Enjoying art often leaves us wondering about artists, their lives, and experiences. What inspires artists to make art, and what lives do they live? Answers to these questions and many more can be found in Brian Alfred's book Why I Make Art: Contemporary Artists' Stories About Life and Work, published this May.
The book brings 30 stories Brian collected through the podcast Sound and Vision he started in 2016. The main inspiration for this project came from the artists themselves. As Brian explained, the artists he knew had interesting lives but somehow, this would not come through in interviews, which seemed too predictable and schematic. Instead, his podcast offered a more relaxed space to discuss artistic experiences, including chats about music, skateboarding, technology, immigration, and other aspects of creative work and life.
Besides interviews, the book is also richly illustrated with works selected by artists, including the sketches, doodles, and notes they would make during and after the podcast.
With the book hot from the press, we talked with Brian about its creation, ideas that guided him through this project, and his artistic practice as well.
Why I Make Art
Widewalls: A collection of your interviews with artists - Why I Make Art: Contemporary Artists' Stories About Life and Work - will be published this May. What can you tell us about the book? Which names can we expect to see inside?
Brian Alfred: I wanted the book to be an extension of the podcast. It has features on a bunch of the artists I interviewed, lots of quotes from the artists collected in themed sections, and some sketches from the guestbook that I have from the podcasts.
There are also many images of the artist's work, which is something an audio podcast can't do. I really want the book to be a source of inspiration to younger artists, and it's a book you can carry around and jump in and out of at any point in the book. It's a diverse mix of artists who work in all types of media, including Chris Martin, Dominique Fung, Devan Shimoyama, Heather Day, Jules de Balincourt, Salman Toor, and many others.
Widewalls: The interviews are taken from the archives of Sound & Vision, a podcast you were recording between 2016 and 2020. What inspired you to start this podcast?
BA: This selection of artists is from that period, but I am still releasing weekly episodes. I was motivated to start the podcast because at the time I started the podcast, I felt like there weren't a lot of options for hearing artists speak casually about art and music and life in a long form. My favorite podcasts have that format, and I felt that most artist interviews were a bit stuffy or predictable. So many of the artists I know have such interesting lives that they don't often get to share. I wanted to create a platform where people could get to know artists more deeply through relaxed conversations between fellow artists.
Widewalls: You have created over 300 episodes. What threads did you follow in making the selection for the book, and how long did you work on it?
BA: It was difficult because I had so many artists I had spoken to, and there was no way to fit them all in the book. It was about balance for the longer pieces on the thirty artists; I wanted to have an eclectic mix of voices. It was about hearing from different artists, making different kinds of work, different ages, backgrounds, etc. The book has been about two years in the making and has evolved over that time. I'm excited for it to go out into the world.
Mapping Artistic Experiences
Widewalls: What would be some recurring themes from these interviews? What inspires and troubles artists in the US today?
BA: I really tried to get to the core of these artists. Art school, music, travel, creativity as a kid, and finding their way into being a creative person for a living are topics addressed in most episodes. It's almost like each conversation is a path through their life. I think artists have had so much washing over them in these past few years. Between politics, the pandemic, the economy, and technology, artists have so much to navigate through, and most artists I know feel that creating helps them relate to the world.
Widewalls: The book is also richly illustrated. Can you tell us more about this aspect of production and the selection of artworks?
BA: I'm excited to have the images in the book, as the podcast doesn't allow that. We wanted the book to pop and have color and lots of visual content alongside the words. I wanted the artists to have a voice in selecting the images that best represent them. Some works are current, and some are from the earlier stages of their careers.
Also, when I was doing the podcasts in person before covid, I would carry a sketchbook that the artists would doodle in and leave a note. It was important for me to include some of the guestbook sketches as it lends a more intimate personal view of the artists and a look into their more playful side. Just as the podcast tries to break down any artist's shell, these sketches are also very casual reflections on the conversation we just had. The book definitely has a visual charge, which was essential for me.
Widewalls: People often tend to mystify artists and their work. Would the book dispel or perhaps further validate some of these beliefs?
BA: I think it demystifies the artists and makes them more human and relatable. I think it informs the work, how it's made, and how the artist got to the place they are in both life and work. However, I believe there is always an element of an artist's work that remains unable to be pinned down. That's the beauty of art. We can talk about it all we want to, but, at the end of the day, we need to just take it in with our eyes and feel it.
Sharing the Stories
Widewalls: What would be the biggest take for you from working on a podcast? How did your perception of a working artist in the US change following the interviews?
BA: I started the podcast with no real ambition other than to just speak with artists. It has been one of the most rewarding, educational, and satisfying things I have done. I love the experience of sharing the stories of these people, getting to know all these talented individuals, and having that experience. It has informed my teaching and made me a much better communicator.
Sometimes the best things are born out of no expectations or ambitions. My perception of being an artist has just become much more open. I feel much less selfish and concerned about my own path and much more interested in others. Hopefully, it's made me a better person.
Widewalls: What's next after the launch of the book? What projects are you preparing for the future?
BA: I just finished a solo show at Miles McEnery Gallery. I have started working on a new body of work which I am very excited about. I just put out an app of my work called All Around Us, which is on the app store. It was a collaboration with a couple of friends who work at Unity. I have a couple of shows on the horizon, but they aren't locked in quite yet. I am on sabbatical from teaching at Penn State until the Fall, so until then, it'll be full steam in the studio. I continue to release a podcast each week. In the Fall, I'm teaching a contemporary seminar course that will cross streams with the podcast and a digital painting course I helped start up. I also co-direct a non-profit youth travel soccer club here in Brooklyn, which is a passion of mine. I will definitely be keeping busy.