Nikki Grattan on Interviewing Artists

Feb 18th, 2013

Two years ago Nikki and I were sitting in a bar before her bartending shift began having a “what if…” conversation about the idea of making a website that published studio visits with artists. Let me just say we had NO IDEA what we were getting into. Neither of us knew a thing about technology, but it seemed that this was a niche that begged to be filled, a conversation that needed to be had. What we had going for us was that we were both very curious and not the least bit afraid of hard work. We’ve always had that in common.

Nikki is a fiction writer. She writes luminous short stories that nag at you for ages after you read them. So once we came up with a name, we approached IN THE MAKE from a funny angle, one that had little to do with art criticism, and a lot more to do with observation (a skill that is as crucial in writing fiction as it is in non-fiction), almost as though we were making a little documentary about each artist we visited. Now, after two years and having just published our 75th artist interview, I thought it was time to turn the tables, so I asked Nikki to talk about her style, challenges and what she’s learned from talking with so many artists.

After publishing 75 interviews with artists over the last two years I imagine you have learned a lot and that your approach to interviewing has evolved. In particular, people often comment on how in-depth your interviews have become. What was your intention going in and how has it shifted?
When we first started IN THE MAKE, we carefully discussed what kinds of questions we thought would make the interview process successful. I wanted the interviews to be revealing and intimate, and to come across as authentic and conversational. At that time, I assumed people would answer the questions how I anticipated them to, how I hoped they would. But with each studio visit we did, it became clear that certain questions just weren’t working—they were often misunderstood, sidestepped, or avoided all together. So, I dropped some questions, and others I began to ask in a different way— tweaking the language, fine-tuning my approach. Every word matters, every shift in my tone, every nuance in my demeanor is an opportunity to better connect with someone… and I’m still learning how to do a better job.

The manner in which I ask things is ever-evolving— it has to be, because there isn’t a perfect science to any of it. Certainly, after 75 interviews I’ve become bolder— now I’ll ask about topics that I sense someone might be avoiding. In a way, I do want to push against people a bit…because I’ve learned that people often avoid subjects not because they don’t want to talk about them, but because they don’t know how to yet. Creating dialogue is an important part of how we reckon with our own musings, ideas, and questions, especially when it comes to complex or personal subject matter.

While the impetus for these interviews is the artwork, and often that is all we know about when we arrive in someone’s studio, so much of your job is about negotiating personalities, connecting with people and drawing them out. Does this come easy to you? Do you feel suited to it?
When I was little I was shy and reserved. I was more of an observer than a participant and I definitely had loner leanings. In many ways, I’m still like this. But my family was quite gypsy-like; we were always on the move, roaming, we didn’t set up home for very long anywhere. So early on I think this manner of living forced me to figure out how to make friends fast. So much about surviving childhood socially is dependent on having friends, and I quickly recognized that as the newly arrived stranger it fell upon me to make that happen. So yes, I do think my personal history has translated well into the interview process. Plus, I’m innately curious about other people and obsessive about details— I think the smallest detail has the capacity to tell a big story.

When you go into an interview do you have a particular agenda or something in mind that you are hoping for?
I generally don’t have an agenda. Usually the questions in the pre-interview questionnaire I send out will prompt replies that then will generate more questions from me once we are in the studio. Mostly, I ask what I want to know, what I’m curious about, and about what I don’t understand.
When it comes to the actual artwork, I do have an agenda. I ask a great deal of process questions— I want to know about their technique and materials, and also how they are approaching their work; what lens they are looking through, what their references are, what personal narratives are related to the work. I need to understand it as best as possible, so that I can write about it with confidence.

Are there patterns you’ve noticed amongst the artists you’ve interviewed? Particular topics they avoid or gravitate to? And why?
Yes, definitely. To be honest, most everyone approaches the question about how they navigate the art world with too much delicacy and ambiguity. They often seem reluctant to speak of just how frustrating and baffling the whole experience can be. Obviously, they are being diplomatic and protective of their public persona and don’t want to ruffle feathers, share too many secrets, or burn bridges. I get it— the Bay Area art world is small, sometimes fickle and opportunities aren’t a dime a dozen. But still, it’s important to be real about this topic. Artists sometimes don’t like to reveal just how hard they try– as if being ambitious about getting one’s art work seen and sold is somehow shameful. I think it’s a disservice to perpetuate the myth of “opportunities just happening” if that’s not really the case. I think everyone should know how damn hard artists work, that to some degree it is a hustle, that faith in oneself flags at times, that endurance is often the key to success, and that often you have to track down opportunities.

As we’ve learned, talking with artists can sometimes be really frustrating. What are the obstacles you’ve run into and how do you go about navigating around them?
Three things are the most difficult— ambiguity, reluctance, and waywardness. Waywardness I can deal with; I just need to steer and wrangle the conversation to keep them on track. Tangential conversation can deliver unexpected gems too, so I actually appreciate this quality though it can still be a challenge.

Reluctance is my enemy. When someone just doesn’t want to engage, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how I word my questions, how comfortable I try to make them feel— they just don’t want to go there. I’m bewildered when people are like this because if they have agreed to a studio visit I assume that means they have read our site and are prepared to give themselves over to the interview process. Being guarded is different, that I understand, but steadfast reluctance is a totally different thing.

Ambiguity is a major problem, too. It’s kind of like reluctance’s passive aggressive sidekick. When artists don’t want to commit to an opinion or idea they become purposely ambiguous. I suppose they are scared of being pinned down, contained, or labeled by their own language…and that there might be consequences to whatever they say. I can relate to that. But ambiguity is so empty!!!! There is no heartbeat in it, no story, and certainly no vulnerability.

Ultimately, I just think if you are going to say something, then you should actually be really SAYING something. Give me concrete details, give me something to sink my teeth into, give me something with meaning!

As a reader, what qualities do you think make for an interesting interview? What piques you interest personally?
Honesty, vulnerability, humor and the ability to self-reflect. If someone is bringing those qualities to the table, the interview is bound to be good. I appreciate when people want to share who they really are, both as people and artists. I like rawness, rough-edges, frank confessions, a sailor’s mouth, whimsical turns. I like generosity and gentleness, too. Mostly, I want to hear about people’s obsessions, the things they can’t stop thinking and wondering about, the stuff that keeps them up at night.

Who have been your three favorite interviews that you have done and why?
Christine Kesler. She turned the tables on me and somehow started asking all the questions. It’s good to get a taste of your own medicine.
Bob Branaman— he was so fun, so unguarded and natural, and the best storyteller we have ever visited.
Samira Yamin… man, that girl is a force. Her intelligence is as sharp as a knife’s edge and her artwork is rife with beauty and terror. Her work confronts very difficult, political subject matter in an incredibly intimate way— it’s disarming. She also happens to be a very warm, generous, and funny person. I’d love to sit with her over a meal and glass of wine… I’m certain we’d still be talking at the table into the wee hours of the morning.

Can you share any particular quotes or bits of wisdom that have stuck with you from your artist interviews?
Jesse Houlding completely changed my relationship with the word “failure.” Because he approaches his art with the principles of the scientific method in mind, so much of what he does is about trial and error. This means he fails quite often, and has to reconsider his strategy and try again. When we visited him, he said he sees his disappointments and failures “as a way to learn about myself.” It’s a pretty simple notion— but difficult to take on and internalize. I’m pretty hard on myself, so learning to see failure as an integral part of my personal growth has been quite the revelation.

You often ask artists about the idea of risk and sacrifice, either creatively, in their work, or in their life choices. Can you speak to your own relationship to risk and sacrifice, and what risks have you taken with IN THE MAKE?
My father always said life was about rolling the dice— that you had to risk big to win big. Both my mother and father were quite impulsive, adventurous, left of center characters— real risk-takers, and for a long time having parents like that made me be more careful and deliberate about my own choices. But in the last few years I’ve allowed much more risk into my life, personally and professionally, and it’s been incredibly liberating. It’s forced me to identify what I really want, to zero in on what my priorities are, and though I’m often scared that my whole world might unravel, I now know more than ever what kind of life I’m fighting so hard for.

At the beginning IN THE MAKE was a big risk because I came to it as a fiction writer with no education in the visual arts and just a bit of journalistic/documentarian style writing under my belt. I felt like an imposter. And though I no longer feel like an imposter, I do still feel like an outsider. But I’m okay with that… it keeps me on my toes.

We are close to two years in, and IN THE MAKE continues to demand a great deal of sacrifice and commitment, particularly in the way of time and finances. We put so much of ourselves into it, and luckily it continues to be incredibly rewarding and inspiring. It really has been a mind-blowing experience, but it’s also been challenging trying to keep up with it while pursuing other professional and creative ambitions. But I’m trying to work out all the kinks.

You write fiction too, particularly short stories. Can you tell us about what you write and how you got into that?
I mainly write short stories— generally they are never longer than 12 pages and often explore displacement, trauma, and loss within the context of childhood. The Lover by Marguerite Duras, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Raft by Peter Orner, and Concluding by Henry Green are just some of the texts that have been influential to my work and perspective. Oh, and I did actually write a novella (it’s about 120 pages) in grad school as one of my theses— that was quite a feat for me! Ever since I was a kid, I have written and was very much encouraged to do so by my father and mother. But somehow I never gave it much thought until my English teacher in high school, Mr. Alan Hodara, pulled me aside in the first week of class to say that based on the one story he had read he was excited to see what else I’d do that semester. That was the beginning of a long journey… graduate school helped me commit to my craft and hone my skills, but I still struggle with what it means to be a writer… especially since I haven’t had any fiction published. I do have a humble website (here) where people can read some stuff I’ve written.

Besides IN THE MAKE and writing fiction when I can squeeze it in, I also work as a freelance wardrobe stylist. I’ve always been into fashion and crazy for clothes and in many ways styling is a form of storytelling. I get to meet really great people, obsess over aesthetic details, and be a part of a big collaborative effort— it’s great fun.

The artists above (in order of appearance): Samira Yamin, Linda Geary, Samira (again), Jesse Schlesinger, Christine Kesler, Zachary Royer Scholz, Rebecca Morris (in two Pictures), Bob Branamen.