Sunny, One So True

Artist Soo Sunny Park is stubborn about the kind of art she wants to make and how she makes it. That could be a problem.

Whatever became of so-and-so?

He or she got middle-aged, old hat. To survive as an artist in those places, you always have to be the next new thing.

No one -- at least no one in his or her right mind who's examined the evidence -- would argue that St. Louis has a thriving art scene. St. Louis has fine institutions: the St. Louis Art Museum, the Pulitzer, the Contemporary, Laumeier Sculpture Park -- but it doesn't have a scene that artists outside the region are clamoring to be a part of.

The sculpture studio at Washington University, where Park teaches, could be mistaken for an industrial zone.
Jennifer Silverberg
The sculpture studio at Washington University, where Park teaches, could be mistaken for an industrial zone.
Washington University freshman Jessica Garz with Park in sculpture studio. “I just show ’em techniques,” Park says.
Jennifer Silverberg
Washington University freshman Jessica Garz with Park in sculpture studio. “I just show ’em techniques,” Park says.

In St. Louis, a young artist with ambition, more often than not, is thinking about those other places and what it would be like to become a part of them and be discovered.

But St. Louis offers opportunities to a young artist as well. St. Louis may not be a cauldron of ideas, but it's cheap to live here.

To dwell in St. Louis is to dwell in possibility -- the field's wide open; and if you have the DIY spirit, you can make things happen.

"St. Louis has a lot to offer a young artist," says Suhre, "low overhead, an enthusiastic community, different organizations. You can stretch and do things and receive an enormous amount of forgiveness if things don't go well."

You can mess up in St. Louis and not watch your career go down the storm drain like black dye at 3 a.m.

The downside of that freedom is that there really isn't a lot at stake here, which can diminish ambition. The gatekeepers to the broader art world don't reside in the Gateway City.

And the gatekeepers to the St. Louis art world, observes Suhre, aren't who you think they are. Suhre, who's packing up a show he curated himself, certainly isn't one of them. "People think the gatekeepers are the curators or the directors," he says. "Very often you will find those people are at the beck and call of higher powers: board members, fiscal officers. The needs of the institution come ahead of what those people may want to do."

Suhre recalls a curatorial position he once held at an Illinois museum. Because the fate of the small institution could not be put at risk with controversial material, he says, "We did quilt shows instead."

An artist can survive -- and thrive -- in St. Louis, Suhre believes, who is both an artist and a curator.

Park can make a life and career right here. But it won't be easy.

"She has to do what we all have to do in our careers," Suhre says. "She has to make a lot of stuff. She has to be willing to hustle it: Enter shows, enter a lot of shows. Hustle the one-, two- and three-person shows. Sometimes that means doing it yourself. Get colleagues and friends and say, 'Let's go down to Memphis or let's go up to Chicago or over to Indianapolis and put a show together. I know somebody in Cleveland. Let's see if we can find a space.' People who are going to do that these days can really carve out a niche for themselves and start to build a regional and national portfolio."

Suhre says the most crucial element to any artist's life, and to Park's in particular at this stage of her career, is the work ethic: "She has to develop the discipline of doing it every day. You have to go in the studio every day. Even Robert Irwin [a MacArthur Fellow who designed the Getty Gardens, among other projects] said, 'Some days I would just go in and sweep in the studio.' But it's the discipline of doing it."

The voices that tell you to take care of the bills and the partner and friendships and Mom and Dad are tough to resist. "I should grade papers," Suhre speaks as the voice of inartistic responsibility, "but I really have to work in my studio. We should go out for dinner, but I really have to work in my studio.

"Those are the dues you pay as a young artist, and the rewards come back -- maybe not in the checkbook or in the exhibitions, but you build an artist's life."

For now, though, Park's payment of those dues has been erratic at best.

The Contemporary hosts a visiting curator/critic series. The out-of-towners check out a slide registry of local artists before coming to St. Louis, then select a small group of artists they think worthy of a studio visit. The situation provides the kind of contacts artists would die for. The show that makes your name, or makes your career, can happen from such visits.

Park has been selected for more studio visits than any other artist in town. "I feel terrible every time I get a call for a studio visit," Park admits, "because I feel I don't have enough to show."

The exhibitions at the Forum, at the Park Avenue Gallery, at Thomas Jefferson, at Lemp Brewery as part of a group show of St. Louis and Chicago artists that traveled on to Chicago -- that's pretty much the extent of Park's output in two years.

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