Proper Residency: A Conversation with Angela Malchionno
Angela Malchionno works in print media, fiber, and installation. She received her MFA in Printmaking from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (2007) and her BFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst (2002). Malchionno maintains a studio in Saint Louis, MO, where where she teaches printmaking and drawing at Washington University. I met Angela in 2008 at Open Lot in Saint Louis when, as a complete stranger, I grabbed her forearm to compliment her tattoo. Angela, unflustered, thanked me with characteristic poise and we’ve been friendly ever since. We met over coffee to talk about her project The Proper Residency.
Amelia-Colette Jones: Angela, can you describe the impetus for your project? You mentioned reading The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing – will you talk more about how the ideas in the book led you think more about The Proper Residency?
Angela Malchionno: I came up with this idea initially because I had come across a similar project in Scotland called the Bothy project. I then wrote a grant proposal and was funded by last year’s Creative Stimulus grant. From there, I raised additional funds through Kickstarter. The Good Life came in when I was working on the details for my Kickstarter campaign. I really needed to clarify the philosophy and purpose of the project. I came across the book as part of a reading list the founders of D Flux in Detroit had on their website. I realized I wanted to align myself not just spatially, but conceptually with artists who were pioneering unique lifestyles and, as such, creating quiet, subtle social critiques. So, I picked up this book and what struck me the most wasn’t the geographical move the Nearings made, but the paradigm shift they implemented in their lives. They aimed for a simple life, “with an ample margin of leisure in which to do personally constructive and creative work.” I found this to be the most revolutionary, because it wasn’t just about rejecting the city for the country. The idea that your life should be organized in such a way that you prioritize learning, research, and creativity could be honored and implemented anywhere.
Something that also resonated with me was the idea that the Nearings had a social change in mind. They were exploring how they could live decently and frugally, while facilitating a “more workable social system.” I really took this to heart. I have a lot of space in my home for one person…so it seemed natural to find a way to maximize the use of the space not just for myself, but also as a platform for artists/thinkers to experience the social, cultural, and economic realities of Saint Louis. Perhaps they would begin to see their practice in a new light, while gaining firsthand knowledge of the effects of population decline, blight, and overall, the need for creative responses to these issues. So, from all this, the residency was born, and I hope it serves the individuals who participate and the city – perhaps on a larger scale, culture and social order.
AJ: How does the residency work – what are the time periods artists will stay?
AM: The residency is anywhere from a week to a month, and I invite the artists (almost all emerging, at least that’s the plan for now). The residency is invitational at this point due to funding and also a certain familiarity with potential residents is good – I have a sense of whether they will trash the place or not! Florence Gidez will be here in March and Katie Ford comes in April.
AJ: You’ve planted a garden, and there are chickens?
AM: I was thinking about Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates when I started the garden. The chickens are just more of an extension of the line of thought that you can do a lot in a small space that makes you somewhat free from dependence the grocery store, or even other people’s expectations. In terms of how these things relate to the residency – the garden and chickens can be things the residents actively participate in or simply enjoy as a nice backdrop to their stay.
AJ: What were some of the setbacks you experienced in getting the project off the ground?
AM: Setbacks, many – mostly to do with construction and funding. It’s difficult to do this kind of thing on a limited budget, even with the generous support of Kickstarter backers and the Creative Stimulus Grant. So, while the initial plan was to make the garage a totally independent living space, structurally and budget wise this turned out to be unfeasible. It was disappointing, because I felt like I had let my backers down to some extent, but I was able to recover pretty quickly and change the plans so the project could happen. The residency now includes a library, bedroom, and workspace (garage) while the other components are part of the house. Kickstarter was an emotional rollercoaster to say the least. Coming up with the rewards is fun – getting them all filled, sent out in a timely manner – crazy! Something that was really hard was the fact that a HUGE part of Kickstarter is being your own agent – you have to blow up facebook, twitter, email, talk about it, make updates…be cute and endearing and sincere, but border on annoying and desperate. In the end, I would say it was worth it – but don’t let your eyes get bigger than your hands…make simple rewards, and Facebook, Facebook, Facebook. This really is the secret. If you look at projects that have been successfully funded, the “likes” for the project are in the hundreds…and this networking = monies.
AJ: Could you talk some about your own practice and talk about the differences as well as overlaps between this project and the work you do in your studio. I think there is the potential to frame this project as an extension of your practice but I like how you said flat out at the beginning of the interview that it wasn’t. This isn’t part of your ‘practice’ per se – but it relates in a lot of ways to how you look at the art world and to your approach to making. Your experience curating Gallery Proper also seems to have led you to create this residency.
AM: My own practice is very formal – I love to paint, draw, and print. I tried briefly to make some socially engaged work…it’s better for everyone that I didn’t continue on that path. But, I realized I could maybe approach social practice as a facilitator rather than a maker. Also, at the time I came up with the residency idea, I had reached a low point in how my personal body of work was being received. Lots of “not sure about this work” and “maybe next year.” So, I thought, what do emerging artists need that they sometimes can’t get due to inexperience, work (!), and other obstacles? We need opportunities to show, make genuine connections, and space and time to work – perhaps in a new setting. I thought I could help facilitate success and support in a small, sincere way, in the face of an art world that is sometimes daunting and shallow.
AJ: In the Kickstarter video you mentioned the Tiny House movement. I am admitting I didn’t know there was such a movement until now. I am currently house-sitting in the Compton Heights neighborhood in a house where I am amazed that there are rooms I don’t go into a week at a time, and I strategize my movements throughout the house so I don’t end up running up and down the stairs all day. What is particular about size and place to you as it relates to Saint Louis?
AM: Saint Louis is the place for large tracts of unused or blighted buildings. Rehabbing these building is costly – and often after they are rehabbed, there simply isn’t a market of buyers to purchase them. I see it all the time – beautifully redone house, on the market indefinitely with no bites. Right now, my street has six houses like that. So just as the Tiny House movement advocates the efficient use of space, I wanted to jump on that bandwagon and suggest that the creative use of space, for many purposes, may be in keeping with the idea that there are alternates to huge houses, the “flip”, or even how empty buildings are redone. Think Project Row Houses.
AJ: Did you have the seed for this idea in your mind when you bought the house? What made you pick the Dutchtown neighborhood in particular?
AM: When I bought my house (thanks, Obama!) I simply wanted to live in the city. I used to have a CITY sticker on my car, and I loved to pontificate about the city, its merits…I picked Dutchtown because it is racially diverse, and also (like many STL neighborhoods) is tottering on the line between posh and completely ignored/trashed. I thought moving to this area would make me something of an urban pioneer. I think the most frustrating thing about south city (I’ve only been here 3 years) is the generalizations people make about its inhabitants, appearance, and crime. I won’t say that the neighborhood isn’t without problems. But the alderman, citizens – and people who purchase homes in this area and make a long-term investment in the neighborhood…these people are making a difference.