In-Sync with… Ginny Sykes (interview)

Ginny Sykes
Photo credit: Joe Mazza/brave lux

This post continues my series “In-Sync with…” aimed to get a closer look at contemporary artists and art professionals from Chicago and abroad. Read it, enjoy it, share it, and get in-sync with Chicago based artist Ginny Sykes. Do not miss her personal recommendations at the end of the interview.

If my memory works correctly, I was introduced to Ginny by my friend Connie Noyes a few years back. Ginny is a super hard working artist whose medium includes painting, performance, installation, film, and public art. She exhibits widely and is very focused on her artistic career.  I had the pleasure to interview Ginny as she gets ready for yet another fantastic performance project. Her eloquent answers are a wonderful insight into the mind and work of a Chicago gem.  Enjoy….


Sergio: Where did you go to school (college/university) and what degree did you receive?

Ginny: I have a BFA in painting from Washington University, St. Louis. I went there on a partial scholarship from the Ford Foundation. I’m finishing my MA this year at Loyola in the Women’s Studies and Gender Studies program.

Sergio: Do you feel art school prepared you for the art career you have now?

Ginny: Yes and no. It prepared me in how it influenced my art practice. I studied, painting, dance, and graphic design and art history of course, but also courses like Native American literature, history, film, and interdisciplinary studies relating music, art, writing from philosophical perspectives — all of which inform what I do today. In terms of career influence, so much has changed since I was an undergrad—the art world is much bigger now, there are more paths to an art career today. Hardly anyone is ‘just a painter’ anymore. There are way more resources and opportunities, but also many more artists vying for them because if you think about it, art schools are a late 20th century phenomenon, producing thousands of BFA’s and MFA’s each year.

When I was in art school the fantasy goal was to get out of school, make art, and getting a gallery was considered the pinnacle of success. There was that kind of weird heroic honor attached to being a starving artist working away alone in a space. The mantra for a painter was to “confront the canvas”. Collaboration was not discussed, or done much, not like today.  We learned traditional fundamentals like anatomy, figure drawing, abstraction, art history, color, and design and it wasn’t theory heavy.  It was about being in the studio, showing up every day, the discipline side. So in terms of tools, and skills, that part is a yes. Even with today’s broad definitions of art, when it’s visual medium, I think through problems visually as well as conceptually.

I appreciated seeing my teachers as practicing artists and the different ways they approached making a body of work. I did some backdrop design and slide projections for a couple of campus dance productions and was art editor of the school arts magazine, and even did a little community public art. I learned how to use travel as a resource and subject, something I still do. After a trip hitchhiking and backpacking out west my junior year, I worked from my landscape sketches, abstracting them– for a whole semester. I was also involved in the antinuclear movement and did some huge dark canvases on that theme.

On the negative, there was sexism, and not much cultural language yet to deal with it. I remember women students in the sculpture department just getting mentally beaten up and hassled by male sculptors and teachers, and I was sexually harassed by one of my art history professors. This was quite an introduction to sexism in the art world, which in my view still exists today, although maybe in other ways. I made it a subject of my work. There was only one woman on the faculty, and no discussion of work by women artists, or artists of color, or almost anyone other than white male European artists, which was such a biased distortion of history. So seeds were sown in school for combining socially conscious and feminist ideas with my personal interests.

Sergio: What is one thing you wish you had learned at art school?

Ginny: There was no talk of the business side of being an artist, any reality of how to live while doing this being an artist thing. It was just never discussed that being an artist was a career choice. The assumption was you would figure it out, whatever it took to keep painting. After school I waitressed, until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I then went on to graphics and advertising jobs and started teaching. But then it cost way less to live then though than it does now, we could get by on 4$ an hour minimum wage part time and still have time for the studio.

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Sergio: What is your website?


Sergio: How does a day in your studio/creative space looks like?

Ginny: It’s a juggling act.

I always have a number of projects going at one time, so my work involves writing, administrative responsibilities, designing and fabricating projects, and finding time to do my ‘personal’ work. These days I think more like a producer or art director. Getting ready for a show or meeting a deadline for a public art project, even performance work all involve lots of coordination with other individuals and agencies. I seem to thrive on the mix.

For example, now I am in rehearsal for my new performance work Bodies of Memory involving six dancers, a projection designer, music, lighting, videography, and all these parts take a lot of coordination. I’m designing the artwork for a conference on Virginia Woolf, designing mosaic panels for a community center’s garden and working on a new community based project for an outdoor wall in Edgewater. I did some paintings that are about to be installed in a new restaurant downtown, and am preparing panels for new paintings that I will work on this summer. PR has to get done too. To do it all, for the past four years I have hired part time studio assistants. I also co-own a restaurant, and I edit the restaurant blog, oversee art direction for the website, ads, plantings, and some special event planning– and whatever else needs my attention.

Sergio: Tell us about your new performance project Bodies of Memory at Next Theatre May 4 and 5?

Ginny: Bodies of Memory is inspired by my family history, and my desire to question whether there has been “generational progress” in terms of feminism’s impact on women’s lives. There are two overlapping stories and the work explores this through dance, projection design and original music. It looks at the relationships of three sisters and their mother at the intersection of memory and desire, and includes echoes and suggestions of other affected family. In the narrative, paternal suicide is a rupturing event that calls patriarchal authority into question within the family, and by extension, challenges the rules governing all of their lives and behaviors within a larger 20th century cultural context. It looks at what happens before and after this event through the different characters, creating a layered narrative structure. The story gets told through dance, music, and the projected images.

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Link to tickets for Bodies of Memory:

Discount code:  memory
(for students and seniors with ID)
Sergio: How did the collaboration begin and how long have you been working on this project?

Ginny: I’ve been circling around the idea for Bodies of Memory for years in different formats—painting, drawing, writing, but the last two years solidly as a performance, which I folded into my MA work at Loyola. I’d worked with musician Victor Sanders and dancer Jeanette Aylward on several other collaborative projects, and we understand each other’s processes really well—so working on something bigger and more complex was a natural step. I saw a dance this past summer at a friend’s outdoor garden event and asked those dancers to work with me, along with an actress I knew, and another dancer I had met in the last year or so.

Sergio: Memory and desire seem to go hand in hand as an idea of past and future. Where does present fit in the story?

Ginny: I think memory and desire get activated in the present, and project us into the future and past. These are emotionally charged experiences that can sometimes take us in both directions in a flash or overlap. I wanted to play with these ideas by using time in a non-linear way, and mix fiction with documentary material, and to suggest a lack of certainty about where in the narrative the viewer is—as a deliberate feminist strategy and choice to circumvent a too linear or singular meta-narrative telling of the story. As the director I am kind of the one in the present, grappling with the several story lines that I also am bringing my everyday evolving perspective to. And of course what is live on stage is a present moment.  To me, memory works in a fragmented way, and with each present moment we rework our memories; they are both layered and cumulative.

Sergio: What do you hope the viewer will experience during and after the performance?

Ginny: First of all, I hope it is an immersive and emotional experience. I hope that the attention we have given to the visual and aural, and movement elements will be both pleasurable and thought provoking, that they will be suggestive, and raise questions rather than provide specific answers. Every family has its traumas, and this just happens to be (one of the ones in) mine. So I hope there is a sense of universality to what the audience can identify with and think about. Since doing this work has been a kind of healing of family karma for me, I would be thrilled if the piece could suggest that possibility for others.

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Sergio: You have participated in some international art fairs recently. How different was your experience at SUPER MARKET FAIR versus SELECT ART FAIR in Miami?

Even though both fairs are artist run, and shared booths among five or more artists, the feeling at them was totally different. SELECT felt like a more commercial event, and there was some pressure for us because of the higher costs involved to focus on sales.  In context of the overall Art Basel Miami, and being a new fair, SELECT was an offshoot. But one can always learns a lot at these things, whether in the booth or visiting the other shows. Miami is so high energy, and there is so much to see, so that was energizing in itself.  The good things that came out of SELECT for me were the relationships built between the exhibiting artists, the great work I saw in other fairs, and reconnecting with some folks who were there at other events.

Supermarket Stockholm is a well-regarded, sophisticated yet fresh event in the center of Stockholm. It had a more grass roots international feel within the fair itself, more concept and issues based panels, lots of performance, and I found a lot of substantive networking and dialoguing was possible between the artists. That’s what people were there for. I made a lot of international contacts at Stockholm that I am working with now, and can see projects coming out of—this summer I will stay with an artist in Berlin that I met there and we are planning to do some work together and look at some ideas for putting a group together for a show.

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Sergio: What is your biggest challenge as a contemporary artist?

Ginny: Let me start with what I rely on as an artist to keep going. I’m learning that I want my work to come from a sense of inner devotion, where my ego is in service to what rises up for me, not the other way around. Now that is a challenge to hold onto in a culture that constantly measures people–by how big one gets and how much gets accomplished, what grant we might win, or who represents us, rather than what the process looks like. While I have had some external success, and by no means all I aspire to, as I have matured, I try to stay attentive to the inner imperatives, rather than worry about whether I am in this or that right place, or have this or that success. I think if I do that, what happens from it will feel more connected. An Italian artist I know refers to his work as ‘ricerca”–which means research—and I really like that expression, and it fits with my idea that my work asks for my attention.

Balance is always an issue, how to sustain working while coping with the demands of the rest of life, but all of us have those challenges. What helps is when I get to work with great people on a regular basis, and exchange ideas. It is gratifying to see my ideas come to being, especially in public spaces, and learn how they impact someone’s life experience. But I am equally excited when others I know have success. That and working with so many young people, teaching and mentoring over the years has been very satisfying. I am starting to challenge myself to think about when I complete my MA in December, how that will integrate with or affect what I do next.

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Sergio: What excites you about your local art scene?

Ginny: I feel this overall sense of potential happening now that feels new, like Chicago’s art scene is both maturing and growing at the same time. There is a lot of productive energy out there, and importantly, more is being written about art than in a long time, which I think both validates and publicizes what is going on to more people. For example, it seems like the art scene is catching up to the theatre scene in terms of coverage.

The level of work I have been seeing for sometime is really high, it has stepped up, and it challenges all of us to raise the bar on our own games, in a good way. One can’t help but be thrilled at the level of international recognition that a number of Chicago artists have gotten, and yet its inspiring how many of them are staying here, it says something really positive about Chicago being a place of possibility. So many people I know have worked really hard to bring Chicago’s many art talents to the public, individually, curatorially, and institutionally, and that nurtures a dynamic scene, so it feels like we are riding that edge right now.

Many artists I know have been working a long time and are making the best work of their lives, just going on about it, and that is so exciting to watch. To me Chicago has always been friendly and open, with opportunities to dialogue that encompass so many topics. And I have found most people are generously spirited inhabiting and sharing their success.  So overall it feels alive and decentered and diverse, with many different scenes. That often seems to emerge in a downturn, like a spawning of new concepts out of what has been so heavy. The energy happening on the south side is wonderful. I love seeing how much interdisciplinary work is going on too, so if you want to make something happen here, its more than likely you can find a way to work with another artist, or writer, musician, dancer–combining art forms and genres. People are taking their careers into their own hands and finding room for what they want to do.

Sergio: Do you believe gallery representation today is as important as it has been in the past?

Ginny: I may not be the right person to ask, as I have been outside the established gallery system for so long. I had a gallery when I was in my twenties, and have shown in others throughout my career, and am working with one now and it is going well, and they are lovely to deal with. (Chicago Art Source). But as for having an exclusive, I haven’t had that for a long time. I am not sure it is sustainable for most artists who are trying to make a living just on sales.

I focused on public art and other kinds of projects for so many years, which was a whole other direction. I got used to being self-directed so I didn’t really seek it out. It is a whole other job to tend to and produce work for a gallery. Ultimately I think it depends what you want, and what is important to you. Dealers are connected to other dealers, collectors, curators, and museums and having a good relationship with a gallery helps boost an artist’s worth in sales, other shows, and can help to develop the relationships that open many doors.  To get to a certain level within the established art world, it is probably still necessary. But today I see artists doing more of their own groundwork and breaking some of those barriers and later a gallery might pick them up. I think you have to prove that in many ways to an established gallery, where a new one will take a chance on someone just out of school.

I have tried to be realistic about the work I make in figuring out where I fit, and have found other ways to flourish. Not having a high end exclusive gallery representing me won’t stop me from making my work, and do collaborative and exchange shows as I have always done. This is just a reflection that my definition of success has shifted from when I was younger. Nowadays, I’m more interested in the experiences and just to keep working.

I do think that art world hierarchies are more relaxed, there is more fluidity between “levels”. Especially with the internet, it is much easier to push your work out, blog, post videos, make things happen and connect with people. It just takes a lot of time.


Book… A Chorus of Stones by Susan Griffin

Art movie or documentary…  Our City Dreams directed by Chiara Clemente and Dancing across Borders directed by Ann Bass

Art museum…  Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, NY

Contemporary artist (other than yourself)… Janis Pozzi-Johnson is a wonderful uber dedicated painter.

Place to be inspired by…  New Zealand

One sentence advice for an art student… Take risks, travel, learn from others, don’t get isolated.

Chicago cafe/restaurant… Ceres Table or Ethiopian Diamond. One of my favorites is The Tiny Lounge, but that’s more of a bar.

YouTube video… I use it as a research tool, watch a lot of mini-documentaries, and dance videos and how-to videos on the most mundane topics– but what I see doesn’t stick so strongly for me in my memory, so I will have to pass on specifics.


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