I am an Artist and… an Interview with Dan Corson

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This article originally appeared in Huffington Post.

What could be better than making art that can truly touch people in the rush and tumble of their daily lives? To startle someone into an unexpected moment of joy?

I believe artists do this naturally. However, to make a life around creating art that changes peoples’ lives often requires other skills and mindsets that are not taught in MFA programs or art schools.

Dan Corson, an internationally recognized artist, says the creative process is a lens he sees the world through whether he is making art or making dinner.

He is an internationally recognized artist whose large-scale immersive installations and public artworks are infused with drama, passion, layered meanings and transform from day to night in mesmerizing ways. His projects have ranged from complex rail stations and busy public intersections to quiet interpretive buildings, meditation chambers and galleries.

Who are you? How do you self identify?

Really just as an artist and creator first (possibly an entrepreneur) and small business person second..

As a one-man band, I wear a lot of hats: artist, admin, webmaster, CFO, accounting, project manager, research assistant, experimenter, development director, PR director, coffee maker, shipping coordinator, copywriter, arts translator: from art-speak in museums and galleries to talking to structural engineers, architects, electrical engineers, programmers to public presentations.

There is great joy in creating artwork, but being a professional artist means that either I spend my time doing these supporting jobs or I pay someone (reducing my income) to do these jobs.

It all depends on how big of an “art studio” you want to employ and manage, and for me it worked best to keep many things in house.

Tell me, what are the benefits/ challenges of being both an artist and an administrator?

Having drive, perseverance, curiosity, and the ability to improvise and “make things up” that you don’t know how to do is critical.

No one taught me many of the things I now do – so if someone from a standard business practice came in to take over, I am sure they would really scratch their heads in figuring out my business process – but somehow it works for me.

Also being good at tracking and multitasking and being able to juggle lots of projects over wide timelines has been critical.

I think at my max I was working on 16 projects at once that were spanning 11 years in fabrication/installation schedules. It all depends on what your art is of course, but for me I focused on creating large-scale integrated and stand alone artworks and installations.

I had to teach myself how to run a business, and figure out a process that worked for me bringing these pieces from my brain into reality.

The interest and desire to challenge yourself is also crucial to keeping things fresh, and interesting for your artistic evolution.

Artists come to creative solutions in nonstandard ways and think a little bit differently to solve problems.

Balance is really important. For an art project, I spend 35% of my time with a pure art focus on art making. 65% of the time is making stuff happen – fabrication, contracts, supervising test samples, checking colors etc. Some of that you could think of as being part of making art.

Regarding my work/life balance – I am married, I live a normal life meaning I try to work normal hours unless I am under a deadline.

One of my challenges early on was being so focused on my art and not on my partner.

As an artist, it is so easy to get in the zone and let the creative juices flow. I needed to be reminded we have a life together.

How we worked that out was by communicating. Sometimes when creativity calls, it is just not convenient and it is really important to say, “Can you give me 2 hours, please?”

One of the challenges of working with public funds to create artwork is that there are other people involved who make decisions, cancel things or put projects on hold.

The benefit is that I can use resources from agencies to realize my artistic vision and work on a scale that would be impossible for me to do with my own money and resources.

Having the public as your employer and your audience is a very different experience from showing in a museum or a gallery. I get loving emails and letters from school kids and people who have been moved by my art. People actually seek me out because they want to tell me this.

I was listening to the radio one day and a guy called in who said, “I was super depressed, suicidal, and just walking around the city when I saw some artwork on the underside of an underpass. It was beautiful. It made me feel like someone cared about this space and environment and me. That literally stopped me from taking my life that day – this level of caring.

What he saw was a piece of my art. This is why I love doing what I do.

What are you working on now?

I have a handful of projects around the country and 2 projects installing in Canada this year.

One of those projects is composed of 2 room-sized teardrop sculptures that you can enter and use as an art weather shelter and spin around in like a teacup ride.

I am developing a new project in the Bay area that is composed of large 2 sculptural pieces on a private development adjacent to a BART station – that will be animated by the trains approaching.

Where can people follow your work?

First off they can visit my website to see images and videos of them and find out in what city they can find them: www.corsonart.com

A few representative projects: in San Jose: Sensing YOU and Sensing WATER are activated by people moving through the space and by weather events and can also be “hacked” by playing the augmented reality cellphone game INGRESS.

Adjacent to the Seattle Space Needle is a large solar, and sound sculpture called Sonic Bloom.

In Oakland CA, there is a large color-shifting wall sculpture called Shifting Topographies that changes color by the angle of the sun, and has kinetic projections on it at night that conjures the drama of the adjacent theatres and night clubs.

What advice do you have for people who make art and/or make art happen?

1. Keep your focus on the art- it can be easy to be bogged down in running your business.

2. Keep your monthly overhead as low as you can….Do you really NEED that big fancy studio, or can you rent or borrow one for a month or 2 when you need to mock something large up?

3. If you are not good at accounting and taxes, get someone else to do it and spend that time working on your artwork. You don’t want to get into fights with the IRS if you are not knowledgeable about the tax system.

4. If it bores you….don’t keep doing it…..that boredom will be infused into the artwork. Not necessarily the process of making the work -which can be labor intensive, but rather when you see the finished artwork does it still excite you? Will it be something that as an outsider will you find exciting/interesting/moving/curious/titillating etc.

5. Know your art history….and not just ancient art history (although that is important), but know about things in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s so you don’t re-create work that has been already done (without knowing it at least).

6. Keep an “art morgue” (a folder where you clip electronically and/or physically images that excite/ affect you strongly/ make you curious / love, or hate someone else for making because it is so smart…etc) We all get dry on ideas, and having an inspiration folder will remind you to take a new fresh at the work you are doing.

7. Time to be an adult and think about the future: start that retirement fund TODAY. Start that IRA. Alternatively, I know one artist who made 2 studio works for every one he sold. He put one in a container on his property as his “rainy day fund” for retirement to sell off in his retirement. This of course works fine if you become well known and sell well. Anyway, you are not immortal and you should be squirreling away funds for future- and doing it throughout your carrier.

8. Documentation: Remember good photos are VERY IMPORTANT to selling your work and experience. They say you are “serious” and will help the client/gallery be able to take the leap to hire you because it is presented it in a compelling, professional way. If you want to save money over your career, take some photography/video lessons, borrow a good camera before you buy one and do your own photography- if you are good at that….if not, spend the cash or barter for professional pictures of your work.

9. Keep true to developing your perspective/voice that you are passionate about. Even if you don’t see that through line of your artwork now, if you are true to yourself and keep on working on things that excite you, towards the middle or end of your career, it will become clear where you came from and point you towards your trajectory.

Bring joy and your creative process in your day to day life. I am a gardener and I love cooking and baking. Anyone can find that creative expression in some part of their life, some joy that comes from their creative process.

Think about how you and your inner artist can make something better.

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Hoong Yee

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About the Author: Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer helps artists & creative people grow their careers with great grant writing strategies & mindsets she has developed over 15 years as an veteran grant panelist, grant maker & grant writer. Get her FREE Master Grant Strategy Worksheet and a weekly dose of insights from a grant reviewer’s point of view.

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