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Interview with Gus Williams of Staycation Collective

This July, Grace Devine, SPACE summer Storytelling and Engagement Intern with Bates Purposeful work, sat down with artist Gus Williams to discuss his role in the artist collective, Staycation Collective, supported by a Kindling Fund Grant. Administered by SPACE, The Kindling Fund is one of thirty-two nationwide re-granting programs established by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Staycation Collective’s mission reads in part that, “Staycation Collective is chaotic creativity contained in an organized movement; the goal of which is to make artistic opportunities materialize quickly in the slow state of Maine” Can you elaborate on this mission and how it has informed the art shows you have put on?

For so many artists motivation and inspiration come unpredictably and irregularly. When you feel the spark you just have to run with it. There are moments where you can’t think of anything creative, times where you feel like you’re never going to think of anything else again, but what  Staycation Collective does is it allows and supports artists to take these ideas and just go for it. 

The idea of “chaotic creativity” came from when we first started meeting as a group, we started out with a much larger number of members and ideas were firing off left and right of all the cool things we could do. We realized that even though they all sounded great, we had to focus on one thing at a time. We decided to harness all of this creative energy into one collaborative event.

The state of Maine can be tough for creative young people, it can feel like there is just not much going on. Especially since we are further North, in Rockland, this project feels even more unexpected and exciting. Our goal is to make noise in a quiet place, making things happen as fast as they can in the relatively quiet communities of Maine that we are a part of. 

Collaboration makes everything seem more possible. There are seven core members of the Collective and we are all quite young, but we represent upwards of fifty artists of all ages. At 24 years old I am one of the oldest members of the core Collective. None of us had ever organized anything of this size, but after our first event we realized that it was doable. Since then, we have gained confidence and have realized that we can grow bigger. 

The Staycation Collective Organizers, “Is It Cool if I Bring a Friend?” Event, June 2022.

Can you speak to your idea of friendship between an artist and their work and how this connects to your, “Is it Cool if I Bring a Friend?” event. 

Friendships are something that we hold so dear in our hearts, they rarely happen out of nowhere and require time. When a friendship sparks quickly, it’s such a special thing. Essentially the thought is that those you treasure and hold dear to you can represent you without you needing to tell them to. Art, like a good friend, will stick up for you, it will speak on your behalf, it will fight for you. Some friendships, like artistic projects, can unfortunately make you cry and not be worth it in the end. The thought is that when an artist makes something they are putting themselves into it so much that the art is both a reflection of the artist and its own being. It exists on its own and it exists within. 

The “Is it Cool if I Bring a Friend?” event was born from the conversations my friends and I would have. As a group of friends we put on these elaborate concerts and events, and the text we would get every single time was, “Is it cool if I bring a friend?” That text would get us excited because we knew that it was going to be a fantastic night filled with so many unexpected people and ideas. When someone new comes to an event it can totally alter the night, creating an experience that would not be possible without them. We want artists to surprise us, bringing what they think will best represent them, something that will make a splash.  

Staycation Collective “Everything Must Go” Event, August 2021.

I would love to hear about your experience working as a part of an artist collective.

Having a group of artists come together to have continual discussions produces unexpected ideas. Artists transcribe the human experience in their own way and these conversations allow us as individuals to look at things from different perspectives, which is really cool. 

The collaboration can be as chaotic as it is motivating. Everyone has their own schedule, especially because for so many of us being artists is not our full-time job. It takes a lot of organizing and consistency. 

Working with a Collective of artists, I have learned that in order for the group to be successful, we can’t just go off of individual spurts of motivation, we have to find a steady, consistent pace of creating and checking-in. 

A big difference from working by myself is that I can’t just not work for a couple weeks and then start working for twelve hours straight. The Collective provides weekly check-ins and since we are planning events, it helps me stay motivated for upcoming shows. 

Staycation Collective “Everything Must Go” Event, August 2021.

It took me a while to realize that being an artist and working in collaboration with others is what I want to do with my life. Once I understood that, I felt so much more justified fitting my art practice into my day, similar to how people fit in exercise or a hobby. Working with the Collective encouraged me to make my art practice fit into my regular schedule. 

How do these art shows organized by the Collective impact the way your work is viewed? 

The only way I showed my work for a while was through Instagram, which can be nice because it provides immediate gratification, but it’s just not how I feel work should be seen. It is a great tool as it keeps you on the forefront of people’s brains, but it does not provide the holistic visual experience that I want for my work. I want to watch people react to my art. 

The Collective gave me a way to not only make my work consistently, but gave me the opportunity to show it in a way that felt authentic. I think a lot of other Staycation artists feel the same, these shows allow us to collectively decide on our deadlines which helps us stay motivated. We all make new work for each show, which is a very exciting thing as an artist. That was something that was huge for me. I look back on this year and I am proud that I have not only been in the shows, I have helped put on the shows and have made new work for every single one. That is an outcome of the Collective that I am really grateful for.

Staycation Collective “Is It Cool if I Bring a Friend?” Event, June 2022.

Artists have also been very successful at selling their work at our art shows. So many people believe that if you wanna sell sculptures or big ticket items, you have to be in a gallery. We have had some big sales and we don’t take any commission whatsoever, we just provide a platform and allow artists to sell their work in a way that works best for them. 

I really appreciate your comment about rejecting the instant gratification of Instagram as it can often feel like an insufficient tool to show your work. It seems like these art shows create concrete and sustainable ways to show your work on your terms, which feels really important.

It took me a while to realize that that was an important thing. The first show we put on is when I realized that this is how I have always wanted my work to be seen. I remember when I graduated college during the pandemic and I was like, what do I do now? I just started making work all the time and putting it on Instagram. It was amazing for me because I felt more motivated than I had in the past to make art, but there was some barrier between it. Putting work on Instagram often feels like people can just swipe right by it. When I put so much time into something it can feel like I am doing a disservice to my work when social media is the only way I am showing it. When I am putting a huge sculpture in a field, people physically cannot miss it, people try to not walk into it and I am there making sure it’s not going to fall on anybody. These are real tangible problems. The act of seeing people interact with the work helped me realize that I wanted to be an artist not as just a hobby, but as a career. 

Staycation Collective “Looking for Something to Do” Event, June 2021.

Gus, it seems like so much of your art, like your project, Moving Boxes, often reflects on your childhood defined by change, 14 schools, 13 houses and a boat, ect. Yet, your project Staycation Collective disrupts this pattern. What is it about “staying” that feels central to this work? 

This is the first time I have really thought about it, but I think I am now realizing that so much of my life I have bounced around and have never really felt a part of a community. In Rockland, Maine with this group of friends that I live with, I for the first time feel really proud of the community I am in and that it really wants me there. I feel like I am a part of a community that I want to add to, change, and improve. I love where I live, I love the state of Maine, but something that bothers me about it is that there’s not as many things going on as I want there to be. There are not enough young people coming together. 

Gus Williams, Moving Boxes.

The pandemic is when I started making art daily. I wanted to show it off to all my friends, but every gallery I got into was a state away. I remember I drove for my first show five hours in a blizzard and that I was the only one there for the opening. I was like “I wish my friends were here right now”. That’s all I really wanted, to show my work to people that I loved and inspired me. Where I live in Mid-coast Maine there are so many galleries that are filled with work tailored to the eyes of tourists. It’s a bummer that I probably would never have gotten into those galleries, but it solidified the idea that my friends and I needed to make our own opportunities to show our work the way we wanted to show it. 

What are your hopes for the future of Staycation Collective?

I personally want our shows to become staples of the state of Maine, the same way people go to Burning Man. This is me speaking, I am not sure if the rest of the Collective is thinking exactly the same, but I want people to hear about these events and really flock to them. I want to show people Maine the way we see it, not the way that has been sold to so many through magazines.

Staycation Collective “Is It Cool if I Bring a Friend?” Event, June 2022.

Many restaurants in Maine are closed multiple days a week, and a few are kindly letting us use their space as a gallery to consistently curate and collaborate in. These restaurants share the same feelings we have, they want people around and for creativity to be existing in their space. The pop up nature of our art shows are so much fun, but they don’t provide artists long term exposure, so working with local Maine businesses, especially in the colder months in Maine, we think will help us navigate more opportunities for artists year-round.

Staycation Collective “Looking for Something to Do” Event, June 2021.

We are thinking of doing fashion shows, DJ sets, art based gatherings that are not necessarily the art you would find in a traditional gallery. Ultimately, continuing our goal of allowing artists of all disciplines to have consistent opportunities to show their work and to bring people together. 

Is there anything else about Staycation that you would like to highlight? Any unexpected outcomes of this work?

We recently worked with a really cool Maine Brewery, The Pour Farm, for our “Is it Cool if I Bring a Friend?” show. It was amazing to see how the Collective positively affected the business. We really want to work with Maine businesses, to bring them a strong crowd and to give them the recognition that they deserve. Our most recent show at the Pour Farm concluded in a record breaking night, the best night in sales and attendance they had had in history. That night we also sold out a food truck. Artists sold work and the musicians performing had an amazing crowd, people were dancing and having so much fun. I just felt like we nailed it across the board. 

Staycation Collective “Is It Cool if I Bring a Friend?” Event, June 2022.

We are currently scheduling for two more shows this year. We recently started doing monthly paid Artist Talks with artists that have been participating in our shows and have become real staples of the Collective. We are very excited about our upcoming Artist Talk happening at the end of July with the amazing ceramics artist, Aidan Fraser, @LusterHustler on Instagram. We are planning our next show for early fall, follow the @staycation_collective instagram for more details. 

I would also love to give a shout out to the other Collective members that make all of these shows possible, Isabel Carlson who has grown our @staycation_collective instagram so quickly, Nicky Howard-Rogers, Tom Crisp, Peter Cooke, Amelia Macdougall-Fleming, Richard Vokey and Luke Thombs

In these dark times Staycation Collective is a bonfire, we may have sparked it and continue to tend it but it’s Maine’s vast supply of artists that are keeping it lit. Everyone who comes to join us by the comfort of the flame brings their own fuel for the fire. Whether it’s their creative energy or simply their company. We hope that its smoke will be seen for miles and bring more people together and that its light will illuminate the many talented artists we have in the state of Maine. 

Staycation Collective “Everything Must Go” Event, August 2021.

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