Arts & Culture

The City Versus Creativity: A Conversation on the Boston Art Scene with Brian Huntress and Theodora Earthwurms

by

© Brian Huntress

 

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with local DIY scene fixtures Brian Huntress and Theodora Earthwurms, the hosts of the Boston Art Podcast. Clutching coffees outside a Barnes and Noble, we chatted for over an hour, delving deep into the gears and cogs of the Boston art scene and all its complexities. Both Huntress and Earthwurms have been mainstays in the local DIY art scene for nearly a decade making and selling art, organizing events, and building arts communities across Boston and the South Shore.

While Earthwurms and Huntress host the Boston Art Podcast together, their philosophies on their own lives as artists diverge. Brian considers themselves more of a “creative entrepreneur” (or “art henchman” as they describe it), while Theodora runs the day job beat as more of an “art professional.” Their perspectives on corporate versus community art, the ethics of art making, gatekeeping, careers, and more proved to be a fascinating and consistently entertaining conversation (a luxury not often afforded to those sitting on a hot sidewalk outside of a Barnes and Noble.)

 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

 

HASSLE: So let’s start with the most difficult question. Why don’t you both tell me about your lives and how you identify as artists. What do you tell people? What’s the one-liner, the elevator pitch?

 
THEO: (laughing) Fuck. Brian, you go first.

BRIAN: I guess I tell people something different every time, but I will usually say something along the lines of: I am a fine artist serving private collectors and galleries in the greater Boston area. So that’s what it says on my LinkedIn now. It’s really just like a tagline for a resume. How I actually think of myself though, I think of myself as just a creative entrepreneur, where I’m focusing on amassing resources for myself and for my projects creatively, you know what I mean? Because my whole life I was told that I need a trade or a degree, and that’s true. You do need a trade or a degree. You need to be good at something or you will be useless, right? Right, but I accidentally put all of my eggs into the creative project management basket where it’s so difficult to actually make money from. The really difficult part that I’ve been learning now is how to actually make that a job. So maybe I like to think we’re at the very beginning of something. Everybody in the fucking world has a podcast or wants to do something creative like that, but it feels like we’re in deep and if you’re not doing it now you’ve missed the boat, but that’s probably not true.

 

HASSLE: I think Lindsay Lohan just started one, so maybe the boat’s still at the dock. (laughter)

 

BRIAN: Maybe there’s still something. I really don’t know, but I just think of myself as an art henchman.

 

HASSLE: An art henchman? (laughing) So do you work a day job right now?

 

BRIAN: No. Basically how my life has run over the years is I work for six months to a year and save money and then quit and work on art off the money that I had saved during that job. A lot of touring musicians do that. They’ll work at like 7/11 for 18 months, quit when the tour starts, and then tour for the rest of the year and find some other terrible job to work afterwards. It’s basically living very frugally and taking as much help as I can anywhere I can.

 

HASSLE: All right Theo, your turn.

 

THEO: So, my elevator pitch. I guess it’s complicated because it depends who I’m talking to. I am a fine artist in the sense that I paint a lot and I have a body of work that I want to show, but it’s not primarily how I make money right now. Like what I would put on like a LinkedIn profile or what I would say if I was pitching myself for a job is that I’m an art professional. I do museum field stuff, accounts stuff, managing events like Virago (a former Boston arts collective created by Earthwurms.) Managing artists to create arts opportunities for groups has kind of been my theme throughout my career. I’m kind of in the same place (as Brian) now, figuring out a way to monetize that.

As far as my actual art goes, I’m an expressive artist more than a corporate artist I guess you could say. I do a lot of self portraits, a lot of things with text, a lot of art therapy kind of things. And then if I show them, I show them, if I don’t, I don’t. I have more of the day job angle than the entrepreneurial angle.

 

HASSLE: So you two are different in that way.

 

THEO: Yeah, it’s something we have been talking about a lot lately. It’s kind of a recently crystallized thing. Which has been cool for the podcast too, because it has created roles for us. We were talking about this a few days ago where we’ve kind of identified what our strengths and weaknesses are. Like I do a lot of the scheduling, booking, contract stuff, release forms, things like that for when we record. And I feel like you’re (Brian) more of the talent (laughter).

BRIAN: I like to think about it as the difference between accounts and creative, where you have a lot of administrative strength and you’re very good at coordinating with other people.

THEO: And I like doing stuff like that, making things happen.

BRIAN: I’d be like, “shut up. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. Ask Theo!” (laughter).

 

HASSLE: So the Boston Globe reporter described you guys as “of the DIY ilk”, which I thought was very funny. (laughter) Would you describe the Boston art scene as more corporate or is it more DIY punky stuff like you guys do?

 

THEO: I think there’s multiple layers to it. And a lot of them don’t interact with one another.

BRIAN: No way, because it’s kind of like a lot of the people that are running more DIY galleries, more arts community focused things, maybe even more activism aren’t at all affiliated with like corporate entities and shit like that. I feel like there’s two attitudes. If I had to generalize a lot, there’s art spaces where they want to serve the community and their friends and to lift people up and get people making art- and that’s fucking awesome. Then there’s a lot of, you know, “fancy” art spaces where it’s people making money or trying to, or they’re selling blue chip art, you know what I mean? And that’s cool too. I don’t know, like the arts economy goes from the flea market all the way up to fucking Christie’s. There’s levels to this shit.

THEO: That’s the thing about it that really creates the divide. I think there’s a lot of people at the DIY level or at the, like, working a day job and making art at night level where it’s not accessible for them to meet people that are in the “I’m making $200,000 a year on the art market” kind of space. There’s no personal reason why they wouldn’t interact, but there’s a disagreement about art and the reasons for making it. I think that that creates a big divide because paintings like nudes or portraits of a specific person or paintings with texts, maybe expressive paintings that are about like an angst or pain, something controversial or political would be completely inappropriate in a corporate setting. Like that’s not something that a boss would buy to put on the wall of the office breakroom, you know what I mean? And that’s where a lot of the money is. So there’s this kind of disparity. I think it’s because the ethics behind art making itself is a big divide too.

BRIAN: I mean if you think about it too, can you imagine a corporate office of Fidelity Banks having a big painting of like a guy getting his fucking head cut off with ACAB written on it or something like that? That’s not going to happen.

THEO: That’d be awesome though. (laughter)

BRIAN: No business is ever going to hang up something like that. And I don’t mean businesses like cafes and galleries, maybe they will. But as far as corporate art goes, which every major city as a lot of, most major corporations have their own galleries for their executives and employees.

Maybe it could be safe to say that that actually isn’t even a part of the Boston art scene or community anyway. Like it isn’t necessarily part of the Boston art community.

THEO: There are existential problems too. The cost of rent, the cost of housing, the cost of food, inflation, etc. that make it harder for people to even make art in the first place. So you have to be somebody that’s post-college, that’s still living in the city and is organizing events; and to do all that you’re either getting funding from somewhere or you’re established enough and stable enough that you can do that. You also have to have free time too. I think all of this impacts the scene.

 

HASSLE: So do you think that’s a problem that is particularly present in Boston?

 

THEO: I’m sure it’s everywhere to a degree, but I think Boston does suffer from it because we’re getting more and more expensive. We’re one of the most expensive cities to rent in the country.

 

HASSLE: Alright, we talked about the Boston art scene at-large. Now, why don’t we narrow our scope and have you guys explain the DIY scene, because saying “DIY” isn’t necessarily intuitive for a lot of people.

 

THEO: So the way that I see it, DIY is art that is more accessible. It’s using the materials that you have around you. It’s using what you have and the knowledge that you have to create an end product and then selling it in a way that is affordable to you. So for example, a DIY version of a t-shirt run would be, rather than outsourcing a design to a screen printer and getting a run of like 500 shirts, you might buy the screen, press yourself 25 shirts and bring them to a market. DIY is just “do it yourself” basically, just learning how to do things on your own.

BRIAN: That is a really good description of what DIY ethic is in art. For music that would be a group or an artist that is trying to essentially provide for themselves what traditionally the music industry would provide for them, which would be promotion, distribution, and production.

 

HASSLE: So it’s non-institutional in that sense.

 

THEO: Sometimes even anti-institutional.

BRIAN: You can apply the DIY ethic of providing for yourself to providing for your community too. You can provide for your community what an institution would have provided in the older days of this industry. This could be anything from indie films, DIY journalism, etc. What you’re doing right now would probably be considered DIY journalism.

But if you’re going to apply the Boston DIY scene geographically, people would probably refer to house shows or Boston Hassle events, The Black Market at the Cambridge Elks Lodge, or the Dorchester Art Project. So now we’re talking about arts administration, something that maybe traditionally people would hope that the city would give them through grants or an arts council or something. Instead, it’s people kind of putting it together for themselves.

 

HASSLE: So the DIY scene is definitely community focused in that way.

 

BRIAN: Community created as well. It’s not the city arts council or a big rich donor or something like that. It’s just a bunch of people getting together and doing something.

 

HASSLE: Is it intrinsically the ethic of the DIY scene to be community focused? Or is that just a product of the particular artists in Boston?

 

BRIAN: It depends. Some groups, yes, absolutely. For others it’s by necessity. Some people are doing it because there’s no money. People are gonna do their creative projects regardless so this way they can try to actually make money off it.

THEO: Another thing that I think plays into it too is systemic prejudices and inaccessibility to things like arts education, funding, stuff like that. I feel like a lot of people of color, queer people, femme creators, non-cis creators, etc. tend to start in the DIY community or lean towards the DIY community over the course of their career because it’s usually more supportive. You don’t necessarily need the starting money to get going, you can save costs on things.

It’s that shared experience that creates a heavy commitment to supporting the community. If we can already do it from the beginning, we don’t need someone else’s help. We’ll just do this on our own. I think for a lot of people, there’s an ethos and morality to it.

 

HASSLE: You said earlier something about “leveling up” or getting into the upper echelons of the art scene. What does that mean and who or what are the gatekeepers to that higher level for artists in the DIY space?

 

BRIAN: I think the answer to that question has been changing for a while. For younger artists, we’re kind of in an era right now of sneaking around gatekeepers. Things like Tik Tok, being able to produce your own content, being able to make your own podcasts, etc. Not too long ago what we’re doing with the Boston Art Podcast would have had to be sanctioned by a radio station. We would have had to have someone to green-light us.

There’s also this abstract and kind of bizarre way of thinking about it, where there almost aren’t gatekeepers anymore. It’s like the gatekeeper is now the mob, the mass of people and their attention. Now, the best artist is not the one you see. The best artist is the person with insane amounts of attention on them for no fucking reason like Jeff Koons. (laughter)

 

HASSLE: I’m really interested in talking more about the gatekeeper as the mob, as attention. I like that. But also, from what we’ve been talking about, I’m guessing the gatekeeper is also your own capacity for unpaid volunteer labor.

 

BRIAN: A hundred percent true. That’s another thing, you’re only going to do it if you actually love it. It sucks because nobody should be forced to do unpaid labor for anything. I think it’s kind of like one of those things with art and music where there’s nobody that is doing it conveniently as a come-up. Like: “Oh this is just something I’m good at. So I’m just farming money from it.” That’s not happening. People are working hard because they love it.

 

HASSLE: And there’s no route to “plug-in” like there is for people in finance or something like that.

 

BRIAN: Yeah, someone who’s working in finance might not give a fuck about finance at all.

 

HASSLE: And most probably don’t, right? (laughter)

 

THEO: I feel like that’s where a lot of the commitment to the DIY scene comes in. So when you’re talking about the capacity to do unpaid labor, there is a cap to that. Say maybe you’re 19 years old and you’re paying for your siblings to eat every week, or you’re fucking working 50 hours a week already just to pay your student loans off and you have like five hours a week to do art. In that setting, looking at somebody that maybe doesn’t have a job or has more free time or has financial backing from their families, those people are existing in the same cities, in the same circles, at the same parties, competing for the same jobs, competing for the same clients as everyone else. So it can be really frustrating. I feel like that’s why people create these communities where it’s like, I will pay this much for artist housing so that you can pay less, or I will do the show with you and I’ll do the extra labor because it benefits you because I know that you can’t. And then people pay back into it when they can. It creates this symbiosis that brings everybody up.

 

HASSLE: Do you think that there is a responsibility for more privileged artists to provide for less privileged artists?

 
BRIAN: I think it’s also not just about whether you should provide, but asking what you can provide. And, you know, a lot of the time saying “nothing” is not an acceptable answer.

THEO: There’s a lot you can do that doesn’t cost you anything. Like for some people it’s just sharing someone’s posts on social media frequently enough that your followers see their posts all the time and follow them. Or if you have a lot of money and you buy someone’s painting, or if you just introduce two people. The way that I have the job that I have right now is somebody that is much more established in the art world than me just liked my work and liked me as a person and just told me to apply for something and put in good work for me.

That stuff doesn’t cost you any money and barely any time. Would anybody hunt you down if you didn’t do it? Probably not, but ethically, I think you should.

 

HASSLE: Let’s talk about the podcast. It’s a platform that you both share and share with the community. Where do you find that line between personal project and community orientation and how does a podcast style platform fit within the DIY community?

 

THEO: It wasn’t necessarily the plan initially to be community-focused, but we realized, once we got the kind of response that we started to get, that there aren’t a lot of platforms for artists to talk about who they really are. It’s hard to get an idea of who somebody actually is and the ethics behind what they make. For independent creators, unless you want to be recording every minute of your life, it’s hard to make more vulnerable, relatable content. That’s what we’re doing with the podcast. It’s uncommon to see a long-format, unedited recording of someone just shooting the shit with you.

BRIAN: We are cultivating a platform where we make our guests look awesome. Basically, we bring somebody on, we have a really fun and interesting and educational conversation with them where they look fucking smart and they have fun. Everyone has a good time and everyone laughs. I feel like that’s kind of a service in itself. We’re giving people a space where we’re not going to ask them, like, “What type of brushes do you use?” or like “What brand of paint do you prefer?” We’re just like let’s fuck around. Let’s talk shit. Let’s be stupid. I don’t know. But I feel like that’s what I want. That’s what we want to give to people. That’s what we want to give to our guests.

THEO: I think that’s the other thing too, that I think is nice about podcasting as a format. At a DIY level, you don’t have the kind of access to actually build a connection with somebody. Instead, you’re looking at their product, you’re being sold to. There’s sort of a dissonance there. What you see is a corporate identity, an outward identity, an entertaining identity, but you don’t actually feel like you know that person, which means you’re not really invested in their success. I feel like if you listen to somebody talk about what they’re really passionate about and really excited about for an hour, you create more of an investment where you’re like, I actually know a little bit about this person, maybe I could meet them and I would be able to talk to them.

 

HASSLE: Do you think that that kind of vulnerability is the key to success as an independent creator? Brian, you have 100k followers on TikTok and you often do pretty personal, emotional audios in your videos. Do you think that sort of intimacy is what people are looking for?

 

THEO: I feel like when you think about it in a contemporary sense, it’s definitely more about the intimacy and vulnerability than the craft itself. A lot of the reason that people fall in love with Vincent van Gogh- most people don’t give a fuck about that style of painting, it’s not about the lines- is because he was this mentally ill, troubled artist whose narrative you can fall in love with and really emotionally connect with him. When you go to see his paintings it’s that narrative that makes them romantic.

I know that’s true for me. I listened to a person on the podcast and they talked about how they have these financial struggles which really impacts them making art, and they were really emotional about it. I was able to relate to that because that’s my experience too. It makes you care more about what this person is doing and going through, and it might make you go to a show or buy some work from them. It might make you show up routinely on social media or in
person to support their career.

BRIAN: I think with podcasting I wouldn’t even call it intimacy or relatability specifically, to me it’s media realism. When you watch the news or when you’re watching, I don’t know, like Jimmy Kimmel or something like these are media publications, where it’s a host interviewing a person and you are trying to learn about them, but you can always hear the script. You know what I mean? I think there’s a huge audience for things that are unscripted, that are more real, that are almost voyeuristic. Kind of like a candid photo where you’re not seeing this person necessarily how they want to be seen, you’re just seeing them just as they were when they were recorded.

HASSLE: So what you’re trying to accomplish with the podcast is more like peeling back that layer of artifice and giving someone this media realism so that they can not only connect with the artists, but also with their art. I like that. Wrapping up, let me ask about the impact the podcast has had on the local community. What do you know about your audience?

THEO: What we do know about our audience and impact is that the people that listen to the podcast listen pretty routinely. We have a lot of people that come back for more episodes and we get messages here and there. Usually we get one every couple of episodes where somebody sends a really long message saying something like “I’ve thought this about what you said,” or “I did this because of this,” or “This impacted me and changed the way that I’m making art.” That’s always really crazy to me.

 

HASSLE: That’s what you want, right?

 

THEO: Definitely.

BRIAN: 100%.

 

 

You can find Theodora and Brian by clicking the following links:

 

Brian
Theodora

 

Check out the Boston Art Podcast on Spotify, Apple Music, or wherever you get your podcasts.

 

Joey Wolongevicz is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.

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