Art/Work: Tracey Bey '99
We all have to find a balance between our work and non-work lives but, for artists, this process can be less balancing act than wrestling match. Art won’t pay the bills and a full-time job won’t allow the time and psychic resources needed to make art—so the fight is on.
But Tracey Bey ’99 is working on a solution to the art/work dilemma, a way to meld her artwork and her work-work into a satisfying, and profitable, whole. Bey is a printmaker; she also makes collages and artist’s books. “I’m very attracted to paper—the way it looks, feels, smells,” she says. She juxtaposes text and images, historical record and pop culture, creating artworks that are both beautiful and politically bold.
Take one example: her artist’s book The Kitchen. It began as a conference project for an anthropology class at Sarah Lawrence; she interviewed African Americans about their hair. The project collected dust for a few years, but was resurrected for a Life Stories class at the Rhode Island School of Design, where Bey earned her MFA. She combined quotes from the interviews with a variety of images that had both cultural and personal resonance, and The Kitchen was born. She explained that the title has many meanings: It refers to the vernacular term for the hair on the back of one’s neck, the room where most hair-washing and styling takes place, and the iconic symbol of home.
Bey received a grant from the Women’s Studio Workshop in New Jersey to complete and print The Kitchen. She has also had several well-received shows at New York City galleries, but she isn’t sure if she wants to commit to being a “hard-core” artist. “I love making art, but I don’t love the art scene—paying $3,000 for slides so that you can run around marketing yourself to galleries is just so grueling,” she said.
Bey spends her workdays in the enormous—and tastefully appointed—Chelsea loft that houses Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, designing novelty Christmas ornaments for the Stewart line at Kmart. She likes the job, and appreciates the sense of community that comes from working around so many artists (almost everyone pursues their own after-hours projects, she says). The job uses her creative talents without abusing them, because it’s different enough from her artwork not to drain her creativity.
But her day job isn’t Bey’s final answer to the art/work dilemma. Her energy may not be sapped, but her time is. “There aren’t enough hours in the day to make art,” she says. On the other hand, she adds, “there also aren’t enough hours to take your clothes to the dry cleaners.” Bey stays up until one in the morning and plots time for art in her day planner, but still wishes she could do more. So here’s her solution: “tracepaper designs.” It’s her own line of stationery, which she plans to debut in spring 2005. “I love paper, and
I love printing, so making stationery is like making mini-art,” she says enthusiastically. She hopes the venture will become the golden combination of artwork and work-work: a way for her to make art on her own terms and get paid for it.
Her silk-screened and letter-pressed cards are designed to appeal to people of color, Bey says, and they have a younger, more playful aesthetic than the few existing card lines for that market. Images will range from simple graphic patterns, to 1940’s-era family photos, to vintage Ebony ads, to calligraphic Ghanian letters. The stationery will both draw from and complement her larger artworks, moving away from the political and toward the pretty.
Bey hopes that she will eventually be able to work on tracepaper designs full-time. “The Sarah Lawrence part of me wants to throw caution to the wind and quit my job now, but that isn’t really practical,” she said. Her long-term goal is to open her own store, selling all kinds of beautiful paper products. Stationery, yes, but also difficult-to-find prints of edgy, political artwork—including her own, of course, which will mean that Bey will be the rare artist who can make her art and sell it, too.
—Suzanne Walters MFA ’04