Bean Gilsdorf: Help Desk

Bean Gilsdorf (MFA 2011) never imagined herself as a professional advice columnist. But in a moment of levity at an editorial meeting of the art blog Daily Serving, she tossed out the idea of an art advice column, and the others wouldn't let it drop.

And once she launched the thing, it really took off. She posted her first "Help Desk" column in January 2012, and it was almost immediately picked up by KQED.org and the Huffington Post.

What have been the most memorable questions? "One was, 'I just discovered that my MFA faculty advisor is an adulterer. I find that morally reprehensible. Should I continue to trust him in our student-advisor relationship?'"

This dilemma can't be reduced to yet another case of people not living up to expectations, Gilsdorf explains, since your advisor is your designated critic-advocate, and the nuances of the trust and the power dynamic are quite specific. In other words, Dear Abby can't deal with this one. You really need the advice of another artist.

What's been the strangest question so far? "'What is the best and most humane way to skin a cat as part of an art piece, in front of an audience'’ I wrote the guy back privately and told him I wasn't qualified to give an answer."

In each column Gilsdorf usually answers two questions that are thematically related -- having to do with studio visits, for instance, or politics. 'How does an artist decide how much a certain piece is worth, monetarily?' was paired with 'I am a performance artist. I've had many invitations lately to show my work, but I'm worried I won't have enough money to pay for all of the travel and materials. Is there a way to get an art loan?'

"I also get a lot of rants. 'Why does the art world work this way?' 'Why can’t I get my foot in the door?' I tell them that the art world is far bigger than just Artforum and Documenta. Also I get a lot of naive questions, like, 'Is showing up at a gallery with my work the best way to get a gallerist's attention?'"

What are the most interesting questions? "The ones that relate to the psychology of the art world: how to ask for help, how to get what you want, how to voice your opinion. One curator wrote to ask the best way to tell an artist during a studio visit that he didn't like their current work."

So, what’s the advice? "Be honest that the fit is wrong, but don't burn any bridges. A studio visit doesn't always have to result in promises. It's supposed to be an exchange of ideas. Getting someone's focused attention is a gift."

Memorable CCA Faculty

"I love to talk about art with articulate people, whoever they are," Gilsdorf continues. "One of my favorite advisors at CCA was Frances Richard, a poet and writer. She is so smart, and she articulates her ideas so precisely." Gilsdorf has an MA in linguistics and a BA in literature, so she appreciates a clear thinker who can say what they mean.

Who else was influential at CCA? "Deborah Valoma, certainly. She was a great cheerleader, yet not afraid to point out gaps in the work or in my thinking. Glen Helfand, James Gobel, Jeff Gibson, Kota Ezawa, Stephanie Syjuco, Ted Purves, and Federico Windhausen are just a few of the other professors who had a profound impact on my practice."

From Portland to San Francisco

Gilsdorf came to CCA from Portland, Oregon. "I can definitely tell you all the Portland stereotypes are true! Portlandia is more documentary than satire. But it's cheaper to live there, and as an artist I was able to spend more time in the studio than out making money."

In the Bay Area, she continues, people are doing things that create new conversations, and trying new models that subvert or circumvent traditional gallery systems. Examples? "Will Brown, Alter Space, Queen's Nails, MacArthur B. Arthur. Even YBCA and SFMOMA are really inclusive." And since the Bay Area is a hotbed of activity in all spheres, "people who are not in the art world per se still generate energy that permeates the art world. There's a lot of overlap between disciplines."

Taking the Leap Post-MFA

What was the toughest thing about the CCA MFA program? "The prospect of leaving and the challenge of how to continue the sense of sympatico community, mutual support, and idea exchange that we had built together in the grad fine arts studios. It's so crucial after school not to immediately plunge into isolation."

Gilsdorf was the one student selected out of her entire MFA class (about 35 in total, in 2011) for the prestigious Headlands Center for the Arts Graduate Fellowship. The residency was a terrific honor, and it came with the added benefit of thrusting her into another nest of creative people -- artists, architects, and writers.

The Flags

For the last couple of years, Gilsdorf's own creative work has been a series of experimental flags bearing images drawn from U.S. media, pop culture, and history. Lately the subject matter has been inspired by national attention on politics, economics, and the Occupy movement, and bodies of imagery related to expansion, capitalism, and progress.

"I like to look backward to get a handle on where we're at today as a culture. My studio at the Headlands faced westward and just over the hill was the ocean, the physical end of America. I spent the whole year mulling over Manifest Destiny and westward expansion. I built a covered wagon in my studio and it became a sculpture, a video installation, and a performance space." This ongoing work will be exhibited again at Headlands in the fall.

The Artist's Journey

When this writer visited Gilsdorf, she had just moved from the Headlands studios -- located in one of the world's most beautiful untrammeled bits of nature -- into her new studio in Hunter's Point. "My little slice of urban paradise!" she enthused. Can I quote you on that, Bean? "Absolutely."

What comes after Headlands? Gilsdorf spent this summer at a short residency at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley. "The point of this particular residency was not to produce a lot of finished work, but to experiment in ways that will lead to future bodies of work. I worked on a series of prints related to old-fashioned textile sampler books. The sample, as an idea, is really interesting. A part that claims to represent a whole."

When we spoke, Gilsdorf had also just finished a curatorial project for ArtPadSF, a series of "pool performances" that involved synchronized swimmers, an a cappella singing group called the Loose Interpretations, a troupe of CCA performance artists who operate under a name that is only a symbol, and a recorded tour of the fair by Gilsdorf herself in which she combined two well-known audio styles: the museum audio tour and the guided meditation.

Then this fall, she's off to the Banff Centre in Canada for another prestigious residency, this one lasting for seven weeks. But fear not, dear readers, she will continue her Help Desk column from deep in the Canadian wilderness.