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Artist's Life 2.0

By Sylvia Toy St.Louis

Recently, I let one of my little sisters in art talk me into applying for a larger than life grant. I do not believe for one nano of fantasy that I will even be a contender, but that's not why I'm applying. I'll get to that.

I have a thing about grants and not for the most obvious reasons like: it's a pain in the ass to write a proposal; I probably won't get it anyway; so and so is cutting it close sending in his/her reference letter; what do you mean I "have to have a fiscal sponsor?"

I have a thing about grants because I like being my own boss in the art world, which means paying my own way and not having to do somebody else's theme, idea or suggestion, or gag me, "what's trending." I have done exactly two commissions as a sculptor - the successful one was for a neighbor who wanted a piece that was similar to a body of work of mine that he had seen during Open Studios. (Don't ask about the other commission as I am on a moratorium from ragging on my experiences as a victim in the distant past.)

Nothing in the artworld has ever made me feel as beholden as what I brought on myself and cannot blame anyone else for as my solo theatre piece, SCHOOLS, which is race art about mine and my family's experience in the American Civil Rights Movement. That play, which is too mainstream in form and theme to be representative of my body of work, nevertheless made me most of the cash that I've made as an artist. In my opinion, that's because most people believe people of color should make race art. That's ridiculous, especially for me, who can't talk about race for more than five minutes without getting bored.

When it first occurred to me to make moving art in 2006, I barely knew how to use a camera. Everyone except my mother thought I was delusional. Most of the people I'd known in the artworld had no idea how many movies I've seen. I called them "sewing movies" because I watched them while making my own clothes as a kid. As a freshman in college I got hooked on New Wave and though it took 40 years for me to really and truly get back to movies by making them myself, when I discovered New Wave, I knew who I was and how I wanted to be in the world.

As a gallery represented sculptor, I never felt free. As a theater artist, I felt freer, but that's largely because I was rejected more often than average. As a filmmaker, how could I not feel free, having nothing to lose not only because I barely knew how to use a camera but because everybody I knew thought I was crazy to think I could make movies. How could that not be freeing?

I am an actor trained as a sculptor and painter, who had a dayjob as a paralegal and a nightjob as a theater artist for 17 years. By the time I learned how to edit video, I was totally burned out on being around people all the time, eating dinner at 10:30 or 11 at night, schlepping costumes and props all over town for days on end, spending my days with big personalities (lawyers) and my evenings with big personalities (theater people) and audiences who had no idea how exhausted I was. By the time people stopped telling me "that's not possible" because I'd gotten my first selections as a video artist and the possibility had been obviated, I finally knew how it felt to be free as an artist.

I have no intention of giving up any of my freedom. I have no intention of ever making any movie that's anyone else's theme, idea or suggestion, or gag me, "what's trending." One of my friends was a minor rock star as a kid. He's an art purist who left YouTube because his videos reached 9 million hits, which of course made YouTube bug him constantly to monetize. I explained to him once that I monetize because of perks that come with YouTube partnership, not because of cash, and it's irrelevant anyway because I can't imagine there are 9 million people on this planet who'd even want to acquire a taste for the kind of hybrid theatrical visual artwork I do.

My non-race, hybrid moving art is getting selected more often - i.e., I have begun to acquire recognition for work that is representative of my body of work. I likely am mature enough after 45 years of art not to let recognition wreck my freedom. So I'm applying for the larger than life grant to help me gain perspective on what recognition means in terms of freedom.

Sylvia Toy
San Francisco CA
United States