Make Shit & Show Up

Getting Schooled by Gioia Fonda

Published January 1, 2019

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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.

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. I’m also passionate about teaching, and because I earn my living in education, I can take many freedoms with my artwork.

Ironically, 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 art school isn’t 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.

During my last year in NY, I had a moment where I went to a Robert Rauschenberg retrospective at the Guggenheim. He was still living and considered America’s greatest living artist. I knew of Rauschenberg but didn’t know that much about him and to see an entire museum filled with one person’s work was significant. I was really floored by what I saw! Then, on a visit home, I realized that probably no one in my entire hometown knew who he was. 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.

Because my education imprinted the role of cultural producer and culture maker on me, I now realize that 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.

Building Community

“Make Shit + Show Up” is what I live by and here’s what that means: I believe the studio practice component is essential, people just need to 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 be intentional about it.

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 be active in the community, 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.

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 vital 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.

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.

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.

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 posting a bunch of times, and I don’t know if anyone’s paying attention to that.

So I fantasize about some kind of club, some sort of lodge. Sacramento has a few groups that gets close, 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.

Giving people a space to do that is essential; I think people try to use Community College for that and there was a time when Community Colleges did function that way. 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.

Education

I’m Chair of the Art Department at Sacramento City College right now, and these are trying times in education; especially trying times if you’re in liberal arts, and even more so if you’re in fine arts.   

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.

Some funders of community colleges (taxpayers, state accountants) ask, “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 choice—streamlining programs with fewer offerings gets them in and out sooner.

Limiting choices, and making a clear path has become the strategy. This type of programming eliminates the kind 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.

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.

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.  

Diversity in education is 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. That’s what makes this thing work and it feels like they’re trying to homogenize it to death.

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 need to be willing to adapt and learn, take risks and try things, even if you’re not sure if it’s going to work out.

The City’s Creative Edge

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 here concerning visual art are in spite of what “The City” is doing.

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 recent Art Czar (not his official title—I can’t remember what his actual title was), has already accepted a position elsewhere and has moved on. I think he has been here for a year or so and I find this to be concerning.  

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. 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.

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