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Diary of a Texas Art Residency: Tracey Moffatt

Originally published 1995


Week One: Excited to arrive at ArtPace in San Antonio Texas USA. Great to get out of my home town Sydney to be an artist-in-residence for two months. I meet the fabulous art patron Linda Pace Roberts and her staff.

Everything is new but not so different. A lot like any Western World big city except quite pretty and very Spanish speaking. Locals immediately assume I'm Latina which I love. I am being a tourist—I shop, and meet local artists. They sure like to party in this town which is very fun but I know I'll get bored with it all and just want to concentrate on my work.

Stay awake at night trying to finalize what I will create. The concept for these new photographs is fuzzy. I've been thinking about what I am to make now for four months. I thought I was very clear about what I wanted to do but now I am having doubts.

Three words—Violence, Sex, Glamour. The photos must have all of this.

Images—Sport (I love all sports I think, especially the aggressive contact ones like football—pure entertainment!).

The Roller Derby (one of my favourite sports to watch on television as a child, where both men's and women's teams were encouraged to be violent with each other, even though it was all choreographed and funny). They were always going over that wooden rail and into the crowd, and I don't recall much padding for protection. It was a low-down dirty grunge game and the women were big, tough and working class. It was all good unmonitored violence, aggression and competitiveness.

Movement, women—big and tough, not perfect bodies—in muted colours, the texture of the cloth, in a dark nowhere space
(not bright and colourful and on a real location such as a skating rink as previously conceived). Chickening out once again. Will I ever take the camera outside and just 'capture'? Never!

At four in the morning I sit up in bed and make thumbnail sketches. Ten different set ups, ten photos, large—30 x 40. Great, I know what the photos will be. All those shopping hours haven't been wasted, I was thinkin', I was thinkin'!

Week

Two: Reality sets in.

Depression and grumpiness! How the hell am I going to pull off these photos? I don't know my way around town which means I'll probably be an obvious target for a drive-by shooting! Plus I'm too scared to try driving on the right hand side, and the highways look terrifying.
The nice staff at ArtPace aren't going to drive me around forever—the excitement over me being the new girl will wear off.

I take a couple of driving lessons, whew, it's all okay I get the hang of it. I hire a car, I'm doing all right. But the women, where will I find five fabulous women? I want African American and Hispanic but a couple of gringos with tans might also do. Why? Because it's a god-damned visual thing that's why!

I contact some well-known African American and Hispanic cultural groups thinking they would be helpful, and welcome me as 'a sister', but the women bosses are overworked and mean to me:

Hello my name is Tracey Moffatt I'm a visiting artist... blab blab...

What do you want 11?

Well ... I ...

Dear I don't have time to sit here giving you phone numbers ...

As well they challenge me over the pathetic fee ($80 a night) I offer to pay the women. They're all boring here, just plain boring! Makes me just want to cast happy-go-lucky blondes who'd kill to be in 'art photos'.

I visit a huge Texas-size high tech gymnasium and explain my plight to the owner. He gives me a two-week guest pass and encourages me to hang around and look for amazons. I feel like a dork, nervously standing to the side checking out the women.

The owner tells me about two well-endowed showgirls who come in in the mornings. I'll have to hunt them down. This means getting up early!

I consider going to strip joints and looking. One local boy artist gets turned on at the thought of accompanying me in my 'research'. I drop the idea, I can't bear the thought of trying to explain what I want to the owners of the 'Gentlemen's Clubs'. Also, having to knock on a stripper's door and then me sounding like the nerd artist that I am!

During the next month I collect a million San Antonio names and telephone numbers in my filofax: contacts—names of potential models, potential crews, film laboratories, equipment hire stores, etc. It seems to be moving so slowly, a lead here and there.

I would love to leave town and drive into the desert and look at it. This is really why I have come to Texas. I want to go to Marfa, Donald Judd land, only it's an eight-hour drive away. I can't though, as I keep thinking I'll miss something or someone.

Patron Linda's occasional invitations to fabulous dinners and nights out with local artists save me, taking my mind off the matters at hand.
One local Latino painter ticks me off about calling him Hispanic. He says it is too general a word. I'm learning. Then someone else corrects me and says to stop saying Latino, to say Chicano. I'm learning. By the way the best art I see in this part of America is by Chicano artists, just the hottest painting. Cesar Martinez and Alex Rubio are my new heroes.

With delicious time to myself I frequent the local library and the very few bookshops, read: Leni Riefenstahl's autobiography, Tallulah Bankhead's autobiography, Holy Terror (one of the Andy Warhol biographies), the making of Gone With the Wind.

 

Watch on video: a Picasso documentary, an avant-garde artists of Russia documentary, a Frida Kahlo documentary (terrible, just a bunch of American women artists 'responding to the cult of Frida'), a sports documentary on Jesse Owens (sobbed through this one), Baby Doll, Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More, The Manchurian Candidate, The Arrangement, Raisin in the Sun and since I'm in Texas I can't resist GiantaW over again. (I notice some people here are still mean about Mexican Americans just like in this movie.)

As well now that cable television has been installed in my apartment I find it hard to stop channel surfing the forty-five stations.
But back to work. In my vast studio space I tediously paint my only prop, a wooden rail. Without my usual help of a 'set designer'. I feel so noble doing 'manual labour', like a 'real artist', in her 'studio'. (I realise that this is the first time I've ever had a 'studio'.)

Then finally it all comes together. I find my wonderful models from all walks of life. Some are part-time dancers, one is an accountant, one isa ex-film-person-now-caterer. It's funny butthe bitchy women bosses who didn't help me before really come through in the end. They give me some great leads. I take it all back—they're great women!

My seamstress completes the costumes in time for a test shoot. I'm excited. I have a luscious black velvet curtain to shoot against and assistants have blocked out all the studio windows with black plastic.

All the equipment is borrowed from the University and my camera assistant has shown up. Then disaster strikes. Here is my diary entry:

April 4 1995

A full night and day wanting to cry over my test shoot. I don't have enough lights for my desired effect. Can't get a decent reading on the light metre.

Also because I'm nervous it's much too hard to direct nonprofessional models—hard to get them to strike a pose, to stay in the stinking hot spotlights, yet get a feeling of movement.

As well, so slow and clunky to work with a big format camera. I can't shoot freely. Also, shock horror, everyone in the studio is too casual, too chatty, not taking me seriously! Don't they realise that this has taken weeks to set up! This is going to have to change with the real shoot. I have to stop coming across as fun!

Upon studying the shots I see that the colour figures against the black look so heavy—too sombre, too real, too there. I can see
the stitching on the costumes if you get my drift.

Sad, sad, sad. I've had panic attacks about what my eventual photos will look like—tacky.

Suddenly I get sentimental about black and white, thinking how much easier it would be to work with. Then I rethink about using a black and white Polaroid film and printing from the thin negative that is left when you peel the image off. Nice and gooey. Then I lighten up.
lean shoot the roller girls against the white studio wall. Then print the image so it's half toned and slightly underexposed. So that the figures almost disappear. Make them not quite there. Bleached. Just a trace of a long-lost television show.

I can take all the black out of the images and shoot white and airy. It's like I'm taking the girls from hell into heaven. It's a spiritual enlightenment.
With a local photographer we shoot a test with his Hassel-blad, since we can't get a good reading with the low speed of the Polaroid film. Great results.

Can't wai tto shoot it, can'twait to print it, can't wait to see it on the wall. Can't wait to not make photographs for a long time!

I've really had it! Why does it take me getting to the verge of slitting my wrists before I can come up with anything I think is worthy. I suddenly realise why a lot of young artists burn out, especially after the age of thirty. They get sick of it all. The money difficulties and the horrible challenge of having to constantly reinvent.

April 18 1995

My first shoot goes great so now it's time for the second and final shoot. I have visions beforehand that my models won't show up (because I worked them so hard on the first night) or they will all 'rebel' against me, then I realise it is the PMS talking!

I look up my meditation book for the affirmation to combat 'nervousness'. It says that 'nervousness' is all about being 'too self-centred', that I have to communicate with 'an open heart and with love'.

Since the models and the crew are strung out before we shoot I do a ten-minute meditation with them all. This calms everyone down, including myself.

I'm relaxed and happy. The shoot goes quickly and smoothly and the models are fabulous. We almost cry with laughter.

The proofs look good. Out of 260 shots I think I have a final ten photographs for the show. I ask patron Linda (the Artangel Linda) to give me feedback on my choices. She is always so glowing and positive and agrees with my selection. She says the images appeal to her 'bad girl side' something she has never really been 'allowed to be'.

Finally, as well, I get to leave town for the weekend. With one of my models, Sandra, I drive five hours down to Mexico. Such another world. So laid back and cheap, my favourite kinda country. The beach is a riot of fun. Crowded, with the Mexicans parking their cars all over it and Mexican boys so hot for you.

They keep calling me Guapa (Goodlooking) sometimes sounds like Whoppa. Sandra says that the word is not often dished out and that I should be 'really flattered'.

I toy with the idea of calling my photo series Guapa. It is the sound of the word that I like. To my English-speaking ears it sounds more violent than romantic.

I've decided I'm Chicana now, since everyone who's anyone here thinks I am.

Nothing to do now but wait until the lab makes my exhibition prints. Luckily the city's Fiesta has begun.

Time to go out and Salsa merengue.


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