Dr. Bethany Engstrom unwraps the importance of collaboration for individual and creative growth.
First of all, you have a PhD, so my apologies for simply referring to you as “Ms. Engstrom”! I noticed you earned your BA, MFA, and PhD from the University of Maine. Specifically, your PhD is in Intermedial Collaborative Practices. Can you go into more detail as to what that entails and what led you to choose this direction?
Just “Bethany” is perfect! Yes, my PhD is an interdisciplinary doctorate in Intermedial Collaborative Practices, which I worked on collaboratively with two other people in researching, practicing, and teaching creative collaboration and methods. We drew from multiple disciplines—including art, theater, philosophy, and anthropology, among others—in our research and creative work. We wrote the dissertation together, with a section for our individual contributions—my research was a look at installation art as collaboration with the audience—and we produced a final creative work: in this case, an immersive culinary performance. I began working on collaborative projects in the Intermedia MFA program, and one of the required courses is specifically on collaborative practices, in which I began working with my two colleagues. That particular class was led by an instructor who produced dinner theaters and brought that to the class as a project. It was certainly a difficult process, as collaborations can be; however, we realized how well we worked together and [saw] the almost endless possibilities of collaborations, and a number of us continued to work together after the class. By the time we finished the MFA program, we were three out of five and proposed to continue our work through a PhD program.
You’re a working artist as well as an instructor at Unity College. You co-founded Core 5 Incident, which, from how I understand it, is a culinary-centered performance art experience. What led to the founding of Core 5 Incident, and how does being an educator affect your artistic practice?
The Core 5 Incident was formed as a means to have a collective identity for the collaborative work produced with my colleagues. Although we acknowledge the individual contributions within the group, we see the works as a whole and found a need to recognize it as such. It began with the core group of the five of us from the collaboration class that continued to work together and then reduced to three, but we still refer to ourselves as five, as they will always be a presence in the work.
Teaching is like fuel for creativity; it triggers ideas and motivates me to work more. Being around the students is so inspiring for me, and I hope for them as well! I currently teach as an adjunct when the opportunity arises, which has been every other spring at Unity teaching an art history survey class, and occasionally in the Intermedia program at UMaine. The art history class is so much fun! I get to return to my undergrad roots in art history and get inspiration from all of the different perspectives on the work from the students. The classes at UMaine are studio- based, which means there is always energy and inspiration from the work the students are doing.
Along with being a college instructor, you work at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art as a curator. What is your personal process when curating work, and how has your process evolved since you first started?
I have always viewed curatorial work as a creative practice in and of itself, of course, and also one that is very collaborative in nature. I am always interested in work that pushes ideas and approaches to making and how that can be discussed in the realm of the exhibition. For me, the most exciting part of that is when the artist also takes an active role in that process: when work develops from dialogues between curator and artist and how that will be presented within a particular space. I think that also reflects the influence [on] my own collaborative work and also my work as an installation artist. It’s all connected.
You earned a collaborative PhD, where you and two other candidates researched together in order to earn your degrees, and your group eventually presented your findings [at] TEDxUMaine in 2014. During the first few minutes of the talk, you mention the idea of the “sole artist,” where artists are expected to be the only contributors to their work, when historically this isn’t the case: artists often had assistants and frequently met with each other to discuss ideas. As an artist yourself, what are some pieces of advice you can tell young artists that feel they have to go through their creative process alone in order to be a “brilliant” artist? Have you struggled with this yourself?
Nothing happens in a vacuum; we are influenced by everything that is around us, so why not embrace those influences, whether it be environmental or other people? I have certainly struggled with it myself, and I do my own individual work often, as well as the collaborative work. I do have moments when I just want to be by myself to figure out an idea; however, I find that when I talk it out with others, the ideas and solutions often just flow [and] problems get worked out. That doesn’t mean the work is not your own; it’s embracing those influences to increase possibilities.
So many people, myself included, prefer working alone over working in a group. There’s always the one person that doesn’t pull their weight, or someone that forces their way into a “leadership” role, and then my fellow introverts and I are pushed to the back burner because we don’t want to stir the pot. How do you recommend dealing with these situations as a more passive person in a business and creative setting? Do you inherently tend to be more passive or assertive in groups?
This is a great question—I am one of the biggest introverts! I still am very surprised at the path I have taken and that I am able to work collaboratively. You are very right about the different roles people take within groups, and they often happen organically, with people taking on the lead while others sit passively and do what they [are] asked, while others do nothing at all. This is what can make collaborations so difficult and gives them a bad name, so to speak. In business, these roles are usually predetermined by title or position; however, in creative settings such as the ones I choose to take part in, I am choosing to work with people that have a mutual respect for each other, and that is a fundamental aspect of the success. Because of this, I find myself, despite being an introvert, being very active and vocal in the process. I wouldn’t say I’m either passive or assertive, but an active participant.
Referring back to your TEDx talk, you mentioned how it struck you that as you were sifting through images for the presentation, you didn’t see any women in them. As a woman, have you faced any challenges in past collaborations, or do you personally know of other women that have faced challenges like this?
One of my collaborators once told me I am one of the most effective feminists in that I just do, and I tend not to think about work in terms of male/female. I’m not quite sure I agree with this. However, this does remind me of an encounter I had while working at a museum. I had to visit an artist’s studio to help move artwork for a photo shoot. They were large pieces and when I got there, the artist said, “Well, what can you do?” I then just [went] ahead and did what I was there to do and the artist slowly came around. I feel that I have been very fortunate to have not faced challenges such as these in my collaborations. I certainly know they are out there, as mentioned in the TEDx talk, and [I] do know of women that have faced [these challenges] and [struggled].
And now my favorite question: what mistakes have you made, at any point in your career, that ended up helping you?
Mistakes are the best, right? They certainly don’t seem it at the time, but they are what makes you grow, especially as an artist. I have made many of them! [For] my very first critique in the MFA program, I made this really awful installation. I was coming from an art history background and working at an art museum, and I thought it would be a good idea to include as much art historical reference that I could think of. The installation was a mess of mirrors, rhinestones, and music. Some people can pull this off, but I am not one of them. In the nicest way possible, it was ripped apart by my colleagues and that was when things just clicked for me. It made me focus on what I was trying to do and say and how I should do so.
Also, when I began the PhD program, I thought I had made a huge mistake in that I thought I should have been focusing on my own work and career as an artist. I thought I should be participating in residencies and making work constantly. However, I still did that throughout the program and realized that it was still my work, just made with other people.