Visual Art 1-12-2004

What’s a Minnesota Artist?: Interview with Clea Felien

Jaime Kleiman interviews local painter Clea Felien about her upcoming roundtable discussion at the MIA of what is distinctive about Minnesota art and artists.

Italy had its Renaissance and the Futurists; France had its Impressionists and salons; Minneapolis has its wide range of talented yet mostly unknown visual artists working independently without major networking, consistent buyers, or blitzkrieg media attention.

All of this may soon change, however, if local painter Clea Felien has her way. On Saturday, January 17th, she will bring together some of the Twin Cities’ finest art critics, artists, and curators at the Minnesota Institute of the Arts for a group symposium to discuss the broad question, “What is a Minnesota Artist?” Panelists from the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, members of the Visual Art Critics Union of Minnesota, and artist critique groups are expected to attend.

“It’s a field of dreams,” says Felien. “I’m bringing together the most amazing artists, writers, and curators to help put Minnesota artists on the map. It’s not just a marketing or publicity thing. It’s a community-building thing. We must be part of some collective unconsciousness.” She wonders if there is, in fact, a movement happening here, one that involves artists being directly or indirectly influenced by each other’s work. “I know a lot of artists here who were influenced by the same teachers, and in the [late] 1960s there was that Hairy Who movement in Chicago, and I know a lot of artists who were influenced by that.” (For those of you who need to brush up on your postmodern art history, “Hairy Who” refers to a series of Imagist exhibits curated by Don Baum at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago in the late 60s and early 70s, along with “Nonplussed Some” and “The False Image.” Together these exhibits sparked a new movement, gaining the city worldwide recognition for its unique style and becoming the signature of Chicago art at the time.)

“I think that Minneapolis is special, because we have the Walker and the MIA,” states Felien, admitting that there are pitfalls to living here as well. “There’s a lot of fear. It’s a problem in Minnesota. Having lived in New York, where people are a little obsessed with their careers – that never bothered me. Here, it’s not that we care less about our work, but we’re much more private about it, sort of protective. It’s hard to get an honest opinion, but it’s a fantastic place to live and work.” Still, she wants artists to go one or two steps further. “People should get together to form a community.”

Felien also wants to start a visual arts magazine to shop work around to other markets, such as New York or LA, which is where most art buyers still go to buy their pieces. “We don’t have a good client base,” she says matter-of-factly, noting that while Minnesota has the money, buyers aren’t spending it here. “In [cities such as] Milwaukee and Austin, Texas, the city put a lot of money into the arts, and now they’re well known [for the arts].” Short of a miraculous budget upheaval by our legislators, Felien clearly views it as the responsibility of a group of artists to “define ourselves and create a buzz” about Minnesota art.

“Being around other artists and discussing art can only benefit the work and make us stronger,” she says emphatically as we sit in her spacious Northeast studio, surrounded not by other people, but by small paintings of interesting-looking people who might have once been real people, but are more accurately described as a series of characters, each with their own slightly goofy personality and energy. Looking at them, it seems to me that the life of a visual artist can be almost as lonely, isolating, and beautifully serene as, say, a poet or a Buddhist monk.

All metaphors aside, the necessity of communication and interaction among artists of all disciplines would only make for stronger critiquing, better art, and more outside recognition. It would be altruistic and naïve to pretend that artists don’t want to make money off their work, or at the very least, have it be seen and recognized by more than a handful of people. Felien sees some of the challenges artists face as particular to Minnesotan culture. In addition to that, there’s the feeling that “artists here don’t feel like they’re getting valid critiques… we want honest dialogue and real criticism.” In order for an art scene to thrive, artists and critics have to be able to talk openly, without fear of offending someone – if the attendees of the symposium are as vocal and passionate as Felien, there should lots to talk about.

The discussion will be moderated by the MIA’s Stewart Turnquist, and will center around such topics such as “Do we have a common voice?,” “Does the Weather Affect Our Work?,” and “How can we build community?” The round table is not open to the public, but the discussion will be covered in an upcoming article for