An Interview With TechArtista Artists-In-Residence Basil Kincaid And Jacob Berkowitz

 Basil Kincaid | Jacob Berkowitz

Basil Kincaid | Jacob Berkowitz

It’s a spring day in St. Louis and the sun has finally decided to grace the city, highlighting the grey stone and red doors of an old church in the The Grove, which TechArtista has partially converted into artist’s studio and living space. While it retains the trappings of its original purpose as a church, one side of the upstairs studio is nearly covered in colorful fabric, where artist Basil Kincaid continues to explore traditional quilting practices. Artist Jacob Berkowitz is firmly entrenched on the other side, where an abstract, gestural painting and sculptural practice continues to be explored and expanded upon. Both artists also live here; it’s tax season, and a variety of receipts are strewn across the floor of one of the neighboring bedrooms.

As Kincaid and Berkowitz exemplify, TechArtista’s Artist-In-Residence programs offers living quarters, studio space and opportunities to working artists, with a philosophy that honors the deep importance of the arts. Keep reading to learn more about the two currents artists-in-residence and what the program has meant for their respective studio practices.

 Jacob Berkowitz

Jacob Berkowitz

What’s it like living together and working together in this space?

Basil: You’re always surrounded by the work. Being an artist, there’s always something to be done, whether it’s making the art, answering emails or taking care of administrative things. In this past year, I’ve noticed dramatic growth in my practice and career. But I’m also realizing I have to learn a better balance, so I don’t just work all the time. Being in a church is a nice metaphor too: it’s this sanctuary where you’re devoted to your passion and breathing life into it.

Jacob: We really do wake up, then walk in here and just start working. It definitely took time to understand how to balance out this new scenario of total entrenchment. It's really hard for me to imagine not living this close to my studio ever again. It feels wholly me in here. Though, I definitely have to force myself to leave sometimes.

Tell me a little bit about each of your backgrounds and what you’re working on right now.

Basil: Right now I’m primarily working on large-scale quilts and taking photographs, with some sculpture. My background is in drawing and painting, but when I left school I started looking more into found objects, collecting and looking at other ways to be resourceful. I really couldn’t afford to make the work I was making when I was in school in Colorado. It was a great school, but I was the only Black artist in the department. Coming back to St. Louis, I wanted to connect with a whole new energy. I wanted to meet other Black artists and see what people were making that they were just passionate about.

It also opened me up to explore ancestry in art. The pieces I’m working on now are made from my family member’s clothes, almost as portraits. It’s been this journey of finding my own voice outside of what people may think is popular or successful. I wanted to make art that was true to me and my personal story, of St. Louis and people and places that are important to me.

 Basil Kincaid

Basil Kincaid

What was it like to be the only Black artist in your program?

Basil: I had kind of gotten used to it. Growing up I went to private schools, so it was the same way. It comes with its own set of frustrations. At the time I felt like there were some conversations that I didn’t yet know how to facilitate, and there was a lot of internalizing. But all the other students in my department were cool—they were interesting people, and very talented artists. But it still felt isolating. That’s the main thing: feeling alone. It’s weird to feel alone and be around people that you do love and care for.

But from an art perspective, there were definitely times where I had ideas for pieces I wanted to make, but I felt like I couldn’t, because I didn’t feel like they would understand where I was coming from or be vulnerable enough to question their own responses to it.

Can you make the work you want to make in St. Louis, even with all of its racial struggles?

Basil: That’s actually a big part of the work that I make. St. Louis is the perfect place to engage these ideas. The work is really relative to the place, and St. Louis has made me who I am in a number of ways. You get two educations in St. Louis, as a Black person. You learn how to do what’s “normal,” and then you also learn how to maneuver while being Black. I really like having my work be relative to St. Louis. I like telling the stories that come out of this place and how they impact me and the people around me. That was the thing too: coming from St. Louis and then going to Colorado, they’re not used to seeing what we see so often. The students I was around had never really acknowledged or examined their ingrained whiteness.

The quilting feels very tied to St. Louis and very natural here. There actually used to be a major quilting community where part of Highway 40 is now, which was a Black neighborhood. So these traditions I’m continuing now are related to that. I actually have a piece in the room that’s a 100-year old quilt from a St. Louis quilter. It’s just waiting to be explored.

 Jacob Berkowitz

Jacob Berkowitz

Jacob, has St. Louis similarly impacted your work? What inspires what you make?  

Jacob: St. Louis is where I'm from, so it's inherently part of my work. In fact, I've never even been away from here for longer than a 4 month stretch of time. For me, the impact that St. Louis has had on my work has to do with the people here who mentored me to be an artist. When I was 18, I really jumped into the art scene and sought out people who were doing work that I was inspired by, and folks were really receptive. A real benefit of this city being so small is that people aren't so much in competition, but rather just want to share and build with each other.

I've definitely reclused a bit from the scene lately and haven't been showing my work publicly as much as I used to. I needed some time to break down and rebuild some things, and this residency has been really good time and space for that.

The people in my life and the conversations that I have really motivate me to continue making my work and asking my questions. It's the really deep connections with folks where I am really able to exist as I am and be challenged in the deep parts of myself that push me.

There are so many roadblocks that can lead creative people towards self-destructive reactions. Can art be an antithesis to that?

Jacob: Definitely. I think it’s a lifesaver for me, and for a lot of people.

Basil: Definitely for me too.

Jacob: I don’t think I could really love myself if I wasn’t doing this.

Basil: As I dig deeper and deeper into my work, I experience greater and greater freedom. There’s an untouchable space that’s just full of joy. It’s like I’m watching myself experience it. I don’t know the exact right word for it, but we have access to this deep well of energy and positivity that daily life distracts us from. It makes me want to cry. It feels so good to be that free. Even when I was younger, I realized that when I was drawing, nobody could tell me what to do. I could do whatever I wanted, and nobody could stop it.

Jacob: It’s a real access to a type of freedom.

Basil: Yeah, exactly.

Jacob: For me, art is where I’m able to really see my humanity. This psychologist whose work I’m reading right now, Erich Fromm, says in short “the purpose of humanity is to unfold one’s power.” I really resonate with that. That’s always how I’ve felt with my work and the way I move through the world. The people I connect with enjoy learning about themselves, and I enjoy learning about myself. This is a very fascinating space to exist, where people that are able to respect and love themselves enough to unfold that power and share it. And one's power can exist anywhere, this is not just limited to what is deemed art.

Basil: Artists see things that everyday life teaches you not to see. It can show people another way to experience the world and themselves.

As full-time artists, it’s really hard to make a living. How have you both pulled it off, and how do you manage that piece of this?

Basil: My dad always said, “Nothing worthwhile is easy.” And I’ve had “normal” jobs, but they just left me feeling so depressed. I just didn’t want to continue on. I’m willing to face any challenge as an artist, instead of having to exist with that feeling. And it is a struggle. It’s definitely not easy, but that’s why things like this studio and living space are invaluable. As difficult as it is to navigate, if you operate out of passion, everything you need to move forward will materialize.

It is a journey. Like you’re feeling around in the dark.

With art too, I think the thing to also remember is to never give up. Giving up is what cashes out a lot of talented people, because it is very difficult. But I’m applying all the force I know how to apply to make it work. As I get better and smarter, I’m learning how to apply that pressure more efficiently. And maybe it does take a healthy amount of delusion to embark on this [laughs]. And nobody can tell on the outside if you’re being honest with yourself on the inside. But I really believe if you surrender, everything will be fine.

Now, it’s possible I’ve just convinced myself of all that just so I don’t go crazy. And when I had a salaried job, it made things so much easier. But to me, the higher the risk the higher the reward, This is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. Even when I’m sleeping on the floor, I just feel—alive.

Jacob: Certainly, many of the privileges I was born with play a large role in my ability to sustain myself as an artist. It does take a fair amount of risk-taking to feel comfortable enough to push forward making my work without knowing when my next money will be coming in. But it's important to put into perspective that the source of my risk-taking is enabled by a particular level of comfortability I have been given that many people have not.

I don't hold myself up on a pedestal for being able to make it work because I know a lot of creative, talented, smart, caring, and dedicated people that have different circumstances than me which prevent them from doing the same. Our society has pretty clear boundaries around who it will allow to make it in this world and I was born into a body and a class that put me and my work inside those boundaries. Parts of me have to squeeze a fair amount to fit into them, and it's anywhere from harder to impossible for people whose work, mentality, skin color, and body type fall further away from the center of those boundaries. Not to mention the vast amount of people whose artistry exists in methods outside of what the art world deems as art or art objects. Some of my most creative friends don't even call themselves artists because their artistry doesn't produce an object that is deemed art, or they didn't know to call it art, or they were told by someone it was worthless. While the world is against them, poor single mothers come up with the most creative solutions to rear their children, there is artistry there, what do they get?

I just can't answer this question without acknowledging how catastrophic I think the system of greed-ridden capitalism we are all living in is, and the severe damage that it, racism, patriarchy, and colonialism have done to all of us as individuals and as a society. And how those things really paint the landscape for who gets to be an artist and how that operates.

To answer how I have pulled it off and how I manage it given the above context; the work that I make is palatable, and my personality and body type make it relatively easy for me to sell that work. I keep my expenses low, and I'm thrifty as hell, thanks to my parents and some DIY folks that I've spent time around. Yes, I'm Jewish, make your stereotypes. I try not to buy a lot of things I don't need, and I try and take care of those things as best I can so that I don't have to buy them again. I pay with my time, body, and brain for a lot of things to avoid trying to make more money to be able to pay with dollars. And certainly, I could do better in this regard, always.

This residency has been a huge part of making it work for the time I've been here; as obvious as it may sound, time and space are crucial. For everyone, artist or not. Those two things are a priceless gift that I am very grateful for.