When artist and School of the Art Institute of Chicago-grad Carrie Boucher worked as an art teacher, she thought seriously about who had access to tools, supplies and education around art. She noticed limited access in her school and community at large. So she birthed the NOMAD art bus to address this problem…and then had an existential crisis because she’d been working as a studio artist her whole life.
“When you tell someone you’re an artist, they ask you what you make,” she said. “And I wasn’t sure what I was making but…the only difference was I wasn’t making something for the market. Does the art market validate me as an artist? I rejected that. If I’m not making anything for the market, am I still an artist? I really dug into that and found through research that the genre of social practice art was what I was doing as an artist.”
She wonders if St. Pete has the language to even understand how to embrace her social practice art project, NOMAD – Neighborhood Oriented Mobile Art & Design – a traveling bus with a volunteer network of 160 people that brings art supplies and art programming to those who need means of creative expression the most, often people in distress or transition. This is the part of her project no one realizes, she said. Everyone sees her out at public events with the bus to raise funds and awareness, but that’s just 10% of what NOMAD is even up to. The rest of the time, Carrie is going to domestic, group foster homes, abuse shelters and halfway houses as well as visiting after school programs at schools in underserved communities. She has a network of professional teaching artists and certified art teachers who go and deliver real art curriculum to these places.
“People don’t know about it because that’s not something that’s really publicized. A lot of the places we visit, people are in life-sensitive situations and we respect that,” she said. “We also know making art is an important tool for getting through those sensitive situations, but we don’t claim to be art therapists, and we don’t say there’s anything wrong with you. We don’t say, ‘Lets work through it;’ we’re not trying to fix anything. But we’re giving you the resources to feel like you can express yourself creatively.”
Born in Detroit, Carrie moved to St. Pete when she was 10, then moved to Chicago for college, and stayed there for 10 years before moving back to St. Pete in 2011.
“The city has potential,” Boucher said. “The arts in St. Pete are definitely a lot more cohesive than they were 15 years ago.”
And thus begins our interview.
Eva Avenue: It was dead! There was nothing to do!
Carrie Boucher: There wasn’t enough going on for me to feel like I could stay here. The density of it wasn’t there. It’s stronger now and there’s enough to keep a creative person engaged. There are enough offerings; it’s not the same thing every week. I need to have a lot of options. I might choose to do none, but to live in a community where there are interesting cultural things going on is inspiring. I think we’re still a really young community in that way and so, when you say the word ‘art’ to many people, their view of what is art and what is good art versus valuable art is still kind of tied up in tradition instead of what is really going on in the art world today. It’s like who’s doing paintings and who’s doing sculptures? And it’s like those people are a great and important part of our community but there’s so much more to our community. It’s the people who are talking about things and the people who are doing pieces that never hit the art market or just work.
And why are you thinking about that?
I’ve always identified as an artist and went through the traditional track of being an artist. I did drawings and paintings and went into sculpture and metalsmithing.
Oh yes, of course!
As a creative person, I get bored with processes that I’ve already learned quickly. I always need to learn a new process. So I’m always looking for the most impossible project to work.
Are you working on an impossible project now?
I am. There is a whole discipline within the art world dedicated to socially engaged art, to social practice art. It’s when people are getting on the bus and their reaction: that is my work, the public interacting with the bus. So I’m going to connect this back to what I was talking about in the beginning. I had a studio practice for many, many years and I was working creating pieces for the art market. And then I started to think, “Can an artist be creating work that still goes out into the world, that is still consumed by people but it never hits the art market?” It was never made with the intention of going into the art market. So that’s not why I went into this work, I went into it because I had this thing that I was trying to say, expressing my experience.
I have a memory of being in a performance art class in college and some of the people, especially this one girl, were obsessed with viewers’ reaction. Like, we’d come back to the classroom and talk about what had just happened with impromptu performances, and there was so much focus on getting a reaction, this desperation for approval or connection. Obviously, most people will walk by and ignore you, some will notice, maybe one person says something. What do you want?
So there’s this interesting dynamic that happens there where the artist makes this dynamic piece looking for the audience’s reaction, where the artist doesn’t value the work if the audience doesn’t value the creation, which makes the piece about the audience creating the piece. Think about it this way: Put it in the realm of traditional arts, like paintings. Someone gives you money to create a piece and you create a piece with that money.
The reaction is the currency.
That student wasn’t the end creator in that piece, the student was looking for the audience to be the piece – that’s an immature arts thing. A lot of young artists start out making work for approval. There are artists who are not so young anymore still looking for that approval. I’m going to keep making the same thing over and over cause every time I post it on Facebook, everyone says it’s fucking amazing. I’m not going to grow as an artist if I’m still looking at my audience for approval.
It reminds me of Dave Hickey talking about the role of the artist and how they’re not supposed to just bend to the viewer. He was like, “The public needs to be told!”
There’s no wrong way to be an artist. In art school, we had to go into the museum of the art school and write about a piece I knew nothing about, something about how it made us feel. There was something that drew me to the painting, a portrait of a girl. We weren’t allowed to look anything up while writing this, just complete observation of the piece. Then we had to turn our writing in. Then if we wanted to, we could research the piece after. I wrote it, turned my work in, and then I researched the artist and he was a pedophile, I was thinking “Am I lying to myself if I say now I don’t like this piece of artwork?” It was an immediate reaction where I was drawn to this artwork and then I found out the guy was not this nice person. Then I had a realization that in music, art, dance, performance, in so many creative fields, people will create things you will like or not like, independent of whether or not you like that person. They could be the best person and you love them and they make shit work, and you want to support what they’re doing but you can’t get behind them. Then there are people who are total assholes, cheat on their partners without their partners knowing, don’t treat people well and they make amazing work. There’s that tension between liking that person but not liking their work, or just being honest with yourself.
If you had unlimited resources, is there a dream project you’d want to make happen?
My project right now is my bus project and having limited resources, I have not been able to complete it in the way I’d complete it if I had unlimited resources. If I had the resources, I would complete that project and move onto something else. And that something else would be an environmental installation in an inside or outside space. An immersive-experience, experiential kind of piece, where you’d have to take a boat out to an island and there’s a building on the island and the whole landscape and building is an immersive experience that touches all of your senses.
Wouldn’t being outside engage your sense anyway?
Well, they’re being engaged in a designed way. Like, not the wind blowing but something touching your skin because the wind the blowing. Yes, it’s true, all your senses are always taking in information and giving you feedback in where you are, so I’m going to relate it back to my studio practice. I find things in the world, and I put that into the concave side of a lens. I find things no one looks at and I make them into precious things. And that’s what I would do but on a large scale – make people notice things they take for granted or don’t notice.
The NOMAD art bus always needs volunteers! To find out how you can volunteer, contact them through their website at nomadartbus.org. They’re also looking for donations, as the bus broke down November 6. So far, they’ve raised $5,000, have found a donor who will match donations (tax deductible) up to $25,000. All donors get their names painted inside the new bus.