Wild, ‘weird’ free art

Olympia and Seattle artists talk about exposure in the age of social networking

Staff writerFebruary 14, 2014 

Imagine this scenario: You’re a plumber (or doctor, or hairdresser, or any other paid job). You’re asked by a high-profile outfit to work for them, in return for getting exposure. You won’t get paid. If you’re fresh out of school, you might do it. But middle-age, middle-career, needing an income? It’s a trickier question.

It also is a question many artists face, and facing it recently was Olympia artist Diane Kurzyna, also known as Ruby Re-Usable, who makes life-size sculptures and fashion out of plastic bag trash. An image of her signature work “Bag Lady,” photographed in front of Olympia’s graffiti Free Wall, is on Page 249 of the recently-released “Wild Art,” a dense art tome published by the esteemed Phaidon Press, who’d found the photo on Kurzyna’s Flickr website. She didn’t earn anything from the book — which sells for $39.95 — except exposure.

For Kurzyna — who’ll be giving a free artist talk at the Olympia Timberland Regional Library this week (with Seattle art car artist Kelly Lyles) about her art and how she promotes it — exposure was payment enough. But for many artists, it’s not.

“I was pretty thrilled; it’s an honor to be in a book like this,” says Kurzyna, whose plastic-bag baby sculptures were included in a 2009 craft book, “Who’s Your Dada?” and who’s partly doing the library talk to show other artists how to promote themselves. “You have to get your work out there. A lot of people are afraid of it being stolen, but that’s how you get seen.”

Of course, Kurzyna’s no newbie artist. The New Jersey native has been making art from found objects since her high school days, expanding into traditional crafts with a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in 1981 and a fiber arts degree in 1989. New techniques, increasing environmental concerns and a bad experience with mold destroying her artwork led Kurzyna to develop art made from recycled plastic and wire, and teaching the techniques in classrooms.

In 2006, a friend handed her an off-cut stash of bubble-wrap. Another friend loaned her a mannequin. And she had studio time through a teaching residency at the Museum of Glass. So she wrapped the mannequin in bubble-wrap to create a life-size dress echoing the glass dresses of Karen LaMonte in MOG’s galleries. Stuffed full of Wonderbread bags (her young son was a fan), the “Bag Lady” was born — and even caught the attention of a visiting Dale Chihuly.

Now, Kurzyna is probably best-known for her plastic bag babies: sculptures made by wrapping dolls in plastic shopping bags, cutting open the mold and stuffing in more plastic bags. Sold in Olympia’s Matter gallery, they sport flowery designs, patterns and words like “Please Recycle.” She also has moved into trash fashion, creating dresses and headwear from old buttons, wire, caution tape and the like: whimsical art that makes a solid statement about environmental pollution.

How she makes her art and why is part of Kurzyna’s library talk.

Mixed media artist Kelly Lyles — Kurzyna’s friend and inspiration, whose excessive art cars made it into the “Weird Washington” travel book — also will be there to talk about her process (and park her art car outside the library.)

Kurzyna sees the talk as giving back to the library community for past support, and to encourage the rest of us to see that “art is everywhere — you just have to keep your eyes open for finding it in unexpected places.”

Places such as Flickr.com, for instance. But while promoting your art free on social media and books is another part of Kurzyna’s work, not every artist agrees.

“The lure of drawing attention to your work through promises of visibility and publicity (preys) on the artist’s desperation to be found in an ocean of creative souls,” emailed Tacoma sumi-e artist Ellen Miffitt, in response to a query sent to local artists.

“I post my images on FineArtAmerica.com and have six Zazzle.com stores with images posted on products. I have been asked about using an image for a logo and of course, if I give them a fair yearly fee, I never hear back from them. … I would never know if my images are being used without my permission. Theft of images is rampant.”

Some artists are happy to donate art for a nonprofit or charity cause, but some draw the line at commercial ventures like Phaidon’s “Wild Art.” (Phaidon Press itself didn’t respond to inquiries on the subject.)

Wrote Seattle painter Cathy Fields, “Artists need to eat and pay bills the same as anyone else. Asking an artist to give their work away sends the message that their art has no value, and demeans the artist. … Creating art is work and comes with the pressures and compromises of any freelance job.”

“Do you ask a teacher to teach your children for free?” asked University Place paper artist Susan Massey. “A doctor to treat you for free? Your local market to give you groceries for free? Why does it always seem OK to ask artists to give their art for free?”

But for every artist who doesn’t want to give images for free, there are others who do.

“I think artists are like most entrepreneurs in that if you counted every hour you put into your business and divided that by what you bring in, your hourly wage would be depressing,” said Sue Pivetta, who organized Tacoma’s 100th Monkey art events based on the free-exposure model. “You don’t (do that). You do what you love and the money will follow — or it won’t.”

“I think exposure shouldn’t be underrated. It can absolutely be a tipping point,” writes Federal Way pencil artist Ann Kullberg, whose free work 20 years ago as a struggling single mom has led to book contracts, international teaching work and many online customers.

Other local artists report the same trajectory, but add that the Internet has definitely made both publicity and image theft easier. Some, such as Tacoma painter Mark Hoppmann, try to “slow down the tide” by not posting too much work on social sharing sites. Others, such as Kurzyna, welcome the opportunity.

“How would we ever become famous keeping our work at home?” sums up watercolorist Tanya Lemma.

Lyles says she hears both sides of the issue. “Weird Washington” is just one of five books her art cars, art homes or paintings have been featured in; she’s also had TV appearances.

“They say it’ll be great for your career,” Lyles said. “It’s great for your ego, but I don’t know if I’ve ever sold a piece of art from it. But it is good PR.”

In the end, however, the fact remains that a printed image just can’t compare with the real thing — in Kurzyna’s case, a fashionably hatted, statuesque, life-size woman made of discarded plastic. And for Kurzyna, those figures are what carry her real message: Make art, not waste.

“Art isn’t just something made from precious materials in a white-walled gallery,” she said.

Wild Oly Art

What: Olympia artist Diane Kurzyna (aka Ruby Re-Usable) and Seattle artist Kelly Lyles talk about their art

When: 7:30-8:30 p.m. Feb. 19

Where: Olympia Timberland Regional Library, 313 Eighth Ave. SE, Olympia

Cost: Free

Also: The books these artists are featured in (“Wild Art,” “Weird Washington”) are available at the Tacoma and Olympia libraries. You also can see Kurzyna’s plastic sculpture at the Olympia Community Center and buy it at Matter Gallery, 422 Washington St. SE, Olympia.

Information: 360-704-4636, trl.org; kellyspot.com; rubyreusable.com

Video: Watch the newspaper’s video to find out how Diane Kurzyna makes her plastic bag babies.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com

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