Saturday, January 24, 2015

Cammofleur #2, Paige Wery

Paige Wery director of the Good Luck Gallery, portrait from the Makeover series by Austin Young, 2014

MAP:               For these interviews, I have tried to pick women who were working and successful and seemed like really strong people. I picked a variety of women with different roles: a gallerist, a fine artist, a video production artist, a student, and people with different cultural backgrounds.  I want to explore what it means to be a powerful creative woman.
PQ:                  It's a nice group to be a part of.
MAP:               Definitely. Well, I thought it was really interesting, when we talked, that I had no idea that you had been an athlete as well as being an artist and a director of a gallery. I thought that was such a fascinating, powerful thing that you brought to the conversation. I guess I was hoping you would talk a little bit about that: about your background an as athlete and how you became an artist.
PW:                 I was an artist. I was always drawing as a kid, but the athletic part was more for fun until.... What should I say about the athletic part? I'll tell you what, I enjoyed being an athlete up to a certain point, but it was a really.... It wasn't my passion like art was. I learned so much from being an athlete and I highly recommend kids to be athletic, and go out and work on a team, and learn how to get along with other people, and to learn how to be competitive in a positive way. I don't know what else to say.
MAP:               You played golf right?
PW:                 Yeah, I played golf. I started when I was a kid and it got me into UCLA. I went to UCLA on a golf scholarship. I was there for three years, but it was... tough. When I signed up for UCLA, I said that I wanted to go to the art school. They said, "Sure. Great. Here, sign the paperwork." I signed the paperwork and then I showed up and I asked where my art classes were and they were like, "Oh, that's a whole different school." They screwed me over because they wanted me to play golf and I couldn't play golf and be in the art school at the same time.
                        College athletes miss so much school. When you go to UCLA and you're on an athletic team--even the women's golf team, which is really low on totem pole--you are still there to be playing golf. They're paying you to play golf. Your grades and your desires and things like that really come in second, but you don't know that until you're there in the middle of it all.
MAP:               Then you dropped out to make art, right?
PW:                 I did, to go to art school. I did that for about a year. I took junior college classes down in San Diego, moved back in with my parents, and then a family friend was devastated that I wasn't playing golf anymore and sponsored me to go out on a mini tour. I ended up playing golf for another five years. I also got married and insisted on going to art school, so we moved up to Northern California.
MAP:               It’s an interesting story.  When you first mentioned it to me, you were working as a co-curator of “Perform Chinatown.” I was picking up my t-shirt and you were talking about your background as an athlete. I didn't know anything about that: about you. I guess as long as I’ve known you in the art world, you have always been this icon.  I've always seen you as being very statuesque. You're taller than most women in the art world, and you have a loud, gregarious laugh, and you have a lot of energy and spirit. There always seems to be a party around you. To hear that you are an athlete makes total sense.  I only know you from the art world or in your role as a director working for Artillery Magazine. It's always interesting to hear that there's this whole other side to your life.
PW:                 It was everything right up until I was about 27.
MAP:               Not only was there this other side of your life, but you were very successful at it. That you had a successful career as a golfer and that it was completely of another world--that's really interesting.
PW:                 I definitely had that option. It was on the table.
MAP:               It makes you very confident. I don't know if you directly credit it but, you're very confident.  You’ve switched from publishing to owning a gallery. You're very clear, quick, and decisive when you decide to do something. 
Paige Wery in William Dailey installation,  portrait by Marlene Picard

PW:                 I do. That's why I think of my dad, who's an extremely athletic person. When he was 67, he did Ironman. He's that kind of athletic. I learned so much by playing golf or just even competing and being on a team and things like that. You learn a lot. I learned self-confidence through the experience of going to a big school like UCLA. Being on the traveling team with them, I was basically forced to go play with these country clubs. I came from a pretty lower middle class family.  My mom was a secretary, my dad was a high school teacher. I would go to these fancy country clubs that I had never been to before and I had to play golf with these people. I actually really learned how to get along with them and I just learned a lot. Now, I feel like I can talk to whomever on the streets; sit down on Venice Beach while I'm selling my art, and I can also show up at a fancy person's house and I feel comfortable in both places. I completely thank golf for that because I did not know how to handle being around these super rich people when I first went to UCLA. I was never around anything like it before. These people had huge houses and had maids and people cooking for them and everything I never witnessed before.
                        Now I feel comfortable being around it because I got to know them and they were friendly and everything was fine. It did help me a lot with who I am.
MAP:               How did you wind up at Artillery?  What was the story behind that?  And then you decided to leave and found your gallery.  Do you want to start with Artillery?
PW:                 Sure I'll start with Artillery. A friend of mine was writing for them in their very second issue. The second issue that they ever published. I wrote for the first time--a little review, a 500 word review. I wrote for them for about a year and I really didn't have the art history background because I'm an art school dropout. I started feeling really uncomfortable because I was trying to be an artist and I was trying to write about this stuff, but it was taking so much time to do all the history. I just felt like I wasn't a good enough writer.
                        “I quit,” I told Tulsa, the editor and founder of Artillery. I told her that I wasn't going to write anymore. She came back to me two weeks later and said, "Are you interested in being a publisher?" I said, "Well, let me think about that." Because I didn't even know what that job was! I literally went home and Googled “publisher.” I was like, "I can talk about art. I like the magazine. We'll just try it for 3 months." 6 years later, I had brought in a lot of money to the magazine. I'm really proud of what I did with that magazine. I'm still a huge supporter. I still buy ads. I think it's a really important thing in Los Angeles. We need more art magazines covering what's happening here because there's so many important things happening here and all the newspapers--they're all getting cut. The budgets are all getting cut.
I loved that job. It was a real good job and I had more responsibility than I had ever had. I'd been an artist when I was working in a frame store part time and when Tulsa asked me to do it I had never done anything like it before. I think that that was good, too, because we're going to make up our own rules. I made up my own rules. I didn't really know what a publisher was really, how they were really supposed to do it. We just made it work. By the time I left we had raised ad sales 300 -400 percent.
PW:                 We worked really well together and I feel like we accomplished a lot. At a certain point, I felt it was time to move on and I started thinking of what else I wanted to do.
                        Having been an artist and having run the magazine, I felt capable of opening up a gallery. I also saw a huge gap in the fact that there was no self-taught artist galleries in Los Angeles that focused on outsider art. Sometimes when I was with Artillery and going around to all the galleries, the artwork was just really looking all the same to me and I just wanted to shake it up a little bit.
MAP:               Before your gallery, “Good Luck Gallery,” no one in Los Angeles was focused on outsider art.  I’m from the midwest and in Chicago there's such a huge outsider art presence. It's because of the aesthetic of Chicago Imagism and artists, like Ed Paschke and Barbara Rossi.  They were really interested in looking at outsider art. There have also been outsider art superstars like Henry Darger and Mr. Imagination. Mr. Imagination has a huge career as an artist in Chicago. Nationally, there is a huge collector pool of people who are fascinated by outsider art and I've never seen it exhibited anywhere in Los Angeles. When you announced that's what the focus of your gallery was I thought, "That's so smart." It's such an interesting area of research. There are so many people who are fascinated with just that one genre of painting, drawing and sculpture.  And then there are Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers. The Watts Towers are an icon of that whole genre and they are right here in the city. The idea of an outsider Los Angeles gallery seemed just perfect and really very timely.
PW:                 I'm pushing the limit. I'm not just focused on that. I'm also showing collectors as artist. I felt justified in doing that because of the Venice Biennale only just last year which I didn't get to go to. I was supposed to go, but I couldn't--I didn't. I wasn't able to make it. He showed, for the first time--the curator of the Venice Biennale, last summer--he showed outsider art for the first time and next to contemporary artists. He also showed collectors work. A rock collection and people that have collected little tiny ceramic figures and all of a sudden I was like, "Duh." I'm reading the catalog. I love the catalog. All the essays that were written about the stuff. It totally clicked; that's an art form.  It's very personal. I love opening that door because they're not trained to be a collector. You don't go to school to learn how to collect art. I'm opening up the door for that, too, in the gallery and I'm really enjoying that. It's been fun.
MAP:               It totally makes sense, too, because when I think about the biggest aesthetes in my life, they were my grandmother and my aunt and any woman that I grew up with who was making little arrangements of things or had a glass menagerie--some kind of collection of things--was always going on. Whether they collect turkey plates, like Mat Gleason’s mom, or Lladro figurines. There's something that is really fascinating about that form of culture that doesn't get talked about because it is overtly feminine. It's really fascinating because it's something that every woman knows how to do, which is to create a home. That feeling of “this has not just been cleaned, it has been organized for your pleasure,” which I think is fascinating.
                        You had a show of basically a book collection, which is a beautiful show. I don't remember the name of the collector.
PW:                 William Daley, who retired about 5, 6 years ago. He closed his bookshop. He brought in all of these books, including books from 1717 and out-of-state art or out-of-print art catalogs and first edition novels. No gloves required; every one was allowed to just hang out and look through the books. We brought in his furniture, his table, his chairs, his rugs, his lights. Everything was beautiful because he's an amazing collector all the way across the board. In that show, which I had no idea what was going to happen--it was amazing. We brought in really great people into the gallery. I had an NYU retired librarian come in who's come back to the shows since, too, and has come to our readings. I just ended up meeting all these people that aren’t typically going to walk into an art gallery, but they love books. It was really great.
                        Something else that I think is important, too, is that when I ended up going at art school up in San Francisco, right before I dropped out of art school, I had an instructor that actually said, "You guys think you're artists? You're not artists. The artists are in the studio right now, painting." The next day, I quit school. That guy is singing my song right now. I'm out of here. I'm tired of being graded on my art. Whatever. I moved back down to L.A. and I refused to wait tables, which is what I had been doing while I was going at art school. I went down to Venice Beach and sat on the boardwalk with all of these other people, selling my artwork. That was when I really had my first taste of outsider art. It wasn't that I learned about outsider art in school. They hardly ever even touch on it at the colleges.
                        There were homeless people and people with mental problems and people that were just doing it because they just loved it and it had nothing to do with... they were making this art for something that they could hardly even explain. They were stealing tubes of paint instead of stealing food to make this art and it was a passion that I did not see at California College of the Arts where everyone is paying $48,000 to get graded by (a lot of times) miserable instructors that didn't want to be there. Then here I was out on the beach with these people and it just became a club of artists.
Because I had a car and I had an apartment. Once a month I would go down and say, "If you're here Saturday, meet me down there." At 9:00 I would show up with my truck. Everybody was allowed to bring one painting and then I would take it to a coffee shop and curate shows with everybody from Venice. Nobody had ever approached them for anything like that before. That's really how I started curating with outsider work. It wasn't that the artwork was fabulous, it was just that it was passionate and it was amazing. We would put prices on them and sometimes it would sell and they would come back for the opening. I would always have an opening for them and they would get as dressed up as they could. They would invite their family. They would all take their buses from all over the city. I'm talking about homeless people finding ties and showing up at their first art opening at a coffee shop and treating it like it was a godsend. It was so fun and beautiful and amazing.
                        That's really how I first started. That's when I was first introduced to outsider art. I was sitting on Venice Beach and meeting these people and working with them. It stuck with me. I did that for a year. I sat down there for a full year with a friend of mine that was also selling her paintings. After a year, it was time for me to move on. I'm still in touch with two of them and I'm still friends with them, but I just had to tell everybody, "I'm sorry, I have to go do my own thing." I'm not making enough money selling paintings on Venice Beach for a buck and pay my rent. I had to leave. But that's always stuck in my mind. Helping these people that never consider themselves worthy of hanging their work in a coffee shop. Even though they worked on it every day and that was their whole life.
MAP:               I guess you have a whole other idea about what is successful and what's creative and all kinds of really interesting conversations about those ideas.
PW:                 Yeah. It was quite an experience to go from CCAC and go sit down on Venice Beach.
MAP:               It sounds like it was fun, too.
PW:                 It was really fun. It was intense. It was sad. It was one of those things where you wanted to take everybody home with you.... There was definitely some guilt with me. Getting in my truck and driving home and knowing that I had food and shelter. I think part of that guilt is what drove me to think, "You know what? I got to do something. I don't want to feel bad about this. Let's work with these people and I can go out and find a coffee shop and we'll show their work." I really didn't think anybody would show up at their opening but they all showed up and then it became a monthly thing.
MAP:               That's so sweet. I didn't know that, actually. That's so connected to what you're doing now.
PW:                 It's on a different level, but ...
MAP:               But it's related.
With gallery artist Harry Steinberg, 2014, by Eric Minh Swenson

PW:                 It's the same thing.  At the gallery I'm showing a lot of people that have never had a show before, and I love that. I just thought it makes me so happy to have people that just thought that.... My 103 year old ceramicist, Harry Steinberg--he never thought he would have a show. I met him when he was 103. He never had a show before. His work is amazing. It's a group show, I'm taking it to Miami. Now he's 104 and I just went to his house and picked up a new set of work.
MAP:               Oh my God, that’s amazing.
PW:                 Yeah. He's so beautiful and so happy and just making this child-like gorgeous work. It's thrilling to be working with people like this. So far, so good. I haven't even been open for a year. I'm talking like I've been doing this forever. It's a new thing, but it feels like a good fit.
MAO:               What's more like, you'd been around for a year. It's pretty hard to make a gallery fly in L.A. It’s so awesome that you're doing so well and you're happy and it seems like your flow is going to the right direction. And you're going to Miami! That's really exciting.
PW:                 I'm feeling very supported, and I got into the Outsider Art Fair. Which is really, really difficult to get into.
MAP:               That's exciting.
PW:                 I am so thrilled.
MAP:               It's your first year. That's awesome.
PW:                 I know. I went to it last year, and I hadn't even open up the doors yet, and met the owner a couple of times, Andrew Edlin, who has a very successful outsider art gallery in New York. He represents Henry Darger and people like that. He's the bigwig guy and he's been very helpful. He gave me a booth and invited me in, which is amazing.
MAP:               Yeah, I should show you mine. I have a Mr. Imagination paintbrush from Chicago. He showed up when I was in grad school in St Louis and he had a crush on my ex.  He would carry these paintbrush sculptures in his bag and he handed one to him and somehow I got it in the separation. It's neat, it's really different, and he was really, really neat, too. There's so many people that make work in Chicago, and it is so loved there and beloved there. Because Darger’s work was discovered there, I remember seeing those Darger drawings in the 90s and thinking, "Oh my God. This is so much more interesting than anything I've seen." There's so much of it, too. These giant drawings, such beautiful drawings.
PW:                 They're so beautiful.
MAP:               All sides of the paper are incredible, beautiful work. And just that obsession when you're making so much work and...
PW:                 And never sharing it.
MAP:               Not needing to. He's amazing.
PW:                 I hadn't really thought about that. Not needing to. I was thinking of it as not thinking anybody else would like it. But I think not needing to is also a good way to put it. Like the recent female photographer Vivian Maier, whose work was discovered at a garage sale. Some people probably just don't need it and don't want to put it out there and deal with the audience. And then some people don't think that anybody would want to look at it: it's something so private. I definitely have worked with some people like that. They just consider themselves hobbyists or something, but when you look at the work, it's beautiful. I have been turned down for shows. I've asked people to do shows and they're not interested. They're too nervous. Some people can't handle putting their work out in front of an audience. It's way too personal for them. Other people--it's just celebration! It's a celebration for what they've been doing, which is great. With 103-year-old Harry Steinberg, I rented a couch. We brought in 103 of his ceramic pieces. It's his first show. I rented a couch because I figured he was going to have to sit down and he wasn't sitting down the whole time. I kept looking over, my friends were drinking on his couch. I was like, "Get up, that's for Harry." He's like, "I don't want to sit down. I don't want to sit down." He kept running around and shaking people's hands. That was so great. It's awesome. There's so many people like that in the world that, just--for whatever reason--nobody knows about or talks about, but they have such a compelling, exciting practice that makes the difference in so many people's lives, whether they know it or not.
MAP:               It's great that you're able to offer people a chance to celebrate that.
PW:                 Yeah, and for people to see his work and to hear that his age and still making art, still with his young, lovely wife, who's 87, who takes care of all the phone calls and all the emails.
MAP:               That's sweet.
PW:                 They're adorable. They're just so cute. Such an inspiration for everybody. Looking for outsider artists is…. It's different. I even want to say it might be a little bit more difficult because you don't go to the colleges and go culling around for the young kids. You're looking underneath rocks.
MAP:               Right.
PW:                 And hoping to hear something word of mouth.
MAP:               Yeah, totally. I could see that.
PW:                 Yeah. It's been interesting.
Portrait of Paige Wery by Mary Anna Pomonis 2015