Make Shit & Show Up (full interview)
Getting Schooled by Gioia Fonda
Published January 1, 2019
Gioia Fonda is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in two-dimensional media (painting, drawing, sewing, and photography) with occasional forays into sculpture, performance, and new media. Her subject matter is wide-ranging, from working in a colorful non-objective manner, to directly addressing the fallout of the Great Recession. A resident member of Verge Center for the Arts, she is a dedicated member of the Sacramento art community, contributing as an artist, curator, jurist, and collaborator. She has a bi-coastal art education, receiving her BFA at the California College of the Arts and her MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She is a tenured professor of art at Sacramento City College.
articulator: How would you describe your work?
Gioia Fonda: I tend to call myself a painter because that’s just easier for people to understand. But, I am and have always have been, an interdisciplinary artist. I use whatever medium I see fit, whether it’s printmaking, sewing, sculpture, drawing or painting.
Most of the time it’s about color and about applying it in some way. I use whatever is appropriate or attracts me at the moment. This connects to my skills for teaching people how to draw, paint, to use color and how to compose and express themselves visually. I’m passionate about teaching, and because I earn my living in education, I can take many freedoms with my artwork. I don’t need to make things that are commercially motivated, and I’m not as motivated to find a gallery to represent my work, as maybe I would be if I didn’t have my teaching position.
articulator: It sounds like there is a direct correlation between your work as a teacher and your work as an artist. Are they one and the same?
Gioia Fonda: Yes. To use a culinary metaphor, teaching helps you keep your knife sharp. I find by saying the same things over and over again to my students, I hear my teacher voice in my head when I get to the studio. Teaching motivates me to walk my talk. I’ve had day jobs that were not art-related that can leave you so zonked at the end of the day that you don’t really have a lot left over for making art.
I’ve also had a few really stupid day jobs that did not require a lot of mental energy, and I could come to the studio and transition smoothly and do my own work. So, if it’s emotionally taxing to be at work, there’s just not a lot left for the studio.
Gioia’s best day jobs…
Figure model for other artists and for figure drawing classes—it’s sitting quietly for most of the day, you’ve provided lots of mental space, and can sometimes be a little physically exhausting
Substitute teaching – This job was sometimes mentally taxing while I was doing it since it requires being responsible for a lot of young lives while having to deal with classroom management and following whatever the lesson plan was (or wasn’t) prepared. At the end of the day, I was pretty much done and didn’t have to think about it again. I also learned a lot doing this, about teaching or sometimes the topic of the day, sometimes I had a lot of fun and I actually liked that it was so unpredictable, it took my mind to such a great variety of places each day. One day you are thinking about how weather works with third graders and they are asking really cool questions that you only have some of the answers to, and then the next day you might be at a high school trying to lead a unit on Gilgamesh or teaching a history class about the Depression.
Party server – Serving wine and food at parties for fancy people. I enjoyed this, the work was easy, the money wasn’t bad and there was often the perk of food. I learned about both throwing and attending parties which were skills (or talents) I don’t naturally possess. I could be a useful wallflower. I got to see inside some really nice places, homes where people actually live with museum-quality art. I found that to be affirming. This sort of demystified parties for me, so I’m better at going to things like this now and have aspirations of being a better host.
Art supply clerk – This was my one and only retail job and this was one of the first “jobs” where the knowledge I acquired in art school was useful. I came to realize I was actually really knowledgeable about all this stuff I’d been using for so many years, so this gave me some confidence. Not too many bad things happen in art supply stores, most people want to be there and have interesting problems they need you to help them solve. The clientele isn’t too bad most of the time. The biggest challenges were probably the interpersonal problems between fellow employees or managers, but that would likely be true anywhere. There wasn’t a lot to stress or much to think about once you’re clocked out. I worked in a specialized area of a very large store selling single sheets of high-quality paper (watercolor, printmaking, drawing papers plus decorative papers from all over the world). I learned a great deal about paper working here and love offering this information to my students now. Although I only worked there for about a year, I made a friend working there that I’ve kept in touch with for over 20 years now.
Personal assistant/informal estate sale organizer – Other people’s problems are often more fun to solve and work on than your own. When you are young and strong enough to move things and have time, you can help older people that are overwhelmed, physically unable or don’t have time to deal with: full garages, cluttered households, mundane or tedious errands, the belongings of the recently deceased etc. This can be interesting work. Perks include flexible scheduling and sometimes groovy hand-me-downs (furniture, clothes, household items) and sometimes wealthy connections (which can be useful later as a burgeoning artist).
Along the Wayward Path
articulator: Where did this all start for you, how did you discover your passion for art and teaching?
Gioia Fonda: I really need to start with my mother’s story, she went to art school in the ’50s and had a bad experience in art history class, so she dropped out. She went back, after two kids and a divorce, as an older student in the sixties. She majored in graphic design. This is before computers, so there were no shortcuts, you were drawing the letters and doing the whole analog thing.
This was at a time when there were not a lot of women in graphic design, but I think she believed this would be a way to support my brothers. She ended up working for Gallo wine, designing wine labels, and also worked on the side as a freelancer.
And then she met my dad, thinking he’d support her so she could pursue being an artist. While my dad didn’t turn out to be the support she had fantasized about, they’re still together, whether monetarily or emotionally, they’ve made it work.
While she devoted her life to being a mom and a wife, she always had a studio. Her paintings won local art competitions, and her freelance work included decorating Christmas trees for rich people or helping anyone in need of a costume or window displays, things like that.
My mom was someone who could make anything out of anything, and if she didn’t know how, she’d figure it out. If she wanted to weld something, she’d go to the tractor repair guy and say, “hey, can you weld this to that?” So while I don’t think she pushed me to be an artist, I certainly learned from her by just being around her so much.
I spent a lot of time alone. My brothers are about 20 years older than me, basically making me an only child. To occupy me, my mom gave me art supplies, so I always had something to do. The space under the table in my mom’s studio became my studio and living in a large Victorian house, I had a lot of space to paint or draw or do whatever, whenever I wanted. Art was just something to do.
articulator: So, growing up, you were encouraged at home, how about at school?
Gioia Fonda: I had a terrible art teacher in high school and, being a small school, there wasn’t the option to take the class from someone else. So I worked on our yearbook and studied set design in the theater. I liked being part of the theater experience and I was also very dedicated to our yearbook. That gave me my first taste of graphic design and photography. I was exploring things visually, but I just didn’t have the vocabulary to really understand what I was doing, which led to my decision to go to an art school. I knew about art school because my mom attended one.
When I started at California College of the Arts (CCA), I thought I wanted to be an industrial designer. I was interested in ergonomics, I considered designing toys or shoes—something useful—but as soon as I got to school, very quickly, within the first six months, I realized that it’s sort of like Hogwarts with the Sorting Hat. I realized, oh, I’m one of the “fine arts” people and not one of the “design” people. The kids that were going into industrial design were wearing khaki pants and blue shirts and already looked cleaned up and ready to go get a job. I would have been a fish out of water there, and, luckily, I found my people in the fine arts community.
Even so, I didn’t declare for a while, I just kept taking classes. During my first two years, I explored different mediums like weaving, metalsmithing, and printmaking. I was also living with a photography major and a ceramics major, exposing me to even more materials. Then somewhere around my sophomore year, my counselor pushed me to declare a major, but I just wasn’t interested because I was having so much fun mixing things up.
In the end, I found the painting studio really dirty, the painting teachers had big egos, and the world of painting is extremely hierarchical. That did not appeal to me, so I found myself downstairs hanging out with the printmakers. It’s an underappreciated medium; most people can’t even name a printmaker. Printmakers, by nature, are egoless and there’s a clear process, and it’s a very organized space, they had a dirty room AND a clean room.
I enjoyed the printmaking teachers mainly because their egos were set on low, and I liked the clean studio where I could put something down and not get paint all over it. So for reasons, not necessarily having to do with printmaking, I declared myself half a printmaking major so that they would let me hang out there.
I also took metalsmithing. I think the part of me that wanted to be an industrial designer liked fabricating. I liked working small, and I loved being able to use equipment and machines. I enjoy planning things and seeing how they come together, which is similar to printmaking. I was also making small sculptures in series, like prints. It was about then that I realized the school had an option of declaring an individualized major. It required you to advance from beginning level to advanced courses while allowing you to mix things up more than a traditional major.
As long as you had a plan, you could get away with it. This meant you had to find faculty support, which I did. It just made total sense to me because so many of the artists that I very much admire use multiple media. I think it just felt cruel to make me pick one thing when there’s all this amazing stuff to learn and equipment to use.
articulator: Is that how you got you into teaching?
Gioia Fonda: Well, I have a bunch of teachers in my family, so there’s that. I was pretty good at school and was a good helper who naturally gravitated towards things like helping grade papers after class for the next grade down. My parents always got the report that I seemed to prefer the company of adults rather than other kids. I was the kid that liked rainy day recess when we got to stay inside.
In high school, I was active in student government and editor of the yearbook, and I was also a camp counselor. When I look back, I see these as early indications of having a teaching spirit, but it didn’t feel like it at the time.
articulator: So you didn’t have a teaching career in mind while you were in college?
Gioia Fonda: No, not at all. In fact, after completing my undergrad, I met my husband, who asked if I wanted to move across the country with him and attend graduate school in New York. I knew that I needed to get out of Dodge and so I didn’t put a lot of thought into why I was going or what I’d do once I got there, I just knew I needed to go.
I just thought that this is the next thing you’re supposed to do, go from undergrad to graduate school. The thing you’re supposed to do as an artist is to move to New York City. It’s like I was brainwashed. I don’t remember thinking of Kansas City or Sacramento as options. So I moved to New York and eventually got accepted to grad school at the School for Visual Arts. They have a lot of famous people on their faculty, and that’s how they can charge the crazy tuition for their classes.
Toward the end of my studies, I asked one of my teachers for their contact info in case I needed a reference, and they said, “Oh God, you don’t think you’re going to teach, do you?” I was so taken aback, and it was so discouraging that he poo-pooed the idea that I might want to teach. It wasn’t until about a week later that I thought, fuck him, the way he’s able to do the work he does is because he teaches, right? So I realized that the point of that school is to go out there and be a famous artist, to make the school look good and keep the tuition machine running.
They’re not trying to create teachers they’re trying to produce famous artists. Boiling it down, the education I received as an undergrad was very technically challenging but also very nurturing. What I learned in graduate school was not technical at all. It also wasn’t about learning about the business or professional practice side of art—it was focused on learning how to make “museum quality” artwork.
They want you to think big and push the envelope, and then they expose you to this crazy world in New York where people are making a shit ton of money and are able to finance these big projects. You are sort of bamboozled into believing that that’s what you’re supposed to go out and do, whether you want to or know how to do that.
I was invited to a lot of parties that I didn’t see the value in attending, I just wanted to work in my studio. To support myself, I’d take on odd jobs, serving wine and hors-d’oeuvres at the parties that I was supposed to be attending as a guest. I had an entry into that door but did not understand what the point of it was. What I later realized was that rich people think artists are interesting, we are invited to attend parties to make them more interesting—we have a role to play. That and it also gives the opportunity to make friends with patrons. These are the people who have the money to buy your big art and farmhouses in Connecticut where they’ll let you work for the summer. I was really slow to learn that lesson.
There are also artists that might need studio assistants. It’s a whole networking opportunity that I just didn’t understand how to navigate because I was from a small town and thought that I just needed to do good work. Then I had this critical realization that there are people around me not making great work that are getting further ahead because they’re better at doing the whole schmoozing thing. It’s a skill, like anything else…
articulator: When did you figure it out?
Gioia Fonda: During my last year in NY, especially the last half of my final year and it was kind of heartbreaking. I also had a moment where I went to a Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at the Guggenheim. He was still living, and the whole city was given over to Rauschenberg installations everywhere. Not just at the Guggenheim, but every gallery was selling pieces of his oeuvre. I knew of Rauschenberg but didn’t know that much about him and to see a whole museum filled up with one person, you know, 60 years of output, was significant.
This was at the time Rauschenberg was being celebrated as the greatest living American artist and I was really floored by what I saw that I bought the big thick catalog and, even though I was broke, I bought a second catalog to donate to my undergraduate library, I just knew that people needed to understand more about him.
On a visit home, I realized that probably no one in my entire hometown knew who he was, not even my mom! I thought goddamn, even if I got the highest acclaim in New York City, nobody in my hometown, would ever hear of me. That’s when I realized that creating work for a small, elite body of people while neglecting the vast majority of the country was sort of pointless and hollow.
My education had imprinted the role of cultural producer and culture maker on me, so if we’re only making culture for a tiny number of people that happen to avail themselves to museums and galleries; that’s not making culture that’s serving a micro-culture.
That experience really enlightened me about the power of money. To put it in perspective, where I come from, being rich is being able to shop at Macy’s, but these are the people who own Macy’s. It’s another level of wealth that I just didn’t understand. So while I am thankful for the opportunity to have been exposed to that, it also sort of revolted me.
Even so, I made the most of my grad school experience. I valued having the time and space to focus on my work. I came up with a very pragmatic way of “painting” by rearranging bits of cut felt around on large panels. This allowed me to do 30 paintings in a semester and not have to rebuy supplies or store anything. I could endlessly experiment with pushing color and shapes around. I was making ephemeral work that I only realized much later was, for the most part, unsellable. Now I understand a lot of the work I was doing was just not meant for selling. We now have the terms for “social practice” or “public artwork” or “experimental” or “interactive” work. I now think all these weird unsellable things were my way of subconsciously rejecting the hyper-capitalism I was witnessing in the art world.
articulator: I’m curious about your philosophy, or if you have any guiding principles which shape your practice. Did your school experience help shape those ideas?
Gioia Fonda: My guiding principle can be summed up in the four words “Make Shit Show Up”.
Here’s what that means: I believe the studio practice component is essential, people need to just get in there and make stuff and not really question what or why they’re making it. Don’t keep talking about what you’re making, just make it, make a lot of it, and get better at it, AND, make stuff that’s important, meaning challenging to you and intentional. No phoning it in.
The show-up part is the part that I didn’t do well in college. Now, I understand you have to be part of the community. No one’s going to care about what you’re doing unless you care about what other people are doing. You have to go to other people shows and go to the galleries. You need to get to know the galleries before you approach them. You need to participate, you need to help other people, and you need to let other people know what you’re doing because they’ll invite you to participate in things.
And hang around! I learned how to hang around, helping clean up after openings, getting there early and going to a gallery at other times, not just to openings. In other words, engage with the galleries but don’t push your work right away, that’s tacky and uncouth. Get to know them first to find out if their program is in line with what you’re up to and even if it’s not, still get to know them because they might know someone whose program is appropriate for you. It’s about building trust. Don’t lead with “let me show you my work,” that’s crude. There’s a dance, and it’s complicated, and it takes time and commitment and trust.
articulator: You made a comment about being part of a community, what does that mean to you?
Gioia Fonda: Being an artist can sometimes be really lonely because you’re alone in your studio a lot of the time. It’s easy to get caught up working in a vacuum, to lose touch with what you know or what else is going on. So I think being with other people that are also struggling is good for your mental health. Everyone needs his or her private cave, but, you’ve got to leave the cave every now and then to see what else is happening out there. It’s good to share in the struggle of other people as they develop work as well as sharing yours.
A community could start out similar to the one you might have experienced in school, which is built into the educational process. You’re stuck with this group of people for a couple years, and it’s a learning process. I didn’t choose well the first year, picking the cool people that weren’t necessarily the good artists or the people who are going to stick around and many of them dropped out after the first year. So then I had to reach out to some people that didn’t seem as cool. These might not be the people you are most attracted to physically or personality wise, but, they have a good practice, they are serious, are showing up, and even if I really didn’t like their work, I knew they’re working hard at it. So you grow this mutual respect. They were at the studio at 2 a.m. And I’m here at 2 a.m., and you start thinking, “I see you here! We can share pizza and some beer, and you can paint those things that I don’t like, but we’re in it together. Those were some of the most critical interactions I’ve had. That’s a Tom Marioni thing.
articulator: What kind of support does a community like this give you?.
Gioia Fonda: It creates opportunities because we all need to say “no” to some things, and so when you’re around other people that are turning down commissions or other opportunities, they can kick some of them your way. That happens all the time.
It also creates context, you see someone’s work that is similar to yours, and suddenly it’s, “hey, I think we could have a show together.” Now you don’t have to come up with 20 pieces to have a show. I do five, you do five and so on. We can fill a gallery. And if we fully collaborate, like with mailing lists and whatnot, we can get a couple hundred people to come to the opening.
This goes counter to the idea we’re taught of striking out on our own, to do it yourself. I see that around here all the time. Someone puts up a show, and beyond close friends and family members, few others show up at the reception. That’s not only a disservice to the gallery but also to all the effort you put into the work. It seems to me the more eyeballs you can get on that work the better. Share the space with someone else. Show fewer paintings but connect with more people.
I think that one of the most important things that grad school can give you is the opportunity to figure out who your people are. Bonding with these people teaches you how to build those communities later on. School provides this cohort with training wheels, so after you graduate, you know what that feels like and how it should work and the value it can bring your practice. You seek it out or build it for yourself. Sometimes folks who haven’t been to school don’t know how that works and how much they might benefit from it.
Sacramento is a place where there aren’t a lot of people who have had that experience, so they don’t even know what they’re missing, and, sometimes people are too fast to think that a collective should only include those folks who are aesthetically linked or like-minded, but that’s not necessarily true. You need to find people who have an equal measure of commitment to their work and dedication to each other. People confuse it with making friends. These people are not always your closest friends. You might need that emotional distance so you can be brutally honest with one another.
Physical proximity is one place to start, but other things can form a community. For example, in a medium like ceramics, there’s a network of people who share kilns or share knowledge or have a place where they run into each other because they’re buying the same supplies. I think that helps. Then you have graphic designers. They’ll have pint night or whatever, so there’s an established way for them to get together.
articulator: Sharing kilns leads me to ask your thoughts on the sharing economy in Sacramento.
Gioia Fonda: We’re sort of like the old bartering system. A good example is when I ran a zero budget gallery and would occasionally have a need for pedestals. Well, there were these pedestals that Chris Daubert made for the Kondos Gallery, but they eventually became community pedestals. If we needed pedestals, we could call, and they’d let us borrow them if they weren’t already in use. Those pedestals ended up being used by 4 or 5 different galleries around town. It benefitted all involved because we didn’t have to pay for storage for something as fundamental as a pedestal. It’s counterintuitive, but galleries aren’t really in direct competition with each other. I’ve always thought that it’s more like thrift stores. If someone has the inclination to go into one thrift store and there is another one next door or nearby, they’ll probably go to that one too.
articulator: Does the Verge or any other space offer an infrastructure that supports this type of sharing?
Gioia Fonda: I think right now I’d say the short answer is no, but when I’m in need and, this is important, because of the level of commitment that I’ve shown to this space, I can ask a favor every now and then. Like if I need to store something or borrow a scissor lift or a ladder or something, I think there is a good chance they’d help me out…
I think you need to build trust, though. If I just moved in last month, I don’t know if something like that would be available to me. It’s a two-way street that gets stronger as you build trust. You do favors for other people, and they might do some for you, but you can’t participate if your door is always shut and you’re not hanging around. No one’s going to ask a favor of you which makes it hard for you to ask for one in return.
articulator: If you were going to start a collective, how would it work?
Gioia Fonda: I would love to have a clubhouse for artists. I don’t care if it’s like an Elk’s Lodge where you have to have a card to get in—some level of seriousness is needed. You can’t just declare yourself an artist, you need to be the real deal to hang out there. I’m not sure exactly how that would work, but this isn’t a place for casual hobbyists.
There’d be a bulletin board where people could advertise things they need and things they have to offer. Maybe once a month it’s open to the public so that other people could come in and socialize with artists, perhaps there is a little gallery space, but mostly we need a place to blow off steam. Throughout history, there’s always been a cafe or a bar that has been that place for collectives of people to come together, and it’s in these “third spaces” where people really get the most work done outside their studios.
Sure people are trying to do things like this online. I’m a member of maybe 10 different groups on Facebook. I can’t even keep track of all of them, and basically what happens is people join all of the various groups and then they post the same post for all 10 groups. You see the same post a bunch of times, and I don’t know if anyone’s paying attention to that.
I honestly don’t think any of us need to spend more time on Facebook. I believe human interaction is more important. I would love for Verge to be that place—right now it’s not. We try to have “Salon Nights” where we put out art topics, but it’s hard because people come at it from different perspectives. You’ve got a range from novice people to experienced folks and different people each time. While I like the people, I would like more conversations with artists that are in a similar place in their artistic development and commitment. I’d like to discuss current articles or exhibits regarding contemporary art without having to provide so much background. I think I’d like to teach a little less when I’m not in the classroom.
So I fantasize about some kind of club, some sort of lodge.—and maybe it’s attached to a public gallery. Axis kind of has that, but they don’t really get together very much. WAL’s kind of that but I don’t see them using their community room that much and it gets watered down when you have musicians, visual artists, and performing artists colliding. As much as I love to collaborate with those folks and want more opportunities to cross-pollinate, the needs of a dancer and the needs of a painter are very different.
articulator: So this clubhouse would be a fine arts clubhouse?
Gioia Fonda: I don’t know. That’s what they have in New York. There are all these societies. I used to model in New York, I modeled for the Watercolor Society the Pastel Society and the Art Students League. People start societies, but it’s really just a place for them to vent, have a safe space to commiserate and collaborate. So I think that that stuff works. It’s valuable to hang around other people in a similar struggle.
articulator: So it’s part of your “Showing Up” mantra?
Gioia Fonda: Yes, and giving people a space to do that. I think people try to use Community College for that and there was a time when Community Colleges did function that way; where you could hang out there for 20 years using the facilities, but for both better and worse, that’s not the way it works anymore.
Creating an art gym is also an option/fantasy. A place where they have tables and spray booths and areas to make things, where artists can run into other people and make stuff and sometimes promote classes. I think Hacker Lab and maker spaces want to be that, but because so much space is devoted to equipment, they don’t have enough room to have a hangout space. The other thing maker spaces don’t offer are lockers—an art gym needs lockers. They need places for people to leave their projects.
They also need to be monitored to make sure people are taking care of the equipment and facilities; sweeping up the sawdust and all the other tasks necessary for a clean working space. I’ve learned that as much as you like to think everyone has a community spirit, you just need someone to hold down the fort and take care of stuff. Someone who can train people on the equipment and monitor the facility.
articulator: If there were such a space, would you need your own studio space?
Gioia Fonda: I would, but it’s really for people who just graduated from school or people who live in apartments.
articulator: So you see this as transitional space…
Gioia Fonda: Yes, like when you are working on a large project, you need painting racks. That way you can work on a big six-foot painting without your roommate or your cat walking across your painting, and you don’t have to schlep it back and forth.
articulator: What are your thoughts on the state of education today?
Gioia Fonda: I’m Chair of the Art Department at Sacramento City College right now. That’s a whole new thing for me, so I’m spending most of my energy on building up my department. These are trying times in education, and especially trying times if you’re in liberal arts, and even more so if you’re in fine arts. These are going to be the first things that get cut. The mantra right now is jobs, jobs, jobs, and anything that smacks of “career technical” is getting lots of funding and things that seem frivolous are going to get cut, so I feel like I’m fighting for our future.
We just celebrated our 100th anniversary of the school, and during that celebration, the school leaned heavily upon the foundation and reputation of the Art Department. It’s basically lip service because although it is nice to trot us out for events, they seem happy to cut classes or create policies that may hurt the department. It doesn’t always feel like they connect the dots between our history, what the community seems to care about and our department’s role in the cultural development of our city.
My primary role as an advocate for my department is to put it in the best and healthiest shape possible. I’m trying to find the best adjuncts and assist in the hiring of any full-time person we need. In short, my goal is that we train our teachers to be the most effective art educators possible in the region. It’s not enough to have an M.F.A., or a desire to teach, even if they happen to be a good artist. If our goal is to produce students that go off and do great things, they also need to be great teachers.
I’m also interested in connecting the dots between the city and the school with the intention of exploiting available resources. We have a strong program, which I think could be even stronger, but we’re a little too used to being neglected. We need to be noisier to get what we need and ensure that we are acknowledged for what we do well.
As with most community colleges, my students range in age from 18 to 80-years old. These are the people who will buy museum memberships, go to galleries and who might purchase art. These are also the people who can explain to their friends what my painting is about, so it’s not just about producing consumers, it’s generating appreciation, it’s about cultivating our city’s culture.
This becomes relevant when a tax bill comes up for a vote, and they want more money for Arts funding. I get 150 souls a semester that I can try to convert to see the value in what we do as artists. So even if they’re a nursing major, they’ve been exposed to the Crocker, and understand what second Saturday is, and they know a little bit more about Sacramento’s art community. I’m just one instructor of many, but I can see the potential that our entire art faculty has, and I really believe we can have an impact on the health and vibrancy of our community. We definitely have done so in the past, and I’d like to expand that influence going forward.
articulator: What is the most critical conversation in education today?
Gioia Fonda: Well, right now the biggest buzzword is “pathways”. The current model is what they call a “cafeteria model”, where you can come and slide your tray down, take a little of this and a little of that and figure out what you like later on. Maybe throw a part of what you had on your tray away.
Some think that that’s why it takes students six years to get through community college. Then funders of community colleges (taxpayers, state accountants) asked, “Isn’t community college supposed to take two years? Why is it taking six? This must be a very inefficient process.” Now they’re trying to speed it up and get people through the system faster. The thinking goes, that by giving students less of a choice—streamlining programs with fewer offerings—this will make them get in and out sooner.
Limiting choices, and making a clear path has become the strategy. Programming education this narrowly eliminates the type of student I was in college. Taking all those weird classes and even the classes that didn’t necessarily apply to my major allowed me to become my true self, and it continues to benefit my work today.
For example, I don’t weave, but my knowledge of weaving has led me to have a different understanding of color, fibers, looms, and programming; all sorts of things.
I hate where we’re going with this. I fucking hate it. From where I stand, I see the reason it takes six years for people to get through community colleges is that most of our students are working full-time or several part-time jobs. They have kids or other family obligations. Many are in poverty and have lives full of drama, where one small car repair or roommate problem can derail a whole semester.
It’s true that the more classes a student takes, the more they’re on campus, and the better they do in their studies. But most of my students are nickel-and-diming their way through community college, taking one or two classes per semester because they have to work, raise kids, or they have family members that need caretaking. They can’t afford to buy four classes worth of books and supplies, so there are pragmatic reasons why they’re not dedicating themselves full-time to their studies. I don’t think it has anything to do with how well we’re teaching our subjects, or that they have too many choices. I think that’s utter bullshit. All these studies are done, and there’s a lot of analysis, but I believe this is really a move towards privatization and getting as much learning online as possible. That may save money, but online education only works with highly motivated and high functioning students and, for the most part, these are not the students who attend my school.
The fact that our governor and so many of our administrators want to push this strategy shows that they do not understand what teaching is and how effective the relationships teachers have with students. An online teacher can only do so much of that.
But it’s more than just the teachers, it‘s also the students relating to other students, that community thing again, that can’t be replicated online. That’s huge, and it’s not being valued right now. Having students that are in such a big age range, coming from so many different ethnic and economic backgrounds, creates educational diversity you can’t experience online. That’s what makes this thing work and it feels like they’re trying to homogenize it to death.
articulator: Isn’t Pathways a response to the need of industry to train or retrain people for immediate job opportunities? And so the question is not either/or…
Gioia Fonda: Yes, and in some fields that will work, right? The two tracks that are big career technical education fields at City College are aeronautics and nursing. Well, they have really small class sizes because it takes a lot of time and care to teach people how to do these critical jobs.
And there’s not a Google or Kaiser-sized business waiting to hire artists, right? Although they do employ some graphic designers, there’s not like a factory or an industry looking for artists in Sacramento. But look at the economy of California, so many of our Industries are arts-related. Animation, film, fashion so many things that happen here on the West Coast depend upon people who have visual acuity.
articulator: Is there a pathway for artists?
Gioia Fonda: It’s currently very entrepreneurial. When I was in school, the safe pathway was to become a graphic designer because there are jobs. Well, that’s a field that has a lot of entry-level positions and not a lot of room for growth, unless you start your own firm. It’s a pyramid with a wide base. There’s only one creative director, the rest of the people are executing her ideas. This is still true today.
As artists, we’re told we’re going to be starving to death from the minute we graduate. We’re scrappy, and we figure out ways to make a living; we’ll walk dogs, serve appetizers at parties, figure model, be art assistants, do whatever we need to do. We’ll build shit, work in construction, whatever; we’ve got hand skills.
So about 15 years after graduation, the fine artist, and the graphic designers are making about the same amount of money. So graphic design is only a better field right out of the gate; eventually, the fine arts students catch up. Graphic designers always think of themselves as graphic designers. They don’t always understand how else to use those skills for other things. With art majors, they don’t all end up spending their days in front of an easel. They’re ending up in other places, but they are working and using their skills.
Three of the most successful people that I went to grad school with are successful in other fields beyond “art.” One of them builds high-quality custom furniture and owns a furniture firm at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It’s a huge business. No advertising, just word of mouth. They build furniture for very wealthy people that want a minimalist look, have an insufficient amount of space (N.Y. apartments) and aren’t interested in Ikea.
Two other friends do what sounds like faux-finishing, but I’m not talking about sponge paint. They do faux marbling, they restore woodwork, and they do gold leaf restoration. They’ve done Carnegie Hall, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Waldorf Astoria, things that look like the ceiling at the Crocker.
So there is a need for people to be skilled artisans, to execute that high level of work and they get paid well to do it. A young art student can’t really imagine what their future is going to look like, but they really need strong foundational skills, and I need a little more than two years to give people the skills they need. They don’t necessarily need a degree, but they need the fucking abilities. Right?
articulator: Of course, so what is our education system is missing?
Gioia Fonda: They’re missing this whole field of people who we are training visually. There are jobs for them. For example, right now, in town, we’ve got a guy, Sean Burner, who is a gifted graffiti artist. He and his team have recently been asked to restore the psychedelic mural that’s in the old Tower Record Store on K St., soon to be Solomon’s Deli. He’s not trained as a restoration person, but that’s what he’s working on right now. I don’t think Sacramento has a local restoration specialist to hire for this job, but we have the guy that has the most skills with a spray can. Who knows what he might be doing in 10 years, this opportunity might be the first of a lucrative type of gig for him down the road.
You need to be a little bit scrappy and think sideways to go forward. You also need to learn to be a bit of a hustler. Unfortunately, if we have everyone take this class, that class, and another class in the same order, then it creates a situation where everybody has the same art experience, it makes it harder for an artist to stand out in terms of their skills. This creates direct competition between artists.
I think that’s one of the things that helped me. As an individualized major, I’ve got a packet of skills that are different from everyone else’s and that gives me a unique set of tools to market myself with. So I think people figuring out their own “secret sauce” is the strength of pursuing a more generalized degree on the cafeteria plan.
Being an interdisciplinary major also allowed me to grow comfortable not knowing shit, not being an expert in everything, but having confidence in my skill set and trusting my ability to learn and problem solve. That’s what’s going to help these future artists succeed. I think you have to always be willing to adapt and learn, take risks and try things, even if you’re not sure if it’s going to work out.
articulator: What are your thoughts about the tension between artivism/creative expression and commercial success?
Gioia Fonda: There is no wrong or right way to have an art career. I will offer mad props to anyone that attempts to put their work out there in any way. None of it is easy. I think that everyone has got to navigate this tension for themselves. Sometimes this requires trying out a few different things to figure out what will and won’t work for you and continuously taking a gut check. I have learned that although I don’t usually like doing personal commissions, I do like working within parameters for public art projects or collaborations. Much of what drives me to create involves experimentation, so the idea of making the same thing over and over again for sale, a sort of product, really doesn’t appeal to me and wouldn’t work for me, but I’ve seen it work fantastically for others. I’m lucky because I like teaching and was able to find a teaching position. This job requires a lot of time and energy, and it is difficult for me to get into my studio during the semester. I’ve had to get very disciplined about work/life balance, and it is a constant struggle. Sometimes I’m better than this than at other times. I’ve had extra administrative duties this semester, so I haven’t gotten to work (in the studio) as much as I’d have liked. Luckily I find teaching to be very meaningful, creative and gratifying work. The money I earn teaching takes the pressure off having to create artwork for a commercial purpose. This allows me to have the freedom to indulge my other creative whims and urges regardless of whether anyone wants to show or buy what I produce. Selling one’s own art directly, without the advantage of a middle-man, gallery representative, can be awkward, daunting and a bit nerve-racking. I don’t like doing that very much, so as much as I also don’t love giving up 50 percent of sales, I’ve learned that I prefer having someone in the middle. Everyone has to figure this out for themselves, but I don’t think there is any such thing as an easy way. All of it requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, time management, and self-motivation. Sacrifices too, of either time, money, relationships, hygiene (both household and personal), possibly one’s integrity, etc. or some combo of them all. My life would probably be much easier if I weren’t “working at being an artist” all the time, but it wouldn’t be near as fun or as interesting or nearly as satisfying (spiritually, intellectually, creatively).
articulator: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Gioia Fonda: I want to go on sabbatical and land a residency somewhere. That’s the big carrot for doing the work I’m doing right now. I’m passionate about color, so I really want to go to both Germany and India to study color. I hope to examine ideas about color from a more ancient and Eastern perspective AND the very regimented Western ideas about color. Professionally, I would like to seek out more public art pieces and social practice experiences because I’m interested in the level of inclusivity that comes with those types of projects.
articulator: What does a residency offer?
Gioia Fonda: I’m interested in expanding my community beyond Sacramento, and I feel like residencies are a great way to be in that hot box of collaborative energy with artists from other places. I long for that.
I also long to be taken out of my community so that I won’t feel so obligated to keep showing up to all the things I show up to now. I want to put myself in a situation where there is nothing else to focus on except for my work.
articulator: What obstacles are in your path? Do you see a way to get there?
Gioia Fonda: I feel like I’m my biggest obstacle. I don’t really see a lot of things in my way besides me. Though there’s a lot that I can’t control; the summer residencies are very competitive to get because so many artists are also teachers and everyone wants to have a summer residency. The winter residencies are easier to get because there are not as many people applying, but it also conflicts with my teaching schedule.
Luckily, I come from a 12-step family—by that, I mean that I’m acutely aware of the things I can’t change, the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. My job is to show up and make shit and make the best stuff I can and put my work out there. Fear of rejection is not my problem, I’ve learned that there isn’t much I can do to “make” people like my work or buy my work or choose me. All that stuff is out of my hands.
There are things I need to do better professionally. I need to develop a web presence with a website. I’ve built sites for different projects that I do, but not for my regular work. Mainly because it’s a giant hassle and I’d rather paint than sit at the computer and make a website. Plus, I keep finding opportunities without a site, so I’m not sure how much I’m missing by not having one. I do recognize that it’s a professional liability when people ask me if I have one and find out I don’t, they may have the perception that I’m not serious and that bothers me. That’s what will motivate me to get to it.
Connecting the Dots
articulator: I could probably talk to ten artists and not get the comment “I find plenty of opportunities with or without a website” from most of them. How do some people find themselves in positions of opportunity while others, who appear to be doing similar things are not?
Gioia Fonda: You have to have more hooks in the water than you know what to do with. I think that there was a time when I was only applying for things when I thought I had time for it. Like if I applied to two projects I’d think, oh my god, what if I got this AND that, then what would I do?
So I would just apply to one, but when you realize it’s a long shot to get any project, then it’s just good practice to keep submitting for everything you can. Maybe if you do get invited to participate in multiple things, it’s not like God forbid, you’ve got two really excellent opportunities at the same time. Now you’re in the position to ask, hey, can we table this for six months or can I do this next year?
articulator: That’s a good problem to have.
Gioia Fonda: That’s true, but I think many people get very discouraged when they hear “no” around here. Something I’m trying to develop in my own program at City College is helping people navigate negative criticism and/or rejection and not let that knock them off their path. The current educational buzzword for this is “resilience.”
Really great people get rejected, it’s just the way things go. Usually, there’s only one spot or three spots or whatever and there are 100 applicants or more. What are you going to do? You just have to be okay with that fact and keep going. So one of the things I’m trying to accomplish through the Art Advice Booth and through my teaching is to help people understand that rejection is just a natural part of it. It’s not about anyone being a jerk, elitist or racist. It’s just is how things like this get done, and not everyone gets a turn, that there will be other projects, other opportunities if you just hang in there and keep putting your work out there…
If you want a project where everyone gets a turn, everyone gets a yes, you can create something like that, but that comes with its own challenges. I’ve had art shows where I didn’t reject anyone because I wanted to be “nice,” but then I had to stay there till midnight hanging up a hundred pieces of artwork, 80 of which were not worth the nail in the wall. It feels good to say yes, but not later on when the show doesn’t look so good, and you resent the labor you’ve had to invest. It’s about gatekeeping and editing. It’s okay to say NO, and it actually might make the YES’s more meaningful.
articulator: I’m wondering about your comment that 80 of the 100 submissions are not worth the nail to hang them; how do you deal with a student who’s submission falls in the 80 works that aren’t worth the proverbial nail while still keeping them motivated?
Gioia Fonda: Yeah, it’s really uncomfortable, and I’m not good at it, but I’m getting better all the time. I’m still learning. One of my challenges is that I really like for people to like me. I’m a little addicted to that, and it’s a problem for me. Sometimes saying NO is almost as hard as hearing NO. I have to look deep into my heart and think about why am I rejecting this work. Sometimes it’s a matter of explaining that there’s only so much room on the wall. I don’t want the show to be floor to ceiling, and I had to make choices. Please try again next year.
If they really want to know, I will explain where I think the work could be stronger and where I think it’s successful. I always hope the artists that were rejected will come to the show to see the work that was selected and understand that it’s just one asshole’s opinion on one day. On another day, with a different juror, or different adjacent entries or a better lunch, the outcome could be different with the exact same piece. I try to get them to put it in perspective, but it’s hard because people are really emotionally attached to their work. A part of it is learning how to detach from that a little bit.
articulator: What advice do you have for someone starting out?
Gioia Fonda: Networking will get your foot in the door, but skills get the callback. Professionalism is something that artists could work on, which includes being dependable. If you say you’re going to be somewhere, you need to be there. I’m over this whole flaky, tortured artist stereotype. We need to work on changing that perception.
I think that my motivation for doing the Art Advice Booth is to help people understand what being an artist really means, how to ward off the “prima donna” feeling, to level out that ego a bit. Though you do have to have a certain amount of ego to put yourself out there, otherwise no one’s ever going to leave home.
There are dozens of books for best practices, covering things like the right way to approach galleries and stuff. Unfortunately, if you follow that book’s advice in this town, you’ll find the galleries are not up to speed on that, and you might come off like an asshole.
So there’s a little bit more to it than just making a resume, having a CV, a website and approach a gallery. You have to get to know how each gallery works, what they’re doing, who’s running it, how some of them are more casual than others and hardly any of them are 100% professional commercial enterprises, so there’s no there’s no easy answer. It’s more complex.
You have to spend more time. You have to study it, ask around, I think everyone’s looking for a simple answer, and tend to get discouraged really easily. Please understand, as soon as you declare that you’re an artist, you put yourself in an undervalued and underserved population and I think that people don’t get that.
They don’t understand that this artist thing is hard and you should not expect it to be anything different than that. If it was easy, you should question what’s happening that’s making it so easy for you. For instance, an artist sold out a show at a local gallery, mostly to her family members, who probably wanted to show support… That’s nice, and it’s suitable for galleries, but there was no one else at the opening. So what is happening? There are maybe ten people here and a lot of stickers on the work. Is her family going to come back and buy a piece at her next show too? Are they going to revisit the gallery when their relative is not showing? Our galleries need to work on building their mailing lists, getting to know their clientele, seeing beyond the quick sales to enthusiastic loved ones.
Has an artist in this position really gained experience from this or has she learned to have an inflated sense of success based on family support? I cannot count how many shows I’ve had where I haven’t sold anything, but maybe a gallerist came through and continued to follow my work for a couple years and then offered me a show down the line. So even though I didn’t sell anything at the initial showing, I still got something out of the experience, because they had to see what I was doing to and that I was developing, so it wasn’t a loss or a failure, the work or the audience just wasn’t ripe yet. So that’s part of it, being patient and persistent enough to play a long game.
Then you have the part where less experienced artists really want to monetize what they’re doing very quickly, more quickly than they perhaps should. Money is the only rubric they have to measure success. They don’t understand that just even the “doing” is a success, continuing to do is a success, improving is a success. They only see sales as a measure of their success.
I see a lot of young artists that are looking to sell, and they see a painting that might be five thousand dollars in the gallery, and they’ll think, “Oh man, I can pay six months of rent on one painting.” They don’t understand that the artist has put a lot of time and effort into their skill to be able to charge $5,000 and that the gallery takes half, so they’re only getting $2,500.
I have to do a lot of untangling to help them understand that you don’t just hang out a shingle, say you’re an artist and sell paintings for $5,000. It’s hard to convince people the work you have to do without being paid, while at the same time, not allowing yourself to be exploited. You need to do the first part to build that skill set.
I’ve got so many young artists that haven’t fully developed their skills yet, but they’re out there hustling, and it’s kind of flooding the market with a lot of less than great art. It’s kind of a troublesome thing that I don’t know what to do about.
There’s this guy who took my class last fall. He was not the best student in the class, not the worst, a solid B. Being really impressed with what he was able to learn in one semester he promptly asked me if I knew where he could rent studio space. I happened to know of a place, so right away, after one class he rents himself a studio. He buys a roll of expensive paper and, working from stock photography, starts making big, big drawings. The work is pretty cliché. The skill is not quite there yet. My advice would be to work on smaller pieces before you get up to 4X5 feet but he’d just kept going for it. So, now he’s sold a couple pieces, and suddenly he’s got a t-shirt line, a tote bag line, and he hasn’t even made 10 drawings yet. Recently he’s been accepted into some local exhibits, invited to be on a panel discussion and I can’t slow it down. I want to be supportive of his success, but I’d like him to rein it in a little. I want to tell him to draw for a couple of years and build those skills, maybe a bit of humility. I feel a bit embarrassed for him with all this early work out there, but I guess he’s just figuring it out.
articulator: It seems like he’s displaying some of the skills you endorse: showing up, networking, understanding his audience as well as scrappiness, is it his art that bothers you?
Gioia Fonda: In Sacramento, sometimes the taste drives me a little crazy. His stuff is just sort of macho inspired imagery, eagles, lions, etc. If he really learned the lesson, he’d be practicing before putting it out there, but I don’t know how to put the brakes on it. I think it’s a little early to print t-shirts and tote bags, but you know I guess if someone wants to buy them… more power to him.
articulator: And the fact that his shirts and totes are selling, is that the conundrum?
Gioia Fonda: Yeah, and I can’t hate on that. I mean he is enterprising, and I do credit him with that.
articulator: What is the City responsible for and what is the artist community responsible for in supporting a vibrant art community?
Gioia Fonda: I think that’s a weird thing. I believe that when people start asking artists this question, they come up with a whole big list of demands that I don’t think are even reasonable. Sometimes I feel a little bit taken aback by what this community feels entitled to ask for. I would just like to see the proper management of the funds that we do have, more transparency and more creativity with the funds.
On the other hand, I think artists need to pick up the rake and do some of the work themselves. It feels like a lot of people are just waiting for someone to give them an opportunity instead of creating their own opportunities. I also believe the business community could be more open to collaboration than they are. I don’t see a lot of that.
I see that a lot of people say they want art, but then when we try to make art happen, they’re really not as interested as they thought, especially if it doesn’t fit what they already know or have already seen. I find that really frustrating.
There’s not really an advocacy group for artists, this is actually a national problem. In other countries, say if your work is sold to a secondary buyer, you’ll get compensated back on that in your lifetime. And even, in some cases, 50 years after you die your family members will receive a share.
We don’t have that in the U.S., there’s basically no protection. Here, if a piece of art sold for $500 and then sells again 10 years later for $16M, the artist only receives the $250 for the first time it got sold (after gallery commission), that’s it, end of story. There is a substantial unregulated market. It’s not really an issue here in Sacramento so much, but the mentality trickles down.
I think part of what happens is that we’re sort of trained to have low self-esteem and little leverage from the get-go to keep our expectations low and that works in both negative and positive ways, but it really backfires when an opportunity is granted to us, and we jump at it instead of really analyzing whether it’s the best thing for us. I think that people are so used to artists just jumping at opportunities that even if an artist wants to negotiate, they don’t have a lot of leverage because there’s always another artist to fill that void. It’s going to take a lot more organization and training for artists to understand that we do have leverage, but we need to solidify our practices around negotiations.
Groups are focusing on this need in New York and San Francisco, there is work being done to standardize how much you should be paid for a speaking engagement by either a museum or a nonprofit. People are trying to write about how much installers and assistants should be paid because there are a lot of art related workers that nobody sees.
And here locally, I’m trying to help inform people what a gallery should be providing for 50% of the sales price. I don’t really have a problem with the gallery taking 50%. but to earn that, they need to have a mailing list, it should be a clean and well-lit space, it should have hours where people can have access to the art, and there must be people at that opening outside of the artist’s immediate family, meaning the gallery needs to make some effort to promote the show. Also, it’s one thing if I decide to install my own work, but not doing so should be an option if you’re taking 50%.
If any of those things are not in place, like if it’s only open two days a week, you have to hang your own shit, if you have to bring your own clamp lights, this percentage needs to go down. If everybody at the opening is someone I invited, I’m just renting walls at that point. What is the gallery doing for me? I could just rent a vacant space and keep the commission.
So I don’t know. It’s easy to take advantage of artists, and part of that is because we’re ignorant and desperate for work. I want everyone to realize we need to be less ignorant and less desperate.
articulator: What do you feel “The City” is doing right?
Gioia Fonda: The fact that the city is even talking about art, arts education and/or the role artists may have to play is a really positive sign. It seems like they are aware that we need a plan and they recognize that the city has its own role to play in fostering a healthier more dynamic art scene. That said, a lot of things happening in the city concerning visual art are in spite of what “The City” is doing.
articulator: What are your current thoughts of the Creative Edge plan?
Gioia Fonda: As of yet, I don’t have too many thoughts about the Creative Edge plan. I went to quite a few of the meetings at the beginning. I’m not sure where they are at in the process of implementing the ideas offered or data collected. To be honest, I’ve been confused for the last year on where we are at with the Arts in this city. Does SMAC exist anymore, has it been turned into something else? I noticed that the mayor made an announcement about a bunch of money for arts education this week, but I don’t know the details of that. As an arts educator I have some ideas for them should anyone be interested. I also noticed that Jonathan Glus, our new Art Czar (not his official title—I can’t remember what his actual title was), has already accepted a position elsewhere and is moving on. I think he has been here for a year or so, maybe two. I find this to be concerning. Mr. Glus has moved on to somewhere with a bigger paycheck and a beach (San Diego). Can’t fault him there, but I really wish we’d hire a person that would fall in love with Sacramento and be committed to seeing some of these ideas through. I’m worried they’ll hire someone new and we’ll have to start all over again. I wish the city would hire an actual expert in the field of public art engagement and public art and then actually listen to them (something I don’t think they have a good track record of doing). I’d like to see someone visionary, maybe someone who has been working in a slightly smaller city (or cities) so they’ll be excited and satisfied to have this more significant challenge to take on. I wish this magical imaginary person would bring dynamic ideas from other places, take the time to personally get to know some of the artists and organizations that are here, be open to experimentation and hang around long enough to foster our cultural growth during this exciting time when the city really does need good leadership/stewardship in this area.
articulator: What are your thoughts about artists collaborating with other cities like staging cross-promotional art shows and or tours?
Gioia Fonda: I would love it. I would love to have art swaps. I would love to have some fresh air here. I think it would be great to have some artists from somewhere else. I think we also have to train folks in Sacramento how to show up to shows even when they don’t know the people involved.