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If You Can Make it There
NYPOP helps UMass Amherst artists find their way in the Big Apple

—Carol Cambo

Annie Varnot ’01G and Michelle Varnick ’94 are graduates of the New York Professional Outreach Program (NYPOP) for UMass Amherst artists. The class helped them gain entrée into the New York art world.
WEEKENDS BEGIN ON FRIDAY MORNING at UMass Amherst, when the campus exhales a collective sigh of relief. But down at North Amherst Motor Potters Rental on Sunderland Road, around 7:30 a.m., a dozen art students clutching coffees and overnight bags pile into a rented van for a 30-hour class that’s just beginning. By noon, they’ll disembark at 508 West 26th Street in Manhattan, artist and professor Jerry Kearns’s studio.

In New York City, traffic noise and exotic tongues bounce off vertical miles of concrete and glass, making a din that’s hard to translate by ears accustomed to the quiet of Amherst. The city’s art scene, with its hundreds of galleries and studios, and thousands of creative minds, thwarts simple navigation.

Jerry Kearns makes the perfect tour guide through this quixotic world. For starters, he’s tall—easy to pick out in a crowd. And he’s a New Yorker: He and his wife, Nora York, live in Manhattan, and he travels to Amherst regularly to teach. We come to appreciate his height and local knowledge as he leads several UMass Amherst magazine staff members on a tour of his home turf.

It’s also a tour of the 15-year history of the New York Professional Outreach Program (NYPOP). ( )For Kearns, the proximity of Amherst to one of the top centers for emerging art in the world begged to be utilized, so he founded the program, which he still directs. Eight weekends a semester, the city is NYPOP’s classroom. For UMass Amherst artists, it offers a means to consider Frank Sinatra’s famous croon: If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.

It’s a consideration Jerry Kearns pondered when he was an art student at UC Santa Barbara where he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s, the latter in 1968. In the four decades since, his art has found its audience—it’s in 35 museums internationally, from New York all the way to Spain, Australia, and Germany. But just as he knew he had to create art, “I always knew I wanted to teach,” Kearns says with a slight lilt in his voice, a vestige of his southern upbringing. “When I was a student, the notion of being a professional artist was mystical. Professors in most university art programs never mentioned how a career was made in any useful way. They taught aesthetics in a disconnected academic reality.” Kearns ventured beyond the starving artist cliché, and he wanted to share what he had discovered: Work hard, build a network, and success can follow.

Upper division and graduate students sign up for two sections of the three-credit fine arts course offered each semester. On weekend pilgrimages to the city, students meet curators and gallery directors. They visit with both established and up-and-coming artists in their studios. The roster is different every semester. Students also set off on their own to see exhibits and shows that interest them. They keep journals of their visits with an emphasis on the relationship between what they encounter and their own work. They read from these to the class. The last five weeks of the semester are spent discussing their art production during the course.

Kearns has been teaching at UMass Amherst since 1971; he started NYPOP in 1990. As our tour guide, he provides a born educator’s running commentary, but he knows when to fall silent, too, so we can make our own discoveries. His gift for creating reflective moments has helped make NYPOP so popular that many students take it more than once.

“I want students to begin to see themselves as artists,” says Kearns of his guiding principle, as he leans into a subway stop. We’re on our way to Brooklyn to meet one of his former students, now a model of success. “Because, as I tell my students, the first person who needs to think you are an artist is you.”

* * *

One of the studios NYPOP students visit is that of Dan Zeller ’93G. His brick building houses others artists and musicians mostly, Zeller says, as we trail behind his lanky frame to a combination apartment and studio. Inside, inexpensive oriental rugs cover painted plywood floors. Built-in shelves climb one wall, a mountain bike rests in the corner. Gangly plants bow toward sunshine slanting through tall windows.

Zeller, 40, lives in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood. The acronym stands for “Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass,” which means: It’s loud. Every few minutes trains rattle the windows; almost directly overhead, Manhattan Bridge rumbles 24/7 with cars zooming on and off its ramps.

In the studio, sheets of drawing paper big as movie posters hang side by side. One is entirely blank, the other just begun, its corner grayed by tiny, wavy lines penciled one after another, stacked almost, lines that when viewed from different angles morph into larger, shadowy shapes twisting across the paper. “For me, the fun is not knowing where a piece is going,” Zeller explains. “I try to have a vision for my work, but I usually don’t see what’s happening until I live with it. I find myself staring at it while I’m flossing my teeth.”

While earning his MFA in sculpture, Zeller wondered if he could make it in New York City. He was one of the first students to take NYPOP. “I grew up in rural Connecticut and the City intimidated me,” says Zeller. “Coming here as part of the class motivated me to give it a shot.” After graduation he moved to this very apartment with two friends from the MFA program, Ed Grant ’92G and Mike Tong ’93G. Zeller found work as a production sculptor, crafting action figures, religious items, and medical models by day; by night, he’d hunker over his drafting table producing detailed hand drawings.

Eight years chugged by. It took him nearly a decade to “make it”—to support himself solely through his artwork. But that’s just one mark of his success. Zeller has shown at galleries and museums throughout the United States. The Museum of Modern Art recently bought several of his drawings for its collection, and one large work hangs at The Whitney. The L.A. County Museum of Art and Arkansas Art Center also hold Zellers. Last May he flew to Paris for his first solo European show.

It turns out Zeller had the right stuff to thrive here. “Exceptional aesthetic skills are only one part of what’s necessary to become a successful artist. Internal drive and ambition, coupled with social and business skills are essential to the complete package,” says Kearns. “Dan had evident skill, but success is based on need and desire to do this.” In other words, talent alone doesn’t set the alarm clock. There must be a fire within. And a bit of luck helps, too. Dan was doing the right thing at the right time, “when the New York art world was favoring hand-work over techie stuff,” says Kearns. Learning the market, and adapting to it, is all part of the game.

Kearns takes students to Dan’s place so they can meet a working artist, to witness a less-than-glamorous reality that’s not for everyone. Zeller’s studio doubles as a place to dry his laundry, for instance, though the spare aesthetic seems more by design than necessity. Students see the hard work and tradeoffs that precede success. Zeller’s work travels the globe while the artist spends his day in a world defined by square inches, tracking his hourly progress in minuscule ticks of a Staedtler blue pencil. On a good day, he’ll cover 100 square inches, about the size of a dinner plate. Most days, while Brooklyn bumps and belches beyond his rooms, he gets up, sharpens his pencils, flips on talk radio, and goes to the wall.

“It’s nerve-wracking. Staring at a blank sheet,” he says. Once he gets going, Zeller works for about 40 minutes or so, then takes a break when his back and arm grow stiff. Sometimes he works on several pieces at once, moving among them. Both drawings are due in October. Each will take about a month to complete.

Zeller’s artwork, the product of patient, minute actions, serves as a metaphor for making it in the art world. Keep adding to your network in small but consistent ways, build on each opportunity, and have faith it will turn into something larger.

“I couldn’t have done it without Jerry,” Zeller says of his career. “NYPOP let me wander through the art world and begin to recognize what was going on.”

* * *

Gatekeepers. Networks. In art, like any business, making it is one part talent, two parts who you know. For every Dan Zeller, there are dozens of other NYPOP alumni rising through the echelons of the art world, each on their own trajectory. Kearns has built a network of peers and alumni to provide potential points of entry.

Emerging artist galleries play a crucial role in the network. Over the years, Kearns has forged special relationships with several such spaces. NYPOP students frequently visit Smack Mellon Gallery in Brooklyn, which showcases promising New York–area artists.
Kearns leads us down Water Street in Brooklyn. A simple door on this narrow road opens into a cavernous space with 40-foot ceilings and exposed beams. The 6,000-square-foot pre-Civil War structure was a foundry then a spice factory. The aroma of spice lingers still.
Kathleen Gilrain ’92G has been director of Smack Mellon for five years. Gilrain is traveling on the day we visit, raising funds for the gallery, but three other NYPOP alumnae meet us at Smack Mellon: Annie Varnot and Lisa Lindgren, who both earned MFAs in 2001, and Michelle Yarnick ’94. Kearns greets them like family, with hugs and pecks on the cheek. As we wander the stark, white interior, viewing the current show, Yarnick tells us that prior to NYPOP the only time she had visited New York was with her Blackstone, Mass., high school marching band. Through the UMass Amherst program, the green-eyed blond sculptor fell in love with the city and beelined here after graduation. “Jerry helped me land a nanny job for Elizabeth Hess, who was art critic for the Village Voice and Art in America at the time,” says Yarnick. She took more classes in sculpture, at Brooklyn College, then turned to bartending for steady money and the hours. “I spent a year rolling change,” she says, of the struggle to make ends meet while pursuing an art career.

What may prove to be her biggest break yet happened through one of her customers at the bar. She signed on as curator for an art show that accompanied “Back to the Garden,” the largest no-nukes rally in the world held this past summer on the 60th anniversary of the first atomic bombing. Organized to benefit the Mayors for Peace, a group of over 700 mayors from around the world led by the mayor of Hiroshima, the art show is slated to tour internationally for five years.

In true NYPOP fashion, Yarnick plied the network: She asked Dan Zeller and Jerry Kearns to donate a piece to the kick-off auction in New York, and also included a work of her own. “I was on the same invite as Yoko Ono!” she says.

Yarnick calls her latest works cake structures, assemblages of modeling paste, foam, acrylic, organic matter, and resin. “They’re about breaking down the idea of beauty,” Yarnick explains. Several were included in a show at Smack Mellon. ( )

In 2003, Kearns curated a show called Big Cry Baby at Smack Mellon. “I mixed our people with established artists I admire,” says Kearns. “Being a curator is like throwing a dinner party. You try to anticipate what kind of audience each artist will bring so there’s crossover.”
Varnot has an infectious, bubbly personality, and shares stories from her recent artist’s retreat in the Mediterranean. She had a piece in Big Cry Baby. Her “Private Mail” involved a series of drawings on envelopes she had begun while at UMass Amherst. She hung them from the ceiling in a shaft of light.

Varnot and Lindgren share a loft apartment in Bedford/Stuyvesant. Varnot pieces together an income from grants, from teaching a painting class at Skidmore College, and from carpentry. Hammer in hand, she helps prepare museum spaces and sets for theater and television. “I helped build one of The Apprentice sets,” she says of Donald Trump’s reality TV show. “I take time between jobs to work on my own art and to send out grant applications.” Varnot combines drawing and sculpture in her site-specific works, employing pipe cleaners, pompoms, and drinking straws to make them three-dimensional.

When Lindgren isn’t bartending in Hell’s Kitchen, she paints in her studio. She’s hoping to get into more art shows, and she worked as Varnot’s teaching assistant this past summer. “My work is inspired by nature,” says Lindgren, showing us slides of her paintings, black negative fields spiked with ribbons of color.

Lindgren, 38, first studied to be an architect and came to New York in her early twenties, but the work didn’t fulfill her. After taking classes at Greenfield Community College back in Massachusetts, she enrolled in the MFA program at UMass Amherst. She had a seminal moment during NYPOP. “We visited the studio of Inka Essenhigh,” says Lindgren. “She is my age, and very successful. She was so persistent and self-aware. It made this a tangible reality for me.”

Kearns says Varnot, Lindgren, and Yarnick live the hard reality of pursuing a career in art. “These ladies are living in intense neighborhoods, surrounded by street crime and poverty, because that’s what they can afford at this stage,” says Kearns. “Most people don’t know it takes this kind of commitment.”

* * *

EXIT ART, in Chelsea, is another staple on the NYPOP syllabus. It’s known internationally for cross-cultural, boundary-breaking exhibits. ( )

Where Smack Mellon seems approachable, EXIT ART is big, bold, and mind-boggling. The installations are free-form, large-scale, and multimedia. The gallery’s 15-foot windows look out on 10th Avenue; director Jeannette Ingberman and husband/partner Papo Colo often invite performance artists to use them at the height of traffic. The place hums with kinetic energy.

Ingberman and Colo, Kearns’s longtime friends and associates, have carved out a unique place in the New York art scene during EXIT’s 25-year existence. With Colo’s Puerto Rican heritage as a starting point, they’ve sought to provide a venue for culturally diverse artists and alternative voices that are often excluded by the mainstream. It’s also been a proving ground for many UMass Amherst alumni, from interns to full-fledged artists.

“At any moment, EXIT ART has the history of NYPOP alive in it,” says Kearns.
Today this history is alive in sculptor Thom Matsuda ’99G and Nora Gogl ’04. Matsuda recently collaborated with Kearns’s wife, singer Nora York, on a piece involving a prayer circle of Buddha statuettes. “It’s exciting to show here with people from UMass,” says Matsuda. “That piece gave me a chance to collaborate, to consider new ideas about combining sculpture and performance.”

Matsuda sculpted religious statuary in Japan before enrolling at UMass Amherst for his MFA. He lives on an ashram in western Mass., and travels to create large on-site sculptures from New York to California. His “Searching for the Buddha in the Mountains” installation, a series of carved pine structures, graces the sunken garden in the courtyard to the DuBois library on campus. He also teaches at the New School and Pratt.

Nora Gogl is at UMass as an exchange student from Hungary. As an intern, over the course of the summer, she assisted the EXIT ART archivist and took on whatever other tasks needed doing, such as renting out the space for corporate parties, getting out mailings for benefits, and helping artists install their shows—even occasionally making a dash to the hardware store for an extension cord. She is working toward curating an exhibition for EXIT’s new FAST TRACK Gallery, a space dedicated to nurturing emerging curators and artists.

All of this experience, Gogl believes, will stand her in good stead when she returns to Hungary and eventually perhaps has her own gallery. The daughter of a doctor and a lawyer, she was seven years old when the postwar communist regime ended in her country. She says that in her homeland, there are “probably more art critics than artists,” thanks to a system that, while no longer state-controlled, is still a lot more rigid and codified than the scene in the States. Her ambition is to foster a livelier art scene there and to generate an equally lively exchange of art between Hungary and America. NYPOP got her here, and before long she’ll be applying what it has taught her in Budapest.

“It’s all about keeping relationships going,” says Kearns. “NYPOP has reached a critical mass here. Other schools might have larger, better-funded programs, but the key is the kind of network we’ve established. Once you reach this point, it feeds back on itself.”

* * *

Jerry Kearns’s studio is a short walk from EXIT ART. Technicolor wall-size canvases fill the white, bright space. A work in progress depicts a superhero Jesus walking on water among tropical islands.

Kearns’s paintings deal with recent cultural, political, and personal history, sometimes with a comic-book look to them. The twin towers stood just a few dozen blocks from his studio, and since 9/11 he has set most of his works against a cerulean background. “The color of the sky that day was an unreal blue,” remembers Kearns.

Sunday through Wednesday, Kearns spends 8 to 10 hours at his studio working on projects. Thursdays he stops production, cleans his workspace and prepares for students’ arrival on Fridays. When the kids land, he gives them a chance to chill out after the van ride. They sit in a circle and discuss their agenda. After a group lunch, they walk or take the subway to visit the afternoon’s slate of galleries, artists, and studios.

“These kids have to make a big commitment, both in terms of time and money,” says Kearns. “Depending on where they spend the night, and it varies from hostels and hotels to the YMCA or with relatives and friends, and food, they might spend $100 a trip, on top of the $100 speaker’s fee each student spends for the semester.”

During the 15 years that Kearns has been leading NYPOP, more than 700 students have participated. Thousands of miles have been logged in rental vans, on foot, on the subway. The course has evolved over time, but the original idea remains.

“It’s about teaching business savvy, about all aspects of the profession,” says Kearns. “I remember the teachers who showed by example, who treated me not as a kid, but as an artist.”

Kearns strives to do the same for his students. “When they come to my studio, they see how long a painting takes to finish. They see me answer a phone call from a dealer who is trying to break me down on price. They see my failures,” says Kearns. And the same is true for every artist and curator students meet, each at a different stage in their career. “I don’t talk a lot,” says Kearns. “I try to give students the power to speak, because they’ll need to in order to succeed.”

In deciding to instigate NYPOP as part of the department, says Kearns, “the UMass art faculty initiated an elite program which has nourished our curriculum in a number of valuable ways. NYPOP students, by virtue of their immersion in the New York City art scene, have changed the conversation among their peers back on campus. Their experience raises the bar. Now they compare themselves and their peers not just to each other, but to the ‘real’ artists they come to know in the city as well.”

Kearns says what he offers is the Reader’s Digest version of how this world works. “How do you get into this reality? Where is the doorway? The art world is multilayered relationships. So, how do you build your network? It’s not about getting discovered. It’s ‘How do you see yourself in this context?’ That’s the key transition some people never make,” says Kearns. “That’s why I started this class. School teaches you the language, but not how to use it.”

At five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, NYPOP students pile back in their rental van to head for home. Kearns says he’s sure some of the best seminars are on the ride back to Amherst. With visions of what New York City holds, their little town blues are melting away. If Kearns has done his job, and they’ve done theirs, they know a new language. And they’re eager to use it. ?

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