studioNOTES: support for artists/ideas and information

Number 26

August - October 1999

BENNY SHABOY is just finishing up the current issue of studioNOTES. He claims he's "going nuts" and doesn't have time to be interviewed. "Benny," we say, "inquiring readers want to know." He replies, "OK, sure, whatever."

How and when did studioNOTES get started?

In September 1993, I went to the unveiling of a sculpture in Benicia and ran into several artists I hadn't seen in a while. When I asked, "What have you been doing?" the answer was almost always about what they had been working on in their studios. A few days later, I suggested to a friend who ran a gallery in the back of her used clothing store that she become the publisher of a newsletter that I would write about what local artists were up to. It would be available at her place and would bring people in, especially artists, which she wanted. Besides, we thought it would be a service to the community.

That first issue was two photocopied pages stapled together. I think we printed only a couple of hundred copies. It contained one or two paragraphs about each of 12 local artists, written in a telegraphic style, something like "13 canvases, 8x10" in last 3 months, mostly red. Oil mixed with sand. Leaf-like shapes." No pictures. The name "Benny Shaboy" is a nom-de-plume, based on a historical marker. I was leery of using my own name - half because if I failed, I would be embarrassed and half because if I were successful, people might treat me differently. After a couple of issues, the gallery/store owner moved on and I had begun to think that studioNOTES should deal with more than just local artists. Over the years it has evolved into what I call an artist-to-artist journal for people working in all media, styles and geographic locations. We have subscribers in Australia, Germany, France, and throughout the US, although we need to get many more in order to continue. We've written about styles and media ranging from Richard L. Davis's oil and egg tempera super-realist paintings, to Joel Slayton's internet and robot pieces to Tobey Kaplan's poetry and collage to Frank Galuszka's performances that involve things getting burnt up. I firmly believe one artist can learn from another even if everything about who they are and what they do are opposite. In fact, sometimes that's best.

What is your background? What makes you qualified to do what you are doing?

My best qualification is that I really do believe what I said above, and I think it's important to provide a medium such as this journal so that artists can share information and ideas and be stimulated and encouraged. I grew up in a house full of art, including some by people that my mother, who was an artist, had known and who have gone on to become famous. I studied art at both a modern art school and at an extremely conservative one. I like them both. The modern one gave me an appreciation for trying new things, for trusting one's subconscious, for understanding that art was more that just pretty pictures. The conservative school, where I was in the sculpture department working from the figure six to ten hours a day, helped me understand how important the basics are, and how important thorough study is. I have been a practicing and exhibiting artist, on and off for years. Right now, I am essentially off, because of all the time studioNOTES takes.

My father was a full-time journalist, so writing for publication always seemed an ordinary thing to do, even though I don't consider myself a writer in the grand sense of the word; I just gather information and put it into a reasonably readable form.

During the Vietnam era, I worked with a non-profit organization that helped people who were having problems with the draft and the military. There I wrote and edited dozens of informational memos, newsletters, booklets, manuals, and even a book. This material was for the individuals themselves, as well as counselors and lawyers. Since individual's lives and freedom were at stake, it had to be accurate and clear. (No point in being accurate if somebody can't understand you.) Since then I have had to write a number of articles, press releases, and that sort of thing for galleries, businesses, arts organizations and individual artists.

studioNOTES seems to be the only art magazine to have much life to it. How do you do it? How do you plan on keeping in the same funky vein as you grow? Or do you?

To the extent that we have any life at all, it's because we stay out of the way and let the artists do the talking. And we don't shy away from humor; at the risk of being cute, art is too serious to be taken seriously. We try not to take too many words to say too little. I try to abide by William Zinsser's dictum to write with respect for the reader and for the English language. For me, this means long hours of editing and planning.

My idea of a good article about an artist is one in which we act like a video camera, showing the artist at work as she comments on what she is doing. There may be some "voice-over" here and there, but only to pull things together or provide a segue from one "scene" to another. In general, we write about activity rather than accomplishments. Our "survey" articles, in which we gather the experiences and opinions of several artists, always have a wide range of answers, many of which I don't agree with. Often I like the ones I don't agree with the best, though, because how else you gonna learn. As far as keeping it in the same vein as we grow, sure.

How do you decide which topics to address each time, which artists to write about?

Most of the topics come from readers. About every 18 months we send out a questionnaire asking people to rate their level of interest in 70 or 80 subjects proposed by subscribers. Based loosely on the results, we choose the topics that seem to be of the most interest to the greatest number of people. But we stray from that basic list whenever it seems appropriate. For instance, this issue's question about teaching sprang from the article on "the most important thing learned," and the question on mind-altering practices was never "voted" on by the readers; it was just suggested by one artist, and we went with it. Bottom line: send in your questions.

About 80% of the artists we interview are subscribers, and we know their work either because they send us slides or postcards or invitations or because we've seen the work over the years. Sometimes, after talking to an artist only briefly, I'll ask if we can do an interview-just based on a quick assessment that they might have something worth listening to. And every once in a while, we interview a subscriber at random, without ever having seen the work. Why not? Once I even interviewed a wrong number (he was a subscriber). Artists get into studioNOTES not based on how "good" we think their work is, but whether we think they might have something that other artists would be interested in learning about. We do try to keep a variety, though, as far as media, styles, locations, and level of recognition.

If someone were to give you a grant for twenty times your current budget, what would studioNOTES look like?

Well, although I've never been a religious person, it might have a cover on it that said, "Praise the Lord!" We could sure use the money, and to answer the question seriously is easy: We'd come out once a month, at least. We'd have more articles and color pictures. We'd be in all the bookstores, art stores, art centers, and news stands that would take us. We'd have an active web site where we'd answer questions, post opportunities, other information, and pictures of work. Somebody asked what we'd look like down the road, say in 5, 10, or 20 years. Twenty is way too long to predict, but what I've just described is what we'd look like in 5 years. It's just a question of money.

Of course, all this would require a much bigger staff. Right now everyone who works on the editorial side is essentially a volunteer. (Anyone out there want to join us?)

As far as art goes, what will this decade or the last few decades be remembered for, when people look back on it 50 or 200 years hence?

A couple of people asked me this and similar questions regarding my interpretations of the current art world, art scene -- that kind of stuff. They're fair and intriguing questions and I answered them individually to the best of my ability by e-mail, but, I really regard myself as more of a camera than a commentator. Briefly, though, I think we're in a time of tremendous upheaval. The internet and other technology make it possible to have scads of images, sounds, documents, and other data at your fingertips. I'm not saying that this is good or bad, only that it will have a unforeseeable impact, and will change the way everyone - not just artists- thinks. There are a relative handful of people using the internet not just to post images but as a medium, sometimes brilliantly. It's hard to predict where that will lead, but it will change the face and substance of art forever, and it's already begun. And that's all the space I'm going to take up on this or any subject right now. But readers can e-mail me with questions and I'll answer them.. If you want to join our list-server, email us for instructions on that since we might discuss some of these things there.

How about a studioNOTES open house/party?

You bet. But we need volunteers to help get it together. Please call, write or e-mail.

 -- This interview was based on actual questions submitted by Erik Keilholtz, Susan Hyde, Mernie Buchanan, Michele Theberge, Mariel Osborn Morison, Mike Kendall, Steve Harlow, Patricia Tavenner, and others.

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