VACI’s Louden to Discuss Sustaining a Creative Life at CWC


For universities, Master of Fine Arts programs are moneymakers. Many have been creating new M.F.A. visual arts programs, adding specialties, broadening and deepening course offerings and increasing the number of students admitted.

It takes two years to complete an M.F.A. at Yale University’s School of Art, which, according to U.S. News and World Report, is the nation’s top fine arts program. For the 2019-20 academic year, the cost of education — including tuition, fees, living expenses and transportation — is estimated to be $67,315. For the full year, it is $75,023.

For many, if not most, prospective art students, the specter of looming debt generates a chill in the spine that dampens the thrill of being admitted.

While earning her M.F.A. at Yale from 1989 to 1991, when the cost of education was less than it is now, Sharon Louden — the Sydelle Sonkin and Herb Siegel Artistic Director of the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution since September 2018 — was acutely aware of the need to earn enough to repay student loans while affording basic living expenses.

At 9:15 a.m. Thursday at the Chautauqua Women’s Club, Louden will discuss “Living and Sustaining a Creative Life” as part of the CWC’s Chautauqua Speaks series.

Growing up outside Washington, D.C., Louden said she was always drawing and making artwork. She attended Atlanta College of Art for three years before transferring to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which for her was a “really good choice.”

Although Louden focused on drawing and figurative painting while earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts at SAIC, in graduate school she pursued abstract painting and won the Schickle-Collingwood Prize, awarded in recognition of exceptional development and progress by a first-year student.

Between her first and second years, Louden taught children from age 5 to 14 at Yale’s Summer School of Art, and the following academic year she served as the teaching assistant for an advanced painting course for undergraduate art majors.

“I think a good art school teaches you how to see,” Louden said. “They teach you the techniques of things, but to me, the media assists the idea. … It’s like if you write with something you have a really good, beautiful pen to write a paragraph, but for the paragraph that you’re writing, it doesn’t matter what the pen is.”

After graduating in 1991, Louden moved to Brooklyn.

“I got a job, because I … graduated with a lot of debt,” she said. “And I paid that debt off in 10 years as an artist, because my parents didn’t pay for my education. … That’s pretty much the grounding, or premise, for all the work that I do now in advocating for other artists and emphasizing sustaining a creative life.”

For a year, Louden worked as an office manager because she needed to be able to use a computer after business hours to fill out applications, get out of her day job and promote her artwork.

“It (was) a matter of, how do you position yourself?” Louden said. “I got my first teaching job here in Chautauqua in 1992 at the School of Art … with Don (Kimes) … and I’ll always thank him for that.”

At the Institution that season, she taught a Special Studies course in intensive drawing to young artists in high school.

“When I had that first teaching job, that was profound,” Louden said. “It was important to be here. It was my first time away, and my first time doing something outside of my graduate work — and I’ll always remember that I want to give that same opportunity next year to an alumni here.”

Louden returned to the Institution in 2013 and 2014 to teach undergraduate and graduate students contemporary, experimental drawing and collage, as well as painting.

“After that, I got other teaching positions and just kept going with different odd jobs, teaching positions, just patching it together,” Louden said.

Immediately following her first teaching experience at Chautauqua, she moved to Kansas City, Missouri, for a year. As a visiting artist and special instructor at Kansas City Art Institute, she taught painting and drawing courses to undergraduate painting majors and students with other majors.

The following two years, Louden worked in Albany, teaching a range of art courses as an assistant professor at The College of Saint Rose. There, she was honored with a Professional Achievement Award.

In 1996, she returned to the New York City area, where she taught foundational art courses at New York University for three years, painting courses for two years at the YM-YWCA, and was a visiting artist at SUNY Purchase.

Louden also spent time at the Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1998, doing a print residency.

In 1999, she participated in the Connemara Conservancy Artist’s Residency near Dallas. She also designed a workshop for about 30 children at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Inspired by the installation she contributed to a group exhibition at the museum in 1998 — “Here: Artists Interventions at the Aldrich Museum” — Louden and the children spent a summer day constructing and glow-painting a fictitious community they called Glowtown.

Ever since, Louden has conducted similar Glowtown workshops all over the United States.

All this time, she was creating her own artwork, showing it in group exhibitions and getting noticed in media outlets.

In 1997, she had a solo exhibition at the Gina Fiore Salon of Fine Arts in Manhattan, and in 1998 and 1999, there were six more — two in New York State; one in Wilmington, Delaware; another in Chicago; and two in California.

Nearly every year thereafter, there has been at least one solo and one group exhibition of Louden’s work; typically there are several. She has also participated in several curated exhibitions.

Known for using lines fancifully and playfully, she has also created sculptures, installations, paintings, prints, drawings and collages.

Louden has also made animations. In 2009, she won the Gold Kahuna Award for Excellence in Filmmaking at the Honolulu International Film Festival, and in 2010, the Bronze Palm Award at the Mexico International Film Festival.

“In my life now, I do big installations and I do so many different media,” Louden said. “Here at the Chautauqua School of Art, it’s not media-centric; it’s not divided into different media.”

Museums, public spaces and private collections hold her large-scale installations made of aluminum, not to mention works in other media. Louden is associated with galleries in London, Houston and New York City.

This coming academic year, Louden will also be teaching in the M.F.A. Fine Arts Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and for the first time, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

At the CWC, Louden’s talk about living and sustaining a creative life will spotlight her role as an advocate for and an adviser to people working within the art world. In part, she’s been doing so by compiling and editing conversations that she’s had with creative individuals around the country.

Louden said that with her husband — jazz musician, composer, producer and designer Vinson Valega — she has been putting together “conversation tours” with people she’s met beforehand, “asking artists what they need and want, and what they can give.”

She said during the past five years, she and Valega have met 11,000 people at 164 stops.

“I needed more information about how artists sustain their creative life,” Louden said. “And I want to be able to act as a catalyst, to be able to share, to be a pivot point to connect people, and to have artists integrate into society more.” 

Thus far, Louden is the editor of two published books of essays: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists and The Artist as Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life. Currently, she is editing a third book of essays, Last Artist Standing: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life.

For The Artist as Culture Producer, Louden received an artist project grant from the Ford Foundation for her more than 100-stop conversation tour in 2016, which was a follow-up to the 2015 tour that supported the publication of her first book.

Louden also has a 10-year contract to organize and edit a series of 10 additional books about “Living and Sustaining a Creative Life.”

“My talk is going to be a little bit about my work, … leading into who an artist is today, (with) examples of other artists who are sustaining their creative lives today and what that means as far as a cross-over to the public,” Louden said, “meaning, artists who not only have a foot in the commercial art world, but also sustain a life outside of the art world … integrated into different sectors … private, nonprofit and education.”

Tags : Chautauqua Speakschautauqua women's clubCWCVACIVisual Arts at Chautauqua Institution

The author Deborah Trefts

Deborah Trefts is a policy scientist with extensive United States, Canadian and additional international experience in conservation. She focuses on the resolution of ocean and freshwater-related challenges and the art and science of deciphering and developing public policy at all levels from global to local.