Julia Christensen, Juan William Chavez, Kerry Skarbakka and Robert Karimi

Creative Capital is an organization that uses venture capitalist ideas and tools to help artists take their work to a new level. Creative Capital awards grants valued at approximately $90,000, as well as a robust professional development plan for emerging artists. Every year they hand pick several of their grantees to speak at IdeaFestival in the “Art at the Edge” panel.

First, let me say this to every artist working in any discipline anywhere near Louisville: Next year beg, borrow or steal the money for a ticket to this panel. It will blow your mind.

Creative Capital’s president, Ruby Lerner, brought four artists whose work runs the gamut from photography to sculpture to performance art, playwriting and what could be described as guerrilla cooking shows.

One of the great things about these IF Creative Capital presentations is how the artists get to describe their work in their own words. It varies from artist to artist, but they generally cover the inception, creation and purpose of their work. The narrative quality of the process discussion makes less obvious work very approachable. It’s also a great window into the creative process.

So let’s get started.


Julia Christensen

Julia Christensen has a long and varied resumé. She has worked in music, writing and sculpture and is currently the assistant professor of integrated media in the Studio Art Department at Oberlin College.

The story of her work starts in a mass e-waste dump in India. “Project Project” (pronounced like a project about projecting images) grew out of the emotional impact that came with seeing 200 tons of e-waste spread out before her, and knowing that as an artist so wrapped up in the digital world, she helped to create the massive computer graveyard before her.

Her response was to make art out of e-waste. Her current project (Project!) involves making small projectors out of used and discarded iPhones. In her words, she started “making things out of techie trash.”

As concerned as she was at that point with pollution, she began to examine the effect of light pollution. She discovered that due to the high levels of light pollution, there are stars and constellations that can no longer be seen from Earth. For all intents and purposes, these constellations may as well not exist to the human eye.

Christensen uses the repurposed iPhones to bring the lost constellations back to life.

Her further concern with waste and data has also led her to create a series of images of old storage media. Mixed tapes and bootlegs populate those photographs, as do old reel-to-reel recordings.

While her work clearly exudes an affection for the physical forms of new and old media, it also indicts our culture of planned obsolescence.

She wants her work to ask the question: “What does recycling even mean?” She suggests that “the question needs to shift to: How do we design a phone we don’t have to throw away?”

Juan William Chavez

Juan William Chavez

Juan William Chavez‘s artist statement on the IF page states that he “explores the potential of space through creative initiatives.” Of all the artists who presented, his work may be the most challenging to explain.

His current project, “The Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary,” grew out of an urban forest that sprung up in St. Louis on the site of a demolished and notorious housing project.

He didn’t start with bees. His process began with photographing and exploring the spontaneous urban forest. As he explored, he wondered, “What community can naturally exist there?”

This came at a moment of a (sadly ongoing) crisis for bees, and at the time when St. Louis’ population was shrinking.

He began to examine the ways humans and bees co-exist, and this journey took him from the site of 8,000-year-old cave paintings to modern gardens where bees and humans live side by side.

He began applying the inspiration it brought to an urban garden and bee-keeping initiative. It’s a community-based project that connects residents, including kids, back to nature and bee keeping.

Chavez described a bee as a “super organism” that keeps its various parts (brain, arms, digestive system) in different creatures, or in shared communal spaces.

He asked, “What if communities functioned as a super organism?,” and followed up with, “Can a grocery store be deemed a hive?”

There appeared to be an emerging theme, wrapped around communal works and shared cultural values.


Kerry Skarbakka

The third artist, photographer, deep-sea diver, martial artist and performance artist Kerry Skarbakka, bucked that trend.

Skarbakka creates images of a man falling. The man (incidentally) is him, and many of the photographs of the falling man involve elaborate performance aspects. It seemed like a simple, albeit beautiful, project compared to the multilayered and complex works that had come before.

Skarbakka uses the falling man to address a wide variety of issues, from the personal to the political. Themes include responses to 9/11 and his feelings about action movies. He tackles immigration, the housing crisis and, perhaps above all, “the struggle to right oneself.”

That seemed to be the unifying idea throughout his work. The falling displayed in the images and performed in his live shows is a conceit for all the struggles, some literal and physical, but many emotional or metaphorical. It gives his more political works an intensely human angle.

His follow-up series is called “Fluid” and involves a man drowning. It takes the same basic thematic idea, of a verb applied to a human as a way of describing the motion of life and society.

His pictures are also really, really cool.

Robert Karami

Robert Karami

The last artist exploded onto the stage and began engaging the audience with a gusto that was more performance than presentation. The audience ate it up as Robert Karimi led us through an exercise encouraging us to create rhythm with our hands and then telepathically send food to our loved ones.

Katimi trained as an actor and a interdisciplinary playwright, but his work now revolves around food, culture, intergenerational recipes and community.

He described some of his most recent work, which seeks to address the high occurrence of type 2 diabetes in at-risk communities.

My takeaway quote from him was the idea that artists must “engage people in a new way, or it’s bullshit.”

It was a inspiring presentation that pointed to a future for art where all projects are multidisciplinary and deeply original.