- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2005

Master of fine arts student Jenna McCracken canned dozens of clay bud vases in corn syrup and vacuum-sealed them in jars she then put on white shelves in a white gallery room.

Within days, the vases in Ms. McCracken’s thesis exhibition began to dissolve into chips and flakes. She and four other students made the unfired vases as part of the exhibition “Dissolve,” on display earlier this month at the Dimock Student Gallery at George Washington University in Northwest.

“There’s a massive amount of labor going into a process that is going to dissolve. There is futility in that,” says Ms. McCracken, 32, a third-year graduate student at GWU.

Ms. McCracken wanted to find a way to communicate her ideas with visual language and decided to earn a master’s degree after doing studio, piece- and production work in ceramics. In piecework, she made individual pieces that were not fired to sell outside of her studio; in production work, she made a certain part of a piece on an assembly line. Her studio work involved being a studio assistant for several artists.

“I worked a bunch of different jobs in different facets of ceramics,” she says. “I felt that it was not the best way to express myself.”

Artists like Ms. McCracken can earn a master’s degree to learn how to become a professional artist and to facilitate their entry into the art scene, but there are other methods to break into the field, according to local art teachers, artists and art dealers.

“It’s not easy. You have to knock on a lot of doors and be ready for a lot of ‘noes.’ You really have to have a passion for it,” says Claudia Olivos. An artist living in Arlington, she primarily works in oils and teaches classes out of her home studio and at schools, including the Art Institute of Washington in Arlington.

“My biggest advice is don’t start to paint to please a gallery. Don’t paint to pay your bills.”

However, aspiring artists should visit galleries and exhibition spaces to identify the type of art being shown, whether traditional or contemporary, before making a submission, says Thom Brown, assistant professor of art at GWU and a landscape painter.

“The most important thing for a young artist is your work. Everything grows from your production in the studio and what you’re doing,” Mr. Brown says.

Mr. Brown recommends that aspiring artists build a collection of work they can display on a Web site and in a portfolio.

A typical portfolio has images on slides or in digital form, a resume and artist’s statement about the work, along with any brochures and reviews from past work.

Sending out the portfolio is one way to make galleries aware of that work, along with making gallery visits and building rapport with the owners, says John Ruppert, chairman of the art department at the University of Maryland in College Park and a sculptor.

“You need to exhibit and build up your resume. You have to build a good track record and have good artwork,” Mr. Ruppert says.

A first step for showing work can be through a group show at a commercial gallery, at a juried exhibition, at an alternative gallery run by a nonprofit organization, or at a cooperative gallery run by artists, Metro-area artists and art teachers say.

Art students also can show their work at student galleries in universities and colleges.

“They get into the routine of exhibiting their work, and, procedurally, there’s in-house activities that echo the professional world,” Mr. Ruppert says.

Alternative galleries, such as School 33 in Baltimore and the McLean Center for the Arts, assemble thematic exhibitions and showcase artists from the region, placing less emphasis on sales, Mr. Ruppert says.

“In a way, it’s a little more pure because it’s not commercially driven,” he says.

Gallery dealers and curators include alternative spaces in their rounds as they look for artists and artwork to represent, says Paula Crawford, associate professor of painting at George Mason University in Fairfax and an abstract oil painter.

“Those spaces can become a launching pad for artists,” Ms. Crawford says.

Transformer is one such space. Located in Northwest, the nonprofit supports emerging and contemporary visual artists and hosts six exhibitions a year.

“If you don’t find the right place to show your work, show it yourself,” says Jayme McLellan, a photographer and co-director of Transformer with Victoria Reis, both of the District. “Rent a small space for a week to get it out there. That’s how the Transformer was created. Victoria and I wanted to show the work of our friends.”

On the commercial side, artists with more experience can sell their work to collectors or work with art dealers, also known as gallerists. Art dealers market and sell artwork and contact critics for reviews, taking a cut — 50 percent is standard — of the artist’s sales.

Art dealers provide the artists they represent with space for solo shows, while museums exhibit artists in solo and group shows, Mr. Brown says.

“If you get a piece in a good museum, it stays there. They take care of it,” he says. “They’re very selective, and it means more to your career.”

The Fusebox gallery in Northwest represents 18 artists and provides group shows for artists outside the program.

“Something I always say to younger artists is get involved in the community you live in. Get in juried shows and nonprofit spaces that have open submissions,” says Sarah Finlay, art dealer and owner-director of Fusebox. “We tend to represent artists who have had a presence and established a level of professionalism.”

Artists can show their work by being awarded an art commission to provide art in a public space. Some art dealers handle commissions and may contact the artists involved for future projects. In addition, smaller commissions can give aspiring artists a chance to display their work when more established artists do not apply.

“Take every opportunity you can to show your work,” says Trudi VanDyke, director of the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria.

Ms. VanDyke recommends that aspiring artists join an art league, such as the Art League at the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria, or a cooperative membership society, such as the Springfield Art Guild or the Vienna Arts Society Inc., where they can network with other artists.

“You start locally and regionally, then you hope to branch out nationally and internationally,” Mr. Ruppert says.

The metropolitan area, although a smaller venue than New York City or Los Angeles, is competitive for aspiring artists, he says.

“There are a lot of schools in the area that produce artists,” he says. “It’s rich with artists, so it becomes competitive to get a gallery.”

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