Sophie Durbin is an multidisciplinary artist. In this interview, learn about Sophie’s installation work, thoughts on self-promotion, and upcoming events at her South Minneapolis art space: Pancake House.
Tell me about your body of work. What are you currently working on?
In the past few years, I have focused on installation. This kicked off with a tiny paper silhouette version of the Witches’ Hat Water Tower at the Smallest Museum in St. Paul in 2015. I also created a food and beverage licensing office set in 1972 in the fictional town of Corrty Pye, Michigan. That was the most complex work I’ve done to date because every component was interactive. I returned to Corrty Pye for a performance/talk at the Mid-America College Art Association conference in Lincoln, Nebraska this fall. I like to be imaginative on the most banal, minute levels like creating fake government paperwork or conducting fake science about tidal energy. There have also been two small installations in New York - I really like showing work in other places and have been hoping to do more of it, but it’s so much easier to collaborate with people that are right down the road from you. I have another installation coming up over that will be a bit of a Stations of the Cross but with haptic poetry (coincidentally it will fall on Easter weekend). Otherwise, I’ve done some written work and contributed to POND presented by Tagvverk.
While I am still dedicated to my personal artistic practice, I find myself shifting toward a DIY curatorial path now. I’m currently working out of Pancake House, a multipurpose art space located in South Minneapolis. In 2018, we experimented with events like a science fair and video game lecture night. We’re about to present our first cohesive season called the Early Spring Haptics Lab. Haptics is any interaction involving touch and it’s been a fascination of mine forever - I wanted to be a massage therapist for awhile and still consider massage/ bodywork a minor hobby. I’m interested in touch and the nervous system. My goal for Pancake House is to, over time, produce thematic series of events that situate art in different fields of scientific inquiry.
How did you decide to become an artist?
I have been creative in one way or another my entire life and I have never committed to one medium, though I’ve been more attracted to installation in recent years because it’s a way to activate the same part of my brain that allowed me to play house or make believe as a kid. I am often overcome with inspiration and have nowhere else to go except to create something.
What do you enjoy most about being an artist? What is most challenging?
The best part is coming up with ideas. I am a daydreamer. If I could coast along with my unfinished idea list, call it art, and forget about the execution, that would be the life. I do enjoy the more obsessive and detail-oriented aspects of creating work, and I also thrive on the research phase if I’m delving deep into something I’m unfamiliar with.
Marketing and self-promotion are painful for me. I often wish art, even something like a performance or a participatory installation, wasn’t measured by how many human individuals were there to see it. It’s a tree falling in the woods phenomenon. How many people have shied away from creating art because they knew they’d have to somehow find a venue for it and attract people to an opening? I have so much respect for individuals who are good at marketing and self-promotion because it is a thankless task. We have so many tools that are supposed to make it easier. These tools worked for a bit (think of Facebook events, Instagram posts, etc) and now just get swallowed in the algorithmic sea. I think it’s always been difficult to get people to care about art, but nowadays we have clearer (and more depressing) metrics for it, so when you experience a “failure” - though I prefer not to think of an under-attended exhibition or event as a failure if it was well-thought out - it is more visible.
What was the best advice given to you as an artist? Any examples of bad advice and how you moved past it?
I had a grade school art teacher who told us to “always do art in odd numbers” and I follow that rule very strictly. I also had a dance instructor who had a list of rules on her studio door that strongly discouraged the use of symmetry, which I think is roughly the same concept. I doubt either teacher meant for me to take this advice so literally, but I do think creating things asymmetrically has made my work more compelling.
Bad advice: I’ve been lucky not to spend much time following advice I sense to be bad, but I resent when anyone gives me advice based on vague concepts like “following my inner self” or “following my heart.” If someone is going to take the time to give me advice, I need specificity.
How do you hope audiences experience your work?
I hope people find it interesting and that it makes them want to linger.
Is there any direction or medium you’ve always wanted to try but haven’t yet?
I don’t think I have the work ethic for it, but I have a deep love for cinema and still fantasize about making movies sometimes.
Many artists struggle to find ways to sell their art. How do you sell your work? How do you market yourself?
I tend to use my own possessions as materials and I’m a hoarder, so that pretty much rules out sales. However, I do struggle in a way many artists can relate to in that I am constantly funding projects out of my own pocket. This limits me constantly. I always have my eyes open for outside funding opportunities. The applicant pool for grants and other funding is so much deeper than the amount of money there is to go around. It’s sad. As for marketing, I mentioned above that I hate it - but it’s a necessary evil. I make it easier on myself by hand-drawing flyers, which I find less taxing than using a screen. I use social media. I promote events on MN Artists, which I check all the time and think is a good local resource. I also believe word of mouth is the best marketing tool and am always trying to make connections with people who would be interested in what I’m up to.
Who are some other Twin Cities artists you enjoy?
Nailah Taman (https://nailahtaman.wordpress.com/) Her work scratches deep, visceral itches.
Mickey Doe (@mamaleh_lemonrind on Instagram is the best place to find her wares) makes jewelry that is often abstract but always precise and purposeful.
Miriam Karraker (https://miriamkarraker.com/) is an excellent example of a successfully multidisciplinary artist. And she is my studio mate!
Cori Lin (https://corilin.co/) Cori and I moved here over the same summer nearly 5 years ago and within that time-span her work has become essential to the Minneapolis art landscape.
Do you have any exhibits/ events to promote in the near future?
Early Spring Haptics Lab will be presented this Spring at Pancake House. Here are the event dates:
Touch Screens: A very tactile video night
Saturday, February 23, 7 - 10 pm
Hands-On: A Collective Haptic Perspective
Friday, March 22, 7 - 10 pm
Saturday/ Sunday, March 23 - 24, 1 - 5 pm
The Quisp and the Body: A multi-station installation
Saturday/Sunday, April 20 - 21, 1 - 5 pm
For more of Sophie’s work, check out www.sophiedurbin.com.
Pancake House is located at 4553 S. 34th Ave in Minneapolis. Follow on Facebook for event information at https://www.facebook.com/unoriginal.pancakehouse/.
All images courtesy of the artist.
Interview written and edited by Sarah Kass.