Art Influencer: Astri Swendsrud

Work by Erica Ryan Stallones. Elephant Art Space. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Art Influencer: Astri Swendsrud Embraces Non-Traditional Routes of Art Presentation

By Sydney Walters

Los Angeles is notorious for a vivacious arts and entertainment scene. Yet it can be daunting for artists as they muse upon the many places that may be a good launch pad for his or her work. Many artists regard Blue Chip galleries, or galleries that represent established artists, as the pinnacle of career success and are unsure how to plot a path from making art in the studio to having it hang on the walls Regen Projects or Blum & Poe. Artist, performer and professor Astri Swendsrud has an altogether different approach to artistry and her method is strikingly inclusive and community oriented.

Can you please tell us a bit about your artistic background?

I moved to Los Angeles in 2006 to attend the MFA Art program at CalArts. Since receiving my MFA in 2008, I have lived in LA, maintaining my studio practice, exhibiting work, teaching at local colleges and universities, and co-directing the artist-run gallery space, Elephant. My studio practice includes creating drawings, sculptures and installation environments combining the images and materials of everyday party supplies, such as birthday candles and confetti, with symbolic and ritual forms. Through the intersection of these elements, my work seeks to investigate issues of belief, anticipation, interpretation and transformation. I also work as part of the collaborative project Semi-Tropic Spiritualists to create multi-disciplinary performance works exploring ideas of faith and skepticism, belief and charlatanism, as well as the development of a space dedicated to community and the search for knowledge. I have recently exhibited work as part of group exhibitions at JOAN and Klowden Mann in Los Angeles and Prøve Gallery in Duluth, MN. I am currently working with my husband and collaborator, Quinn Gomez-Heitzeberg, on a new body of work for a Semi-Tropic Spiritualists solo exhibition and book project with Insert Blanc Press and their new General Projects gallery space, opening in Los Angeles in September.

Tell us about Elephant Art Space and how it got started

Elephant began in 2010, when my studio-mates and I decided to renovate the front entry room of our studio building in Glassell Park and open a gallery. The building was formerly a doctor’s office, so the space that originally functioned as the office’s waiting room seemed like an ideal site to open a small project space. Since that time, the six of us who work from studios in the building – Jason Kunke, Bianca D’Amico, Matt MacFarland, David P. Earle, Quinn Gomez-Heitzeberg, and I – have collaborated as co-directors of Elephant. We are now entering our eighth year of hosting monthly exhibitions, featuring an international roster of artists. Because the 6 of us collaborate in all aspects of running the gallery, it has allowed us to maintain the space for many years now. We’re all busy with our own practices, businesses, jobs, etc., but because we share the work load and genuinely value the community and connections that Elephant fosters, we’re excited to be able to continue this project and allow the space and its program to develop organically.

Elephant Art Space. Photo courtesy Bianca D’Amico

For those that may not know, what is especially unique about artist run spaces compared to other venues?

We started Elephant in 2010, when the LA gallery scene was still feeling the impact of the 2008 recession, and the resulting limitation of opportunities for emerging artists. We had the extra space, and we saw it as a way to support the work of artists we admired, and to build a community at a time when many of us were struggling. Since that time, it’s been amazing to see the number of artist-run spaces expand dramatically throughout LA. I see the value in this kind of space being two-fold. First, it offers opportunities and support for practices that don’t always fit within a more traditional or commercially-oriented gallery system. We allow artists to experiment and take risks. Second, artist-run spaces foster a sense of community. They allow for connections to be made between artists, as the social component of openings tends to be prioritized. So many of the spaces currently operating in LA also inhabit a more intimate or idiosyncratic setting – there are spaces located in old elevators, inside trucks and cars, on rooftops, just to name a few – and that sense of dedication and creativity to create something new, show art, and support a community whatever your resources provides a unique sort of energy.

What is your method for curating shows?

Our curatorial process at Elephant is based on reviewing proposals that we receive from artists who are interested in working with our space. We generally do not select artists simply based on a studio visit or portfolio review, but every year we solicit submissions of exhibition proposals developed specifically for our space. Then the 6 of us co-directors review all the submissions and through a process of discussion, consensus, beer and peanuts, select the exhibitions for our next year of programming. We’re always looking for artists who propose interesting and experimental visions for our idiosyncratic gallery space, who value and participate in our specific community, and we try to represent a diverse range of mediums and perspectives in our year of exhibitions. We are currently accepting proposals through June 30, and will be meeting in July to review and plan our 2019 exhibition season!

What kind of opportunities do you see that the city of LA has to offer?

The sheer number of artists living, working, making and exhibiting in LA is truly one of the most exciting aspects of living in this city. Becoming familiar with the wide range of arts organizations, spaces, projects, and resources available takes constant work, because there is always more happening. I’m particularly excited by the large amount of artist-run spaces that have opened within the last couple years. It feels like there is a real sense of energy among LA artists currently to make new opportunities and build community.

What is your advice for people trying to make a living as an artist?

I talk to my students about this question regularly. The career path of an artist is often a strange and circuitous route. I tell my students that it’s probably not going to be easy, or look like your idealized version of the life of an artist. There are often tough questions to be asked. What do you prioritize, stability or possibility? What is the definition of success for you? and What does a fulfilling life look like to you? This needs to be something that you define for yourself.

That said, it can be done! Find your community and make connections. Almost every opportunity I’ve had – whether it be for employment or for exhibition – has come through a relationship I developed within the LA art community. Also, think experimentally and creatively. Balancing making a living, making art, maintaining connections, and maybe taking a break sometimes, is a constant challenge. The paths you take won’t always be clear or expected, but by keeping your options open, putting in the work, understanding your skills and figuring out how to apply them creatively, following up with connections, and using what you have to make opportunities for yourself and to support others in your community, we all make it work!

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