Name: Beth Dow
Current Location: Minneapolis
Education: MFA University of Minnesota, BA St. Olaf College
Preferred Art Medium(s): Photography, leather, wood
Children (ages and genders): Son 23, daughter 21
Website address(es): http://www.bethdow.com & http://www.fieldworkgoods.com
What is your background (where are you from, education, important details, where are you now, etc.)?
I was born in Minneapolis, and my dad was an industrial photographer and filmmaker. He had a darkroom in the basement, and I loved to watch images appear in the trays. I took photography for granted, and spent most of my time drawing, sewing, or playing the piano. I also liked to wander through what the locals kids called The Field, a vast, mythical landscape that abutted my dead-end suburban street. This wild space of strawberries, garter snakes, bike jumps, and smoking teens still informs my work.
Was there any part of your formal or non-formal training that prepared you for being a creative maker and mother simultaneously?
Oh man, this question made me laugh at myself. I was born to be a creative maker and have been one all my life, but I don’t know if anyone is really prepared for being a mother. I’ve always just kept going no matter what, and I’m surprised to see that I’ve come out the other end with two beautiful young adult kids and an art practice that challenges and sustains me. My interests are both broad and deep, and I’m used to having many things spinning through my life at once. Add a couple of babies while still in my 20s? Sure – no problem! That makes me shake my head now, but it’s really how I’ve always done things. If everyone had waited for the perfect moment to start a family we would have died out a long time ago. Perfect is a spectrum.
Are there any women that you find to be an inspiration for you as an artist/mother?
My children were born abroad and were tiny when we moved to the US. It took a long time to forge friendships, and I had to figure out a lot of things on my own. By the time they were in school a few years I had many women friends who were artists and mothers, and we all understand the peculiar demands of juggling the two sides of our busy lives. I continue to learn from these women, and wish I knew then what I know now. Of course the way time works is that we proceed together. The beauty and the fault.
Can you talk retrospectively about how you balanced your role of artist and the role of mother when your children were young? Did you take time off after the birth of your children? How did that work? What about childcare? How did the balance of your roles as artist and mother change as your children grew?
How did you navigate making artwork? I was always self-employed, and my studio was at home. I also never had childcare, and in hindsight I have no earthly idea how I pulled that off. I don’t need a whole lot of sleep, so I grabbed a hold of whatever moments I could find from the day or night for my art. My husband (also and artist) worked long hours, so that means I had to as well. My natural approach to a studio practice is to go hard, fast, and furious, but only in bursts. I squeezed a whole lot of mothering into the downtime between those frantic runs. The kids were always with me when they were young, aside from some preschool hours 2 mornings a week. They were used to seeing exhibitions, running out to buy supplies, etc. They were pretty good sports. I had always wanted to teach and assumed there would be time and money to go to grad school when they got a little bit older. When I realized that might not be the case I undertook what I called my home-school MFA as I built my career and figured things out. I only recently attended an actual institution and got the proper, honest to goodness paperwork from the University of Minnesota. Yay diploma!
You are both the child of an artist and an artist that is a parent. How did this influence impact your creative practice? Could you talk about the pros and cons of having grown-up with creativity and an artist parent in your home?
We artists are such flexible and creative problem-solvers! There is just a kind of skewed way of approaching life that is a part of my DNA. Nothing in me expects life to be systematic and regulated. For a while I thought that was a real problem that I needed to work on, and then I figured out it was an asset. I’m realizing that many of the basic descriptors of my life as an artist mother fall under both the pro and con columns. My parents just want the people in their lives to be happy, and they don’t presume to define what that means for other people. I can only hope for the same.
Can you talk about your relationship to image making. What do you look for in an image? What tools do you employ to direct a viewer’s attention in your photographs?
My process is frequently on a very slow simmer in between burst of activity. I have small, incomplete ideas that nag at me but I can’t figure out why, and I don’t quite know what to do with them so they sit in bursting boxes in the corners of my brain. I eventually run across something (a word, image, conversation, etc) that offers context for those little stowed-away ideas and then I get busy. It’s generally a frenetic process after that. I typically think I know how I want something to look, but I am always hoping to learning new things from the work. I let it tell me what it wants to be. I hope to make things that my own (highly distractible) attention wants to sit with. I can’t often put my finger on what that is, but I keep going until I reach that tipping point between where something no longer requires work and where it now invites me to linger and look.
Talk to us about your commitment to vintage photographic processes? Why are they significant to you and your work? In a digital world how do you incorporate contemporary and historic ways of working?
I use both traditional and digital tools, and love and loathe aspects of each. I was born a maker, always busy busy busy sewing, drawing, and making heaven-knows-what throughout my childhood. The film/darkroom side of photography does something to me that I can’t put my finger on. Just this morning I asked my photography students how it felt to make their first prints in the darkroom and all fifteen faces lit up. Whew! They said the process is calming, even when things are not going right, and I find that’s true about a lot of process-heavy mediums. There is something so deeply human and universal about a direct process that we make and manipulate with our hands. Digital photography can’t touch that. It’s important for me to use and honor the slow labor of method, tradition, and process. I don’t mean that in a self-sacrificing way, in fact it’s quite the opposite. I think the craft aspects of photography are more aligned with my appreciation of the photograph as an object rather than an image. I’m not a holdout in any sense – I use what is most appropriate for the task. I’m just not one of those peculiar people who is suspicious of anything made with the slow labor of the hand. I use technology from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, and I don’t think that’s particularly anachronistic. I love it all. Give me more.
What’s going on in your studio right now? Where should we be on the look out for your work in the future?
I always have many things going at once, and only work on what I’m most in love with at the time. I’m mainly interested in ways we shape and experience the land, and this has taken many forms. I’ve been up along the Gunflint Trail several times recently, building a group of photographs shot in grove of trees that burned when someone’s campfire went awry. The work I’m most excited about is a series called The Dynamic Range, which I’ve been working on for a few years now. It’s a big study of how we use photography to discover, define, and depict the terrains of space. I’m especially interested in how we use photography and lenses to explore regions that we can not physically reach. The Dynamic Range will soon be shown in China!
Are there any projects, hobbies, or activities (ex. Running, knitting, tea connoisseur, arts organizations, volunteering, etc.) outside of your artistic practice that you feel passionately about? What are they? Do you find them feeding your practice? If so how?
Did I just sigh out loud? I am a shamelessly ardent crafts-person and will soon be teaching some classes in leather-work and spoon carving, at North House Folk School, The American Swedish Institute, and St. Olaf College. My art and crafts sides feed and inform each other, and I am especially serious about my leather-work. I am in the early days of building a web site for that, and I’ve already made some good sales. I’m also a musician – I sing with the Prairie Fire Lady Choir and often play instrumental music with some fun musicians on weekend mornings. I sing in the car all of the time, and I sing it like I mean it.
Anything else we should know?
Oh yes: kids are flexible, and we can learn to be, too. We were, once. Good enough is both good and enough.
Finally just for fun. If you were to make a playlist today what would be your top 5 favorite songs?
My favorite song is always a moving target, so I’ll go with songs that I’ve replayed many times this past week. Most are an odd assortment of old favorites, but this new Nick Cave album, which lays bare the soul of a grieving and broken artist/father, is breaking my heart.
Black Coffee, by Peggy Lee
Shake Sugaree, Elizabeth Cotten
Human Fly, The Cramps
Queen Bee, By Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabaté
Nick Cave, Distant Sky