Julie Alpert

by Nisha Btesh June 16, 2020

Julie Alpert

 

8 am: Wake up with my grey tuxedo cat Koala draped over me

8:30 am: Have a cup of coffee with my other cat Coconut on the couch while scrolling news and social media

9 am: Eat breakfast at my kitchen table (cottage cheese with nutritional yeast, toast with Earth Balance spread, peas, and tofu)

9:30 am: Get dressed and straighten up the house. Prep snacks like apples, string cheese, almonds and soda water, and bring with me to the studio in a green padded mini cooler. Snacks are essential to uninterrupted studio time!

10 am: Walk 2 blocks to studio and get settled

10:30 am: Jump back in to whatever I was working on the day before

11 am - 12:30 pm: Work

1:00 pm: Walk home for lunch, then return to studio until 5pm 

Portrait: Courtesy of Artist. 

Tell us about how you became the woman you are today. Where did you grow up? What moments in life have influenced your character most? 

I grew up in the Washington, DC suburb of Silver Spring, MD and then moved to Rockville as a teenager. I grew up in a very creative household where my younger sister and I were encouraged to entertain ourselves (and our parents) with things we invented or made by hand. Sick days and holidays were always filled with sewing projects, creating plays, drawing practice, or self-produced soap operas. My favorite part of high school was art class and theater rehearsal in the afternoons. I acted in all of my high school plays. I felt the most alive I’ve ever felt during rehearsals and performances and now I combine my background in theater and visual art in large-scale theatrical installations that look like stage sets. Another thing I should mention is that one set of my grandparents were big art collectors. Their house was like a museum packed floor to ceiling with paintings, lithographs, marble sculptures, and low-brow collectibles like a carousel horse and roulette wheel. I think my interest in decoration and the things we collect were influenced by their house.  

Tell us about the exact moment or period in time when you realized you were born to create. 

I don’t think it was a moment exactly, but more like a slow realization. My desire to make things was always in conflict with my need to feel financially stable and responsible. I majored in studio art at the University of Maryland, College Park, where, inside the academic bubble, it seemed safe to pursue something as risky and abstract as art. But once I graduated I took jobs outside the art world because I just couldn’t imagine how I’d support myself making art. I was a buyer for a health food store and a receptionist for the International Association of Fire Fighters. I stopped making art for 4 years.

Feeling dissatisfied and stuck, I decided to apply to graduate school for my MFA. I was initially rejected from all 6 schools I applied to, which was a harsh wake-up call, but a few months before the academic year began, I got a voicemail from one of the faculty at University of Washington, Seattle MFA Painting program. He invited me to join the 2006 group which changed the entire course of my life. For the first year I felt like a fraud. I had no idea what I was doing or how to even maintain a studio practice. There was a steep learning curve. It seemed like everyone else knew what they were doing. But once I got the hang of it, I started to find a rhythm and listen to my gut. I began making big installations using materials found around the graduate studios property. This was when I really started to identify as an artist. When I started making things that I enjoyed making and didn’t overthink. Though I don’t advocate a formal art education for everyone, I absolutely needed it because I felt adrift and didn’t know anything about a studio practice until going through grad school. 

Tell us a little bit about what drew you to your medium. Did you choose to work with this medium or did it choose you? 

I work in a variety of mediums, but my favorite part of my art practice is installation art. Over the course of my 15 year career, I’ve made about 30 large-scale site-specific installations using cardboard, wood, paint, fabric, paper, and found objects. They range from 12ft to 60ft wide. With my background in theater and painting, I think installation art chose me :) I get to create paintings that are also sets, but I don’t need to perform publicly for anyone - which is scary! I make temporary room-size compositions that read as life size collages from afar, which begin to reveal hidden jokes and illusions as you approach and spend more time with it. It’s important to me that my work is understood by and enjoyed by the broadest possible audience while also containing little secrets for those who want to really get to know it. 

A lot of women believe they need formal training in order to succeed as a Female Artist. What’s your take? Did you have formal education or are you self taught? 

As I previously mentioned, I am formally trained, but I don’t think that’s necessary for everyone. The most important thing you can do if you want to be an artist is...make art! No one is going to do it for you, so create a routine you can stick to and surround yourself with other artists, especially those you admire. Make sure you have a mentor, too. If you make a commitment and you continue to evolve, you will be an artist. One piece of advice is that I think you have to enjoy what you make and change course if you stop enjoying it. This is not the same thing as being frustrated by artist block or stymied by jealousy or the discomfort of learning a new process or material. These are all normal parts of being an artist. But the way that I know if I’m on the right track is if it feels really exciting to make it. That excitement comes through in the work and you will start to grow an audience.

 What do you want the younger female artists coming up behind you to know about you, your journey, and the art industry in general? 

It takes a looooong time and a huge commitment, so slow and steady is my approach. There is space for everyone and every type of art. There are only a very select few who will show with the blue chip galleries and get “art famous”, but there are so many ways to be an artist. For me, it’s been grant-writing, residencies, fellowships, and commissions. I’m not the most famous artist, nor do I ever expect to be, but I am able to cobble together a living by reaching out to institutions I want to work with and applying for lots of things. This is common sense, but it’s so important to try to be the kind of person other people trust and want to work with. The art world is pretty small, so try not to burn bridges and know that every interaction can affect the opportunities that come your way. Just be nice. Plain and simple.

How do you define your creative gig? Full-time career or side hustle? Explain why you’ve chosen one over the other. 

Full-time artist. I have been lucky enough to be supported by private foundations, artist grants, and part-time studio assisting for almost 10 years now. In 2012, I received a $20,000 unrestricted grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation (the estate of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner). It enabled me to quit my full-time receptionist work and dedicate myself to my studio and part-time art-related jobs. In 2014, I was awarded my first artist residency at the MacDowell Colony and it changed my life. I got to see how other artists across the world made being an artist work for them in their individual ways, I felt taken care of as an artist in a way that I’d never felt before, and the isolation in my beautiful huge studio inspired me to be more ambitious than ever before. I’ve been addicted to residencies ever since :)

For the last 3 years, I’ve been supported by two private foundations that provide time, space, and funding: The Roswell Artist in Residence Program and The Tulsa Artist Fellowship. During this time I’ve been able to secure more and more commissions that make me confident that I can continue as a full-time artist for at least a while longer.

To be completely honest, you have to be ok with a precarious sense of instability. I’m basically a self-employed free-lancer who works paycheck to paycheck with all my fingers and toes crossed and somehow things always work out.

What is the message you're sending into the universe with your work? Why do you feel so strongly about this message? 

Everything is weird AND beautiful! Humor is the best antidote! We’re all going to die so let’s make the best of it! I feel strongly about these things because being a person is hard and the world is a confusing place. If I can use my work to soothe people or bring a little beauty or joy to their day, I feel like I’ve done my job. 

How do you stay motivated? 

I’m really deadline-motivated, so being excited about a project is my biggest motivator. At this point in my career, I try to only take on projects that truly excite me. I also get motivated through the process of making things. The deeper I get into a project, the more new ideas and experiments come to me. I also need to credit my husband, Andy Arkley, as a major inspiration. He’s also an artist and we talk about art all day long - especially now that we’re quarantined. When I’m unsure of something I’m working on, I have Andy look at it and if he says “that’s weird!” then I know I’m on the right track. My artist friends are motivators, too. We reach out to each other whenever we’re stuck or in crisis. I am so grateful for my art friends!

 What is your biggest focus and/or goal in your career right now? What plans do you have for yourself 1,3,5 years from now?

 My biggest focus right now is to continue lining up 2-3 big projects at art or educational institutions each year. I would also love to have a solo museum show at a major institution and potentially some permanent public art projects. A show abroad would also be nice! I will be in Tulsa for at least the next few years, so I plan to continue reaching out to institutions across the country/world and applying for lots of opportunities.

Left: Facebook Air Commission, 2019 site-specific commission for Facebook Seattle, Photo: Dom Nieri Right: Desert Daze, 2017 site-specific installation w/ Andy Arkley at Roswell Artist in Residence Program, Photo: courtesy of artist

Big or small, what’s the single best money making tip or piece of advice you can share with up and coming artists? 

Figure out what you are worth and ask for it. I think it’s especially hard for women to value ourselves and be vocal about how much we are worth. We just aren’t conditioned to have a good healthy sense of value or to want to take up a lot of space. Sometimes I think, if I were a man, what would I ask for? What would I deserve? If you lowball a budget, you will get paid very little and feel resentful. If you ask for what you’re worth, you will either get that amount or maybe negotiate a slightly lower pay. What do you have to lose? Nothing. Don’t work with people who don’t value you and your expertise. That being said, I do make exceptions if an organization isn’t able to offer me the budget I’ve requested, but can make up for it in-kind. I’m also happy to volunteer my time or work to places that I value or who have supported me in the past with a grant or something. 

What tools, apps, websites, blogs, books, or podcasts help you the most when it comes to financials? 

If you can afford a financial advisor and an accountant I highly recommend it. Some things are worth paying for. There are also advisors who do pro bono work for artists, so reach out to the arts advocacy organization in your community. And ask a friend or mentor for advice who is further along in their career. 

What specifically gives you the most anxiety when it comes to talking about money? Explain. 

Culturally we are very private about money in the US. No one talks about income. It’s considered impolite and awkward. Sometimes I wish we could be more open within the art community about what we’re being paid so that there’s more equality across the board.

Give us three of your favorite/ most inspiring things right now. It could be a book, a food, a destination, a song, a person, etc. 

Right now I’m inspired by my twice-daily walks through downtown Tulsa. During this time of social-distancing it’s been essential to my physical and mental health to get my 10,000 steps in. I love to pay attention to my surroundings while listening to a podcast like Hidden Brain, Where Should We Begin?, or LeVar Burton Reads. I’ve also enjoyed cooking and baking during shelter-in-place. We’ve made congee, French onion soup, gazpacho, brownies, and pie, to name a few. And I’m looking forward to a trip to Kauaii with my husband’s family this Fall to celebrate our birthdays. Fingers crossed!

 What's the best advice you've ever been given? 

Pay attention to the edges.

 Finish this sentence. I never leave home without my…

 snacks

 Finish this sentence. I find myself most inspired to create when I am…

well-rested, well-fed, and getting enough exercise. 

A genie grants you three wishes. What do you wish for?

A tiny house and enormous studio on a big property with lots of wildlife and native vegetation near Santa Fe, NM

A backyard cat colony

An opportunity to travel around the world for 1 year

Name 3 of your guilty pleasures.

Soda water

Wine

European police procedurals on Netflix 

If you had to give a 30 min. speech without preparing to an audience of 1,000 what would it be on?

I would rather die. Just kidding. Probably on my love of cats, drawing and shoes.

To learn more about Julie Alpert please visit, www.juliealpert.com.




Nisha Btesh
Nisha Btesh

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