Interview: On Residencies: Sterling Allen, Harrell Fletcher & Vijai Patchineelam

by Claire Ruud

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      Sterling Allen

      Sterling Allen, Harrell Fletcher and Vijai Patchineelam offer their thoughts on artist residencies.

      ...might be good (mbg): What’s in it for you?

      Sterling Allen (SA): Before I attended a residency, I thought you were there to just spend all day and night making work, just crank it out. However, shortly after my arrival at my first residency, I realized that working like that isn't necessarily the most productive activity. I still approach residencies as an opportunity to make work, but I also approach them as an opportunity to get my thoughts straight, to do research and simply to spend uninterrupted time in the studio. Even if you live as a full-time artist, in your day-to-day life you inevitably have social obligations, dinner, phone calls, unexpected events, distractions at home and so on. A residency affords an artist time “alone”—not just blocks of time in the studio, but a number of days in a row to concentrate on nothing but progress in the studio. For me, it is still very possible to make work at home, but investigating new ideas still comes best in a residency setting.

      Harrell Fletcher (HF): There are different types of residencies, the retreat style ones don't appeal to me much anymore because I'd rather just stay home and play with my two year old and work in the garden if I have spare time. Another type is a project residency, which I do often as a way to get to know a place I'm making a project for, so in that case it offers me the opportunity to spend time in a location and develop ideas. When I was younger and transient the retreat style residencies were useful as a way to avoid paying rent.

      Vijai Patchineelam (VP): A residency offers me a break from my usual routine. I enjoy the fact that once you arrive in a new place you have very few obligations; you don’t know anybody, you don’t know the area at all, and you have no established habits. Because of this you are, at first, left with a lot of free time, which can lead to boredom. I think that’s a good thing. Of all the residencies I’ve been to, my favorite was the one at which I was least connected to the world. No internet, no TV, and I was not even living in the city center. The only problem was I had no access to a library; a library is a very good thing when you are bored.

      mbg: How do residency programs affect the type of work you are able to create?

      SA: For me, a residency is where I do my conceptual work. The time and solitude allows me to expand ideas, try new things and not worry about wasting time. This helps me to broaden possibilities for subject matter, scope and scale. If you are presented with a large space and plenty of time with no one really looking over your shoulder, you might try some ceramics or making drawings. If they fail, they fail, but the residency allowed them to surface. In that respect, the sky is the limit. That being said, you are usually far from home and the work must return with you somehow. That is why for me it is a place to conceptualize. It is difficult to take an entire installation back home with you, but ideas travel light.

      HF: Once again I'm not really so into the idea of going off to an isolated place to do studio work, that's just not what I'm into. So mostly the kind of residencies I do now are project based ones and having that time to learn about a place and develop ideas is crucial.

      VP: In my case I would say that residencies have affected my work very little. Whether I’m in Austin or India, it doesn’t really matter. Maybe the advantage of residencies is that the more you move around the better chance you have of meeting interesting people.

      mbg: Have you encountered any particularly innovative models for residency programs?

      SA: Almost all programs are unique in one form or another. Artpace is obviously a high mark for residency programs and I feel like a lot of that has to do with their consistency in programming and the founding concept. Very few programs I have come across provide a proper exhibition at the conclusion of the residency. In that respect, Artpace’s dual use of space for both studio and gallery offers a great example of working within budget and space constraints. The structure of the program—a different curator selecting each set of residents, and each set of residents including one Texas, one national and one international artist—is pretty unique, too.

      HF: Not exactly innovative, but there are ones I like more or less, the best ones provide a good living space, food, funding and support for the work I'm doing. I have a friend who started a one day residency in her apartment. An assignment that I sometimes do with my students is to have them become Artists-in-Residence in other departments on campus, they have done them in Black Studies, Geology, Systems Science, Conflict Resolution, etc.

      VP: Because I come from a design background I am a little suspicious of the word innovative. I would say the best models are the ones that offer the artist the most freedom. If you want to do a show at the end, fine, if not, that’s ok, too. What I really enjoyed from my time in Austin, and something I didn’t get to do with my other residencies, was the chance I was given to talk about my world back in Rio. I don’t know if people liked listening to it, but for me the talk was a great experience.

      mbg: Any ideas for how a residency program might be structured to accommodate artists who have day jobs?

      SA: That's tough. If the focus of the residency is to complete a project and do an exhibition at a venue, for example Grand Arts in Kansas City, someone with a day job could technically still complete the residency. The Grand Arts program doesn’t require that the artist moves to Kansas City, though constant communication and multiple visits is probably a must. However, if someone is looking for that uninterrupted time in the studio, there is really no replacement for actually stepping out of your normal life (day job) for a period of time and getting to it. The other option would be a short residency like Idyllwild in California, which is only a week, but I don’t really think a week is enough. That being said, I speak strictly from a visual artist's perspective. A week in residence might be just enough time to edit a collection of poems, for example.

      HF: I guess the one day one would work for that, and the artist-in-residence in a places where they just go for a few hours a day or week.

      VP: First you have to help me find a job... then I’ll answer this one...

      mbg: There are residency programs that focus on retreat, on exhibition, and on community involvement. Any opinions about these different types of structures?

      SA: I think this varies from person to person or even from project to project. Personally, I prefer the retreat, though not necessarily somewhere out in nature. Nature is inspiring, but so is Goodwill. I really get a lot out of being in a place where I can interact with people other than artists and poets and get to know a town.

      As far as an exhibition is concerned, I think it is always an excellent and rigorous way to put a lid on a body of work. However, depending on the length of the residency, an exhibition might prove difficult, unless the idea was conceived, at least in part, before the residency officially started. Artpace is the only program I have participated in that culminated in an exhibition, and though my idea matured and changed somewhat during the residency, the majority of time was spent physically realizing an idea I already had, not tinkering and researching in the studio.

      I would say that community involvement is key, because it allows the artists to give back to the foundations, donors and patrons that have invited them to participate. This could mean something as simple as a slide lecture or an open studio, or something more complicated like working with community to make a project happen. Ultimately, the benefit should be two-fold. The artist gets to make work, meet a city and its community, and take the experience back to his or her own home. In turn, the foundation or residency program provides a service to the community and city by introducing a visiting artist. By awarding an artist with a residency, the foundation helps contribute to the artist's success, which raises their profile as well. These often dynamic relationships between an artist and his or her newly expanded community are important.

      HF: I think I sort of answered that already.

      VP: It really depends on the organizations behind the residencies, and what they are trying to promote. For artists it’s easy, there are lots of options and we can pick and choose which program fits us best. Whatever the structure, I say just try to make it the best it can be for the artist. An artist needs a good support system, especially with short residencies of only one or two months. It is important to have things ready for the artist when they arrive. I often find that I can lose the first two weeks completely trying to get the simple things done, like getting materials and finding a place to work. Two weeks out of two months is too much time wasted, especially if you want to get into a good rhythm. It’s important to start quickly because leaving is hectic too, for me it is hard to be productive for the last ten days.

      Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good.

      + 1 Comment
      Sep 15, 2009 | 2:21pm

      Hi Claire,

      Interesting focus on residency programs.  The one that I ran at the Hammer was an open-ended residency that could take any and all forms—preparation for an exhibition; research, especially at UCLA; collaboration and partnership, etc. etc.  We just put up the new part of the website on the residency program:



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