I am an Artist and... an Interview with Elizabeth Hamby, artist

02/07/2017 12:50 pm ET

Artists are those creative spirits who work in studios, exhibit in galleries, chat up collectors at openings balancing a glass of wine in one hand and a description of their work on the tip of their tongues.

Or are they?

Who an artist is and how they make a life around making art is an intriguing question for many people who may not realize that artists can be found in the most unexpected places and in fact, they are everywhere.

Welcome to the world of Naturally Occurring Artists In Residence (NOAIR).

Elizabeth Hamby is an artist and Community Urban Planner working in The Center for Health Equity at New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

She is an example of a NOAIR.

She is an artist and...

Who are you? How do you self identify?

I am an artist and I work as an urban planner at The Center for Health Equity, which is part of The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. I went to Parsons in the early 2000’s, focusing on fine art. I was interested in site-specific, socially engaged practice, although I didn’t know what to call it at the time.

When I wrote my thesis, Space and Place: An Investigation of Si(gh)t(e), I dove into three big ideas: borders and boundaries, inhabitation, and placemaking. One of my thesis advisors, Elke Solomon, asked me, “Do you know what urban planning is?”

I didn’t. Lucky for me, her husband Michael Kwartler was an urban planner, and he needed an assistant. I got to learn about all of the technical aspects of planning like zoning, regulations, policy, working with elected officials, and real estate developers, plus I got to work on some really innovative projects locally and nationally thinking about how to level the playing field between everyday people and urban planners in order to support more democratic, community-engaged plans.

Most importantly, I gathered knowledge like a magpie. Anton Vidokle’s meditation on artists as “professional amateurs,” resonates with me when I think about the way that experience formed me as an artist in the world.

Today, I’m the Senior Urban Planner at The Center for Health Equity. My practice has evolved from focusing on developing projects and techniques to increase engagement in urban planning processes through education and participatory methods to trying to help city agencies figure out how to work better with communities, to build healthy, sustainable neighborhoods.

One of the things that is interesting about being an artist in a space that doesn’t orient itself towards the arts is that all of the artists just come and find you.

People come up to me all the time and tell me things like, “I’m a dancer, I sing, I paint.” There are these rich communities of creative practice that are not specifically identified as such, but that bring this incredible richness to other kinds of work. I have a colleague who is an urban planner, but who is trained as a dancer—he’s deeply attuned to how bodies move through space. Another colleague who works with the healthcare system is also a photographer. She has a keen visual intelligence, and is constantly aware of edges and frames.

It’s also an incredible time to be an artist doing work in government—in a way, we are uniquely equipped to navigate the complexity of the time we’re living in.

We’re comfortable being uncomfortable, and dwelling with uncertainty and risk. We have a great Department of Cultural Affairs here in New York City, who are working to place artists into residencies in city agencies, but I’m interested in the people who are already inside these agencies. The “Naturally Occurring” artists in residence. Who are these people? Who could they do? What could we all do together?

Is there a path?

There is no path, but there are lots of ways forward.

These “Naturally Occurring Artists in Residence” (NOAIR) are all around us. I think that one great model is the SHIFT Residency that Michelle Levy designed at EFA Project Space. SHIFT supports artists who work as administrators in arts organizations, but the premise—you build a cohort, give them some space and resources to work independently for a period of time, and then support them as a collective for a longer period—could be applied anywhere that there are artists in residence.

In the beginning of my career, I was an “artist and.” I worked in my studio and at my job, but I kept them separate. But for me, it takes too much mental energy to try to keep the worlds apart—I’m one person, and I have one, multi-faceted process. I would describe my current practice as post-studio, NOAIR.

I work all the time, but I think that’s appropriate, given the challenges we are facing. The old ways of working are no longer sufficient. We need transdisciplinary, multi-dimensional approaches to create new modes of working, and new modes of being.

Tell me, what are the benefits/ challenges of being both an artist and an urban planner?

Artists work all the time. I got to spend some time with the artist J. Morgan Puett a few years ago, and she said, “All this conversation about work-life balance is oriented towards this idea of ‘lifestyle,’ but as artists, we don’t have lifestyles, we have ‘workstyles.” And as a NOAIR, this workstyle expands exponentially.

Artists don’t have lifestyles, we have workstyles

Just because I’m an artist, doesn’t mean that I don’t have to have the same technical skills and capacities that a non-artist would have to do the work that I do—it’s not a shortcut. However, those technical skills and capacities have put a lot more tools in my toolbox as an artist—I get to spend a lot of time with regulations and codes—understanding where they came from and why they exist. And this research feeds me in all kinds of different ways. I work a lot with another artist/urban planner, James Rojas, and with my husband, Hatuey Ramos-Fermίn, who works as an artist and arts administrator with The Laundromat Project.

There are a lot of us with these complex, multidimensional practices. And the truth is, I’m still figuring out how to do this! My practice continues to grow and change and evolve.

What are you working on now?

For the last 10 years, I have been obsessed with the New York City Housing Authority. Early in my urban planning career, I created a hand color coded map of East Harlem showing the density requirements of lots, and the incredible shapes of NYCHA buildings popped right out at me. I started seeing patterns in the shapes, like an alphabet with hieroglyphic-like letters, and I began to think of the city grammatically--forming words, a paragraph, a story. How could we interpret the city as text?

So I came up with the idea to create an alphabet out of the shapes of NYCHA buildings. I created 61 typologies, and organized each development by type.

Then, I worked with an incredible printer, Dan Selzer from Sheffield Product to create an actual metal typeface that we used to create a series of letterpress prints. This year, I had an opportunity to do a project with the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, where we created vinyl stickers of the letters and applied them to a gallery. We also created hand-held stamps of the shapes that children were able to use to try out the alphabet for themselves. I’m interested in doing more work that gets the alphabet into other people’s hands—so that it can really start to function as a language.

I’m also thinking a lot about the political changes that are happening around us, and the role that artists—particularly artists like me who have multi-dimensional, embedded practices—can play. Where can we best locate ourselves to address the crises of racism and xenophobia that risen back to the mainstream? How can we work in solidarity with our communities as they fight to protect themselves from gentrification and displacement?

Finally, how can we develop new systems, new structures, and new strategies for sharing—space, resources, history and meaning?

Where can people follow your work?

You can see more of my work here:

What advice do you have for people who make art and/or make art happen?

I do a lot of coffee meetings with artists who are interested in embedded practice, or NOAIR. I tell them to stand up and be proud. You don’t have to limit yourself to one field, and don’t freak out if you don’t fall into a specific niche. Claim curiosity as your practice. Be brave!

Claim the niche of curiousity

The thing is—the hyper-professionalization of artists has more to do with capitalism than it has to do with art, but it is such a dominant force that circumventing it can be really unsettling. B

ut to be an artist is to be unsettled!

Have courage walking where there is no path

I started taking a meditation class a few years ago, and one of the things that we talked about a lot was the idea of “adjacent possibilities,” the idea that you can follow something—a thought, a concept, a state of being, and that through that process, you could open up all of these other possibilities that might not otherwise exist.

What to do next?

I am thinking a lot about how to frame my NOAIR work so that it can become more legible to my non-arts colleagues.

I’m interested in all of the tools and strategies that city agencies use to organize work across disciplines and fields—what do those look like for artists? What could they mean?

I’m also interested in how my transdisciplinary practice can shine a light on what work can look like after the end of a workstyle that is driven by industrialization.

Finally, I’m interested in thinking about support structures for embedded artists—how can we create space and opportunities to place artists into residencies with other parts of our civic infrastructure? In community boards, or elected offices?

Anything is possible!

Hoong Yee is a writer who draws. She is the author of Rabbit Mooncakes, a children’s picture book and the Executive Director of the Queens Council on the Arts. Hoong Yee is married to a nice Jewish boy and they live in Rockaway Beach, NY with their family. Visit her website at hoongyee.com

Follow HoongYee on Twitter: @hylkrakauer

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