It was fascinating! There were so many beautiful things that came through that series. In fact, I bought a book of Walker Evans’ photographs, Many Are Called, after one of the curators had spoken about a few of his proof sheets. I was so moved by these “portraits” of people on the subway who didn’t know they were being photographed. There was something there that stirred me and would feed my work.

There’re tons of things I wouldn’t have seen if I didn’t have that resource. I’ll be reading the New York Times online and read something about a show somewhere– like this show “Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind”. It was at the British Museum and there were a couple of photographs of these amazing little pieces. I wished I could see that show but it was in London and I thought ‘well, I can order the catalog’. I feel that I’m able to stay connected with the world and keep feeding myself visually, and even on some emotional or spiritual level by being able to pull in resources from literally all over the world. I don’t know how long I would’ve lasted here if I didn’t have that connection. We moved here in 1993 and we got dialup internet in ’97. It’s really been a life-line. In fact, right now I’m interested in Artemis represented with multiple breasts, and have been researching images and mythologies surrounding her for some new work.

Do you believe that there are certain privileges or disadvantages that today’s ceramic artists have that did not exist when you were coming out of school?

I’m not sure how this plays out in the end, but in terms of self-promotion the whole website world is huge. I’m not sure what kind of success that creates. It definitely makes it easier for people to see your work. When I was coming out of school, you had your sheet of twenty slides and your resume and maybe a slide presentation if you were approaching galleries or applying for jobs. There is an ease now to having work look good, digital photography can be deceiving- it can make almost anything look really great with w/ a little Photoshopping. It’s much easier to look professional now than it did in the mid 80s. Where it gets you, I’m not sure. In the end it’s the quality of the work, in the “flesh”. If your goal is to make work and to try to make a living from your work, you have to really put all your energy there. That’s got to be the bottom line, how well the work is brought into fruition. I don’t know what they tell you in school now in terms of what to expect when you get out. Should you think about teaching jobs, should you apply for tons of juried shows? I think the residency scene has grown a lot and that’s so helpful. There weren’t that many when I was coming out of school, especially ones w/ a stipend. That’s a definitely an advantage. Disadvantage now, I think it’s harder to sell work, at least in the $5,000 and over category. The art market is a fickle friend. It’s hard to know how much to rely on it. During the Clinton years things were booming and it was a pretty different world. I recently watched an interview on Charlie Rose with the gallerist David Zwirner. He said the art market was booming, never been better. The Art world he was talking about was one I definitely have not experienced, nor have any of my friends. He didn’t mention that the art market was slammed in 2008 and has been crawling towards recovery ever since. He’s dealing with works that are in and over the $1,000,000 range. Just a really different world. I found myself getting more and more uncomfortable listening to this guy. The gallery scene is happening on so many different levels.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing students who are just entering the field as professionals?

I think it all depends on the work they’re doing. If they’re making really strong work, the road is going to be easier. And how do you know until you are out in the world, trying to make a go of it? I think, if you can swing it financially, residencies after college or grad school are a really important opportunity. There are a lot of people who feel they have to do it, spend their days in the studio because they love making art, they live and breath it, and they’re willing to tolerate the bumps. Then there are some people who are a little more faint of heart, and when the going gets tough, it’s time to do something else. There are only a couple of people I went to grad school with who are still making their own work. Life is full of all kinds of different opportunities and a lot of people don’t want or aren’t able, to have this one straight and narrow path. It’s not like being an accountant. It’s a totally different way of living one’s life. So, to answer the question? The greatest challenge is to find some kind of relative financial stability that allows you to fill your days with making meaningful work. And be happy while doing it. But this is not a new challenge to students just entering the field.

Do you have any other advice to offer to emerging artists or parting words?

It’s really important to put the time in the studio. Nothing happens unless you’re in there. Wait, I take that back. When I was listening to the gallerist on Charlie Rose, he said he works with some artists who will be thinking about a work (minimalist work) for six months and then go executed it in three days. Ha! I don’t know any artists that work that way. For clay artists, you just have to get in there and make work. The process demands that you’re attentive to it. And don’t be afraid to experiment; you won’t grow if you stay in your comfort zone.