Interview: Jayme McLellan

Civilian Art Projects has gone from a virtual space with exhibitions at various locales around DC, to a vibrant, hip enclave in Penn Quarter [UPDATE - Civilian Art Projects is now on 7th Street NW]. Self-described as “DC’s newest gallery gnawing at the edges of contemporary aesthetic discourse”, director Jayme McLellan proves to be a visionary successfully challenging these boundaries and exciting people along the way. In a city composed more of politicians and government employees than contemporary artists and patrons, Civilian Art Projects is the place to be for artistic inspiration, energy, and community.

Larissa Leclair: What inspired you to open your own gallery?
Jayme McLellan: After working at DC Arts Center for three years, and founding and running Transformer Gallery for four years, it was finally time to see just what I was made of and how far I could stretch and grow my personal vision to support artists. I come from a very creative family. My mom is a painter, my grandmother taught herself guitar and sings beautifully, my great-grandmother played piano for a department store, yet no one in my generation was really continuing the thread. It was just in me to support art and artists. It’s who I am.

But the whole gallery thing started back in college when I saw a photo of a young boy on the cover of the Washington Post. He was standing with a solider. They were in Tuzla, Bosnia during the war there in the 90s. The picture moved me in a way that all of the words in the story could not. I saw, no, I felt the war. I felt the civilian component of conflict. What made me respond viscerally was an act of art making – an act of expression. Later, I would become friends with the photographer – Lucian Perkins. His work inspired me to pick up a camera that eventually led me to show the work of friend artists, which in turn led to my work at DCAC [District of Columbia Arts Center], and organize a project to bring artists from the former Yugoslavia to DC. And, when it was time, this project helped to generate seed funding for Transformer through another project for artists affected by conflict. So my whole career, my whole life has been shaped by artistic responses to the world, particularly in areas of conflict– and this is what Civilian is – a chance for artists to express their vision in reflection to the world around them – even if that world is very internal, very right brain. It’s all connected; it’s all a part of our collective human experience.

LL: With the gallery being two years old, you have already made an impact on the art scene in DC. Can you talk about the “craigslist” show?
JM: I feel very lucky to be doing what I am doing, and I feel intensely grateful for the people who invest in Civilian. Investment comes from buying art, from coming to events, from working at the gallery, and from spreading the word about what we are doing.

We have had a lot of packed events. Each one supersedes the next and it is becoming more common to have just as many new faces in the room as familiar faces. And this is really important for the cultural community of DC. We need art spaces like Civilian. We need venues where people of all ages can gather and talk and share experiences. And if you can tack on inspiring people through art – well this is the best thing I can do with my life.

I was lucky enough to work with Andrea Pollan of Curator’s Office on the “craigslist” show. First, she is brilliant and kind. I look for these factors in collaborators. I have worked a long time to become a good listener. It’s hard to shut up and just really listen, so when others listen and then offer powerful advice and feedback, well this is just the best experience. Andrea is one of those people. I have a lot of mentors. She came to me with the idea of collaborating on a show about artists who use craigslist in their work. She’d been working with Joe & John Dumbacher and Jason Horowitz, and I’d been working with Jason Zimmerman. And then we discovered that they all used craigslist in some way to inform their work. The show was a beautiful, fascinating reflection of social networking and its impact on personal connection and artistic investigation.

LL: I attended the panel discussion on collecting photography for the emerging collector which was organized by the Pink Line Project and hosted by Civilian. It was also packed with a great crowd. Do you collaborate often with other organizations?
JM: When I wrote down all of the people and organizations Civilian collaborated with in one year, it filled a page. I want to keep doing this and keep deepening the relationships with those we’ve already connected with. For example, I’ve wanted to team up with Daylight Magazine since I started the gallery, and now we are. They are going to do a podcast when we launch a photo show featuring work by Chris Sims about Guantanamo Bay. He works at Duke at the Center for Documentary Studies and worked to get permission to do a photo documentary study of Gitmo. It took him two years to get permission to go there. And the work is beautiful and so interesting. It really conveys a sense of being there, of daily life. Not just for the prisoners but for the soldiers – it is actually mostly about the soldiers. Jackie Temkin’s, Civilian’s intern, favorite photo is one from the dining hall. It contains a table, a huge TV, a fake palm tree, and a suggestion box. A suggestion box!

I also intend to work with Philippa at Pink Line again on a panel about the recession and how it is affecting the art market and artists. Lisa Blas, a professor from the Corcoran and an artist I worked with last year, brought the idea to my attention. I told Philippa. And we’re working away on it. We want to bring in new thoughts and minds and try to come up with some ideas to stimulate the DC art economy. Buy local and often!

Collaboration is central to what Civilian does. Albeit with artists, organizations, curators, or new audiences, in one way or another, we are always collaborating.

LL: Are you looking to add artists to your gallery list? What kind of work or artists are you drawn to?
JM: I would like to grow the program but I am not in a hurry. I take representing artists very seriously. It’s a lot of work, it’s kind of like getting married – you have to commit. Right now, the core group of artists I work with have the same things in common. They are fiercely professional and vigilant about their craft i.e. always working. They are also very kind, understanding and giving people. There has to be a give and take. I can’t work with people who are mean. I love criticism but only when it is constructive and can get me somewhere. Help me learn but don’t yell at me.

I would be looking for artists who are very engaged with the contemporary world around them. Artists whose work is very professional and they’ve already worked out the kinks and are kind of in a groove. This doesn’t mean they can’t experiment but the craft and the attention to detail has got to be there.

LL: Aside from curating the exhibitions in your own gallery, you are also an independent curator. What was your latest project?
JM: I had the privilege to work on the DARFUR/DARFUR exhibition (curated by Leslie Thomas) this year. I had worked with her since the beginning of the project on a volunteer level but then we found some money to hire me to co-curate versions of the exhibition in Slovenia at the City Museum and in Calgary at the Glenbow Museum. Darfur is very close to my heart and it is tied to the work I did in Bosnia that launched all of this work. The Holocaust, one of the world’s biggest blights, just boggles my mind. We all ask “how could this have happened?” and in Europe? And then Bosnia happened. The answer is if you are not paying attention anything can happen. We are all equal parts good and bad and if the bad side takes over our collective consciences, then we are doomed. We are seeing a lot of man’s inhumanity to man these days in very big ways: Darfur, Iraq, Burma, Tibet, DR Congo, Somalia. East Africa is in flames, and humans originated in the Rift Valley in Kenya. The way I see it, the cradle of civilization is in ruins. We are teetering toward the dark side, but we can correct it. Maybe we need Ewoks or something like that to help us? Think outside of the all of the boxes!

LL: And what is coming up this Fall [2008] at Civilian?
JM: This fall I am working with a badass photographer and curator Aubrey Edwards who has been traveling to New Orleans every two months since Katrina. She has put together a list of over 30 artists and collectors and zines and presses to bring to DC a real New Orleans art show. I lived in New Orleans for a short time in the mid-90s and Katrina, like most hearts, broke mine. This is my chance to do something for New Orleans. And I intend to keep doing.

I just curated a show at Barrister’s Gallery on St. Claude in New Orleans for NOVA Projects – the new visual artists registry down there. I worked with Karen Crain who I knew from DC who founded the registry and also works at Louisiana Art Works – a new and awesome facility that will be a part of Prospect One, the Biennial down there. Anyway, I went down to NOLA in June – my first time back since the storm – and the city is just aglow with energy. The artists have all in one way or another let their guards down. They all work together to create a community. It’s really inspiring. Go to New Orleans!

And come to the show!

Interview originally published in ArtVoices Magazine, September 2008.