Written by Jeannie Smith.
I was seven and extremely overweight, an easy target for other second graders. I was reading a text about Benjamin Franklin. There was a drawing of him holding a kite with a key tied to the end of it, storm clouds above him. I don’t know why this specific image, but I laid a piece of print paper over the page and began to trace him.
A few quick strokes in, two of the girls who picked on me nonstop came over. I prepared myself for the worse.
“Did you draw that?”, one of them said, pointing to the piece of paper beside the book.
From her expression, I noticed she was impressed. REALLY impressed. She had never said anything nice to me before. The other girl bent down beside me and examined the drawing closely. Saved for a few shaky lines and eraser marks, one couldn’t actually tell that I traced it.
“Yeah, I did,” I said, not all too proud of my cheating ways, but eager to finally have the class’s biggest bullies leave me alone for once. Of course, eventually, I actually would have to learn how to draw for real at some point!
Artists tap into their skills and abilities during unique times of their lives, sometimes not even aware that what they are producing is art. For Bronx Art Space summer resident Cheyenne Julien, art began with juvenile theft from mom’s printer:
“I used to steal paper from my mother’s printer and draw on it. But when I found the space too small, I moved to the walls.”
Cheyenne discovered early on the scale of her imagination. A recent graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, Cheyenne’s work is dependent on keeping her imagination free, her personal bank of memories influential in her work:
“[My work] is about memories and experiences, [exploring how] that experience resonates with me, and why this memory is important to me. [This process] often begins with me drawing and redrawing to communicate this [to the viewer].”
For painter and graphic artist, Alexis White, it was a game of numbers:
Prior to being a BAS resident, Alexis, originally from upstate, interned at various companies in the city during her summers while in college. Shortly after graduating from SUNY Paltz in 2013, she moved to the Bronx and found permanent work at an apparel company and eventually doing art administration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I’ve never really liked the business aspect of any industry,” begins Alexis. “Even working in a museum, money moves.”
Neither Bronx-based residents are ignorant to the challenges as developing artists: “With commissioned work,” Alexis begins, “it’s easier because someone is asking for something specific. But if I’m making something for [a] show, or when I am in the residency working, I think it’s the same problem all artists run into which is, ‘Is this done yet?’”
For Cheyenne, one of the biggest challenges is gauging if one’s work is creating an honest impact:
“For me and my work, I am most concerned about being able to do anything, make any sort of impact. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that I am just making paintings, and it feels like, “Could I be doing more in the world?’ But then what makes me feel like this is okay to do is the fact that I am broadening the possibility for other black artists after me, that it is possible to be an artist, to be a black woman and just paint.”
On top of this personal undertaking, Cheyenne identifies the struggle of being an artist as a recent graduate and rediscovering herself. With the absence of a class cohort, for example, though production is steady, it creates the challenge of determining whether or not a piece is really impressionable, trusting herself to state when a piece of work is finished. A dedicated painter, Cheyenne can spend over 12 hours a day sometimes in her studio just producing work, but the loneliness is present. This is a common circumstance for some artists. In fact, one may assume that this is standard, that isolation breeds work. But it’s important to note that art is social and that as an artist, one must remind themselves that partaking in the community, and not just observing it, is just as important.
“I love people. That’s what I love more than anything. All the art that I make, I’m thinking about the communities I live in, my friends and family. I really don’t have any real interest in money, but how am I going to live otherwise?”
Applying for the residency program was a risk for Alexis, who made a conscious decision to walk away from what she knew to be secure and comfortable, from a steady paycheck and depending on her savings in order to do what makes her happy: to produce art. For most artists, such sacrifices are beyond negotiable. It’s not even an option. Beyond the residency at the moment, Alexis doesn’t have any major plans laid out but remains curious and open to see what becomes of this 6-week opportunity. For now, she charges herself, and other artists, with the following:
“Anyone who is just breathing today has a huge amount of responsibility in terms of figuring out where the world is going and what our role is going to be. I’m definitely learning what that is. But I feel that my biggest responsibility is building awareness for me and the people around me, about what’s happening around the world, within and outside of the Bronx.
For artists like Cheyenne and Alexis, the most challenging struggle and risk one could possibly take as an artist is simply choosing to be one.