GB: What is your intention with your art? Is it just aesthetic? Are you trying to make a statement? Does this change, depending on the project? A little bit of everything?
IT: My art practice emerged as a response to certain feelings I was having about the declining health of our environment and its deep connection to the degradation of the human condition. Inspired by a pivotal moment when I was working as a groundskeeper, picking up litter regularly, I started incorporating waste materials into my art. This decision necessitated that I pay more attention to the waste streams around me, at home, at work, and in my neighborhood.
I realized that things in our lives become waste before they enter the waste bin (or are cast on the ground). The transition happens when our minds decide that they are no longer necessary or wanted. Our society tells us that clutter is bad and that we should part ways with the superfluous and live freer and happier lives. Meanwhile, our culture and corporations compel us to consume more, creating an untenable cycle with dire consequences. This fact seemed so obvious and dangerous, yet unimaginably difficult to fix, considering the need to overcome the massive inertia of changing the attitudes of 7.7 billion people.
Art presented itself as a way to process my grief and powerlessness. And more specifically, making art from waste felt like a counterbalancing measure against my own contributions to climate change. It was as if my soul was attempting to heal itself, and embracing my creativity proved to be the only viable medicine. Without this medicine, I don’t know how I’d live in this world.
Rather unexpectedly, it just so happened that what I was producing in the studio resonated with other people, both conceptually and aesthetically. My work became a catalyst for conversation about sustainability and creative reuse, and with time I learned how my own practice could be leveraged into activism. I’m fascinated by this potential for social impact and regularly design projects that require more meaningful collaboration with my community.
GB: Are you trying to hide something, reveal it, provide a different perspective?
IT: I know my perspective on the environment isn’t unique at all. The truths about human-induced climate change, and the long list of associated symptoms, are commonly known. I guess that’s partly what I find so troubling about it—our knowledge is not enough to fix the problem. What we need is to truly desire change, accept the sacrifice, and loathe the alternative like our lives depend on it. Instilling those emotions is a more complicated task than simply explaining the data, which is why the work of artists is so relevant. Artists’ superpowers lie in their uncanny ability to present complex ideas abstractly. This type of communication’s suggestive, indirect nature allows viewers to connect the dots and formulate individualized explanations that then translate to actual experiences with a more lasting impact on future behavior than purely didactic learning.
So in that vein, what I hope to provide as an artist is a framework that can be explored. If you’re curious enough, you’ll be rewarded with a multitude of details at the macro and micro levels. And in noticing these details, in recognizing the range of materials that I use, you’re inadvertently pulled into the work and the ideas that shaped it.
I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to conceal anything. Instead, I’m putting it all out there for you to see. It’s trash, after all—there’s no point in pretending otherwise. I find an impish satisfaction in making trash beautiful. So much art is created to glorify what humans find innately beautiful and breath-taking, whether that’s the natural world, the human body, or the divine. Contrary to this approach, there’s a certain deviousness to getting people to look at and appreciate something they’ve already decided is unwanted, dirty, gross, and unsightly. I hope in helping people see differently, I can encourage them to approach the waste problem with greater nuance and intention.
GB: How is it being a professional artist? Are there frustrations to the profession beyond the creativity that you’d like to see changed?
IT: I absolutely love that I am an artist, yet I routinely struggle with what it requires to make it work. It’s hard to explain why, but I can still feel a bit self-conscious when telling people what I do for a living. I think this feeling has something to do with how my mind subconsciously acknowledges the absurdity of this lifestyle. On its face, it’s irrational and risky to dedicate so much of our lives to uncompensated labor. However, it’s wonderfully subversive to disregard societal norms and stare down financial uncertainty while prioritizing personal growth and meaning through art. Artists are uniquely fortunate to be able to approach the human experience in this way.
Putting aside the rose-colored glasses, though, it’s hugely frustrating that artists are so undervalued. Our work is often venerated but rarely paid adequately. This problem extends well into the systems and structures of the art institutions that need us and should support us. From experience, artist fees and honorariums are more of an exception than the rule. And payments like this are hardly enough to cover our actual costs, making it feel more like a token gesture than an actual attempt at fair pay. The grant process is equally fraught. There’s a significant energy and time cost to apply for a highly competitive (and often frustratingly subjective) process that results in more rejections than paychecks. On top of all that, there are insulting offers for “increased exposure” in exchange for artistic labor. The cumulative effect of these conditions makes it beyond clear that something’s fundamentally off with how artists’ work is recognized and valued.
GB: Do the downs propel your creativity forward? Do you accept the highs as the end, or are you always trying to improve?
IT: For me personally, the downs distract and drain me spiritually and emotionally. When I’m down, I’m more likely to question what I’m doing with my life. Sticking with it requires quite a bit of patience and regular convincing because art is not an easy path to choose. There’s nothing steady, certain, or stable about it. And the highs only last so long, but fortunately, the same goes for the lows. No success, no matter how great, will sustain you creatively and professionally for the rest of your life. I find that I’m better off mentally when I can find meaning and personal growth in the work. The balance and the breakthroughs happen in the studio, not at art shows.
GB: Any advice to give to early-career professional artists (i.e., those full of ambition but aren’t sure if it’s worth it to move forward)?
IT: First off, what I know now, fifteen years into my art career, is that you will likely never stop periodically asking yourself if it’s worth it. It’s inevitable. At times you’ll doubt yourself and question the path you’re on. But it’s natural, necessary even, to self-examine. Ideally, you learn and improve through this process. A career in arts is a long game, like a marathon, so find a pace and mental fortitude that works for you.
But specifically for early-career artists, I don’t think that it’s super helpful to hyper-focus on whether it’s worth it to pursue the profession. Thinking back to that stage of my career, I hardly ever asked myself this question. Maybe this was foolhardy, but there were already so many unknowns at that time, I didn’t need anything else to tip the scales and scare me away.
More importantly, I suggest focusing on evolving your work and building a community. Enjoy the formative years and develop good habits, like encouraging fellow artists and being respectful of professional partners. Without good habits, a supportive community, and a love of the work to buoy you, it’ll be nearly impossible to push through the harder moments later in life.
And beyond that, I can’t stress enough how rewarding it is to trade art with your peers. By building a personal art collection, you’ll enrich your life in profound ways. A collection that spans decades of time is like a roadmap of memories and meaningful connections. And in learning to appreciate the value of living with other people’s art, you’ll gain valuable insight into why many people choose to collect artwork in the first place. You won’t regret it, I promise.
Image at top: Ian Trask, UnEarth, miscellaneous materials bound in yarn, and monofilament, 8 x 8 x 8 ft., 2020.