Art:Work is a series of interviews, coordinated by Zoë Cohen, that explores the financial realities in a career as a visual artist in Philadelphia. More on this project here.
As part of National Adjunct Action Week, this interview profiles one of many hard-working artist Adjuncts at Temple University. Suzanne Seesman is an artist making sculptural and installation work and interested in democratic culture and expression. Suzanne and I first met between our classes in the Visual Studies program at Tyler School of Art at Temple University.
Zoë Cohen: I know you support yourself in part as an adjunct. What would you say are your main sources of income?
Suzanne Seesman: At the moment I have three main sources of income: waiting tables, teaching as an adjunct instructor, and working with community-arts organizations. The most consistent is waiting tables. Service industry jobs have always been the most consistent and lucrative in my life.
ZC: Do you feel secure in your position at Temple?
SS: I have worked in positive environments under generous artists and educators. In addition to Tyler’s Visual Studies Department, I also teach in the Department of Strategic Communications. Before Tyler, I taught at Virginia Commonwealth University for two years. Working in these departments with supportive mentors and colleagues has lent me a sense of confidence in my position as an instructor.
However, I would not say that I feel secure in my position. Like all adjuncts, I do not know if I will have classes to teach from semester to semester, or how many will be offered. This makes it difficult to plan for my future. It is unsettling and disappointing to realize what we all know to be true: that what we are compensated for has no direct correlation to the quality of our work or to our commitment to the institution.
ZC: What was your own experience in art school like?
SS: I have a BFA and an MFA. Both are in Sculpture and both from state schools: Ohio University and Tyler School of Art at Temple respectively. While at OU, I also studied toward a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies. My experience taking classes in Political Science, Anthropology, History, and Indonesian Language were very influential. When I was an undergraduate at Ohio University, the campus was a politically active one-I think I was a member of four different student organizations at one point!
While making work, I think about history, power, politics, language and visual rhetoric. I don’t think that my obsessions and interests as an artist would have played out in the same way had I gone to an art school, or a private liberal arts institution.
ZC: You also weren’t in the middle of any of the major cities with their art scenes…
SS: Yeah, the experience of living and working in Southeastern Ohio was crucial for me. Living away from the “centers” that East Coast cities both imagine themselves to be and are was a good thing. It taught me the power and necessity of getting together with the people around me to decide upon our own center. In my experience this region of our country is a much more progressive and sometimes radical terrain than most people on the coasts imagine. A sense of anarchic communitarianism was fostered in me there.
ZC: I really appreciate that about you. I think of you as someone who really likes to be involved with collective efforts… what organizations or projects are you part of?
SS: I’ve been a member of collectives in the past and have been involved in various artist groups, formal and informal, for a long time. My partner Ben Stout likes to refer to me as a “professional participator”. I am one of the two co-directors of the Nicola Midnight St Clair, which I have been active with since the magazine’s beginnings – to a greater or lesser extent depending on my schedule and on my proximity to Philadelphia.
The kind of work I make is not often salable. At least not in Philadelphia, at the emerging artist level. So I do show, but I show in galleries and spaces that do not need to be able to sell the work in order to be able to show it. I had a solo show in 2013 at Moore College of Art. Working with Kaytie Johnson at Moore was an exceptional experience, the conversations we had were very nourishing. She is extremely supportive of emerging artists in Philadelphia. Last year, I was involved in several projects at Bait. I also participated in programming for To Fade And Spill Out And (And Look At Another’s Whole) a show curated by Zach Rawe and Jamie Felton at Fjord. I was recently accepted to the membership at Vox Populi so I will have work in the New Members’ show there this spring.
It’s also important to me to do studio visits with artists whose work I like. This past year, I have been putting together packets for dream shows that I would like to put on. There are so many really amazing artists in Philly. I’d like to be a part of getting our work out there into galleries, and other spaces. I’ve always been concerned with how a practice or an approach is built. Doing studio visits with other artists allows me to see not only what my peers are thinking about, but how their thinking develops.
ZC: You have a partner who is also an artist. Do you share finances?
SS: Ben and I don’t pool our financial resources in any formal way but we do support one another. He’s had a couple of full time teaching jobs and a fellowship. However, there have been times when I was earning money and he was not, and we’ve supported one another through these ups and downs.
ZC: Would you say that you feel financially secure?
SS: For the first time in a long time I have a savings account and have managed to steadily save some money. This gives me more confidence than I have previously had about my financial stability, especially as an artist. For example, before this year, I never considered doing residencies, even if they were free or offered a stipend.
I still wouldn’t say that I feel “financially secure.” I think that to feel secure, I would need to have at least four months of income saved – and I’m not there yet. My outlook on what it means to be secure has also changed over time.
ZC: How has it changed?
SS: In addition to having a supportive family, I have a very supportive community of friends here in Philadelphia. I live with Ben – my significant other – and three of our friends. All of us are artists balancing jobs with our studio work. The house I live in, in Fishtown/Kensington, is very affordable. This is in part because two of the people who I live with recently bought the house. Their generosity and willingness to live in a house with me and my partner makes a big difference.
ZC: Do you have health insurance?
SS: I do have health insurance now. I have had it for the past year, through Obamacare. I was living in California before grad school, and I enrolled in a state-run program that provided access to healthcare for lower income women. When I started graduate school I found out that health insurance was mandatory for enrollment into school. I used some of the money available to me through loans to pay for the health insurance.
After graduate school, I was uninsured for a couple of years until the passage of the Healthcare Act. Despite the frustration of enrollment, it was well worth it. When I was uninsured, the anxiety of learning that I might need surgery or even a simple diagnostic procedure was overwhelming. I did that stupid thing of just avoiding doctors for two years. I was really lucky that I was relatively healthy during that time.
ZC: Where do you make your work these days?
SS: I have a small studio is in the Window Factory at 9th and Dauphin. It is also known as the Emerald Windows Building. I began renting a work space when I realized that having a studio would cost only a little bit more than a storage unit. At that time, I was commuting between Richmond, Virginia and Philly and needed a place to store my work and materials. When I was living half time in Richmond, Ben let me work in part of the studio space he had as part of his fellowship. There it is again – the back and forth. It was great to share a studio with him. He is an excellent studio-mate because he is focused which helps me be focused too.
ZC: How often do you get to your studio?
SS: Ha! It’s funny, after answering all of these questions, this one feels like the most controversial and highly personal one.
I’m almost always able to be in my studio on Fridays. Sometimes it is only for a couple of hours and sometimes for the whole day. But if there’s something else I’d like to do — go to New York, or get lunch with a friend — it usually has to happen on a Friday. I’m always aware that when I do something else, I’m giving up my studio time. If I’m lucky, I also get studio time on Saturday mornings before work or on Thursdays. I usually spend Thursdays working on all of the planning that has to happen for teaching, and my responsibilities as a member of Vox Populi and The St. Claire. I try to meet those needs on Thursdays so I can have Fridays for my own projects.