A general view of Black Sheep Projects

An undergraduate degree very rarely prepares you for what happens after you throw your mortarboard in the air and walk off campus for the last time. Most liberal arts college have some sort of career services office that nobody ever goes to, but in the end graduation is being born into a cruel world that doesn’t care how many extra-curricular activities you participated in during your senior year. A graduate degree in art faces this particular life boondoggle, compounded by having to get that cruel world to like stuff that you make and somehow get paid for it.

A recent art show, Black Sheep Projects, coordinated by two RISD masters students, Jason Huff and Derek Paul (DP) Boyle, seeks to help ameliorate the stress of graduation by giving the undergraduate population a chance to get some real world experience in what life is like as a practicing artist. Currently housed in a space on Eddy Street in the arts district of Providence, Black Sheep Projects is a recently formed alternative art exhibition. A 10-minute walk from the RISD campus, it sits nestled among the brick streets, apartment buildings, and trendy store fronts which populate this neighborhood in the mid-way point between Boston and New York.

Justin Phillipson, “Like a Rock (a conceptual drag race with Euan Macdonald)” (2010) Digital Video (click to enlarge)

I was surprised that a student run and organized pop-up art gallery like this had managed to secure such a prime location. Although the interior of the space was almost totally unfinished, with floor to ceiling windows that faced out onto the street, it provides an ideal location for displaying art. As I began to peruse the exhibition I wondered how they had afforded this whole thing.

The exhibition at the space on Eddy Street was culled from the work of the RISD undergraduate population and was juried by Providence resident Kristen Dodge who is the Director of the Judi Rotenberg Gallery in Boston. “I met Jason [Huff] at a one-night-only renegade student show at RISD, which set the ground-work for our conversation.” Said Dodge “It turns out that we are both interested in seeing exhibitions in alternative spaces. Personally, I’m drawn to the idea of hanging strong work by unknown artists in beautifully decrepit industrial contexts.”

Curtis Singmaster, Sculpture MFA 2011 Yet to be titled, Inflatable mattress/raft, wood, floor pump, paint (click to enlarge)

The work in the show doesn’t have any explicit theme, however I felt that one existed nonetheless. Many of the pieces gave me the feeling that the artist was waiting for what was coming next and it showed through in the end product. An HD video piece entitled “DEAL$” by animation major Colin Williams shows a static image of a store parking lot but the soundtrack suggests that there is a lot going on outside the frame of the image. The sounds of traffic, collisions, and other industrial ambient noises make the viewer feel like something visual is going to happen … RIGHT NOW … no … okay RIGHT NOW. But nothing ever does. Landscape architecture major Samantha Dabney’s oil painting of a male nude is titled “Filmmaker.” He sits, naked, waiting to be judged by the public. (The fact that this work came from a landscape architecture major is another story entirely.) Justin Phillipson’s video “Conceptual Drag Race” pictures a car that never actually goes anywhere or maybe simply hasn’t yet. There is an untitled piece by Curtis Singmaster made of a inflatable mattress within an ornate gold frame. Mattress or no mattress, it looks like a curtain and I want to know what’s behind it. Maybe I’m reading too far into the exhibition, but it would seem that the feeling of anticipation is pervasive enough among the undergrad population to show up in the work.

After I saw the show I caught up with Jason Huff by phone.

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The Black Sheep Projects logo

LH: How did this whole Black Sheep thing come about?

JH: It started as a studio search downtown. A bunch of us got together and we were looking for a place where we could work and maybe show. When I saw one of the spaces available I said “wow, this is never going to work with the number of people we need to have in there.” So why don’t we just open a gallery? Or start a new type of gallery space that doesn’t exist at RISD.

I’m pretty much talking to everybody all the time and I heard from a bunch of people that they wanted to be able to have some sort of a gallery show before they graduated, so we came up with this idea. Even at the RISD Gilman Student Gallery the student curators pick three out of 50 or 40 which tend to be graduate students only because of the nature of the work. Undergrads call it the Graduate student gallery because they’re barely ever able to get their work shown there. There’s not really a moment when you can have a show that isn’t themed where anyone can show.

LH: What kind of response did you get from the student body?

JH: This whole thing came together so quickly. We designed the logo and the website in one night. We initially didn’t think we were going to get funded, so I figured that submission costs would cover the initial costs of getting started and then we’d just eat the rest. We got about 50-60 submissions but we know that people didn’t want to pay the $20, and we didn’t give a lot of lead time. But even so DP and I have enjoyed the amount of energy around the project. It definitely would not have happened without the volunteers. Having people come together to make this great project. During the opening I was drinking free beer, listening to my friend’s band and my art is hanging on the walls — this is what a RISD opening should feel like. The artists have been really excited about learning how to price and sell their work. Kristen has tons of experience as the director of a gallery and she’d been helping the artists with all of that. We want to organize a lecture which will be open to the whole student body where Kristen will speak about how to price your work and figure out how to sell in commercial gallery space.

Samantha Dabney, “The Filmmaker” 48″ × 36″ oil on canvas (click to enlarge)

LH: How did you manage to pay for this whole thing?

JH: We started to talk to some people in the administration and called Don Morton, the associate dean of student affairs the Friday before Winter break. He was literally in his office for an hour before leaving for break. I gave him the elevator pitch and he was really excited about it. Within three weeks we had funding from the school. They even let us use federal work study to pay gallery monitors, so the people who are working at the gallery actually get paid. [laughs] It’s kind of crazy to review all of this and think about the timeline. It started February 17th, it was basically six weeks between having the idea to getting funded to painting the space to starting the website to getting submissions.

LH: What’s next for Black Sheep? What’s the long-range plan?

JH: Don Morton has already lined up another space for next month. It’s tiny so we’re going to open up proposals for solo shows, or collaborative shows. It’s pretty perfect timing because it’s during the MFA exit show so all of the critics will be in town. Also for the last two weeks we’ll be holding a silent action with a group called Students Helping Students who are trying to raise money through selling student work to start a fund to help RISD students who need extra financial aid. My idea of the long, long range, and — I guess this is just kind of a pipe dream — but lot of people want the RISD experience to extend to New York.

RISD has the final MFA show at the Dunkin Donuts center in Providence. It’s kind of like a Javit’s Center type-space which is great but it only happens there because there’s a shortage of art spaces in Providence. A lot of people feel like it’s not where they want their work to be, they want it to be more like a gallery, and they want some control over how it feels. We want to keep doing this while we’re here and gain momentum, then we’ll try to get space in New York for the final MFA show so that the students get better exposure. I think that would take a lot of grass-roots organizing, but considering the enthusiasm surrounding this first opening it’s possible.

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The President of RISD John Maeda, who attended the Black Sheep opening party, responded to my query with the following statement about the project on Eddy Street:

I am continually inspired by the work of RISD students, and the Black Sheep Projects exhibition doesn’t disappoint. The students are almost as innovative in creating forums to share their talents as they are in their work itself. The effort brings contemporary art — a culmination of students’ creative thinking and making — into a public space in downtown Providence to engage the greater community.

Colin Williams “DEAL$”40″ monitor HD animation (click to enlarge)

Don Morton of the office of student life has a strong track record of helping students at RISD get some experience in what it takes to be an artist in the real world. He’s had a hand in facilitating several student art shows but mostly they’ve been more flea-market or salon exhibitions.

Last fall, he helped plan a gallery sale named “Expose” in which students were involved with every aspect of its creation and success. They developed promotional strategies and materials, solicited and organized entries, coordinated volunteers, managed retail and sales, planned special events, and designed and implemented the gallery space. The show at Black Sheep was an effort to keep up the momentum from the “Expose” project.  Morton says, “The best part of this experience was the overall sense of self-authorship. When the students are making their own decisions the experience is ultimately richer for everyone involved.”

A fine arts education is all well and good, but it’s pretty tough to try and teach a course about what happens after you get out into the world. RISD has in effect given the student body a supplementary education in “How to be a Practicing Artist 101” by helping to fund and organize this event. The students of RISD don’t want to wait around to find out what happens after you graduate, instead they decided to take matters into their own hands and seek out an extra-curricular education in what it takes to get your art out to a greater audience.

Kristen Dodge says of Huff and Black Sheep:

With an ample degree of awe, I watched Jason turn a casual, exploratory conversation into a developed, funded, and executed project. More significant than the specific choices I made selecting the art, the grass-roots development of an opportunity that serves a community of young artists is nothing but exciting and inspiring.

The artwork suggests that they understand that school can’t last forever, and that they are looking hopefully or fearfully for what comes next. But their actions show that they’re not just sitting back and waiting for graduation to come to them. With the help of RISD and the Providence community they’ve taken it into their own hands to make sure they’ll be a step ahead of the game when the time comes.

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Liz Hall

Liz Hall lives in Boston and her work appears in the Big RED & Shiny and on the Artists in Context blog. She...