Laure Drogoul’s ‘Follies’ Exhibit at MICA – An interview with April Danielle Lewis

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“Laure Drogoul: Follies, Predicaments, and Conundrums” just recently received a Best of Baltimore Award from Baltimore Magazine. Not everyone knows this, but the exhibition was the culmination of a year of classes in MICA’s Exhibition Design Seminar, an innovative curatorial program for students. To celebrate the success of this ground-breaking show at MICA, I interviewed April Danielle Lewis, a Towson University art student, about her experiences in the class and the exhibit. And, of course, a hearty congratulations to everyone involved.

Cara: You just spend the last year of your life slaving away at MICA on the Exhibitions Seminar Class. Why did you, as a Towson University student, want to take this particular class? What did you hope to learn?

April: I had never heard of the Exhibition Development Seminar, before last semester. My advisor at Towson sent me an email with a description of the class and basically said “you need to do this!” Honestly, I was at first, a little hesitant about taking a class that was an entire year long and at another school. However, after meeting with George Ciscle, the creator of the Exhibition Development Seminar (EDS), to find out more about the class and what it entailed, it sounded like a crazy intense crash course in gallery work– more like a project you would work on after you’d been doing gallery work for a while. I was thrilled to have been presented with an opportunity that many educational institutions (or galleries too) just simply don’t have the resources or manpower to put together.

I was really excited about seeing what it would be like to work on a project in a place that has an ENTIRE exhibitions department. I’d been to several shows at MICA and I knew the kind of space that we’d have to play with and all the resources that would be available and like how could anyone turn that down?

I didn’t really have any hopes as to what I’d learn before the class started. I just decided I’d be open to learning whatever was there for me to take in. If anything I guess I was looking to expand the network of people that I know and I saw this as a good way to build relationships with other like minded artists.

Cara: Will you tell me more about this class? I know that students sign up and work in teams to put together a big exhibition each year at MICA. How does the class work? What goes on behind the scenes?

April: Tons of catfights and lots of name calling. Ha ha… just kidding.

I think the most interesting thing is that no two EDS classes have been alike. All of them have their own unique challenges. This year we curated the first retrospective EDS has ever put together. There are 17 students in the class and just about all the decisions we made had to be presented to the class before going forward. This can get pretty tricky and can really hold up the process of getting things done.

George Ciscle has run this class for like the last 10 years or so since it’s inception. This year he took an advisory role and Glen Shrum took over the teaching/running things role.

For the first three or so classes in the first semester, we just looked at slides of Laure’s work, met her and visited her studio, and did lots of talking and brainstorming about her work as a group. We all had to come up with a first draft of a class statement and a grant proposal. We later read everyone’s drafts and dissected all of them to piece together THE class statement. As our first group task, it seemed like the hardest thing in the world to do.

When one of my sentence got a big fat red line through it as not making the cut, it only made me more critical of everything else on the dry erase board. Like if mine didn’t make it and I thought that it was great writing, it forced me to really scrutinize everything that was being presented. I’m sure everyone felt like that and eventually we got things down. The final product was a really well written piece of work.

Also, we all took a group trip to new york to the Conflux Festival to see Laure’s apparatus for orchestral knitting in action to help us get an idea of what her work was like and how she worked. After her performance we sat in Washington Square Park on benches and had a nice long conversation with Laure about her work and what she likes to try and get an idea of how she thinks and works.

We had to decide what teams we were going to be on (I guess around the 4th class or so, maybe even the 5th). We were told to send Glen an email of our top three picks for which teams we’d like to be on. The choices were project coordinators, curatorial team, exhibition development, web team, graphic design team, and the education team. When we came into class there was a spreadsheet projected that showed the minimum and maximum numbers of people that could be in one group. And by each of the teams where everyone’s names for their first choice. It looked something like half the class wanted to be on the curatorial team and about a 1/4 of the class wanted to be on the exhibition development team. The rest of the spots were filled the way they were intended to, except for the web design team. No one wanted to be on the web team. The irony of the whole situation though is that our class had no graphic design majors and no web design majors.

Graphic Design isn’t the most difficult thing to do if you don’t have any formal training because we’ve all taken design classes and understand how to make things aesthetically pleasing. Web design is a whole ‘nother monster. There is a lot of prerequisite knowledge needed to make a website. We were supposed to look at the projection and talk it all out. What ended up happening was a game of who can hold out the longest. Someone would say “Okay okay I’ll be on the education team”, or “I’ll be a project coordinator” and then almost all of the spots in the other teams were filled except web design. It sat there empty for at least 10 minutes. Jeffrey Kent volunteered to be on the web team and no one else said they’d join him, so I decided I would. For the record, both of us are probably the least web fluent in the class, so it made our task a real challenge. However, I learned so much in the process. Choosing to be in the group that would be the most challenging allowed me to acquire invaluable skill.

After we determined the groups, the class took on a different form. Each team was an assigned a mentor currently works in the professional art world in a field related to each team’s tasks. We met with mentors on our own time on an almost weekly basis and through email almost daily. We also met as teams regularly outside of the scheduled class time. We set up a wiki to post our development so that everyone in the class could see what we were doing and had the opportunity to comment and give feedback as we were working.

For me being in school at Towson and also as a working single mom, things got pretty hectic–it was killer. We’d work for a few weeks to determine what our roles, needs, and wants for the duration of the project and then during our weekly meetings report our progress and get feedback from the other class members. We proposed ideas to the class first and then over the course of the first semester we had give 3 proposal presentations to George Ciscle, Gerald Ross the exhibitions curator, Laure Drogoul, and all of our mentors.

What a nerve racking experience! At the end of each proposal we’d get feedback from everyone in the room and we all had a q & a session. We ended the semester with a final proposal and a definitive list of things to do and determined deadlines. Over the break we had tons of meetings, phone calls, and emails and just knocked things all out.

Cara: The exhibition your class worked on was ‘Laure Drogoul: Follies, Predicaments, and other Conundrums,’ a retrospective at MICA. What was working with Laure Drogoul like? Can you recall a memorable story about her?

April: During install Laure wore a flight suit everyday. The Sunday before the show was opening a few of us came in to help finish decopage-ing She-Pod– the orgasmic greenhouse folly. At lunch time Laure and her sister Connie (who traveled from India to help out) offered to grab us coffee and snacks while they were out. Someone commented on her flight suit as she was leaving and Laure’s response was “All you need is a jumper, a little lipstick, and a pair of sunglasses” as she was adjusting her blue faux fur fedora before heading out. When I saw this photo, I chuckled to myself and I know that whenever I think of Laure I will always picture her looking like this.

Cara: What was most rewarding about putting this exhibit together? What was most frustrating or difficult?
April: I just received an email last week notifying all the class members that Follies, Predicaments, and Other Conundrums won a Best of Baltimore Award for best show of 2009. That’s pretty rewarding. I wonder if we will all get little BOB posters like the ones in all the coffee shops and stuff that I frequent.

The exhibition had thousands of visitors while it was up, received international press, and was covered on just about all the local media. I think it’s really exciting that this exhibit got so much attention and so many visitors and, in general, everything was really well received. It feels like we were successful. At the opening, while leading gallery tours, and when I was just hanging out in the space, I saw all sorts of people engaging with the work and really enjoying themselves. It feels good to have been a part of that. It was extremely gratifying.

One of the most frustrating things I had to endure during the class and exhibition was the managing all the deadlines and dealing with bureaucratic red tape. I know everyone has deadlines, and everyone has to follow rules, but typically as artists we are the managers of our own practices. We are all going to school for art and I personally have spent most of my academic career blatantly breaking rules. In the real world of large institutions, rule breaking isn’t applauded like it is when you are learning the rules. We had to figure out how to bend rules almost to the breaking point to actualize our ideas. That was ridiculously challenging. Putting together this retrospective was like one huge collaborative work; not only with my classmates, but with Laure, Gerald Ross the curator of the exhibitions department at MICA and his staff, and MICA communications. Things also had to be approved over and over by everyone. There where so many hands involved—it was insane!

Anytime you have a hand in a behind the scenes sort of situation or production of any sort–be it working on your own artwork, or being a part of something much larger like this show; each phase that you have to work through allows you a different way of thinking about everything. I guess you could say simply, that spending a significant amount of time on something affords a multi-faceted understanding of your project and helps you build a relationship with the work while allowing the opportunity to view the project from many different vantage points.

Cara: As an undergraduate art student, what skills or lessons have you learned about the ‘real’ world of professional artists?

April: During Laure’s gallery talk she revealed that She-Pod, the large greenhouse folly, was not complete. There were kinks that were not able to have been resolved and some editing had to be done to the piece. I guess I always thought that “real world” professional artists didn’t have to stay up all night the day before the show putting finishing touches on pieces and that somehow things magically came together or that having studio assistants and years of experience makes it easy. I discovered that the process of making work is complicated at many different levels.

Cara: In your opinion, what is Laure Drogoul’s legacy for Baltimore artists?

April: Laure imparts on Baltimore a legacy of celebratory offerings of the fantastical and impossible, while simultaneously capturing the essence of the kitch and uniqueness of Baltimore. Her anything-goes-roll-with-the-punches sensibilities are very inspiring.

Cara: What have you learned, personally, as an artist from Laure or from the Exhibitions Seminar class, that you integrate into your own art making process?

April: It took me a good while of reflection and distance from the project to realize that working with Laure showed me how to use my environment as media and inspiration for art making.

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