GiveBIG 2020 Artist Spotlight: Tessa Hulls

Published: May 5, 2020

Categories: Artist Stories | Artists | Featured

This GiveBIG and #GivingTuesdayNow, we’re sharing stories by artists who are supporting fellow artists during the COVID-19 crisis. We hope these #artistshelpingartists inspire you to join them in standing with WA State artists!  

Tessa Hulls is a 2018 Fellowship recipient, a multi-disciplinary artist, writer, and adventurer, as well as an early donor to The COVID-19 Artist Trust Relief Fund. She has been posting batches of inaccurate dinosaur drawings on social media and auctioning them off in exchange for donations. Many thanks to Tessa for her leadership and ingenuity in supporting artists! 

“Years ago, while volunteering my time painting a set for Washington Ensemble Theater, a series of ladders helped me articulate something I had long felt but never been able to fully put to words. Only one person on that painting crew was getting paid, and each of the three ladders we were using bore the Sharpied name of a different scene shop in Seattle; no single independent theater had the financial resources to afford three ladders of their own.

I am not romanticizing the absence of funding: artists and arts organizations should not be forced to operate from this place. But that stage of borrowed ladders, that world where payment comes as comped tickets, bylines, lukewarm pizza from someone’s day job, and the soft certainty of reciprocal gratitude, highlighted the beautiful interdependence that arises when communities have no choice but to function on a currency of human connection. There are some things money can’t buy.

Author Rebecca Solnit describes this beautifully in her book The Faraway Nearby:

“…asking is difficult for a lot of people. It’s partly because we imagine that gifts put us in the giver’s debt, and debt is supposed to be a bad thing. You see it in the way that people sometimes try to reciprocate immediately out of a sense that indebtedness is a burden. But there are gifts people yearn to give and debts that tie us together.”

Sometimes to accept is also a gift. The anthropologist David Graeber points out that the explanation that we invented money because barter was too clumsy is false. It wasn’t that I was trying to trade sixty sweaters for the violin you made when you didn’t really need all that wooliness. Before money, Graeber wrote, people didn’t barter but gave and received as needs and goods ebbed and flowed. They thereby incurred the indebtedness that bound them together, and reciprocated slowly, incompletely, in the ongoing transaction that is a community. Money was invented as a way to sever the ties by completing the transactions that never needed to be completed in the older system, but existed like a circulatory system in a body. Money makes us separate bodies, and maybe it teaches us that we should be separate.”

I donated to the Artist Trust COVID-19 Relief Fund because while I believe in the clear superiority of a human system of mutual indebtedness, I know that artists cannot survive without money. And right now, the best way for me to show up for my community is in tangible financial terms.

Artist Trust is one of the few organizations that help artists navigate the financial realities of their professions, and I am a huge advocate for speaking transparently about the intersections of creativity and commerce (a few of my favorite examples: adventure cartoonist Lucy Bellwood talking about being on food stamps while “making it” as an artist, and the bold generosity of writer Ashley C. Ford sharing the ways in which her creative success will always carry the echoes of the poverty from which it originated).

Until this year, my donations have been limited to time, skills, and art; in my years as an artist, my annual income had never exceeded $20,000. But a handful of months ago, I received a very well-timed book deal that has put me, for the first time in my adult life, in a position of financial stability. So I gave money because I have money to give.

Oh, right—I almost forgot about the dinosaurs.

We’re all figuring out how to practice self-care as we navigate this new terrain, and for me, that has taken the form of drawing inaccurate dinosaurs. I think it’s my equivalent of meditating? I started asking friends to look at dinosaurs and describe them to me, and drawing their descriptions has reconnected me to a part of my creative process that is grounded in uncomplicated delight. As someone whose work usually chews on complex nonfiction themes of history, gender, race, and trauma, it has been fucking wonderful to just draw some silly dinosaurs.

The act of drawing is giving me what I need in this, and I don’t need the end results, so I’m posting batches of dinosaurs on social media every Monday and auctioning them off in exchange for donations to the COVID-19 Relief Fund. It brings me a lot of joy that I’ll likely be able to raise over $1,000  for emergency funds for artists by drawing dinosaurs; my eight-year-old self would be very proud.

But in all seriousness, artists are essential workers during this unprecedented time. Former state poet laureate Elizabeth Austen once wrote: ‘I believe poetry is also a bridge between solitudes.” We are reckoning with isolation in new and challenging ways; when we emerge on the far side of this, we will need our artists to help give form to a new language of connection. So by all means, give us lukewarm pizza and gratitude: but give us money, too.'”

Join Tessa with a gift in any amount this GiveBIG. Thank you for your support! Donate today