STUDIO: A Series About Makers - Matt and Jeff Austin, The Perch
I am so excited to bring you the first official post from the STUDIO series! Apologies as some of the things we talk about will be slightly dated (this whole moving across the country thing got in the way of a timely post), but I will add in updates where applicable.
In early December, I sat down with brothers Matt and Jeff Austin at The Perch - a Chicago space that fosters a community of artists who uplift and support each other in many ways and forms including book publishing, symposium dinners, and educational programming. It was a quiet winter evening in Chicago, snow lightly falling outside, and there was a perfectly serene soundtrack of instrumental music accompanying our chat.
Ana: So Matt, give me a little bit of a background story.
Matt: Sure, just a general overview of life?
A: Yeah, in whatever sense you feel necessary.
M: Umm, Yeah, maybe I’ll talk about what I feel like I do these days and how I got to that.
M: These days, I feel like the making aspect of things is one of the smallest parts of my practice right now. Even though it’s hours and hours of work, it feels like the easy part. Whereas the ideas and choosing who to work with and how to work with them and what to create together - that’s the really long part, the super invested part. Then the making really feels like the release of all that work.
A: You mean the actual, physical making?
M: Right, yeah, which these days is pretty much only book making for me. I guess publication making, like it could be a poster or a little booklet or even something that sometimes I don’t make by hand - like a perfect bound book. But how I got here was going to college, first for math and then leaving that and jumping into art. And then sort of tripping into photography.
A: *laughs* Yeah, I found that interesting, when you were (previously) talking about how you had no interest in art as a focus at first.
M: Not as a young person, no. It was always math and science. Jeff was actually the person that introduced me to art in general and - Trev will tell you - photography was a complete accident because when I met Trev, I had enrolled at Columbia for Graphic Design and a prerequisite for graphic design was photography. And I didn't enroll in graphic design because I liked it or...
A: Was it kind of a random pick then? Something that you thought you might find interest in?
M: Kind of. I went to the open house and that seemed cool, so yeah, it was pretty blind.
A: That’s so funny, I keep trying to think of how I ended up in photography too, because I looked at Columbia for early childhood development.
M: Oh, wow. Interesting. But yeah, then it was Trev who convinced me to try photography out more and we weren't roommates immediately but it didn't take long until we were and that’s when I really got into photography. We started building our own darkrooms in our bathroom and just totally nerding out about chemistry and development times. And then me and Trev started traveling together every weekend, for probably two or three years of also living together. That’s what definitely got me into not only photography but also the therapeutic potential of making things. We would drive and drive and drive and photograph and then spend hours in the darkroom developing and printing. It really was an excessive practice but yeah, it’s always been this sort of door to another door to another door to another door.
A: Yeah, so how did photography lead to moving toward where you are now?
M: I think photography led me into looking at the world differently in a poetic kind of way that helps digest things better and understand things better. It was when tragic moments in our family started happening, people dying and getting cancer and stuff that I realized that my photographs weren’t enough to feel good about what I was doing. So that’s when I started writing, and writing and photography became supplemental to each other in the work I was trying to make. And when you put text and photography together, a book ended up making the most sense.
I wanted the book to be more of an experience - a private experience - that is really nice to have...rather than just something that you have complete expectations with and you are not surprised by what you get when you have those expectations. So I wanted it to be a different experience than just a book. This was the WAKE project that I did with Trev, where he made the website - I gave him half the grant to make the website and I took half the grant to make the books. I made the books by watching tons and tons of YouTube videos. I learned bookmaking that way. And yeah, that was the first big move towards like, if I’m going to make something that is a publication, I don't really want it to just be this incredibly traditional, standard experience of a book. I want something else to be happening. After that, I became really interested in just the process of making books - physically making them by hand. I really enjoy it...really enjoy folding paper and sewing paper.
A: Yeah, as Jeff’s doing that over there with your nice, serene soundtrack, I’m like, “This is really calming.”
M: It is.
Jeff: That’s pretty much how it’s been every day for the past few weeks - this music and book binding.
A: Okay, so your plans for the Perch - currently you are working with a couple people, right? What’s your current project?
M: Well there are always about nine going on at once, usually more. But I guess that’s the exciting part about the Perch for me - that it’s not just books and it’s not just publishing. And when it is publishing, the publications are a scholarship stipend for the artists that get published - they make 100% of the money. And they’re given this opportunity to make something and go into no debt to make it. That’s absolutely a response to my experience with education in general...essentially being burned for learning and holding that for the rest of your life financially.
And so right now we - I guess the most intense project that’s happening is Adam Grossi's. Wind Through Quiet Tensions is the name of the publication. It is a story, a sort-of autobiographical story, that takes you from Adam’s mental instability when he was... I believe 21 and had a psychotic-manic episode and was hospitalized. It basically chronicles his transition from that moment of being hospitalized [through] his process out of there and this agreement with his therapist basically saying, “if I replace my medication with yoga, I give you permission to, like, force me back on medication at any time, but in the mean time I’m going to try this”. It’s been I believe - he’s 33 now - so it’s been twelve years and he hasn’t taken any pills since. It’s all basically credited to his really intense practice of yoga every day. And now he’s a pretty well known yoga teacher in Chicago. So it’s a really exciting project and we’re teaming up with Spudnik Press to print it. Spudnik is helping us print the interior pages on a Risograph printer. It’s gonna be Adam’s text and some of Adam’s drawings.
A: What’s the printer?
M: It’s called a Risograph.
A: What does that mean?
M: It’s basically a copy machine that operates - the ink actually operates - very similarly to a screen print. It’s ink being pushed through this piece that’s called a master and basically, when you put your copy - your thing to copy - on the top flatbed, it scans it and creates a master out of that. And basically a master is just an inexposed - I don’t know if it actually exposes like for screen printing but it functions in the same way where it creates a template that just pushes ink through in a really beautiful way.
A: Interesting! Okay.
M: So given that method, Adam’s drawings really do look like he just drew right on the pages. And the text looks kind of outdated and it’s a really beautiful combination of texture and ink.
A: That’s awesome!
M: We’ll be hand making those. Spudnik is also screen printing the covers. We’re also gonna make 500 perfect bound here and those will get bound by machine and it’ll be a Risograph cover with interior pages that we print here. But we’re gonna do 60 handmade hardcovers at Spudnik.
Then we’re also making Jackie Furtado’s Stand Still So I Can Look At You Closely, which is gonna be an 11x14, huge book and hers is an almost purely photographic book that has very little text. The text at the end is gonna be an additional piece to it written by her roommate Jenny. Basically it’s her investigating - trying to photograph - distance. If you could have the ability to photograph a distance that you feel from a family member or something like that. As well as photographing things from a distance and photographing absence and comparing the two - distance to something and an absence around something compared to these subjects that are her family. It’s a pretty abstract sequencing, a poetically made piece.
A: Wow, there’s a lot, yeah. So you’ve told me a little bit of the future plan for the Perch before but what’s gonna happen? What’s the goal?
M: We’re going to incorporate pretty soon and apply for 501c3 status.
M: And continue programming in a really active way here in Chicago as well as expand the Perch to other cities, first starting in Los Angeles. The idea, a pretty consistent focus is: the Perch is just trying to help people talk to each other that may not normally get the chance to talk to each other and so expanding to other cities is going to create Perch to Perch collaborations and the ability to compare experiences from different cities.
A: Yeah, just build that community even bigger.
M: Mhmm. Expanding the knowledge that we can have as people that all of us live life really differently and experience life differently and the more we can share our individual stories, the better idea we have of how different the world is, you know?
M: So that’s the goal - just keep going.
A: Cool! I like that.
Ana: So Jeff, what are you workin on over here?
Jeff: Just doing the first and most boring step probably. Folding all these pages and collating them into signatures that will then be sewn together and glued together.
A: Is it gonna be a notebook?
A: Awesome. Okay, well, Jeff - what would you like to tell me about your background? what you’ve done, where you’ve been?
J: In regard to my present persona as a maker?
A: Whatever you think is pertinent to where you are now. You can go back to two years old or whenever *laughs*
J: Actually, when i was in the womb…*both laugh* I have this distinctive memory...
I mean, it’s funny because I feel like Matt's and my story obviously coincide, but…
A: What about your beginnings, did you always lean more towards art?
J: I would say certainly earlier on than Matt, in the way he was talking about it...my interest in art, so to speak - [at the age of] 14 is probably when it started. Really all the creative years prior to that were geared towards music. I spent most of the early early years prior to that focusing on making music, which started with - started when my friends in fourth grade were starting a band.
J: Basically watching them start this band and being like, “Well I wanna be a part of it, but I don't do anything”. The only position that they needed was a bass player, so I just picked up bass. Specifically so I could be in their band. And I loved it and learned a lot. But then noticed very quickly that I just had my eye on the drums the whole time and naturally gravitated toward the drums. So I’ve been drumming since I was...whatever that would be...eleven? twelve? So most of the early life was music oriented and then around 14 or 15 I was just drawing a lot, but with no real knowledge of art history or the art world. It was really just me sort of doodling and then a friend of mine freshman year of high school introduced me to her interest in film photography. I was way into it so in order to join her and go on little photo expeditions with her, I bought a ratty, old, beat up 35mm camera off eBay and just took - you know, shallow depth of field photos of flowers and developed them at Walgreens.
A: We’ve all been there! *laughs*
J: I gave them dramatic titles. That was the start of being an artist, if you can call it that.
A: Oh, definitely.
J: From there it really quickly started snowballing and evolving into different things. I would say that photography - the interest and practice of photography led me to go directly into Columbia from high school in the photography program. I was studying photography and music composition while I was there. That lasted three semesters - so that was 2006 to 2008 - and in that period of familial hardship and so on, a lot of things ultimately led me to make the decision to just stop going to school. So I spent the next four years after that waiting tables and traveling intermittently, but really switching my creative practice from photography to painting.
A: So even though you’re not in school, you’re still making work on your own.
J: Definitely. For all four of those years, a lot of my time - my day to day - was: I would go to work, work a shift, go home and paint all night. I was just building up my skills in painting and building up a big body of paintings. Then after four years of that cycle of work, paint, work, paint, travel, go broke, come home, restart; come 2011, I had a moment of pause where I said, “Where exactly is this headed? Is this really providing me with any promise of a deeper fulfillment of these interests? Or is it just sustaining itself as what it is?” So that’s when I said, "Maybe it’s time…"
The troubles we were going through at that time when I dropped out had settled and found their place and so I decided I would go back to school. I applied to - amongst a number of other schools - I applied to SAIC and got in. Having been all muddled up with different doubts about the value of my art practice and the practicality of it, I actually applied to SAIC to become an architecture student.
A: So was that your more practical answer?
J: Well, it was basically me looking at my paintings and saying, “What are you good at?” And recognizing that all of my paintings involved a really meticulous, mathematical, calculated geometry and that was definitely the skill I had developed by making these works. So come that time, I think I was just analyzing where I was at in terms of the skill sets I had developed and saying, “Well, what utilitarian process can I apply this skill to?”, still not really knowing much about art and certainly not knowing anything of what was happening in terms of contemporary art communities in Chicago. For me it was really just this feeling of, "What are these paintings gonna do for me? What can I do with this skill?”.
So I entered SAIC with the intention of becoming an architecture student and really quickly realized that that was not what I was there to do. In the process of applying to SAIC as a first year transfer, you kind of get bottom of the barrel pick in terms of registration, you’re the last people to pick from the catalog, I really didn't have many options. So I actually was inadvertently placed in an intro to sculpture class and just totally fell in love with it immediately.
A: I love that.
J: So yeah, from there it was three years at SAIC of just going really wild experimenting with different sculptural processes and different scales and forms. Then toward the end of the SAIC years, settled really comfortably and excitedly in the niche of installation art. Really started making a lot of large scale installation works. Building that portfolio was what eventually allowed me to go to the ACRE artist residency. And I studied abroad in Ireland for a semester and all of these experiences just added to this energy of - I don’t know, just an energy of encouragement towards being a maker and the fact that that is a practical choice.
A: In and of itself.
J: And that there are communities that are not only making [things] themselves but are a community of encouragement. I feel like since reaching a point where I’m comfortable with art and making really being my main concern, it’s just been this amazing process of building communities of people who share that energy, which I think is a big reason - I think it’s something Matt and I share - and I think it’s a big reason that the Perch has come to be what it is, where it’s kind of this open door community of: "Who can we help? Who can help us?" - just a bunch of makers who really push the meaning of what that title can imply, coming together in the same space. Collaborating, seeing what happens.
A: That’s awesome. What are you working on personally right now?
J: Personally I am kind of down to the line… really trying to find a sweet spot in a piece I am conceptualizing for a show at the University of North Texas. That show is opening at the end of January. And I have to ship the work down there by the second week of January and we leave town in six days and will be gone for three weeks so…*laughs* But it’s gonna be a large scale installation involving many potted plants. A floor based installation that will have this illusion of an abysmal hole in the earth at the center of it.
A: That’s an interest for you, right? I remember your vase piece with the velvet lining. (That created an illusion of infinite or unknown depth.)
J: Yeah, it’s definitely a recurring theme - both the pit, the endless being a symbol I look to for a physical representation of what it feels like to confront the unknown and then the sort of co-centric arrangements, like the mandala arrangements - those just being more geared toward the gravitational pull of things.
J: A lot of the imagery I was working with when I was building that body of paintings as a young painter was geared toward working with symmetry and fractal geometry, so I built up a vocabulary for that kind of geometry and how it can be used symbolically. Anyway, that’s what I’m working on now. And otherwise, once that show is done, I’ll be focusing on the Hatch project. I just got accepted to the Chicago Artist Coalition’s Hatch projects.
A: Oh, I didn’t know that! Congrats!
J: Yeah, so that’ll be a year and a half of being a part of the CAC community and working closely with the artists there and it’ll involve two exhibitions over the next year.
J: So that’s really exciting, I’m really looking forward to that. And otherwise, just crankin' out books.
A: Crankin out books! I love it! Okay, well we’ll keep chatting but I'm gonna grab my camera too.
M: I’ve been waiting to use this paper for so long
A: For something special?
M: Yeah, I just love it so much, it’s almost like it’s sewn or something but I lost it for a while and found it recently.
A: Are you making the notebooks for something specific?
M: Yeah, basically we’re being featured at this event on Saturday - which is a closing for an exhibition - but they’re featuring that we’re gonna be there to sell books, so it’s a good opportunity to make some money before we go to California for a month.
[Of course this event has passed, but you can always find handmade notebooks and current projects on the Perch website!]
[We chat a bit more about shows/markets and selling your own work in person]
A: Personally, I need to work on my confidence and my salesmanship.
M: Which is never an easy thing. It would be easier to just get a sales person.
A: Yeah. Well, actually…
M: You’ve been thinking about that?
A: I was having this conversation with a friend who owns a store right by us and I help her out one day a week and I was telling her the same thing and she says, “I think you’re a great sales person!”. And I was like, “Yeah, when it’s stuff for your store”. So we were saying that maybe we need to switch, she would sell my stuff and see how it goes. Because for me it’s easier to sell something else that I think is cool.
M: Yeah, because you can just be like, “It’s totally awesome!”. Whereas if you’re talking about yourself, that doesn’t come off so well.
M: “I am so awesome!” *laughs*
A: Exactly! But it’s like, I kind of am! And we need to own that, right?!
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