The Working Artist: Paige Barnes – The Artist

Photo: Omar Willey. CC-BY 4.0

Part 3: The Artist in Context

What motivates artists? If one believes a former instructor of mine, artists are like any other person and they have three motivating desires: to be right, to be understood and to be praised. While it is difficult to be “right” in a creative sense and certainly many artists work in such oblique and subtle ways that “understanding” takes some work on the part of the audience, showing artists appreciation and giving them legitimate praise is simple. Yet it is surprisingly rare.

i have a passion/compulsion for movement and choreography’s creative process. i know this is the place where i think i have come closest to understanding the concept of being in the present moment with a sense of purpose, ease and joy. not to say that inside of these spaces, i do not have great struggle because it is also the place where simultaneously i face my largest fears and have my greatest sense of defeat.

Making art is hard work. It is labor like any sanitation engineer’s or any office worker’s. Just as people in offices get bored with their work, artists, too, get bored with theirs. And like all bored people, they quit. The difference is that individual artists’ labor are not quite so replaceable as the sanitation engineer’s. When a community loses an individual artist, it loses that artist’s voice forever, often before that voice becomes truly strong enough to help change the community and its identity in a positive and durable way. How many of these voices are lost simply because of a failure to show even a modest appreciation?

war is over

ready ok go
go on go on
beat the incarnations
out of me

fight me lose me
i’m defending now
depends who you ask
sometimes it’s all right
sometimes it’s all night

we’re the enemy

The social problem involved is that, as American citizens in a capitalist society where artists function as mercenaries, the true role of art remains largely obscure. Any casual glance at a report on the National Endowment for the Arts will reveal this confusion. Witness how many arguments come down to the least important thing of all: money. Money is the only way most people have of clueing into what artists do. But money is a lousy clue. Not everything has or needs a dollar sign attached to it to have value. Seattleites need better ways of understand what art is and what art does for them and their world, ways that are not reductive but productive.

the piston
we’re the centipede
you’re the mirror
hey hey i can take it
we’re adoramouses wrestling now
my hood is a massacre
my hood is the common denominator

i think the experiences i have had inside learning about my body, how to move it, communicate with it, and heal have given me knowledge to share. i get a high, elated, when i feel like i can positively contribute to another person’s life. discovering that sharing my insights can provide growth to another individual simply makes all the struggle completely worth it.

For dancers, certainly, support is not just a question of money. Anyone involved in dance knows that dance is very low on the totem pole of status and even lower on the totem pole of public support both moral and financial. A quick comparison of the money given to arts will show that dance receives about one-fourth the funding of theater in Seattle and King County; if one removes a single institution–the Pacific Northwest Ballet–from this equation, the fraction drops to a bit less than one-eighth. Even this sum is deceptive, however. As a practical matter money tends to go to “emerging artists” who are quite new on the scene and quite young overall, or to “elder statesmen” who are usually quite old and have been working for decades.

“Mid-career artists” are largely left out of this. Left to fight amongst themselves for scraps of public funding and nebulous promises of commercial sponsorship, these are the artists who have it the hardest financially. Sadly, they also generally have it hardest in terms of community respect. They are not the hottest, latest, greatest, zip, bam, pow whiz kids that everyone wants to court, and they are not the permanent, unwavering, always-there-always-was-always-will-be institutions upon which everyone relies. The “mid-career artist” commands neither the novelty of the new jack nor the deference given to the elder. Without the financial support or even the social support lavished upon the others, the mid-career artist often finds herself struggling.

i ought to grovel a little i know
but i’m just a weed under a wheel
many many candles
have been lit for this cause
but we’re always lighting candles for something

i think of my dog named mouse: when she finds a mud puddle, she lies on her belly with all legs sprawled out and crawls her self forward… my experience in quito, was like this: dirty, sweaty, and satisfying. i was figuring out how to dance and i was young enough that falling over and over again did not hurt, in fact the more bruises i had, the happier i was. it was one of the happiest moment of my life. i became obsessed and returned from that place on a mission to figure out how to dance, what was this art form that i loved but previously never gave myself permission to fully explore.

i don’t want to be the shadow anymore
c’mon hit me
we’re made of the same stuff
we’re traveling together now

the struggles make the brilliant moments feel transcendent. this paradigm seems appropriate when thinking about the course of an individual’s life, what one confronts and learns, especially when reflecting on the consequences of choice. after all these years movement continues to be a steady curiosity of mine; it is the place where i see infinite potential for growth–to both be creative and healing.

Emerging artists are not what give Seattle its identity. Institutions are not what give Seattle its liveliness. These are qualities that only the mid-career artist can bring to the community. They are the artists who hold together the social structure of the arts community. For this, they receive knowing smiles and pats on the head from their peers but precious little support or even recognition outside that ever-tightening circle.

i’m shaking up the world again
it’s laughing crying
the neon is hysterical

That circle should not tighten; it should widen. These “mid-career” artists should not suddenly become “end-of-career” artists through neglect and ignorance. As Jackie McLean says, “You gotta have somebody sometimes to tell you you’re an artist…that you’re in an exclusive art form that’s something special.”

And really, given the abuse heaped regularly upon artists by administrators, anonymous nitwits on comment boards, oblivious laymen who virtually pride themselves on being completely ignorant of arts and wish to keep it that way, hostile politicians who want to turn art into a battlefield of ideology–given all these brutalities pressing down every day upon creative souls everywhere, is it so much to ask for an occasional praise just for being an artist who has worked hard for a very long time? What harm can possibly come of offering a fellow human being some encouragement once in awhile?

Perhaps this does not mean simply throwing them some token grant money once in a while, but something simpler, something more obvious–perhaps something as simple as a phone call, or a handwritten letter. Mid-career artists should not sink into public oblivion simply because they work hard and are not yet old enough to be considered community elders.

This, then, is my attempt. It is not quite a handwritten letter, and not quite a phone call. It is more public because it needs to be. It is a tribute to one of my favorite “mid-career artists”: the fabulous Paige Barnes.

Categories Culture Dance

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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