Working Girl is our new segment in which we talk to women about their work. Our first subject is Clare Kelly, who you might know from various other gushing pieces of writing I have done about her in the past six months. Clare is an artist who works in multiple different mediums, including dance, photography, and video, and she also the owner and co-founder of the art book publisher Hesse Press, which she started last year with her partner John Wiese. I talked to her about being a young woman in publishing, her evolution as an artist, and what she hopes to accomplish with Hesse Press. Then I killed her and made a suit out of her skin which I am wearing right now as I type this. Just kidding! I didn’t! But I wanted to!
Let’s just dive in here. Tell me when and why you started Hesse Press.
I started Hesse Press in April 2014, and I was thinking about…well basically I inherited some money. And I was like, okay with this money I could go to grad school, or I could…I was thinking a lot about what I would do with it, because I felt a strong responsibility about it. Thinking about where to work on stuff, and where to give it back. I liked that idea of going to school and giving back to your alma mater, that concept. I went to UCLA, and it’s a great school, but to be honest I didn’t like it that much. I ended up dropping out. So where I really wanted to give back was to what I did outside of UCLA, which was basically like, go to The Smell (laughs). And there’s where I met all these working artists, who were working really hard doing stuff. That’s where the good energy was for me. And when I was given this opportunity and put in this position, I knew that that was where my heart is, so that’s what I should do.
I wasn’t thinking just books initially, I was more thinking of something that would help support working artists. I’ve known John [Wiese] since I was like 18 or 19. I actually met him at Cali DeWitt’s old gallery, Hope, at a show.
In Echo Park?
Yes. My mom was even there. So we’ve been friends since then, like 7 or 8 years. And a little while ago we started talking about self-publishing and books and stuff, and actually I was talking to Cali about that stuff too at the same time. It’s funny, the three people I’ve published Zen [Sekizawa], Cali, and John, they’re all like a decade older than me and they’re all people I’ve kind of gone to for advice.
Would you say then that these people, and others like them, were your Alma Mater in a sense? In terms of your artist development?
Yes for sure. Meeting them it was very much like, oh this is how you make this kind of life work. This is possible. This is how you hustle, this is how you did it. It’s extremely hard.
It’s much easier to have a 9-5 and go to happy hour with your bros and have a 401k and what not.
Totally, while all these other people are piecing together their career and existence. There’s not a lot of money in it, or institutional support when you go outside, well, an institution. But the camaraderie, and the feeling…it’s kind of sappy, but it’s like when you go to a show and you see this great art that’s weird, and you learn from experiencing it, not through being told. I had a really hard time at art school, and I think of other people do too. Just like, in institutions. Only a specific type of person can really succeed there.
But as an 18 year old who is just trying to find their voice, it can be really difficult.
Yeah exactly. I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was 18. I was sexually assaulted in a public bathroom by a stranger when I was 15, in San Francisco. I didn’t know it at the time, but I hit 18 and moved away from home to go to school, and at the same time my parents divorced. I’m a good student and I wanted to work really hard but it was like…
Right, like on top of the immense horror that it is to be 18 just in and of itself, without severe trauma on top of it.
Totally! And I started having this thing where like, a car alarm would go off and I would jump out of my skin. Things like that. I was having PTSD symptoms and I didn’t know what was going on with me. I felt really confused. I was 18 and I didn’t have a great support system of peers who were like, knowledgeable about mental health. But I was lucky in that I have a great aunt who recommended me to a therapist, and I started to do intensive twice a week therapy. Anyway, I got diagnosed, which itself was really helpful, just to know what was even going on. But in terms of being at UCLA, there’s no support for people that don’t, I don’t know, fit in a certain box. Or don’t come from a certain background, or have mental health issues or what not. There are all these assumptions that you’re supposed fall into instead of like trying to help support students no matter they’re that. There’s a lot of talented people out there, but the school structure doesn’t work for some of them.
It doesn’t foster their particular type of growth.
Yes. And where I found that growth was at The Smell, through meeting these working artists. Like Luke and Sara from Lucky Dragons. I just thought, these people are so creative, and work so hard, and have such a unique vision that they totally believe in. Meeting people like that really changed things. I wasn’t really making stuff yet. I was taking photos, but I didn’t really have any THING.
So anyway, I was thinking that I was given this great opportunity to do something positive, so where do I give back? To the people who have given me so much. They were all so kind and supportive. Cali would tell me my photos were great, and he put me on his links on his website, stuff like that. And that’s how I got any kind of recognition. So of course I want to give back to those people.
Can you tell me a little but about your path as an artist leading up to Hesse Press? Like all the stuff that you’ve done and been involved in.
When I went into art school I was actually doing painting. I was really into painting and collages, doing all these like felt collages and just being a weirdo. Then I started taking photos because I was really interested in why people take photos. My dad is a documentary filmmaker, so I was really interested in that. It was just kind of like a habit. It’s like always carrying around a sketchbook I guess. I wouldn’t set any photos up, I just went out and when I ever I saw something and was drawn to it…I was just trying to see the world in a different way. That’s really what photography is for me, trying to take something that is out there in the world, and trying to put yourself in this strange mental state through using a camera. Also it kind of distances you from the world? Takes you out of it.
When I think about it a lot of my work is rooted in PTSD. Because it’s like this thing where you think that no one really experiences the world in the same way as you, because you’ve been through this shock. You feel very isolated. That’s the worst part about PTSD is that you feel very isolated and alone, and when you’re coming out of and trying to express, the communicative way of showing people your vision, that’s extremely empowering. But it was never very direct. I never made art about what happened. It wasn’t conscious; it was all sort of subconscious. I think the only thing that really helps is working through your own issues and accepting assistance to the point where you can actually talk about the trauma.
Was it kind of your way of being less isolated by interacting through people through this medium of photography?
Yes. You’re just working through a bunch of bullshit because of it, and then when you’re in your early 20s, you’re working through a whole different set of bullshit anyway, so it’s just compounded. Then I think dance is also about that, it’s about being in public space and being seen and using your body in a way where you’re in control.
Did you get into dance in college?
I really started dancing from going out actually. I took like one dance class at UCLA, which was fun, but what I really liked was dancing at The Smell, and at like Abe Vigoda practices (laughs). They would practice for so long, and I would just dance in the backyard. And going to shows, and like A Club Called Rhonda, that kind of stuff. I just loved dancing. I took adult beginner ballet in college, and I actually still do. I once got to do a month long dance residency at Sarah Lawrence, and it was with real dance people, you know? It was people from all over with three or four choreographers who taught everyone. It was crazy, because I’m not a professionally trained dancer. It’s like a noise musician going to a classical music camp. It’s interesting though, because I actually did a choreography piece with six dancers, and working with people in that way was really interesting. I’d like to do that more.
Well, video stuff. I’m starting to do that more. I actually just made a video for Kevin Morby. I did a video to the song “Dancer”, and it’s coming out on the New York Times blog! He saw some dance videos I had done online. I have this one where I’m on a roof, and I just cut it really weird. So he contacted me and asked me to do a video something like that, with a lot of weird cuts. I was going to New York for the book fair, and I had made some videos with my friend Elizabeth Skadden who lives there. She’s a video director, so I asked her to shoot it. We shot it in four hours. All I cared about was that I wanted a portion of it to be me dancing in Times Square.
So cool. So these videos are based on your choreography and dancing, and the creative direction around it?
Yeah, I think the concept in general is that I’m not a trained dancer. I have danced enough where I have muscle memory and stuff. It’s the same kind of principles as DIY, you know? People get the energy from you no matter what. To think that you have to subject yourself to something that actually causes people a lot of injuries and pain, it’s like no, you can have the same joy from just dancing and choreographing on your own. And that’s totally a valid art form. It doesn’t need to be so precious.
Yeah like you don’t have to dance eight hours a day and subsist on honey and cigarettes and break your toes.
Totally. In some dance things, I actually feel like sometimes there’s too much movement. As long as when you’re performing you’re making people aware of the body and space and how they interact with each other, I think that’s the point. In this video, it’s me dancing in the street a lot, and it’s kind of surreal. I’m trying to do all this weird stuff and the people in Times Square are just walking by like nothing is even going on in front of them.
I’ve been really fixated lately on this idea that there’s this immense pressure from the world, especially on women, but also for everybody, to just be one way. To just do one thing. Like if you make work that is somber or sad, then you’re not allowed to also make jokes on the internet or be funny. Or if you’re funny, then you can’t also make meaningful, poignant work about feelings. Do you ever feel this or am I just being crazy? Because you’ve done all these different things that aren’t necessarily related at all.
I think it’s hard when you’re trying to market yourself. Some people are really commmited to one medium. But I think what’s great about the art world is that you can take almost anything and elevate to the status of “this is my art.” To some people that’s the worst part about the art world actually. But I think it’s kind of fascinating and empowering. And it dignifies it in a way. There’s people now who do this called like, social practice art. It’ll be like a long term project where someone created a bakery or something. It’s a way to get state funding. There was a place in Leeds for the Leeds biennial, this forgotten slum, and this artist came in and talked to the community, and did this long term project where she got the community involved to better the place. And that’s her art.
This is kind of an aside, but for the city of LA, there’s thing where new buildings have to commit 1% of the budget for the building project to funding art. And there were all these legal battles about what exactly constitutes public art. Because like maybe Target would just pay for some ugly sculpture, but the person from the city as really interested in rewriting the statutes to make sure it could include different art forms, like social practice art. I think there’s just a lot more openness to what constitutes art. I think the platform is becoming more broad, which is what makes art progressive and great. It’s meant to break down boundaries and get people to think critically about stuff.
I haven’t gotten any push back though. I think having the financial independence is actually what’s driving all of this for me. It’s like having a patron. And I’m trying to do Hesse Press to also try to continue to patronize the community.
Have you felt at any time that it was difficult to occupy this role as a woman? Specifically in the independent art publishing world.
I’m new to it but actually everyone has been really supportive. It’s a small world. I think what’s been hard for me, as a woman, has been overcoming my own personal and also societal barriers, basically about being pushy. I’m sure you relate. Not wanting to be “annoying” or what not, which a man wouldn’t think about. Also there’s this thing of being referred to as “babe” or “girl” or whatever in articles and stuff, where I’m not sure if I’m being too sensitive about it or it’s actually offensive? I don’t know if they would say that about a straight man. Would they say about it a gay man?
Yeah, that stuff is weird. On one hand, I get it because most likely they’re just trying to write something catchy and snappy so “art world babe” or “killer girl group” or whatever just flows better, but still, it’s like they can’t use those adjectives or descriptors with men so they work harder to come up with something that’s actually specific to the person or their work, not just the gender. It’s diminutive in a way.
It’s a little diminutive. But I mean I’m young…I don’t know, I think in ten years my work and dedication will speak for itself? I like to think about why I’m doing something, because that’s what gives me my drive. I’m trying to come at things with a high intent, to do something positive. And I think when you come at something with e positive energy, it ripples out. So I was like, if I can come at this with something really positive, then I can feel good about committing to it and being 100% dedicated. Like it’s love, like a romantic relationship.
In the way that’s it’s pure?
Yeah totally. I’ve learned so much doing Hesse Press. It’s been almost like a graduate program. Just through talking with people, and working with people, and making people harmonize. I think actually as a woman that’s an inborn skill. There’s more empathizing with people.
Have you found that being on the other side of art now, acting as the facilitator instead of the creator, has that made you approach your art any differently?
Yes, absolutely. It’s given me the knowledge of the career side of it. I do think about people’s branding more. Like artists who are popular, their social media and stuff, that’s part of their practice. But personally, I’m okay with my thing being sort of inaccessible and hard to discern, because honestly I’m still figuring it out. I only do things that I feel really strongly about, and I’m okay with that being kind of inaccessible. I almost feel like that’s kind of a protection. I really feel more my friends who are musicians who have so much focus on their online personas.
Right, like once your audience sees you in one way it’s very difficult to ever be something else, or break character, because they tend to reject it.
Yes. I feel like I know who I am, but I feel like in terms of mediums I might use or performances I might do, it’s not super specific. I really like collaborating with people, because I think it’s like a chemical reaction. It changes you. That’s what I get really excited about, is that unknown quality. Because if you know everything, where’s the unreality? Where’s the fantasy? Where’s the fun? The mystery is the really fun part.
As a woman, I think a lot of it is about feeling okay to be seen. I think people should definitely have privacy and boundaries, and you don’t have to put everything out there. I put so much of my work on the internet, and I was like, wait why did I do that? But it was kind of like a thing where it helped me at the time. Putting my videos of me dancing on the internet was really hard at the time. But I figure no one would really see them, because I didn’t have a big following or anything, so I overcame that fear and did it. And that got me to a place where I was okay to perform in public. Similarly, I was like not that many people will come, so it’s okay. But then more people started to come. And slowly I was like wait, I can do this.
But I had to build up to that. I get anxious. It’s not easy, especially when you haven’t been training your whole life as a dancer. Plus with my type of dancing, it’s pretty experimental. So you have that expectation that’s it not exactly going to be a crowd pleaser.
And you’re very much putting YOURSELF out there, literally and physically. It’s not the same as someone looking at a thing you created that is separate from you, they are also looking at actual you.
Which I’m really interested in, because it kind of takes you out of your body. Like I don’t identify with my body at the time. It’s like this is a great instrument that I have. I love my body and I love what it can do, but it’s not who I am. It’s going to change. My values and my integrity is what is going to remain. I think about that a lot. I think it actually helps with the sexual assault stuff a lot too, because that’s a thing that makes you feel really disconnected from your body. And now I feel in my body, but there’s a separation between me and my work.
I think that attitude has actually been helpful even in business. Like the way this other person is feeling toward me in this situation, it’s not about me. It’s about something in between us. It helps you have a healthy distance.
Which must help with decision making and just general rationality.
Exactly. I think for me it’s about taking away the thing you’re trained to do as a woman, where you primarily identify with how you look and you appear. Of course dressing up and stuff is fun, but having that separation is really healthy.
Have you felt any judgment or weirdness about the fact that this money you’re using for Hesse Press came from an inheritance? Like people thinking it must be so easy for you or what not? People can be weird about that stuff.
That’s actually something I’m really interested in talking about, because I think there’s a taboo around it. I understand why people might feel that way. It makes sense to me. Income and equality in the world are so fucked up and off. It’s unfair and unjust. But I was put in a situation where I was given this opportunity to make something, and it’s mine to make. A lot of people will tell you what they think you should do with an inheritance like that, but you still have to maintain your own thing. Because at the end of the day you have to be okay with yourself. With Hesse Press, I really want to talk about the fact that artists should get paid. That’s what Hesse Press is for. There’s this crazy intern culture and all these people in creative fields not getting paid, just always doing favors, and people get really frustrated. Because they’re working and not making a living. And it’s this devaluation of creative work, which is still work, and still enriches the world and helps people. But it’s considered in our culture as not as important, which I think is a real shame.
It is weird, because I’m in this position where I’m a young person, and I’m doing these projects and while I don’t want people to think I raised all this money, I was given this thing, and I wanted to use it to further art. I think you have to go back to the almost 19th century thing where I’m a citizen and I have a responsibility to help my community that has helped me. There shouldn’t be shame in that. It’s fine for people to question my motives, but I think a lot of it is that there’s a taboo in talking about money, and there are resentments that build up. But that doesn’t mean that what I’m doing isn’t valid.
A lot of people are independently wealthy and they just don’t talk about it. I’d rather talk about it and do something good with it. But it’s important for me to be respectful of where everyone else is coming from, and of other people’s feelings. I don’t feel bad being honest about why I’m able to do something like this. I’m not going to be private about it and add to the idea that it should be a shame thing. I’m not my bank account. I’m what I do.
Considering everything that you’ve been through and the path that you’ve taken to get where you are, are there any pieces of advice you would give to 18 year old girl starting out in the art world?
I would say that you don’t have to define yourself right away. I felt like I had to proclaim that I was a this or a that, and then I would feel secure or something, in life. Like oh I’m safe now, I’m in control. But really you’re never there. Just don’t worry so much about labels, and enjoy just figuring it out. Take as everything as a learning opportunity. I only recently started calling myself an artist. I felt like this was too lofty of a thing but really artists are just people who make things. You don’t have to get so wrapped up in the idea of it. I’ve done lots of things. I’ve been a paralegal, I’ve been a pre-school teacher. All of it has taught me something. So I would just say, chill out (laughs).