Fall Campaign Artist Spotlight: Paul Rucker

Published: November 9, 2018

Categories: Artists | Fall Campaign | Multidisciplinary | Spotlight

Artist Trust is honored to feature visual artist, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Paul Rucker in this year’s fall campaign letter.

Paul first walked into the Artist Trust office in 1998, a new Seattle resident in search of resources for artists. Since then, he has gone onto receive four grants from Artist Trust, including a 2018 Arts Innovator Award (AIA), as well as numerous national fellowships and awards. His latest piece, Storm in the Time of Shelter, was featured in the inaugural exhibit at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. We caught up with Paul recently to talk about the impact of unrestricted funding on his career and work.

We’re lucky to have known you for a long time! How did your relationship with Artist Trust start, and how has Artist Trust continued to be valuable to you over the arc of your career?
I first came to the Artist Trust office on 3rd Avenue in 1998. When I first moved here, I went up to the building to find out what was going on here in the community as far as resources for artists. I was given copies of past and current newsletters as a resource. I didn’t get a grant until almost ten years later, but I found the Possibilities section of the newsletter to be a great resource for things to apply to.

What’s unique about Artist Trust is that, as a non-governmental agency, there’s a lot more freedom in the way they fund artists. They encourage artists to be artists, whatever that means to an individual. I think one of the most important things I realized is that these grants are less about the money and more about being recognized for doing what you love and what you’ve dedicated your life to doing. I think when you’re younger, you always use money [as an excuse] for why you can’t do this or that, but one of the things that can really quiet you down is getting the money to do your project so you have no excuse not to do your project.

One of the most freeing things is … these unrestricted funds, like AIA, Fellowship, and Conductive Garboil. One of the most important things about being an artist is having the flexibility to change direction. Artist Trust gives you far more flexibility and possibility for innovation, and that’s really important.

How does unrestricted funding impact your ability to make what you want to make?
My philosophy around art is it’s a losing game if you’re into making art of any kind for profit. I think you lose track of your authentic self. If you’re about to make a painting and you’re thinking about how you’re going to sell this painting, the piece is ruined before the paintbrush touches the canvas.

I make Klan robes, I make lynching videos, I make sculptures that reference violent deaths of civil rights leaders or the violent deaths of four black girls that were killed in Birmingham, Alabama. I want to tell these stories and I’m not doing these things for profit; I’m doing it to be a catalyst for conversation and to move forward. It’s something I’ve been able to do to help tell the story of the pervasive systemic and structural racism that’s sewn into the very fabric of who we are. Art has given me a way to express the need to have these conversations.

Selling work is not my focus. Being a catalyst for conversation is my focus. Being a generative artist who’s able to rely on foundations like Artist Trust, Guggenheim, Joan Mitchell, Creative Capital, Rauschenberg… that’s what’s making my career happen.

How do you measure the impact of support from Artist Trust over time as your career has evolved? How does what you need as an artist change throughout your career?
No one would fund my work around incarceration and slavery. I got tired of applying and being turned down for funding to do the work I wanted. I was teetering from music to visual art, so when I received [an Artist Trust] Fellowship for music, I took that money and I made PROLIFERATION, one of the big pieces I’m known for, an animated map of the prison system with an original sound score. I created that piece to live online, to never really be sold. I made 1,000 copies to give away to politicians, police, lawmakers and activists. The money I got from the Fellowship was the money I used to create a piece that basically launched my career. I used those funds to pay the researcher, animator, video editor, master engineer, and the cost of duplicating the DVDs. I made no money, but that was never the goal.

That’s when I really learned that creating without thinking about how I’m going to make money, but more so how I’m going to tell a story—unrestricted funds allowed that to happen.

You’ve given back to Artist Trust as a donor, mentor, and committee member. Why do you support Artist Trust and what would you say is the value of supporting artists right now, at this time in the world?
I support Artist Trust because Artist Trust supports artists. I know the true impact of supporting generative artists. Those are the ones that are really challenging the system right now and making the case, because artists are ahead of the game. Artists see things long before other people see them.

When you can creatively influence people to change your mind or to look at something in a different way, to create empathy, to create understanding, that’s the true power of art. Another power of art is people see different things in different ways. Not everyone’s going to like what you do or agree with what you do or how you do it, but the most important thing is that you do it. Artists are on the front line of changing society and opening minds by making the unseen seen and promoting empathy and understanding. You’re not going to change a bunch of minds at once, but you can change a few.