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Some Money Some Problems: Two Former Art Majors Living and Working in NYC

Posted Nov 21 2009 - 1:16am

When my mother throws cocktail parties for the partners of her law firm at our apartment, I inevitably end up wedged against the baked Brie, answering questions about my Future. Once I drop the career-killing bomb (“Uh, I’m a double major in English and Studio Art, with a concentration in photography”) I usually leave my conversational partner stunned enough that I can make a hasty retreat to the kitchen, where I can study the every move of the caterers (who are engaged in one out of the three careers I may be qualified for post-graduation). But many Yalies have come before me that did not become i-bankers and do not live in cardboard boxes/New Jersey, and to them I turn for solace. Former art majors Ani Katz, Yale ’08, and Danielle (Dani) McDonnough, Yale ’09, are both living in New York City and making rent. Living the dream. Ani was born and raised in Bay Shore, NY, and Dani is from Southampton, NY.

HC: How did you become interested in art? What artists do you remember first admiring/trying to emulate?

AK: I was always an arty kid, and it was always encouraged—I come from a family of art lovers. For the first ten years of my artistic practice I mostly drew and made tiny figurines out of Sculpey clay. Someone must have taken me to MoMA early on, because all the portraits I used to draw had Matisse noses.

When I was in middle school, my mom got me private lessons with a local photographer… My school did not have a photography program, so I pursued it on my own, during the summer and on weekends. My parents converted our third floor bathroom into a darkroom for me—it’s the only darkroom I’ve seen that had a working toilet. Photograph by Ani Katz

The summer after my sophomore year of high school I did a two-week intensive program at the Maine Photographic Workshops… Then when I was a junior in high school I took a Saturday morning class at ICP and discovered [Robert Frank’s] The Americans, which blew me away. I began to understand photography as an art form with its own history and unique set of possibilities.

DM: Growing up, my parents definitely valued an artistic mind, so would always require lengthy museum visits whenever we traveled abroad… My middle and high school also placed great emphasis on the arts; we did projects in our core art class that correlated with what we were learning in history—for example, we made clay dolls sculpted after the Mesopotamian fertility figures we learned about in 5th Grade Cultural History…

High school was when I became more interested in my own art, but obviously I wasn't sure of anything yet. So I took all the art classes my school had to offer (drawing, painting, rock carving, ceramics, mosaic, 3-D architecture, etc.) except, ironically, photography. Photograph by Dani McDonnough

At this point, though, my real artistic passion was dance (I had been dancing ballet since kindergarten), and my major influences were Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, and traditional West African dance. I did my high school junior project in dance, and thought about doing my senior project in dance also… But I ended up doing my senior project in forensic science and teaching, and applying to schools as pre-med. I chose to go to Yale for its great art program, and not so surprisingly ended up dropping my ill-conceived pre-med plans after three semesters.

HC: What kind of work did you make at Yale?

AK: …I remember feeling really depressed during the fall of my sophomore year because I was in my second straight semester without a photo class, and the other art classes I had taken were taught by painters who suggested that photography was somehow inferior to drawing and painting. So I started to get this complex about it.

Then in the spring I took Intermediate Photo with Phillip Pisciotta, and that class really changed my life… Phillip had a way of talking about photography that was completely new to me—photography became almost mystical, definitely much harder than painting. It demanded so much emotional investment. Making a good photograph was the hardest and most amazing thing…

I started to concentrate on making work about people, which I had always been interested in, but now I knew how to use natural light, and I started to understand how I wanted to photograph bodies and faces… Photograph by Ani Katz

Senior year I started making work that mattered to me. A few things happened to make this possible. First, John Lehr introduced me to using an off-camera flash. Then I started working at night, photographing at parties and concerts, and I became adept at capturing these wild gestures and expressions. The work started to have a lot to do with vulnerability and strangeness in people’s relationships and bodies, which was all very interesting to me. Working digitally was really crucial—it allowed me to experiment with the flash and shoot a lot…

For my senior project… I worked with Rebecca Soderholm … I kept shooting parties, but I branched out to look at people in their homes and daily lives… The way the work was edited, it seemed like I was very intimate with all my subjects, even though some of them were total strangers. I was particularly fascinated with one guy who my boyfriend went to school with; he has a really beautiful, androgynous body that’s been through a lot of trauma, and he was very open with himself. He became sort of the centerpiece of my project.

The work ended up being about the ambiguity of intimacy, the inscrutability of gender and sexuality, the murkiness of relationships, and the beauty and vulgarity of the body. I put up 26 photographs, ranging in size from 20x30 to 8x10 – I arranged them very specifically, sort of sculpturally – each photograph related to its neighbors…

DM: I originally wanted to concentrate in painting at Yale, and ended up taking an intro-level photography class with Phillip Pisciotta to fulfill the requirements of the Art major. Needless to say, I became obsessed with photo, and Phillip, having been my first introduction to the medium, unwittingly became a mentor to me at Yale. Photograph by Dani McDonnough

I started out with photographing my surroundings, moved into taking color portraits of family and friends, and ended up back into trying to represent things and places around me. My ongoing project, which started out as my senior thesis, is described in my statement below:

"I began this work thinking about the constructs and elements, both physical and theoretical, which make up a home. I find my work throughout this exploration continually pointing to the physical destruction of the home as a result of human contact, or in some cases, negligence or lack of contact. The specificity of the light reveals to the viewer something strange and surreptitious, but at the same time graces the scenes with its delicateness and peculiarity. It is that tension between the repellence and the allure present in each of the photographs that interests me."

HC: How was your experience of Yale as an art major different than the experience of those poli-sci/pre-med people?

AK: …I had worked really hard all through high school to get into Yale, and so when I got there, I decided I was going to do whatever I wanted. Not as in dancing on tables and getting my stomach pumped. I mean doing whatever I wanted in terms of deciding what was important to me and what wasn’t. Like if there was a special advance screening of a Miyazaki movie the night before my final, I was going to see the Miyazaki movie. (Really crazy stuff like that). A lot of Yalies are still very preoccupied with getting A’s and being super high-achieving, and a lot of them have to be, because they have their eye on med school or law school or whatever normal people do, but I’d been pushing myself for so long that if I attacked college in the same way I would have burned out… Photograph by Ani Katz

DM: I think it was definitely a more personal and introspective experience. You could feel totally awesome and pleased with yourself for doing well on a chemistry midterm, but there's no feeling like that after having a great critique in an art class. Since the work you make is kind of an extension of yourself and how you perceive the world around you, being praised or slammed for how you represent all of that is a rollercoaster of emotions. I think an art major (or anyone taking an art class, for that matter) definitely learns more about him- or herself as a whole person with thoughts, ideas, and opinions rather than just as an academic. Photograph by Dani McDonnough

HC: Where are you working now?

AK: I’m a first grade assistant teacher at a private school in Brooklyn Heights. I thought I was going to graduate and work as a photo assistant for two years until I went back to school for an MFA, but then the economy tanked and I was a wretched photo assistant. Instead, I spent a year doing various things (touring with a rock band as their photographer, writing grants, starting the arts organization, Recession Art, with my sister) before getting my teaching job. If you’re an artist and you like kids, being a teacher is one of the best jobs you can get. It takes you outside of yourself in the best way. Plus you have all these willing subjects at your disposal. And you get home by 4:30…

DM: I work at Paperless Post (www.paperlesspost.com), an online custom stationer. My job description: Graphic design of the interface and the product, research trends in customer inquiries to assess what features should be improved or implemented on the site, troubleshoot technical and systematic issues that may arise, and basic programming.

HC: Tell me about Recession Art.

AK: My older sister Emma and I started Recession Art in January 2009. We were both under-employed and decided to do something productive with our time instead of watching more episodes of Law and Order SVU

To make the organization relevant, we decided to structure it around the economic climate. We decided to put on shows for young, struggling artists who hadn’t gotten much exposure and who couldn’t break into the traditional gallery scene, to give them an opportunity to show their work and make a buck. On the other side of the coin, we set a price cap of $500 per piece, so that middle-income art lovers could afford to buy original work… We had the first show last April at the Brooklyn Artists Gym in Gowanus. I got seven friends and acquaintances together to show work. We went in with no expectations; I think we decided that if 50 people showed up, it would be a success. But then we got featured in Time Out NY as part of the “Your Best Weekend” page, and 250 people came to our opening.

After the success of the first show, we decided to aim higher for our follow-up show, which we christened No Money No Problems. We solicited submissions, and formed a jury to whittle applicants down to 15 artists. We found this amazing space in a factory in Cobble Hill. The building was originally a belt factory where they made the Invisible Dog toys (those leashes with empty collars). It was being turned into a multi-purpose art space… The building was going to be called the Invisible Dog Gallery. When we first went to see the space last June it was full of garbage and all the windows were busted out…We took a gamble and it paid off, because the entire building opened on the same night as No Money No Problems, and it was this huge cultural event in Brooklyn. At one point in the night, I looked out the window down at the street and it was like this enormous block party.

Over 800 people came to the No Money No Problems opening… We sold about 20 works for around $3000 total. Looking ahead, we plan to have two shows per year – our next show will be in April, and we’re hoping to have it at the Invisible Dog again… I’m the Art Director, which means I make curatorial decisions and act as the artists’ interpreter. Emma’s the Executive Director, which means she does most of the work.

DM: My involvement was just as an artist in the last show. Ani contacted me over the summer about submitting my work to the show's selection panel. It was a great experience having my first show post-Yale with Recession Art—not only is it co-founded by a Yalie, there were other Yalies in the show that I got to reconnect with, and meeting other young artists living in New York was a plus. I definitely hope to be involved in future RA endeavors.

HC: How much/what kind of artistic work are you making now?

AK: I try to shoot almost every day, especially at work. But often, I have to work on vowel blends, or help someone build a model bridge, or restrain kids from hitting or kissing each other, and then I have to put the camera down…

I usually make about 5 work prints per week—those are pictures I like enough to look at again. Since leaving school in May 2008 I’ve made about 225 work prints. Probably 25 of these I would go to the mat for. Photograph by Ani Katz

I’m still most interested in intimacy, estrangement, relationships and bodies, but those interests are evolving. I’ve tried to broaden the scope of people I photograph. I’ve also become more preoccupied with the function of photographs—I look at a lot of other people’s snapshots. In many ways, I think I’m still in search of a subject. Right now I’m photographing my students because they’re available and I describe them well, but maybe no one will ever be interested in that work. It’s an exploration. I know what interests me about photographs of people, but I need to find the right people to photograph, and make it intimate and personal. It’s a long process.

DM: I definitely produce less work now. I have rent and bills to pay, so dropping $200 on film on a casual day at B&H is no longer in the cards—I don't even go near that store, and walking by Adorama on my way home from work everyday makes me a little nostalgic for college life. But luckily for me, I've had a couple opportunities to show, so I've been focusing mainly on refining the work and ideas I already have… Photograph by Dani McDonnough

HC: What artists do you most admire who are working now?

AK: Right now I’m really high on Paul D’Amato, Paul Graham, Mark Steinmetz, and Larry Fink. (God, this is horrible – where are all the women?) But a lot of my favorites are dead—William Gedney, Robert Frank, Weegee. Have you ever looked at Weegee’s photograph Heatspell? It’s all the kids sleeping on the fire escape. Incredible. Hardly anyone makes work like that now. I’m pretty old school in terms of what I admire and what I aspire to.

DM: Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Mitch Epstein, Tina Barney, Lars Tunbjork, Rineke Dijkstra, Lisa Kereszi.

HC: What were you for Halloween? Do art majors make better costumes?

AK: Pathetically enough, this marks the second Halloween in a row that I’ve sat out. Last year I was canvassing for Obama in Bucks County, and this year I just couldn’t get it together. Lugging a camera and flash everywhere is kind of restrictive in terms of costumes—I thought I could go as a bruised and bloodied paparazzi, but I don’t actually own any makeup, so I got lazy and just went out with my camera, wearing my regular clothes. ??

DM: I was a nerd/hipster. Fine line, especially since my nerd accessories were all purchased at American Apparel. And no, we don't.

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