John Preus, MFA’05; sculptor and furniture-maker in Chicago; 2019 interpreter-in-residence at the Smart Museum

Memorable project: The Beast, a 2014 installation at the Hyde Park Art Center. The interior of the massive structure—the belly of the beast—was an event space, outfitted with repurposed school materials. To Preus’s delight, it became a favorite hangout for local teenagers. He also built the huts for Hutopia, an exhibit this spring at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society.

Why did you choose UChicago for grad school?

I was more interested in being at a university than an art school, because I wanted to study outside of the discipline of art. My grades weren’t good enough to get into U of C as an undergrad, so I was excited to be able to take fantastic classes like the Wittgenstein workshop with Jim Conant, and the politics of taste with Lawrence Rothfield, surrounded by PhD students. And of course, the art department itself, which housed some amazing artists and teachers.

How do you keep going when your motivation flags?

There are days when I’m looking at a piece that’s not turning out well, and the thought occurs to me that I could be sitting at home right now, reading to my son. Sometimes art is a really difficult thing to justify, when those kinds of pressures exist. But my work as an artist is a lens onto the world, which includes what I do as a parent.

I’ve always thought of my work as a conversation with the dead and the not yet living in addition to the currently living. Being engaged in a conversation that releases me from the present feels absolutely critical. I would be miserable and hopeless without it, and maybe not a very good father. That’s been one justification for spending all day trying to decide if the color pink is right on that piece of canvas.

What advice do you have for aspiring artists?

I struggle with this question, because most of what happened to me feels like dumb luck.
But when the luck hits, the work has to be ready! You have to keep making the work and developing it, and then maybe you’ll get lucky. That’s my only advice: keep making work, say yes to everything when you first get out, and make yourself indispensable wherever you go, and try to imagine whatever it is you are doing as “your work.”

Where did the idea for The Beast come from?

I grew up in Minnesota, and the park was the place we would go. In the winter we would play hockey or basketball, and there was always some kind person at the front desk who had to deal with us. When I got here and I had young kids, I couldn’t find any place like that. There are so few spaces that don't require you to buy something or have a long list of rules. There are so few open free spaces for you to just to show up and be bored with other people. A lot of my projects developed out of my frustration seeing the lack of that in this city.

There’s a way in which youth has been de facto criminalized, because there’s no place to do anything that kids like to do, unless you want to sign up for some program and have an adult moderate every decision you make, which isn't particularly exciting. I think a big part of the success of The Beast was they felt like it was their space. When it was taken down, there were some kids crying saying how much they loved it and how much they were going to miss it.

Sara Black, MFA’06; sculptor and assistant professor, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Memorable project: Le Musée du Grand Dehors (2018) at the Thailand Biennial, an installation in Than Bok Khorani National Park. The piece, created in collaboration with UChicago Visual Arts lecturer Amber Ginsburg, centers on a carbonized white oak tree and aims to supplant “our human-centeredness in favor of something else: explorations of deep time, or pushing outside of our physical scale or time scale,” Black says.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I have had a one-track mind since I was quite young. I was lucky to have, in the small Wisconsin town that I grew up in, teachers who exposed me to the history and practices of contemporary art in middle and high school. I spent most of my time loitering around art and art history classrooms, letting as much rub off on me as possible. I imagined myself as an artist even then. I have maintained a certain sense of drive in my practice that I would attribute to both temperament and necessity in the arts.

How does teaching shape your work?

I feel as much an educator as an artist. To me they are not separable. I love them both equally and passionately.

Being an educator in the arts in many ways supports my practice, in that I’m in a very current discourse all the time with my students. There’s also the practical consideration of my tenure expectations. A certain level of activity in my practice is expected. I have, every week, two dedicated studio days. And it’s not just pressure from the outside—my internal motivation is supported. I feel really lucky about that.

Danny Volk, MFA’14; multidisciplinary artist and host of Made-Up with Danny Volk

Memorable project: The News Gallery (2019) at SPACES in Cleveland. Volk collected artist proposals rejected by SPACES and, with the artists’ permission, reprinted them in a weekly newspaper. It was an “opportunity to make opportunity for even more people,” he says.

What stands out about your UChicago days?

There wasn’t any coddling. There wasn’t a professor who takes you under their wing and opens up the road to success for you. You’re seeing them as role models, and they’re all so different in terms of the path that they’ve taken. You have to figure out what success means to you. I learned to be scrappy.

Any advice for recent MFAs?

Rejection is really difficult and can discourage people from even wanting to continue in this field. We often don’t know why rejection is happening. There could be a very specific reason for your work not being selected, some parameter that you don’t even know about that a gallery or funding institution needs to meet. I would just say to not take rejection too personally. Keep putting your work out there.

For your series Made-Up with Danny Volk, you interview artists while they do your makeup. How did that idea come about?

Artists often have to get in front of people and talk about their work and their process of making. If you’ve seen artists do this multiple times, sometimes you’re getting a very similar conversation. My work is interested in shuffling the dynamics within relationships, or the relationships between people and institutions, and so I’m breaking down what an artist talk is and playing with the elements. Having artists play with color and material while they’re talking about their work shifts the intimacy and leads to an interesting exchange. Artists bring totally different perspectives to the way they interact with this project.

How do artists approach the task of doing your makeup?

It’s completely different each time. I really have no idea what people are going to do. There are some people who try to extend their work onto my face. Other artists try to challenge the whole premise in general. Amber Ginsburg covered me from head to navel with slip, a claylike material. Throughout the conversation the slip slowly dried and it was more difficult for me to ask her questions and interact with her.

You must have to buy Costco-sized packs of makeup-removing wipes.