This week, WPA spoke with Thomas Drymon, artist and curator of the recently launched doris-mae curatorial and programmatic initiative on 14th street.
Interview by Christopher Cunetto
WPA: Thanks for talking with us today! So, what is doris-mae? What is it named after?
Thomas: doris-mae is a spin-off [curatorial initiative] from the harmon art lab project that operated in my space on 14th Street from September 2011-May 2012. The space is named after my mother. Unofficially, the project space in the gallery is referred to as dorothy-fae—my mother's twin sister. I've continued the practice of having a solo artist in the main room and an installation of some sort in the project space as I did last season.
WPA: Where and how did the project originate? How long has this been in the works?
Thomas: When I returned to Washington, DC, in 2007, I knew that I wanted to begin to curate shows again. I really like the research, studio visits, working with artists. It's really gratifying to me to find artists who work in completely different media exploring subjects that relate to one another, sometimes obviously and sometimes more subtly. It's also great to find artists who are exploring subjects that I examine in my own work—but who do it in a much better way than I.
But my original plan was to curate shows in alternative and traditional spaces for a short time, which I began to do with Thomas Drymon Selects. From there, I was going to move onto an online presence—less traditional and definitely not brick-and-mortar. I wanted the challenge of building a strong online organization that sold artists' work and helped build their careers, commented on contemporary art and succeeded with low overhead. And I believed that traditional gallery model is outdated. It has lost its audience and its mission and its energy.
Then, the space in my studio building opened up, and I decided to continue exhibiting work in the real world for a while longer. I love a good challenge, and I knew this would be.
WPA: How did you decide the curatorial direction for the project and where did you find your artists? Is there a theme or other common thread between the shows and programs?
Thomas: My curatorial practice is informed by my own interests: memory, relationships, the environment, culture, new media, advertising, sexuality. I always try to look at work with an open mind, but I do find myself coming back to these subjects in one way or another with each exhibition. As I said before, the joy in it for me is discovering new ways of seeing things and allowing the artists I show to bring their own interpretations to the subjects. I especially like it when the connections are not readily apparent to me. I love the discomfort that comes from not understanding something. When this happens, I'll sit in the gallery and just look at the work, then talk to the artists further. The moment of discovery, when I understand the work more fully, is awesome.
I also have a strong desire to find work that hasn't been seen in galleries in the District, so I search far and wide for that. I find artists through the internet, recommendations, following links from one artist's site to another, studio visits. But, for me, it's not enough that the work is outstanding. I'm interested in working with artists who are more fully engaged in the world around them, who have ambition, who share the mission of the space.
WPA: You are also an artist yourself, how has your studio practice influence your decisions when planning and executing doris-mae?
Thomas: My studio practice has informed my decision-making in the gallery in both personal and professional ways. A large part of being a successful artist is being social, knowing how to talk to people, how to read people. As such, it is important for me to exhibit artists who can articulate what they're doing to a wide range of people. My gallery audience is comprised of people in the art world and people in the community with little knowledge of contemporary art. Being part of a small art community and a participant in open studios and a regular gallery attendee has taught me those skills, and I think they're a valuable tool for any artist.
Professionally, a modern-day artist needs to be able to handle a larger range of skills beyond the studio practice that might include marketing, web development, bookkeeping, etc. Having run my own graphic design business for 15 years, I've developed those skills along the way. I applied many of those lessons into opening and operating doris-mae.
WPA: What artists are you currently showcasing?
Thomas: Currently, I have Kanchan Balsé in the solo space with her narrative paintings and Rachel Mijares Fick in the project space with her photo series installation. Kanchan's paintings are dense works with references to her cultural life and domestic and community relationships. Rachel's photo series of dying plants restored to "health" with paint and thread is an interesting commentary on relationships as well, and relates to Kanchan's work in an exciting way.
In December, Mike Dowley is using the solo space to construct a room-size composition with three-dimensional pieces that reference his painting and the natural environment of Great Falls. In the project space, Tariq Tucker creates abstractions using found materials from his urban environment with focused light. It's an interesting combination of high brow/low-tech that will be a challenge for gallery visitors.
WPA: Interesting. What are some unconventional programs you might be hosting as part of this initiative?
Thomas: There are two programs that have yet to begin at the gallery—The 21st Century Artist and Ask a Caged Artist Anything. In the first, we'll host a series of conversations, panels, and expert discussions about the life of a contemporary artist. The first half of the 21st Century Artist series examines the art practice itself; the second part of the series relates more to the art business.
The Caged Artist series is designed to accomplish a couple of things: to get artists more comfortable discussing their work with the general public and to get the public more comfortable engaging working artists. In it, two artists will be locked in the cage that serves as an entry to the doris-mae building for an hour and will be subject to the public's questions.
WPA: What do you hope to bring to DC's creative community with doris-mae?
Thomas: Mainly, I hope to provide opportunities to artists whose work might be outside the boundaries of what is currently popular. I hope to serve as an agent on artists' behalf, getting them further opportunities, exposing their work to a larger audience, selling their work. I don't title exhibitions but use the artists' names in the promotions for precisely that reason—an artist's name is bank. Increased name recognition can mean increased opportunities.
I also want to find and encourage artists who are willing explore new positions in their work that might not be marketable now, to follow their instincts, to take risks. doris-mae exists for that kind of experimentation.
For the community-at-large, I hope to expose more people to the abundance of provocative, contemporary work that exists beyond the bubble that is the local arts scene. To encourage people to really look at art again, to become engaged and empowered. To inspire other artists to open spaces and show work they find challenging and difficult and passionate.
Current doris-mae artist Rachel Mijares-Fick will screen her video Scream Into the River and give an artist talk on November 15, 2012. For more information on the event, click here. For more information on doris-mae and current artist showcases, visit the official website here.
November 1, 2012