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Building An Art Career with Clarity and Intention: Jackie Maria Milad

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Most artists cite “process” as a key element in their studio practice, in terms of experimenting with materials and ideas in making a work of art. However, when setting career goals, the process tends to be something to be endured, more about achieving a certain outcome rather than luxuriating in all the tasks required to get there. So many of us in creative fields are focused on getting from point A to point B, and much less interested in learning from the thousands of tiny opportunities to stretch, strive, learn, and evolve professionally.

Perhaps this is because these moments feel extraneous, taking us far from the sanctuary of our studios and into rigorous, competitive, extroverted, and administrative roles where we don’t necessarily feel comfortable. Spending a weekend writing a grant application or responding to emails or attending public events can be exhausting, physically and creatively. However, it is the process itself of building an art career that enables an artist to arrive at a much-anticipated destination with a solid foundation of support.

If artists have properly invested in their career, step by step by tiny step, and especially by building solid relationships with all kinds of collaborators, they will be prepared to make the most of every professional opportunity. Not only will they have the skills, language, and networks necessary for a successful outcome, each achievement will propel them toward their next set of goals, which come with new and difficult problems to solve.

 

The artist in her studio, photo Photo by Grace Roselli, Pandora’s BoxX Project

 

Artists are not always keen to talk about this process, but it’s incredibly helpful when they do. For this reason, I was excited to interview Jackie Maria Milad, a longtime friend and colleague, who has recently experienced a number of high-profile successes over the past few months.

This year, in addition to the solo Armory booth, she was one of two artists selected for a competitive commission at the Baltimore Museum of Art, one of two recipients of the 2022 Baltimore Municipal Artist Society Travel Prize, and just completed a residency program (with an ongoing solo exhibition) at the Academy Art Museum in Easton, MD. 

We spoke first at the Armory Show in New York in September, where her colorful, process-laden, mixed-media works were featured in a solo booth mounted by SOCO, an art gallery located in Charlotte, NC. We talked again the following week by phone, where she admitted that it was thrilling and wonderful, but after several full days greeting artists, collectors, and curators at the fair, she was the most tired she had ever been. One of the reasons Milad is able to be a prolific creator is because she gathers energy from working alone in her studio whenever possible, and she was honest about needing time alone to conserve her energy throughout the weekend.

 

La Catracha de Egypto, 2022, courtesy of SOCO Gallery
I Agree, 2022, courtesy of SOCO Gallery

When I asked about the fair, her response was that it was such a positive experience because of the gallery she works with. This sort of declaration could be blithely political, coming from another artist, but Milad’s two decades working as an artist, institutional curator, college professor, and advisor in MICA’s Career Center has given her a sense of clarity about her burgeoning art career that few other artists can claim. A mother in her mid-40s, Milad’s decision in 2021 to leave full-time employment to pursue an art career full-time, while continuing to teach MICA graduate students part-time, was not based on passion, but part of a strategic plan that is paying off.

For Milad, setting professional goals began at the start of the pandemic lockdown. “In 2020, I decided that I wanted to conduct one virtual studio visit every single week,” she says. “It didn’t matter who, so much as that I did it.”

She asked fellow artists, critics, writers, curators, and a variety of people she had connected with in the past who had expressed interest in her work. After each virtual conversation, she asked for new recommendations and introductions to other potential visitors. She says that her goal at that time was to gain solid gallery representation. “I had never been into working with one gallery in a serious way in the past, but it felt like an important step to me, and I felt ready.”

One of the contacts Milad reached out to was Dexter Wimberly, who met her in a studio visit in 2019 when BmoreArt’s Connect+Collect program invited him to Baltimore to participate in a speaker series with collector Darryl Atwell.

“Dexter has always been supportive of me and generous with his time,” says Milad. “I told him that I was interested in meeting new galleries and asked for recommendations.” He introduced her to a few people and included her in a group exhibit he was curating at SOCO Gallery, in conjunction with a museum show he organized at the Harvey Gantt Museum.

“I started working with SOCO in the spring of 2021,” says Milad. That summer, Milad was awarded a month-long residency at the McColl Center in Charlotte, NC,  which overlapped with the exhibition, a happy coincidence. “The work sold, the show was great, and we continued to talk, do studio visits, and then [the gallery] asked to have a conversation about representation,” she says. “Honestly, it was an easy and comfortable process and this is why I like working with them so much.”

Those conversations included participating in art fairs, Milad says. “They had done Dallas, and they wanted to apply to NADA with my work.” Their proposal wasn’t selected, but they were able to show another artist there instead. In 2021, SOCO was accepted to the Armory show with Clair Rojas’s work, and this year they applied for the Focus section with Milad’s, because the curator’s vision for the section was very much in line with her cross-cultural narrative collages.

The gallery now represents Milad nationally and was the only gallery from Charlotte, NC, at the 2022 Armory show, a testament to their ability to reach a global audience with the artists they exhibit.

 

Portrait of Jackie Milad in her studio at the McColl Arts Center
Jackie Milad, Catrachra, 2020 (second iteration), in The Round Chaos curated by Dexter Wimberly at SOCO Gallery
SOCO Bookshop, Image courtesy of Christina Hussey and SOCO Gallery

“We felt that both Jackie’s material use and the concept behind her work fit perfectly into the Focus Section at the Armory this year (curated by Carla Acevedo-Yates, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago),” says Hilary Burt, Managing Director of SOCO Gallery. “Her layered compositions mimic not only her own upbringing, but also symbolize the way cultures are recorded and monumentalized in remaining fragments over time. She excavates her earlier artworks and splices them into new pieces, constantly questioning the puzzle pieces of her past into an account of her presence in Baltimore today.”

They were notified in January 2022 that their Armory application had been accepted, and the artist and gallery worked together to create a plan for their presentation. “It feels like they are invested in my vision and they ask me what I think, what makes sense for my work, and this is why I like working with them so much,” says Milad. They collaborated for many months on a cohesive booth design, text, and images, and Milad says they were comfortable amending their plan when her work shifted and required a different design strategy.

 

Jackie Milad with Hilary Burt at Armory, 2022, photo by Cara Ober

 

“Jackie’s collage technique, use of colors, symbols, and rich art historical iconography is so unique,” continues Burt. “Her work at McColl was vibrant, arresting, and multi-dimensional, very exciting. She is also a dream to work with—fun, fascinating, brilliant, and incredibly talented. We feel very lucky to be showing a solo exhibition of her work at the gallery in March 2023.”

The gallery includes an artbook shop onsite, and publishes an original artist monograph every year. “SOCO Shop is a gateway into the Gallery,” explains Burt. “It’s a space to educate and excite the new collector with a unique range of art and lifestyle books, limited editions and artist-designed objects. The Shop and Gallery present artist talks, cultural seminars and panel discussions with leaders in the arts, whether it be collectors, advisors, artists, or curators.”

Even after achieving her initial goal of gallery representation, Milad has continued to apply for a variety of projects, grants, and commissions. During Armory weekend, the Baltimore Museum of Art announced the selection of Milad and DC-based artist Nekisha Durrett to create site-responsive commissions in dialogue with Fred Wilson’s Artemis/Bast (1992), a sculpture that incorporates the white-marble body of the Greek goddess with the Egyptian god’s metal panther head and is an extended loan from Karen Reiner. The new installations by Durrett and Milad will be presented in an exhibition with Wilson’s work in the John Waters Rotunda and two adjacent European galleries from April 26, 2023, through March 17, 2024.

 

Jackie Milad, fuc it, 2021, mixed media canvas collage of older works, courtesy of the artist
Jackie Milad, Aqui Es, 2021, mixed-media collage and painting on cut canvas, courtesy of the artist

“We have been exhilarated by the depth and breadth of artistic engagement with questions of history, myth, and public memory in the context of the museum and our city, and we were equally impressed with the deliberative process of our esteemed jury and the seriousness of purpose demonstrated by the artists’ proposals,” said exhibition co-organizers Dave Eassa, Director of Public Engagement, and Cecilia Wichmann, Associate Curator for Contemporary Art. “We are looking forward to discovering the new images and thoughts that emerge for Baltimore audiences as Nekisha Durrett’s and Jackie Milad’s visions take shape alongside Fred Wilson’s powerful sculpture.”

For Milad, the BMA announcement is a game changer because it provides funding to create a large, ambitious piece as well as “the ability to follow through with a vision and have the support of a team for installation,” she says. “This is great because I am not expected to use my personal resources and they will help me to problem solve, every step of the way.”

Milad envisions a site-specific installation, viewed in proximity to the sculpture that inspired it, with two canvas-based murals similar to her large tapestry works, but also incorporating three-dimensional elements. For the latter, she plans to collaborate with her father, a metalsmith and jewelry artist, to create brass icons related to the painting, to be sewn into the canvas.

News about the BMA commission came in conjunction with another opportunity that will aid the artist’s research process: the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA) and the Municipal Art Society of Baltimore City announced Milad and Elena Volkova as the recipients of the 2022 Artist Travel Prize.

Each artist receives $6,000 to fund travel related to their studio practice, and Milad is going to London “to visit the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside of Egypt at The British Museum,” says the press release. “Participating in the museum’s Study Program, she will have the unique opportunity to handle and draw antiquities from life.” Milad envisions the travel and opportunity to study Egyptian objects in the British Museum as an essential part of her research and development for the new BMA commission.

Over the past few years, Milad has grown more accustomed to working with museums, thanks to a 2020 BMA inclusion of a collaborative video project with her husband, Tom Boram, and the 2019 Exhibition of Sondheim Finalists at the Walters Art Museum. She currently has a solo exhibition at the Academy of Art Museum in Easton, MD, after being selected as their artist-in-residence for the summer of 2022.

 

Milad’s exhibition, Vestige, at the Academy Art Museum in Easton, MD
Jackie Milad giving a talk at the Academy Art Museum in Easton, MD, summer 2022

Located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Academy Art Museum balances nationally relevant programs with local ones, creating opportunities for regional artists to exhibit and participate as well. The museum boasts a permanent collection focused on “works on paper by American and European artists from four centuries including recent acquisitions by Graciela Iturbide and Zanele Muholi,” according to its website.

The museum’s artist residency program started in 2017 with New York-based Emily Lombardo as the inaugural recipient. It  consisted of a solo exhibit and artist-taught workshop onsite. Since then, the museum has hosted Philadelphia-based artist Amze Emmons in 2019 and formerly Baltimore-based artist Antonio McAfee in 2020. Museum director Sarah Jesse says that the residency program gives artists the opportunity to spend time in Easton, “a beautiful and restorative small-town environment, to use the museum resources to advance their practice.” They offer housing, a studio space, a stipend, and a culminating exhibition and catalog. In addition to this program, the museum has recently exhibited Baltimore-based artists Zoe Friedman and Erin Fostel, with an upcoming solo exhibit by Hoesy Corona, and has produced exhibitions featuring work by James Turrell, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Pat Steir, and Richard Diebenkorn.

“Milad’s exhibition, Vestige, truly casts a spotlight on the artist’s virtuosity in using layers to allude to personal and social histories,” says Mehves Lelic, Curator at the Academy Art Museum. “Each of her large-scale canvas collages and works on paper is an exuberant personal tale, a somber reclamation of the shadow of colonization on the world, and a study in form and color, all rolled into one. Within the complex relationships Milad forges between the world of the individual and the cultural forces that shape it is an acknowledgment of the shortness of human life: our presence is so fleeting, and yet, our stories are so beautiful and so profound.”

The museum is just over an hour from Baltimore, and Jesse says that she and her staff keep their fingers on the pulse of “interesting artists working in the region” through studio visits and regular trips to museums. “We think about who might uniquely benefit from a residency to propel their practice forward in some way and initiate a conversation with an artist to explore that,” she says. “We had been following Jackie’s work for some time and Mehves started talking to her about whether the residency would be beneficial two years prior. Jackie used her time at the museum to not only make new work but to conceptualize and prepare her proposal for the Baltimore Museum of Art commission. As an art museum, the collection and preservation of art is a major part of what we do, and it is especially exciting to play a role in enabling the creation of new projects too.” The museum also recently collected a piece of Milad’s artwork for their permanent collection.

Although an artist’s success story is often portrayed as a sudden, overnight, and singular phenomenon, most artists know that this is not true. Perhaps it makes for a more dramatic tale, but the reality is, when an artist achieves their goals, it’s generally based on years, sometimes decades, including hundreds of hours filling out grant applications, hosting studio visits, conducting research, and maintaining relationships. Although it’s a staggering amount of work and organization, the best part of this process is realizing that the artist is actually in control of their decisions, especially in deciding how to leverage and utilize the resources they have available. Also, when an artist works with a variety of peers, collaborators, collectors, and supporters, this means that all of these individuals feel included when the artist achieves a significant level of success.

Rather than considering one’s art career as separate from the studio or something to be endured in order to get from one lesser place to a better one, navigating new opportunities as  they arise is actually a wonderful and eye-opening, intensely personal experience. For Milad, and many other artists cultivating a global career largely outside the New York market, viewing one’s career as a process full of opportunities for growth, community, and intentionality, rather than a means to an end, makes all the difference.

 

Header Image: Jackie Milad's solo booth with SOCO Gallery at Armory 2022, Image courtesy of Cary Whittier and SOCO Gallery

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