Q and A with artist Ryan Cronin
Oct 29, 2021
Before you did a residency at Thread, you had traveled to Senegal with our dear friends from the amazing NGO Go Doc Go. What was that initial experience of Senegal like for you, both as an artist and a traveler? And how did you become involved with Go Doc Go to begin with?
I began working with Go Doc Go in 2017 through our Charitable Fund, 12 Months of Giving. Melanie, my wife, and I established 12MG to support causes close to our hearts and to champion changemakers like Dr. Maggie Carpenter, Founder of Go Doc Go. Maggie became a dear family friend and really encouraged me to see the work they were doing firsthand. I’d never traveled to a third-world country before. Culturally, socially, and visually it was so different from anything I had experienced up until that moment, and yet Senegal felt familiar, or at least I felt at ease there almost immediately. It was humbling. Experiencing urban street life – the vendors, storefronts, and the people were so impactful and really resonated with me as an artist. The bold colors, the hand-crafted signage, so much of the landscape were completely new to me, and yet in these things, I found a visual vocabulary to make sense of what I was taking in.
At Thread, artists live within a rural village and are working alongside the local population as well as Le Korsa’s staff, who are engaged in a range of development projects from gardening to tree planting to beekeeping. Were you able to observe or participate in any of those activities, and, conversely, did the local population engage with you and your art?
Every day I made a point of walking around the village to take in what was happening around me. I would say I did more observing than participating when it came to the gardening projects, tree planting, etc, but I definitely took it in. It all piqued my curiosity, which continued when I came home. I have since connected with a friend in my community who is originally from Senegal and is growing rice in my area, the Hudson Valley, using techniques where rice is grown and harvested in the tradition of his tribe, the Jola, master rice growers, from The Gambia. His farm is Ever Growing Farm and I am going to be collaborating with them in the future using one of my collages that I created at Thread for their rice bags.
As far as engaging with my art – the door to my studio/living space was open during my working hours, generally from when I woke, until 8 PM, or so, with breaks for meals. I welcomed visitors and loved sharing my work with everyone who came by, especially the exchanges around the visual imagery, which made the language gaps less of a barrier to communication.
Did you have a certain approach to making art while at Thread? How did it evolve while you were there?
One of the things that both excited and scared me was the fact that I did not have much of an idea of what I was going to create, or what materials I was going to use. I have a pretty specific approach to painting, and some of that process is creating and preparing the surface. I enjoyed letting the physical space and surroundings dictate or suggest the materials and images/iconography I used. I incorporated a lot of found paper and discarded aluminum cans into my work. Making art was so much a part of my every move. I made waste, picked up waste, and then saw it as materials. I felt curious. I was there to create, and it felt easy, almost like a meditative state, with very little else distracting me.
Outside of art-making, you helped to introduce lacrosse to Sinthian. Can you say more about how that came about, and how lacrosse has endured in the village? Are you still in touch with any of the players?
Lacrosse is a passion of mine, a game I love to play, and share with others through coaching. I managed to fit 4 sticks in my luggage with the intention of introducing the game. The kids were immediately interested when they saw me playing wall ball. A handful of them really took to it and playing became a kind of ritual for us. Every day at around 5 PM, just before dinner, they would come by my studio and grab the sticks. I would finish up what I was doing and join them. When I returned home to the States we put the word out and quickly had donations of more sticks and equipment which we sent along with team jerseys bearing the logo I created during my time there. Of course, COVID slowed the progression a bit, but I continue to be in touch with Cisa, and am happy to report that Sinthian Lacrosse continues! I dream of going back with more equipment and some other folks to work with the kids. I hope to be able to do that someday soon!
You made a lot of work in Senegal, from paintings to collages, and continued to make work inspired by your residency after your return to the United States. Was there any piece you made that you feel embodies or captures what the residency meant to you, or in which you felt, “ah, this is what I could do only by being here”?
Everything I made was specific to my time there, and I am extremely grateful for that. The body of work I created there encapsulates my experience. In fact, I created a 30-day visual diary to document moments that seemed significant to me at the time, which now gives people the opportunity to take in my experience there. My work was heavily influenced by the local fabric, the design, and the architectural elements of the residency itself. I was also inspired by the resourcefulness all around me; people using found objects to make things they needed. I got into tool making, figuring out how to create with what I had, my favorite example being a much-needed fly swatter.
Twice you have sold work made during your residency and given the proceeds to Le Korsa, which is an incredibly generous gift. Is using your art for good an essential part of being an artist for you? And because Le Korsa and Thread straddle the worlds of art and humanitarian work, how do you think that these worlds can cross-pollinate and benefit one another? How can artists help?
Using art for good is an essential part of being an artist for me, and doing good work is an essential part of being a human for me. It really has been a natural evolution and has become a great intersection of creativity that allows for me to connect with people through my work and feeds my desire to do my part in making the world a better place. A lot of what I do is social commentary, and that includes my observations on inequity and privilege. I think that is why we have had such success using my imagery for fundraising initiatives, as it connects people through a visual statement, removing the need for overthinking or debate. It just is. This is where I see the most beneficial cross-pollination between the worlds of art and humanitarian work. This fairly simple idea that impactful visual messaging connects people across cultural and economic lines, unifying them in a shared purpose.
Is there anything else about your experience in Sinthian you would like to share?
The people who run the program are amazing – hardworking, and compassionate. I really cherished sharing meals, specifically dinner, which usually included guests from the community. Lots of memorable conversation, always genuine and informative, it was very inspiring to learn about the good work people are doing there.
Cissé went out of his way to introduce me to artists in the community. I was welcomed into their homes/studios. I work from my home studio as well, so this felt familiar and comforting. It was an honor really, to see the materials they use, and to learn about how they approach their work. I felt so fortunate to be there.
Of course, spending time with the kids meant so much to me. The language barrier did not hinder or complicate the experience, we just enjoyed being together and having fun. It also helped fill in those moments of homesickness, when I was especially missing my own family.