Carrie Lederer on Her Career and Following Her Curiosity

Carrie Lederer is an artist and curator living in Oakland, CA. I had the pleasure of formally meeting Carrie over a year ago when we collaborated on a catalog for her 2017 exhibition at Patricia Sweetow Gallery titled “Musing on the Force of Nature: Vistas and Tableaux.” In addition to being an incredibly prolific artist, she is the curator at Bedford Gallery at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, CA.

Carrie’s work has been exhibited at Mills College Art Museum, Art Turtle Bay Museum, diRosa Art Preserve, Berkeley Art Center, Braunstein/Quay Gallery, SFMOMA Artists Gallery, The Lab, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and Science, San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, San Jose Museum. Nationally she has exhibited at Pictogram Gallery, Cavin Morris and Ev Gallery in New York City; Melanee Cooper Gallery in Chicago, Marcia Wood Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia, and William Havu Gallery in Denver. She was recipient of the prestigious Fleishhacker Foundation Eureka Award, and her work is collected locally and nationally.

Carrie generously took the time to speak with me about her journey as an artist, how she balances a full-time job as a curator, and how she found a job that plays to her strengths and interests.

Orbiting Garden Planets,  2017, acrylic, 36 x 36 inches. Image courtesy of carrielederer.com

Orbiting Garden Planets, 2017, acrylic, 36 x 36 inches. Image courtesy of carrielederer.com

Palette in Carrie’s studio. Image courtesy of Carrie Lederer.

Palette in Carrie’s studio. Image courtesy of Carrie Lederer.

SF: Carrie, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Could you start at the beginning and tell me about your start as an artist?

CL: Sure! I attended college at Michigan State University and as an art student, I was very active on my campus, particularly in advancing the voice of women in the arts. While in school, I organized a feminist film festival and created a women in the arts symposium. Many of my skills as a curator began to develop as a young artist where, in addition to my art practice, I was also learning about organizing events, and how to create a dialog and bring new ideas to the Art Department and MSU campus.

I distinctly remember that (back in the late 1970’s) when I sought out advice from one of my professors as to what skills I would need to survive and launch my career after graduation, I was told: “learn to type.” This was perhaps typical for back then, but discouraging for me then (and to remember now.)  I do believe that the work I did on the MSU campus organizing the various art related, feminist/community-based events, laid the foundation for my vocation as a curator.

Quilt Constellation IV,  2015, mixed media, 6 x 6 inches. Courtesy of carrielederer.com

Quilt Constellation IV, 2015, mixed media, 6 x 6 inches. Courtesy of carrielederer.com

After graduating, I moved to San Francisco and worked a lot of odd jobs from bookstores to temping through agencies. I worked at a copy shop in the Castro district that was owned by an arts patron, and he made a practice of hiring dancers, artists and musicians. That sustained me for a while because the community of employees were all creatives and our time together at work was fun and engaging.

SF: What was your mentality like at the time when you were bouncing between these day jobs?

CL: Well, when I landed in San Francisco, I had to completely rethink my art practice because I didn’t have access to the types of facilities I had at MSU.

I was a sculpture major and studied bronze casting using the lost wax method, and also made large-scale pieces in plaster and clay. I learned to weld, casted with aluminum and cement, and experimented with latex. After leaving school however, I could no longer work in these mediums because I had no studio space, equipment and I had very little money.

I had to rethink what skills I did have in order to make a living, and I had to reconsider what I could make as an artist. At first, out of desperation I was working the part-time jobs that I just mentioned.

Wonderous Strange III,  2015, acrylic on wood panel, 24 x 36 inches. Image courtesy of carrielederer.com

Wonderous Strange III, 2015, acrylic on wood panel, 24 x 36 inches. Image courtesy of carrielederer.com

SF: It sounds like a lot of your initial community came from those jobs like the one at the copy shop.

CL: Yes, and around that time I met a woman (through the SF copy shop) from Berlin and she an I connected as artists. She was interested in organizing an exchange show of women artists from the Bay Area and Berlin, so we put our heads together and began to make a plan. I dusted-off the organizational skills I had developed when I was in school and wrote to the Ford Foundation for funding to cover costs of an exhibition venue, printing for a catalog and shipping costs. It was a real shot in the arm when the grant came through! I made the arrangements for the Berlin exhibition that was to come here to the Bay and my German friend did the organizational work for the Bay Area show to land in Berlin. I traveled with the show to Berlin to help with logistics and also presented a lecture on Bay Area women in performance art.

Overall, it was truly an amazing experience and very successful project. It got me thinking that perhaps there’s something in this, perhaps there is a career path for me as an entrepreneur where I could organize events and exhibitions and get paid for it.

When I returned home from Berlin to the Bay Area I organized a few other community-based projects, and then landed my first art admin job at the Oakland Museum Association (then the fundraising arm for the Oakland Museum). I started on the front line answering phones at minimum wage, but quickly worked my way up and over the years learned many valuable skills from this position. The Executive Director who hired me, Larry Ruggiero, was an important mentor because he pushed and encouraged me to take-on projects that were challenging and often far beyond my skill-set.

After some number of years at the Oakland Museum Association I applied for my first curatorial position at the Falkirk Cultural Center. I had had no real experience as a “curator” but had gleaned enough from my work at the Oakland Museum so that I could frame a concept, talk about current ideas and trends, and organize and promote events.

I have always been a curious person—and I’m sure that trait comes from being an artist—so it dovetailed nicely with curating exhibitions to create a community dialog.

Tangle in the Garden,  2017, acrylic on wood, 10” diameter. Image courtesy of carrielederer.com

Tangle in the Garden, 2017, acrylic on wood, 10” diameter. Image courtesy of carrielederer.com

SF: As you entered a more professional life, was there a shift between the balance of your studio practice and work life? How did you negotiate that?

Let me just say that throughout various jobs, travel, whatever: I never stopped making art, I was always making art! When I was working at the Oakland Museum Association there was also a young writer working in the membership department. He and I created a “studio/art practice timesheet” and would turn in our timesheets to one another at the end of a work week. Thinking back, we were like accountability buddies, and it did encourage us keep our creative practice going.  

At that time, I wasn’t married and didn’t have a family yet, so I’d work a full day at my museum job and then work in the studio well beyond midnight—and would then get up the next day and do it all again. Things shift as you get older—particularly if you decide to have a family.

To the artists out there who struggle with getting into the studio, I recommend finding an accountability partner. These days, I meet monthly with a group of wonderful artists, and we offer each other support in many ways from review of exhibition plans, graphic projects, grant proposals, and more. We do some goal setting, and in general it really helps propel you forward.

SF: I think some people think that there is a magic bullet or solution for balancing everything, but I know that in my life, things come in waves. There are times when I’m really productive and there are times when I have to focus on other things in life, and it comes and goes.

For you, what has been the thing that anchors you to the studio? Is it a schedule, your accountability partner…what gets you through those rougher moments?

CL: For me, my art practice is a place of solace. For over twenty years I‘ve been making work that primarily relates to one subject—life forms in nature and our relationship to the natural world, and it’s a response to the natural wonderments in nature.

Conglomerate,  2015, acrylic and mixed media, 8 x 8 x 8 inches. Courtesy of carrielederer.com

Conglomerate, 2015, acrylic and mixed media, 8 x 8 x 8 inches. Courtesy of carrielederer.com

Compared to the hectic pace of my day job as a curator, the studio is a calming and important quiet zone for my practice. Of course, it’s not always relaxing, because there are often struggles and dilemmas while making a painting.

There are certainly those times (that we’ve all experienced) when just getting into the studio feels like a challenge. At these times, I try to remind myself that studio time is a true gift; I’m grateful to have both a space and time for my practice! If I’m in the studio and not able to be productive I sweep the floor or organize, I sand a surface, mix some paint—it’s all part of the creative process.

In terms of finding inspiration it comes from daily treks in nature, and also my collections. I collect bits and pieces of nature like nests, feathers, and shells, I collect odd objects, vessels, toys, fabric, lace, buttons, and reference them for shape, pattern, texture and color.  All of it feeds the work and daily practice. I just try not to worry and judge, because that’s a real killer.

In addition, I fully admit that sometimes it is hard to get into the studio. After a full day’s work, on a Tuesday night when it’s cold and dark, I just might need to escape into Netflix!  

I’ve had many work/live situations, and I think having to get in a car and travel one’s studio always very hard. Living in the studio or having one that is connected to my live space is best. My current Oakland studio is out behind our home, so I have just to travel a 50’ path thru family garden to studio—a true joy!

It’s always struggle with how best to juggle the job and studio work. One thing I try to do regularly is to take leave from work for what I call a “painting sabbatical”. This allows me time and space to work many days consecutively on a project or set of new paintings.

Life Quilt , 2013, Acrylic, yarn, wire on paper, 30 x 30 inches, Private Collection. photo courtesy of carrielederer.com

Life Quilt, 2013, Acrylic, yarn, wire on paper, 30 x 30 inches, Private Collection. photo courtesy of carrielederer.com

SF: I can relate to your statements about traveling to the studio. When I first moved to NYC I was living in Harlem and my studio was in Brooklyn and it was over an hour to get there each way. In January, for instance, when it’s cold and dark at 4:00pm in the evening, I had a really hard time getting there.

CL: Absolutely! One only has so much time and I think the shorter your distance between your home life and studio, the better.

SF: In terms of your curatorial work, I’m sure that you spend a lot of time doing studio visits, seeing shows, etc. How do you work that in to your schedule?

CL: I do try to see as many museum and gallery exhibitions as possible to stay informed, and that is all on work time. Going to art fairs or visiting studios is also part of my work day at the Bedford Gallery.

portal,  2014, acrylic, 14 x 14 inches. Image Courtesy of carrielederer.com

portal, 2014, acrylic, 14 x 14 inches. Image Courtesy of carrielederer.com

SF: From a curator’s perspective, are there mistakes you see artists making on a regular basis or patterns that come up all the time that you wish you could tell artists to avoid?

CL: When you are contacted by an art venue to be in a show and there is a request for information, try your best to respond as soon as possible. If you are sending digital images, label them, and check to see that your other docs are edited and If you can, use platforms like DropBox to send everything at once.

When you deliver artwork, make sure that it is wired and labeled. If it’s sculpture, does it need a base or pedestal?

If so, find out if the organization can help you with that or have one built to spec. I can’t tell you how many times at Bedford Gallery we’ve had artwork dropped-off that has no wire, no indication of orientation, no label, no signature, nothing to tell us how to hang the piece of artwork. Sign your artwork, label it clearly, and wrap it for transit. Label the packaging as well so that the gallery staff know it’s your packaging material and can easily rewrap your work at the end of the show.  

SF: I think that is so important – it’s part of being a professional and by showing that kind of care with your work it signals to others that you want them to care about it, too.

CL: Exactly. The other thing that we see artists struggle with is writing about their work. Writers often say that that writing is revision. A well written statement is not easy for some, but it’s important for artists to clearly describe their work. Share with the venue your ideas and vision about the work—why did you bring this work into the world?   

This is all to say that making the work and preparing it for exhibition should be treated like a job, and you are right Sarah, it shows respect for both your art and career as an artist.

SF: I think that’s kind of common sense in some way, but people forget that the work doesn’t stop in the studio. It’s about how you present yourself in the world, the connections you make, the impressions you leave behind…

CL: Yeah, indeed! Something else I would remind to artists to think about is to document your work clearly and thoroughly before it leaves the studio. Figure out what system works for you so that you can track the artwork, medium, date, etc.

Bedrock , 2014, acrylic/rock, 16 x 16 inches. Image courtesy of Carrielederer.com

Bedrock, 2014, acrylic/rock, 16 x 16 inches. Image courtesy of Carrielederer.com

If a piece is collected, make sure that you record by whom and include all coordinates info in your database. I have met so many artists that do not have a complete document tracking the history of their studio output. I am a bit chagrined here to admit that I too have catch-up work to do in this arena.

SF: I agree. I’ve helped artists that are starting this project later in life and it can really catch up with you and become a huge undertaking. Doing it a little bit at a time as you go will help immensely in the long run.

CL: You are so right! I get it that it’s not always possible to keep up with everything, but I encourage artists to try to keep up with this task. We are continually contacted at the Bedford Gallery about an artist who had a show many years ago, and now the museum is now trying to patch together the artist’s bio for a retrospective. Pulling together a 30 year exhibition record is so much work at this point.

Image courtesy of Carrie Lederer.

Image courtesy of Carrie Lederer.

SF: Thanks for all of that great advice. I would love to hear about what you are up to in the studio right now!

CL: Oh yes, great. I just finished a commission for UCSF’s new pediatric ward in San Francisco, which I am super excited about! The hospital purchased a total of five pieces, two of which were commissions based on an earlier series of small gouache paintings, but the hospital wanted a much larger scale. It was wonderful to revisit this series, and in re-creating and enlarging the paintings, it’s ignited a renewed love of gouache and work on paper.

The imagery in these pieces depict dense lush gardens with a tapestry-like format, that are bursting with brightly colored depictions of nature and abstract imagery. 

Because they will live on the walls of a pediatric ward, I’m considering the idea of creating a guide for the kids, a treasure hunt of sorts, that will draw them in and encourage a closer examination of the work. There are many discoveries to be had, including a set of six foxes that are tucked into a jam-packed field of flora, textures, shape and pattern.

So that project has kept me busy and out of trouble!

I continue work on my series of paintings in cigar boxes, which after they’re complete are shown on a shelf or pedestal like an open book. Some have collaged elements, found objects, and others hold straight paintings. What I love is that the border of the box is ideal for using pour medium—so I’m able to build-up many layers of paint and medium.

Nature Poem , 2017, acrylic/cigar box, 10 x 16 inches. Image Courtesy of Carrielederer.com

Nature Poem, 2017, acrylic/cigar box, 10 x 16 inches. Image Courtesy of Carrielederer.com

Recently I have circled back to a series I call Quilt Constellations, which contain clusters of tiny fabric pieces collaged onto a painted surface. These are studies, but I’m working on a larger format on wood panels which is very exciting!

But like you mentioned Sarah, I also experience those hills and valleys in my art-making practice. Once the UCSF commission was finally done, I pulled way back, travelled to Paris and took some time off to re-group.

I’m back in my studio now, and even if I am just sweeping the floor, I’m looking down at what’s being swept up (thread, fabric, plant life or bits of a map collage), thinking about my art and what comes next. It all feeds back into the work somehow.

Carrie Ledder in her studio in Oakland, CA.

Carrie Ledder in her studio in Oakland, CA.

 SF: I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. One of the things I really admire about you other than the fact that you are a prolific artist, is how you are engaged with your work, your strong internal compass regarding what you care about. I love that you have found a way to build a practice for yourself that is fulfilling and sustaining. So, thank you!

 CL: Thank you Sarah, and what a pleasure to chat!


Carrie Lederer lives and works in Oakland, CA. She is the Curator of Exhibitions and Programs at Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, CA. Her work can be found at carrielederer.com and you can follow her on Instagram @carrielederer.