The work of art: New exhibit in Northampton looks at how artists balance creativity with paying the bills

  • Meat Smileys, a compilation of digital images by Ella Weber of smiley faces constructed from sliced meat and other deli product, is part of the new exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery. CONTRIBUTED/Grace Clark

  • Artist and writer Roz Crews, who’s part of a new exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery, “Worked: Artist Labor Relations.” Crews will offer a performance piece at the gallery Aug. 12 at 6:30 p.m. CONTRIBUTED/Grace Clark

  • One of a series of collage works by by artist Eeshita Kapadiya titled “What does an artist do when she does nothing?” It’s a contemplation of productivity, rigor, and rest.  Image courtesy Grace Clark

  • Grace Clark, the guest curator at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery for a show called “Worked,” hangs Artist for Hire by Roz Crews. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Grace Clark, the guest curator at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton for a show called “Worked,” stands with Laundry by Ash Strazzinski. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ash Strazzinski works on installing a piece called Magic Wall for a show called Worked curated by Grace Clark, a guest curator at the APE gallery in Northampton. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/11/2022 3:33:49 PM

Every artist knows the drill: Except for a relatively fortunate few, making a living entirely from one’s art is pretty much impossible. So it’s essential either to find time to make art outside the confines of a proverbial day job, or to integrate art-making into a working life in some other way.

There are myriad ways to do that — and few are guaranteed to succeed.

But examining how individual artists tackle this situation creates an interesting conversation, one that’s at the heart of a new exhibit at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery and, appropriately enough, titled “Worked: Artist Labor Relations.” It showcases the work of seven artists — painters, printmakers, sculptors, multi-disciplinary practitioners — who, through their craft, examine their own relationships with labor.

The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 3, also represents the debut of a new guest curator program at A.P.E., one that’s designed to give greater access and visibility to emerging and established artists alike, from the Valley and further afield.

Lisa Thompson, associate director at A.P.E., says the gallery aims to work with two to three guest curators each year, who will be “free to select the artists themselves,” with the stipulation that the exhibit have at least one artist from Massachusetts or greater New England.

“We do this to give a more prominent voice to artists of our region, while creating a conversation with contemporary artists from farther away,” Thompson explains. She adds that A.P.E. offers financial, technical and promotional support to each curator.

The curator of “Work” is Grace Clark, who lives in southern Vermont but is originally from Idaho and went to college and graduate school in Minnesota and North Carolina, respectively. A photographer and multi-disciplinary artist, she’s had her own challenges making a living as an artist: A severe arm injury she developed some years back while working in a museum left her unable to do any kind of work, including art, for over a year.

That was a very difficult time, Clark noted in an email. But it also gave her space, she said, to reevaluate her relationship to work and to think in a broader way about how jobs do or don’t take care of people, who is “vulnerable to exploitation and why,” and how she might create healthy boundaries for herself.

“I’m still very much working all of this out,” she said. “I think the arts is a sector that is full of so much passion and beauty, but like so many labor fields also contains many issues that need to be addressed.

“I’ve constantly looked at people’s practices and asked, how do they do it?” she explained. “How do they either make that independent practice happen, or balance the other obligations that allow them to maintain a studio practice too? Do they have other jobs? Are those jobs art-related? Does their creative or physical energy get exhausted by their job?

“There are so many ways to live and work as an artist,” Clark noted. “And many options are hard. But I think … we can educate each other, provide resources for each other, and also understand the systems that we are working in that don’t necessarily allocate creative resources equitably.”

For her exhibit, Clark has sought other artists who have dealt with these issues, including some she knows personally as well as others she met through posting on social media about the exhibit’s theme.

There’s Ella Weber, for instance, who studied art in the Midwest and has held residencies in numerous locations, including MASS MoCA, but who, according to her website, lives in her parents’ basement and works in a deli slicing meat when she’s not making art. As she puts it, she’s a “Basement Based Artist searching for love, laughter and well-balanced lunch inside a transactional world.”

One of her pieces in “Work” is a compilation of dozens of digital images titled “Meat Smileys” in which she’s used sliced meats and other deil products to fashion smiley faces. The inspiration for the work came, Weber writes, after she got a poor evaluation at her deli job, mostly for not smiling enough.

“In an attempt to earn my way back into the good graces of [Human Resources], my self-imposed penance is to make a meat and cheese smiley each shift with the materials at hand,” she writes.

Another featured artist, Roz Crews, works to engage the public through the drawings and installations she produces at public workshops. For one she did during a residency at the the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in 2017, people could ask her any kind of question and she’d respond on the spot with a drawing.

Crews, who also taught public school art in her native Florida a few years ago, currently manages community engagement programs at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, and she describes herself as “an artist, educator, and writer whose practice explores the many ways that people around me exist in relationship to one another.”

Clark says she’s intrigued by the way Crews “offer[s] services in a classifieds ad and ask[s] people to pay an artist what they think they are worth.”

“I also truly believe there’s no right way to be an artist,” Clark said. “The high school art teacher that makes work in their summers off and exhibits locally is just as valid as the artist making the rounds at artist residencies across the globe full time and exhibiting at big museums, or the photographer that takes photos while working their nanny job and never shows them to anyone. There’s no right way.”

There will be an artists’ reception for “Work” on Friday, Aug. 12, from 5 to 8 p.m. as part of Northampton’s monthly Arts Night Out. For more information on the exhibit, the participating artists, and curator Grace Clark, visit

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