What brings people to art making, and what keeps them going once they’ve started? Why I Make Art: Contemporary Artists’ Stories About Life & Work (Atelier Éditions), a new book by Brian Alfred, explores these questions and many more. Alfred is the artist and educator behind Sound & Vision, a podcast featuring interviews with artists and musicians from around the world. Why I Make Art pulls from 30 of Alfred’s more than 300 podcast conversations to date, conducted between 2016 and 2020. From skateboarding to statelessness, from painting to performance, the wide variety of influences and practices the book covers demonstrate that the motives for art making are as numerous as artists themselves.
Alfred is a perceptive interviewer whose insightful questions and warm personality lead his Sound & Vision guests to unexpected and heartfelt places, like silly childhood memories and touching revelations. Though his book lacks some of the podcast’s spontaneous emotional charge, its well-crafted, concise essays show the author to be a gifted writer and editor who seamlessly integrates his artists’ words with thoughtful analysis of their work. In no small feat, the book condenses the artists’ multifaceted, meandering spoken stories into lively, relatable narratives that draw the reader in.
Part of the book’s appeal comes from the artists’ many entry points into their respective fields. American abstract painter Maysha Mohamedi turned to art after a successful career in neuroscience. Irish artist Helen O’Leary’s art awakening came after painting cows on her family farm with blue chalk. Another highlight is learning about the deep meaning that art making holds in these artists’ lives. Heather Day explains that for her, art “was something where I could come up with my own rules, my own questions, and the answers, too.” Louis Fratino likens his focused state while painting and drawing to a spiritual practice. Alfred is also an artist, and it’s clear that this shared identity encourages his interviewees’ honesty and openness with their doubts, challenges, and joys.
Crucially, Alfred’s subjects often draw fascinating connections and offer insights about art and themselves as they look back on their lives and work. These moments — in which we can learn from those who came before us — are useful to any artist and reader. “It doesn’t matter what the output is,” Austyn Weiner says, “Save the judgment for somebody else.” Work long enough, James Siena assures us, and “your audience will find you.” In chapter after chapter, Alfred’s artists affirm that making a life from art is hard, but it can be done. These nuggets of advice and wisdom will make the book worth returning to time and time again.
Why I Make Art: Contemporary Artists’ Stories About Life & Work by Brian Alfred (2022) is published by Atelier Éditions and is available online and in bookstores.