Art Work #3: Jill Bumby, Anonymous Performance Artist

Welcome to installment three of the series colloquially known as “ART! WORK! WORK! ART! ART! YEAH! BUT MOSTLY WORK!” I’m thrilled to bring you this latest interview, as it is simultaneously aspirational, brutally honest, and full of fantastic advice. Jill Bumby is a performance artist who, along with her counterpart Gill, has appeared everywhere from Art Basel Miami to the Whitney Museum of American Art (and about a zillion places in between). I can’t tell you how I know her, but suffice it to say that she’s amazing. I’ll let her take it from here:

So here’s my act: Since 2008, I’ve been part of a performance duo known as The Bumbys. You will find us at fancy parties and big events all over the world. (We also have an app.) Gill & Jill Bumby are anonymous and costumed, we do not speak, and we can’t hear you because we are listening to loud music on our custom headphones. What we do is sit at a table for hours at a time and type up a fair and honest appraisal of your appearance using electric Brother typewriters that half of our clientele haven’t seen since college, and rate each person on the decimal scale between one and ten. It’s a little narrative about you typed on an index card that you can keep forever in a frame (or ball it up and throw it away like some teens tend to do). The reason we wear masks is because it’s not about us, it’s about you, and also to keep the mystery alive.

The first time I saw Gill Bumby do his thing solo at a party, I knew that I had to be involved. He needed a counterpart to take it to the next level, and I needed a creative project to balance out my day job. It all came together really quickly, first by working with an art gallery who sponsored us at Art Basel that same year, then we started getting hired by a lot of brands. We got a manager and some team members who deal with the public and do our talking for us. It’s shocking that it’s still going strong almost 10 years later, but it makes sense, too. People really want to know how they come across to strangers, and they always will. 

So! You’re a performance artist. And a writer. And you work in Big Book Publishing. What came first? How’d you decide to do more than one?

I’ve always been really bossy and opinionated, and I’m an extrovert who enjoys working behind the scenes in support of creative projects I believe in. In high school I was a cheerleader and I organized a punk rock show to benefit a charity for my senior project. I was always inserting myself into the conversation. In college I considered studying art history, but a friend thought that was lame—”Why not just be an artist?” I remember being really shocked by that—I didn’t have any talent that I knew of; I couldn’t draw or play the guitar, I’d long since given up ballet. My creative strength was being in the moody pictures my photographer boyfriend took of me, and appreciating the fact that the Pixies were a perfect band. (So naturally I studied to become a social worker.) I never wanted to admit that what came naturally to me was writing, that I could in fact make a living as a writer. And yet many years later I do. I live in New York City and I’ve been living the dream in book publishing since 2000. Working with authors is stimulating to say the least—it’s like being a therapist—so I think that’s why I keep at it, because it certainly isn’t the money. Ten years into my career, I had more confidence about my own skills. I started to publish some pieces here and there. Then I got the Bumby gig, where I could apply my skills as a reader of human behavior. Ghosting other people’s books makes sense because as Jill, I’m literally a ghost, writing.

I’m the equivalent of a working actor, not famous, but known in certain circles and consistently employed. Every once in awhile I get treated like royalty and get to be in rooms with Tina Fey, or I’m on location in Paris or something. (Though often the location is New Haven at Zane’s bar mitzvah, and I’m sharing a dressing room with a living avatar.)

I’m busy and creatively challenged, but I have to have all the balls in the air if I’m going to make the kind of money that allows one to live in Brooklyn and afford healthcare. My work in publishing is “at large,” so I only need to take on book projects that I think I can contribute to in a significant way. I have employers, but no one is really the boss of me. It’s a 1099 existence.

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Art Work #2: Shayla Lawson, Author and Generally Creative Person

Shayla Lawson is one of the top five most fashionable people I know. And so when I was moving out of Bloomington, Indiana in a flurry of minimalist purging and giving away mounds of clothes, I was deeply flattered that she picked out a sparkly blue dress I found in a thrift store in New Orleans. PS: It looks great on her. But enough about the sisterhood of the sparkly dress! Shayla is both highly creative and highly productive, a fellow freelancer in the trenches, with degrees in the kindred topics of poetry and architecture. She writes, designs, sings, composes, draws, and dances.

Her work has appeared in print and online at Tin House, GRAMMA, ESPNSalonThe OffingGuernica, Colorado Review, Barrelhouse, and MiPOesias.  She is the author of: A Speed Education in Human BeingPANTONE, and the forthcoming I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean. She is a 2017 Oregon Literary and MacDowell Colony Fellow, and a member of The Affrilachian Poets. Here, she talks about transitioning between artistic states, creating a persona when applying for jobs, and being “employment fluid.”

photo by Erica J Mitchell

 

At parties, what do you say when people ask you what you do?

I say “I’m a copywriter…” and then will often change it to “Well, I’m a writer.”

Is there anywhere, in the telling of what you do, that you stumble?

Absolutely. When people push me past the explanation of what I write on a daily basis—”I write emails for [insert name of major retailer here]”—into a more expansive inquiry into what my day looks like, then I tell them that I freelance as an essayist. If they get really interested (or I’ve had a few cocktails) I explain to them I’m a poet and that part of my freelance work involves writing, publishing, and performing in support of my passion project.

Are there any points where people push or pry? (e.g., “How do you make money doing that?” or “Is there even any market for that anymore?”)

People don’t seem to much anymore. I think the ‘I write emails for X’ answer lets them know how I feed myself and the fact that I am still working as a published poet, a published poet who has published books, they definitely treat it with more respect than just a hobby. At a barbecue this weekend, I had a very successful industrial designer (what I originally thought I wanted to be) tell me that she always felt envious of writers because they always seemed so interesting, and in my mind I thought, “Yeah, but you can afford a house and a kid AND the expensive shoes we both love”… so ultimately, I think it’s often me that does most of the pushy prying and judging.

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Art Work #1: Dame Darcy, Cartoonist and Mermaid

Hello hello! Welcome to a new interview series I’m working on. (I’ll publish it here and on Medium and Goodreads, so follow it wherever feels right.) In it, I’ll be talking to people (mostly wimz [a cool new abbreviation for “women” that I just invented]) about how they get their artwork done and what the work of art looks like and how they feel about it all. Topics will range from the practical (income) to the spiritual (muses, religion). I find myself with a nearly insatiable appetite for learning what artists honestly think about their own processes, but I’m also sick of interviews that focus heavily on daily routines (I DON’T CARE THAT YOU MEDITATE FOR TEN MINUTES EVERY MORNING), so this is my small and honest contribution to our rabid human obsession with knowing what other humans are doing.

still from a film by Joel Schlemowitz, featuring Dame Darcy as a fairy

Dame Darcy, subject of this first installment, is impossible to describe in just a few sentences, but I’ll try.

She’s an illustrator, a graphic novelist, a musician, a filmmaker, a sea captain, and a doll-maker who once made a doll for Francis Bean Cobain using an actual lock of Kurt’s hair. She has met and worked with people like Edward Gorey, Tiny Tim, Courtney Love, Margaret Cho, John Waters, Neil Gaiman, Anna Sui, Tori Amos, and Tim Burton. She has completed over 50 published works along with countless short films, fine art exhibits, albums, and three optioned screenplays—and has had her work knocked off by Forever 21—yet is still unfairly delegated to the “underground.” Her art is full of beautiful undead ladies, pirate kings, and a fascinating girl named “Richard Dirt.” Her neo-Victorian aesthetic has been hugely influential for the past 2+ decades. Her collected works, published in Meat Cake Bible, were recently nominated for the prestigious Eisner Award. And I’m incredibly lucky that she also happens to be the illustrator of my book, for which she drew 14 of the coolest, goth-iest, witchiest female serial killers you’ll ever see. 

PS: I’m gonna buy this Alice in Wonderland print from her Etsy shop and you should, too.

via instagram.com/damedarcy

TT: Your work has a distinct gothic/Victorian undertone. Have you always been drawn to this aesthetic, even as a kid?

DD: Asking me interview questions about why I’m goth is like trying to take a sip of water from a blasting fire hydrant. When I’m on the subway, old Russian guys speak to me in Russian, they think I’m from there. That’s because where I am from is like Siberia. Dark, cold, and isolated behind the largest mountain range in the US, and run by a cult. Continue reading →