So Many Jobs, So Little Time
On a frosty winter’s night in December, I sat down with Rachel Stickney over coffee and snacks. Rachel was wearing an enormous scarf around her shoulders and while we chatted she explained to me how important it is to own a scarf that doubles as a blanket. After catching up on the latest happenings at the local museum for which we are both employed, we turned our attention to the interview.
Rachel is a Kalamazoo/Portage, Michigan native. Growing up, she attended Catholic school before transferring to a public high school. She is grateful for the switch and credits her high school experience for exposing her to new people and expanding her world. Her love for art started young and when it came time to apply to college, it was a no-brainer that she would pursue an art degree. She applied to Gwen Frostic School of Art at Western Michigan University and decided to focus on painting because, she tells me with a laugh, “I didn’t know other art existed.”
When I ask about her art school experience, Rachel touches on the importance of finding your creative community. “I distinctly remember talking to everyone in our painting studio space,” she says. “Someone asked, ‘So did you fit in in high school?’ We all were like, ‘Slightly, no.’” Rachel pauses and then continues. “I felt that way. I did fit in but, like… slightly didn’t.” Holding her coffee cup in one hand, she raises the other with pinched fingers an inch apart to illustrate. “I was just this much weird… I misstepped things this much—always.” She concludes, “So in art school I was with a bunch of people who felt the same way.” In addition to finding a group of like-minded makers, Rachel found new practices besides drawing and painting. She discovered printmaking and ceramics and thought, “Oh, I like this!”
Following these new interests led Rachel to pursue printmaking and book arts in Florence, Italy as part of a study abroad program. A year later, she returned to the Florence School of Fine Arts for a three-month post-baccalaureate program. Pointing to the common misconceptions about degrees like hers being perceived as impractical, she says she wouldn’t trade her art school experience for anything. Whenever she is confronted by negative comments about art degrees, Rachel sees an opportunity for a teaching moment and responds by expounding on the values of arts education, such as critical thinking and problem solving. “Art relates so much to other things for me; it’s my lens, it’s how I think.”
When I ask Rachel how things have been going since graduating with her BFA in painting, she responds, with irony, “We’re okay. Things are status quo.” I ask her what challenges she has faced since graduating in terms of making time for her artistic practice. She cites the big three: time, funding, space. Rachel spends the vast majority of her waking life at three part-time jobs. She works as a painting instructor, a public educator at a museum, and at a public library as a circulation aide. She is running full force at paying off her student loans before doing anything else. “I’m going to be 26 in the next six months and ideally I would have a full-time job with benefits.” Laughing at the situation, Rachel goes on, “It’s hilarious, when I was 21, I thought, ‘Cake, I’ve got this—I’ve got five years to do that.’ Now I think, ‘Yeah right, 21-year-old Rachel, sit down!’” She is paying off her student loans as quickly as possible because she wants to feel free to pursue her interests and follow her whims. Whether they will lead her to Detroit, back to Italy, or grad school she’s not certain but she wants to start fresh.
Currently Rachel’s bedroom doubles as her studio, which has put a damper on her passion for oil painting. Referring to her current work, she says, “It’s all small, transportable, and usually water-based because that’s what I can do at the moment.” Her lack of space has caused a shift in her practice and she has started focusing primarily on book arts. “When I do have time, I’m already going to be there, so I can work on it in my room while watching a movie or The Office… usually The Office.”
Rachel’s week is divided between three part-time jobs, leaving her little time to devote to her practice. While she has limited control over the content, her job as a painting instructor at least allows her to keep up the muscle memory required to paint. She has witnessed firsthand the therapeutic benefits her students experience due to a dose of artistic expression. Simultaneously, she has suppressed the desire to challenge their all-to-common misconception that art is supposed to be a snowy landscape or a bird. “They want Pinterest and perfection,” Rachel says with a sigh. She is a keen observer of life around her. Her curiosity drives her interests in a broad range of subjects, from people-watching to reading about space travel. While shelving books at her public library job, she takes note of any titles that pique her curiosity and has an ever-growing list of books she wants to read. At all three of her jobs, Rachel interacts with the public and says she often journals about her experiences. “How people behave in public spaces fascinates me!”
Some of Rachel’s most recent work is informed by her observations of behavior, social etiquette, cultural mores, and differing expectations. She typically presents her analysis with a playful lightheartedness. Her work Unequal plays on the viewer’s notion of value, not only comparing the brown stink bug to the boxelder bug but elevating both to works of art. Though the stink bug is an invasive species and considered by many to be a pest, Rachel says she has befriended them and considers them beautiful. The work invites the viewer to re-examine their perception of the insect. In 2018, Unequal won the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center Award at the West Michigan Area Show which is hosted annually at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.
Duty Free is another piece which illustrates Rachel’s drive to observe and record the behavior of others. In doing so, she hopes to better understand not only what motivates other people but also her own actions. Made after her post-baccalaureate program, Duty Free is an illustrated accordion book full of observations of tourist groups in Italy. Each illustration is mounted to a removable postcard stored in an envelope-like pocket. On one postcard is a drawing of an umbrella raised in the air with a word bubble that reads, “PLEASE GROUP! Keep up and follow ME!” Another postcard depicts a tourist having her picture taken next to a trashcan and exclaiming, “Yes, but it’s ITALIAN!” The cartoon style and quick linework clue the viewer in to the fact that Rachel is merely poking fun at these behaviors, not condemning them. “When I visited the first time, I did some of these things without a second thought,” she tells me. Going back to live there solo shifted her perspective. Now, outside the bubble of a tour group, she saw the absurdity and humor of common tourist behaviors and decided to document and share them. Hypothetically, Rachel could mail each postcard and further disseminate her observations.
Rachel’s interest in observation and record-keeping have lead her to an extensive practice of list-making and data collection spanning many lists, documents, journals, and spreadsheets. On one such spreadsheet, Rachel has documented every gallery show she has ever applied to, the cost, and whether or not the work was accepted. She says she mainly applies to shows that are $35 or less. When I ask whether she has considered making a body of work using her spreadsheets, she says, “I haven’t, but now my wheels are turning!”
As our conversation winds down, Rachel and I are both feeling invigorated and excited for future projects. Rachel has found the most support for her practice amongst fellow artists, telling me, “Information sharing is huge!” Her advice for fellow makers with limited time is to make work wherever you are, “even if it’s in your mind during a slow part of your day.” She also recommends finding jobs that provide opportunities for further research and learning. Even if they are only art adjacent, they can inform future work. “I’m now at the library all the time,” Rachel tells me emphatically. “Yes, I had access to that before but I didn’t have room in my day.” Ultimately, she recommends, if you’re interested in learning something new, “good, do it, run with it!”
In 2019, Rachel plans to pay off her students loans. This will enable her to allocate more funds and time to her practice. During the coming year, she hopes to make another book and to send Unequal out on tour, suggesting places as far ranging as California and Canada. “Get it away from Michigan to have other people upset by it,” she tells me with a mischievous smile. Though with a laugh she adds she’ll miss seeing their reactions. Regarding her goals for the coming decade, Rachel says, “I want to have a few established bodies of work that people have seen outside of Michigan, outside my house, outside my family.” One of her goals is to find the time to be more involved. She would like to attend more openings and lectures. “I’d like to make more stuff, read more, and do more.”
Rachel has very little time at the moment outside of work and sleep to make art, but she continues to research, observe, and record. Right now, to paraphrase Marcel Duchamp, her art is that of living.