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“For me, making art is very much about problem solving,” says Portland-based artist Lauren Fensterstock. “The trick to staying engaged in the work is not to get stuck in one way of thinking or making.”

I caught up with Fensterstock while she was traveling through the Netherlands and exhibiting her work at the 2016 Paper Biennial at Museum Rijswijk. I have seen her work in Portland, and this spring caught her show, “The Order of Things,” at Claire Oliver Gallery in New York City. The show featured a collection of orals made out of tiny shells and black paper and placed under glass bell jars, and three black cabinets containing oral growths. Already a fan of Fensterstock’s artwork, I wanted to learn more about her approach, about how she stays on her path and what she thinks about being an artist.

Fensterstock, 41, grew up in New York and has called Maine home for 15 years. She was a full-time educator and curator for many years before transitioning to a full-time studio practice.

“It was scary to walk away from a salary and benefits,” says Fensterstock. “But I was ready to take that leap. For 37 years I was a part of institutions, and it was crushing me. I desperately felt like I needed to be free, to find my own way on my own terms.”

She still teaches one MFA-level class a year – most recently at the Rhode Island School of Design. Part-time teaching suits her. “I don’t have to worry about the larger institutional picture and can just focus on the individual relationships with students.”

The Order of ThingsWhen she’s not teaching, Fensterstock is in her studio. “I usually get inspired by something I have read, particularly if it is something abstract, something I can’t quite name in words,” she says. “I will try to make a model of it. If I can hold it in my hands and touch it, then I can find a way to understand it. Most of my work is just that. I see it as an attempt to connect myself
to something larger than me in a scale I can comprehend.”

Early on, she was certain that she wanted to be an artist, and now she cannot imagine doing anything else. “But I still have fleeting moments of doubt in the middle of the night when I think, ‘Why am I doing this? I should just get a job with a salary and come home at 5 and watch TV and stop torturing myself.’” she says. “But I know I will never do that.”

Being an artist is a full-time job. “I think it is problematic when artists try to position themselves outside of society as special entities revealing mystic truths. I am just another person trying to figure out what this crazy world is, and my particular method is through the construction of objects.”

Fensterstock studied jewelry at Parsons School of Design and as a graduate at SUNY New Paltz, although she says she never made much wearable work. “The emphasis on materiality, ornament and scale in that field has forever impacted my process,” she says. And she’s grateful for her arts education. “Like any other professional, I think it is helpful to know as much about your chosen field as possible. With art there is a lot to know, whether it’s technical, theoretical or historical. An ‘arts education’ is not the only way to get there, but the structure sure makes it easier,” says Fensterstock. “That said, schools have gotten so expensive and I see a lot of programs that are thinly veiled cash cows. For anyone considering further education, I would be careful about picking a program or taking on a load of debt.”

For almost two decades, Fensterstock has been life partners with artist Aaron T. Stephan. “I think his work is brilliant, and it is the work I know most intimately. His is the opinion I trust the most,” she says.

I ask if women and men face different challenges and are presented different opportunities for engaging with art.

“Absolutely,” says Fensterstock. “There is still a glass ceiling in the art world, both in terms of market value and career opportunity. One thing I find interesting is that women almost always curate me.”

With shows all over the country in different kinds of venues, Fensterstock says the people who invest the most in her work have always been women. “I think women’s issues and interests are still not always of interest to male curators. The ideas of what makes work ‘important’ and the history of the media are still defined by male examples. It is hard to escape that.”

To aspiring artists, Fensterstock offers this: “Stay focused on your goals. Say no to anything that will put you in debt or waste your time without a clear positive outcome. Be nice to people. Be patient. Art careers take decades to build. The dreams of instant success are the stuff of Lifetime movies or crash-and-burn careers that die out after a season.”

For more information about Lauren Fensterstock’s work visit: laurenfensterstock.com.

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