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City Paper

May 25 – 31, 2006
By Lori Hill

Caitlin Perkins is a bag lady. Perkins is most likely carryin one or more bags on her person at any given time. For he typical 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. workday, Perkins, an artist variously carries a calendar, ibuprofen, scissors, rubbing crayon (“to collect interesting textures on the street”), two tourist-attraction pennies, 40 plastic aprons (for a kids’ printmakin workshop), a roll of blue masking tape, snacks, sponges and book on 19th-century typography.

Her contribution to the new Web site Art Jaw explains her bag fetish. “I used all the stuff I have to carry around as a metaphor for all the roles I’ve taken on,” says Perkins, who details her inventory of bags and their contents to hilarious effect. It’s a universal feeling, this being loaded down with stuff, no matter what the profession. This sort of barrier-breaking is exactly what Shelley Spector, who’s launching www.artjaw.com on May 31, wants people to get out of the site—a collection of first-person stories from people in the visual arts community about their day-to-day experiences both past and present, inspirational and mundane.

“It’s derived from my interest in the inner workings of art communities,” says Spector. “I’m an artist, gallery owner, curator and teacher. I wear all these different hats and I still don’t totally get it.”

Dispelling the myth of the beret-wearing, cappuccino-sipping artiste is just one of the aims of Art Jaw—by hearing the stories of the way artists really live and work, everybody learns. “The way I understand things is by talking to people and listening to their stories,” says Spector.

“The art world is adept at cultivating ugly personas that lead to generalizations about the whole,” says Art Jaw contributor Robert Cozzolino, a curator at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. “Most artists that I know are dedicated workers, constantly looking to expand their range and knowledge, and do not waste time with posturing or inventing jargon for what they do. Maybe I only know the freaks.”

It’s not just artists who will contribute to the site—so will all those behind-the-scenes types whose jobs often fall under the radar.
As a child, Katherine Ware, curator of photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, would play “museum” with her brother in her neighbor’s carport, painstakingly arranging and labeling rocks and seashells and pinecones for passersby, with the hope that they could exchange “admission” for candy.

The site will kick off with 11 stories accompanied by images, with a new story posted once a month after that. Other participants include artists Randall Sellers and Zoe Strauss, University of the Arts’ Fine Arts department chair Jeanne Jaffe, Artblog and Philadelphia Weekly critic Roberta Fallon and artist Hester Stinnett, who’s also a professor at Tyler School of Art. Students, registrars, collectors, teachers—all are slated to tell their tales. It’s about how exhibitions come together, how nonprofits acquire funding, how artists get inspired and how paintings get hung.

Bridgette Mayer, who owns a gallery on Washington Square, writes a funny essay on gallery visitors who are incredulous that she’s actually Bridgette Mayer; they expect an older, more sour persona. Matt Singer, curator of the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, calls his encounter with the album art for Siouxsie and the Banshees’ A Kiss in the Dreamhouse “the cornerstone of his career in the arts.” Never mind that M.F.A.—Singer was enthralled by the 1982 Gustav Klimt-inspired gold and jewel-toned design and that was all he needed to start studying art in earnest.

Contributor Lisa Nelson-Haynes, associate director at Painted Bride Art Center, is excited at the prospect of learning about her colleagues. “I think a lot of times we work in a vacuum, and this is one of those opportunities to get other perspectives,” says Nelson-Haynes, who will write about her hatred of titles of any sort; she’s come up with a few of her own to replace one she finds especially distasteful: arts administrator.

Spector says Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative director Paula Marincola will write about how hard it is to have a job where she has to say “no” to artists. “Everybody wants it. Everybody’s fighting for the same money. Everybody’s fighting for the same walls. She has to decline things from people she’s very good friends with,” says Spector.

As a kind of rejoinder, Spector’s organizing a show called “Paper Trail” for her gallery that she describes as a “walk-in filing cabinet.” Proposals, tax forms, contracts, budgets, acceptance and rejection letters and all manner of correspondence (e-mails and letters, bitchy and otherwise) among all manner of arts professionals (artists, patrons, museum workers) will fill the space.

“This is about everything else we do,” says Spector of the mounds of paperwork involved in putting on a show. She says it reflects all the work artists and their champions do to get the work seen: having work photographed, writing artists’ statements and press releases, fundraising, acquiring insurance for exhibitions and shipping work back and forth to galleries and museums. “Nobody’s just sitting around making stuff.”

Anyone can contribute to this two-day show. It’s an open invitation—Spector suggests I submit one of the many pieces of pulp that come across an arts editor’s desk—and she’ll be collecting until June 5. (The only requirement is that the paper be 8 1/2 by 11 inches.)

Together, Art Jaw and “Paper Trail” are meant to throw open, even just a little, the doors to the strange and beautiful—and often mystifying—world of Philadelphia’s thriving visual arts community.

“The art world can be very alienating to people not in it,” says Spector. “That’s very bad. If you want support you have to give people little windows.”

Says Cozzolino, “Although I think the misconception persists, this profession is not reserved for Ivy League-trained folks who have come from a wealthy background. Let’s kick that notion to the curb. The art world is not monolithic.”

Contributor Richard Torchia, artist and director of Arcadia University Art Gallery, says, “From what I understand, Art Jaw is creating a different platform based on jargon-free, personal narratives and a range of individual voices and perspectives within the field. This is good as we are all authorities of one kind or another and everyone can benefit from a truth well told. Anything that makes what we’re doing matter more to more people is welcome.”

Philadelphia Inquirer

May 30, 2006
By Melissa Dribben

The art world can be intimidating. Not the impressionists or Andrew Wyeth, or a third grader’s cubist interpretation of Stegosaurus With Amputated Leg, or the portraitists who commit Elvis to black velvet.

Those, we get.

But in many galleries, and some museums as well, visitors get the feeling that unless they have a degree in fine arts, a hand in the business, or an intuitive misanthropic bent, they’re not welcome.

“People feel there’s this sense of ‘otherness’ in the art world,” says Shelley Spector, a Philadelphia sculptor and gallery owner. “It’s become a community of black suits in white boxes, and it’s not human.”

So she’s working on a project that she hopes will help change that cold image: a Web site containing eminently human stories written by and about members of the art world. The site, artjaw.com, will be launched tomorrow with 11 entries.

“I started asking people in the beginning of the year,” she says. “The rules were that it had to be 300 to 500 words, and it had to be a story about something you might talk about over a drink or coffee.” Of the 30 people she asked, the only one who declined the invitation, she says, was an artist who told her, “It’s a great idea, but I’m too neurotic to write about myself.”

“Some felt obligated to try to be clever and funny. I said, ‘NO!’ There’s nothing worse than someone trying to be funny, so I said, just tell me a story.”

So far, she has received 15 entries from people including Matt Singer, a writer for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a curator at the Museum of Jewish Art, and artblog writers Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof. One of the stories comes from gallery owner Bridgette Mayer, who told Spector that because she is young and doesn’t fit the stereotype of a gallery owner, some people don’t believe she’s the one running the place.

Another story that Spector chose came from Kate Ware, curator of photography at the Art Museum. Ware wrote about the museums she constructed in her garage as a child.

“Building a museum in your garage is not lofty,” Spector says. “I’m hoping stories like this will engage people in a way so that the art community makes more sense.”

The Web site will be celebrated with a complementary exhibition at Spector’s gallery, 510 Bainbridge St., on June 9 and 10.

Her gallery happens to be a white box. But the unpretentious, 45-year-old mother of two is more inclined toward white T-shirts and jeans than black suits. Dark-eyed, with dark curly hair and rectangular hipster glasses, she curls up on an antique gold brocade couch at the far end of the exhibition space and talks about her philosophy, her art, and her latest quest to make her world more accessible.

“Some artists are so deeply immersed in their own head, it’s hard for them to get outside of it. I’ve never been like that. And I really like presenting things.”

Over the last two decades, Spector has taught, curated, produced, installed, sold and bought art, almost exclusively in this city. Eight years ago, she started her gallery with the intention of supporting young, emerging local talent and creating an exhibition space where visitors with little or no knowledge of art could feel comfortable.

“I wanted this to be a place where people could come in and ask questions and not feel stupid,” she says.

She has helped launch the careers of artists such as Randall Sellers and Jim Houser, whose work is now in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others.

Spector grew up in Northeast Philadelphia with dreams of becoming a dancer. Her father worked in a deli. Her mother was a dancer with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and ran a dance school out of the basement of the family’s home.

“In college, I made a turn into sculpture,” she says. Her work, mostly human figures constructed from wood and found objects, explores stereotypes, the connections between people, and how experiences shape personality.

In one characteristic project, she created a 16-foot-high stack of small wooden people standing on one another’s shoulders. As part of a recent interactive work, she supplied hundreds of wooden leaves on which visitors could write the names of people they had loved and lost; then she posted the leaves on the wall of the exhibition. She has also built robotlike figures with transparent bellies filled with pencils.

“There’s something about taking things apart and deconstructing that helps you understand,” she says. “I see the Web site in a similar way. It’s taking pieces of experience to create a window for people to see the place I live and work in.”

Spector says that, like her, most people in the art world have multiple and often intersecting roles. “It’s a really complicated community.” Friends and colleagues may be competing with one another for grants or exhibition space. Gallery owners may find their business needs at odds with their personal allegiances.

By providing a forum where members of the community – everyone from the “preparators” who paint the gallery walls before an exhibition to museum administrators – can talk about how and why they do what they do, she hopes to foster a better understanding within the art world as well.

The two-day exhibition that will accompany the Web site is called “Paper Trail.” Spector plans to paper the walls of her gallery with e-mails, proposals, rejection letters and tax returns from anyone involved in some aspect of Philadelphia’s art community.

She has issued an open invitation for submissions, and the only requirement, she says, is that the material arrive on 8?-by-11-inch paper.

“The point is to show that the art community, like everything else, is run by paper. This is how stuff gets done. If people see that, maybe it will break down some of the alienation.”

From her perch on the couch, she can see clear through the white box of her gallery to the street, where people are walking by without looking in the window.

“I’m looking,” she says, “for something that will take the walls down a little bit.”

Metro Philadelphia

June 20, 2006
By Jennifer Dionisio

An artist’s job isn’t just creation — it’s also a whole lot of paperwork. To illustrate, a few weeks back, Shelley Spector turned her art gallery into a walk-in file cabinet. “Paper Trail” featured 8-by-10-inch printouts of press releases, to-do lists, grant applications and budget plans collected from local artists. One by one, the administrative documents refute romantic misconceptions about artists’ lives.

Although the exhibit is now closed, the sculptor’s efforts have culminated in the creation of Art Jaw, a new Web site featuring first-person accounts of the magic and minutia dominating the lives of some of Philadelphia’s most notable creative citizens. Candid and unpretentious, the stories reclassify artists as human beings. “It’s like a giant group therapy session,” Spector jokes.

Art Jaw debuted last month with 11 stories that include a gallerist’s reaction to patrons’ surprise over her young age, a curator’s admission that he loves art thanks to a Siouxsie and the Banshees album cover and the contents of a coordinator’s “schlep” bag (scissors, rubbing crayons, lime Tic Tacs, two Chinese fortunes). The posts entertain art fans and help artists connect to their peers. Spector plans to add a new story at the end of each month.

Spector chose the online medium like she would a piece of any work, with careful consideration and intuition. Though concerned that high-tech trends eliminate the personal relationships Art Jaw is trying to foster, she feels the upside is that people develop more technological relationships by sharing their thoughts online. Spector explains, “It’s less and more personal. Art Jaw’s like that too.” Laughing, she adds, “On top of that, I love working on the computer. I’m a computer nerd wannabe.” Can we expect more surprising confessions from her on the site? No, she says. That would be like curating a show and putting her own work in it. (Yet if you’d like to demystify Spector, just check out the site.) “There’s Shelley all over it,” she says.